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Why Community Is Different from Social Media

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July 19, 2016
May 19, 2023

Communities and social networks look very similar on the surface, especially online: They’re both collections of people who interact with each other. Often, communities exist within social networks and vice versa. However, communities and social networks are different beasts with different strengths and weaknesses that require different approaches. The definition of community is something that’s still being honed and publicized, but I’ve done my best to summarize the differences I see here.DefinitionsA Community……is a group of people connecting around a shared interest, mission, or situation and feeling a sense of belonging and a shared experience. I know this sounds warm and fuzzy and not actionable, but it is an important distinction. This doesn’t mean you don’t share interesting content or Q&A; all these things can happen in a community, but without that sense of group connection, it’s not a community.Let’s break it down:Group: Not 1:1. Has clear boundaries and outsiders vs insiders. Requires personal investment.Shared Interest: Fulfills needs, not simply “I met you so let’s connect”.Sense of Belonging: You feel influenced by the group and you feel that you can influence the group. It’s part of your identity.Shared experience and emotional connection: Things happen to the group (not individuals). The group has a shared history.This is what a community looks like:(Yes, unfortunately the source refers to communities and social networks interchangeably.)Important note: This is what makes a community a community. However, it’s not always why someone joins a community initially. They join because of they need a question answered, have a common interest, etc. The sense of community is why they stay instead of seek these things elsewhere.A Social Network……is a social graph of individual (peer-to-peer) connections that, generally, interact in various combinations. You feel emotional connection to individuals, and there are conversations between fleeting collections of people, but there is not an overall sense of a group that everyone is part of and invested in. Everyone’s experience on a social network is different (especially as these networks begin to algorithmically cater to member interests).Social graph: Connections, rather than a central point.Individual connections: People connecting to people, rather than connecting to an interest or mission.Various combinations: Not everyone is connected, not everyone is interacting, not every interaction is visible.This is what a social network looks like:(Via Paul Irish, under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)Important note: Communities can, and often do, exist within social networks. But social networks are not a prerequisite for communities.Strengths and WeaknessesSocial networks are powerful because of the switching cost of leaving your social graph and related assets. Leaving Facebook is hard because we have our contacts and photos and history there. And the more populated a network is (the network effect), the less likely you’ll leave; there may well be better professional social networks than LinkedIn, buteveryone is on LinkedIn so I’m going to be there. And lastly, they’re powerful because ofnetwork exhaustion: It is hard work to be part of multiple networks. Again, there’s probably something better than LinkedIn, but I don’t have the time or energy to manage two professional social network profiles.These strengths are also why it’s very hard to successfully start a new social network. How do you get people to either stomach the cost of switching or spend more of their time and energy by adding another network to their list?Communities are powerful because members have an emotional connection to them (and the more emotional they are, the more powerful they are). Your family is probably a community. They also probably irritate you quite often. But people rarely abandon their family community because those emotional bonds are so strong—even if some individual social connections sour (you might not talk to Uncle Bob at Christmas dinner, but you still attend because it’s a family event). There are plenty of faster, shinier, more frequently updated places to get comic book news online than the comicbooks subreddit. Why do people like me flock to it then? Because there is a community of members who have built connections to each other, inside jokes, and feel they have a say when they post or comment. (The community even highlights their top members alongside top publications of the year.) Leaving would be traitorous instead of simply hard.This strength is also why community can be volatile. Emotions can flare, causing internal strife or, as in the case of Reddit, external pushback.ExamplesSo what does this look like in real life? Let’s dive into some examples.Facebook: Social network. It’s about individual peer-to-peer connections whose activities all aggregate in your feed. There are social interactions with multiple people in comment threads, but there it is not an overall group that feels connection and has the same experience. (There are communities within groups on Facebook, of course.)A book club: A great example of a community. You’re connecting with a group where you have a common interest. You have the same experience (all reading the same book) and have influence (literal influence when it comes to choosing a book) and belonging.LinkedIn: Social network. It’s an extremely powerful online rolodex and content sharing platform. You make strong connections with individuals and you interact with various people while commenting on pieces of content, but there is not an overall sense of a group. (Again, there are LinkedIn groups where community can form.)Reddit: A meta community that houses individual communities. The Reddit community just demonstrated (dramatically) that they have an emotional connection to the meta group, and that was certainly a shared experience! Some subreddits are communities, some not; some are just about sharing content, but many are about discussions, inside jokes, connections, or missions.Note that people can interact with a community without becoming a true member with a sense of community. If you’re not a big Redditor, you may go there to look at content but not feel like part of the group.Going to a bar: Social network. Unless you’re a total regular, you probably don’t go to the bar for the emotional connections or shared experience. You go there to connect with individuals and drink. Of course, you could say the bar in Cheers was a community: People were there for the group, had a shared experience, and had shared influence, emotional connections, and a sense of belonging.Meetups: Some are communities, some aren’t. There are plenty of events where you go, listen to a speaker, and then mingle and meet a few people. It’s unlikely there’s a strong emotional bond to the group here. But there are also many events where the group actually acts as a group, takes action together, works towards a goal, and shares their challenges.High school: Arguably a social network; your yearbook is literally the inspiration for Facebook, keeping track of your individual connections. But there are communities within high school: the clubs, the teams, and the counterculture groups you may have been part of. Twenty years later, you’re more likely to feel strong connections to people who shared those group experiences than a general high school friend.Are the above definitions perfect? Surely not, and I encourage you to deconstruct my arguments below. This is based off of my years of experience and research, and crucially on the Sense of Community framework created by two social psychologists in 1986. (Good summary here, actual paper here. This and this are also good sources of definition.)

July 19, 2016
May 19, 2023

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