Social Networks vs. Online Communities

The BrainYard - Where collaborative minds congregate.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

September 29, 2006

5 Min Read

I've written before about first-, second- and third-order effects of the Internet. The first-order effect was to take things that were on paper and put them online. Next people realized that the Internet was an interactive, rather than just a publishing, medium. This was a second-order effect.

Over the last few years social networks and online communities have popped up all over the place to let people connect to each other. Probably the best known social network site is MySpace. But most online social networks are focused on a specific population or content type. For finding work  you might use LinkedIn.  There are sites for sharing different types of content (Flickr for photos, YouTube for video, and and MOG for music).  Some social networks are based on age (, others on race (,, and yet others on geographic location (, LunarStorm).

So what's the difference between "network" and "community"? 

Wikipedia defines online social networks as “...a category of Internet applications to help connect friends, business partners, or other individuals together using a variety of tools. These applications, known as 'online social networks' are becoming increasingly popular.” 

Often the terms "network" and "community" are used interchangably, but they are not the same. The best definition that differentiates the two comes from Amy Jo Kim  (author of Community Building on the Web):

A network is composed of loose ties, often the focus is on a topic or particular type of content or behavior. A community may have the same focus but the ties are stronger. No one misses you in a network; they might if you’re a popular and vocal member of a community.

Thus a community is based on fairly intense interactions between its members, while a network is not. According to Ross Mayfield, the founder and CEO of Socialtext, communities are:

  • Top-down

  • Place-centric

  • Moderator controlled

  • Topic driven

  • Centralized

  • Architected

While Networks are:

  • Bottom-up

  • People-centric

  • User controlled

  • Decentralized

  • Context driven

  • Self-organizing

Unfortunatley, like everything on the Internet, it is not that black and white. There are lots of examples that don’t fit the criteria for either definition. The UseNet (the pre-cursor to the Internet) had thousands of interest groups which were top-down, place-centric, moderator controlled, topic driven and centeralized (charcteristics from both networks and communities).

Building communities is hard, slogging work. I believe that communities are like sharks: if they stop moving forward, they die. This is where many of today’s social networks like Friendster went wrong. It is not always enough to see who the friends of your friends are. You need to be able to do something of value with them.

A few years ago, I gave the keynote talk at the Online Communities Conference. For that talk I created 10 rules for establishing online communities, and believe they are still useful today:

1. Identify community founders/initiators, and explain the reason for starting the community, ongoing roles, and participation.

2. Provide a good reason for people to be in the community.  What are the benefits?

3. Provide a community member directory (with profiles) and an easy way for members to contact each other and learn about each other.  The goal is to develop trust among members.

4. Establish a way to handle conflict at the initiation of the community.  Present these rules clearly.  Conflicts must be handled quickly and fairly or they will tear the community apart.

5. Provide a hosted or focused chat.  Appoint a facilitator with editorial capabilities (with editorial policies stated), and appoint discussion owners to drive the discussion to a decision, conclusion or action.

6. Create informal spaces for people to socialize and interact. This also helps to build trust.

7. Create a critical reason for members to be active in the community.

   a. It should be the only place they can get critical information;
   b. People should receive intrinsic rewards from the community that make it important for them to be there personally, and;

   c. People enjoy interacting with experts in the community and should be able to learn much that is helpful to them in their everyday work.

8. Bring newbies up to speed fast (guides, buddies, docents, tours, FAQs).  It is also a good idea to post or e-mail new members the "rules of engagement" for acceptable behavior in the community.

9. Keep the content fresh and new with critical information and regular events that keep people coming back to participate in the community.

10. Monitor participation frequency and quality, and reward those who deserve it.

Various pundits have seen the way social networks and online communities (which are fluid social structuries) are changing and evolving. Amy Jo Kim sees them becoming more mobile because everyone has a cell phone. I see them becoming more political.

The Internet cuts time and cost out of the communication equation. You can reach anyone, almost instantly. It also takes distance and geography out of the equation.  When you take these factors out of the communication equation, for the first time in human history you have given people the ability to organize around a topic, idea or cause.

The Internet is intruding into our political process, and there will be upheaval over the next decade as people begin to realign their allegances not to geography, but to specific ideals, and those groups, if they get large enough and organized enough, will begin to exert political power. This is a third-order effect of the Internet on social structures.

I see a world in the not too distant future where we are not represented by a politician in the house or senate, because power does not have to be concentrated as it did because of slow communication and transportation when the U.S. Consitution was written. Power can now be distributed, and affinity groups can help to represent the individual in their interests and in many areas of their life.

This does not mean things that came about from first- and second-order effects will dissappear. There will still be publishing to web sites and social networking. They will just evolve in a more political direction, and more of the group/network/community effects will be implemented online. 

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