Defining the term: “Online Community”

I’m both passionate about communities (having created the community advocate group in Facebook, as well as held the community manager role at HDS) and am now doing research on this topic. I’m on a quest to find an accurate, reliable, and timeless definition of the term “online community”.

I vetted this definition with my Twitter network, received nearly 50 responses this morning. I’ve boiled down a definition to the following:

An online community is: Where a group of people with similar goals or interests connect and exchange information using web tools.

Also good reads are other ways to define community, (quoting Jake McKee). Amy Jo Kim has a book and online resources that are very helpful.

Your feedback wanted (as always) how do you define community? Please note this needs to be succint, yet comprehensive and stand the test of time.


Update:
I embedded all the responses I received on twitter about the community definition. I think it’s appropriate to note that I’m working with the community to define the term.

I just saw Shel defined this from his blog as “Communities are bodies of people loosely joined together by a common interest”. That’s the most succint one so far, I’ll add to it to suit the requirement of an ‘online community’: “Communities are bodies of people loosely joined together by a common interest that exchange information using web tools”.


Update 2: In the comments below, Jake suggests that time and relationships are a factor, I don’t think they are. People don’t have to have relationships to be part of a community (although he suggests that skirts into a community of practice arena) and I think someone can be part of a community, time not being a factor.

As a result, I’m getting fond of this second definition:

“Online communities are bodies of people joined together by a common interest”.

Working this definition out in public has proven fruitful, even some of my colleagues are chiming in.


The day after. I’ve given this more thought, and in my quest to “boil down” the essence of the term, it’s clear to me that folks do NOT agree on the following being attributes of every community:

Relationships: From deep to none
Time (long time to develop vs short time)
Interaction: from exchanging ideas to just observing.
Agreement of all ideas

The two attributes that everyone seems to agree are always part of a community are the follwoing

A group of people
Commonalities, affinities

So the second definition listed above, really has the potential for staying power.


Update Jan 31st: Jake brings up more points, that an online community is too broad, there’s got to be a more definitive attribute to describe a ‘bunch of people standing around’ vs a ‘community. Could it be interaction, duration, or the building of relationships?

  • hmmm it’s that “information” that doesn’t sit right with me. I know that social lending is more than just the loans but what about social telecommunications like Meraki – the only information ‘shared’ is bits and bytes. Social media communities – yes it works, but ALL social networks online? not convinced hon.

  • Going back to Jake’s definition: “A community is a group of people who form relationships over time by interacting regularly around shared experiences, which are of interest to all of them for varying individual reasons.” highlights a couple of things I see missing from your definition. Shared experiences and relationships are more important to me than information. All websites have information in some form or another, but a community takes it one step forward.

    I would go with something more like:
    An online community is: Where a group of people with similar goals or interests share experiences and build relationships using web tools.

  • Online community:

    A place where a group of people with similar goals or interests connect and interact using a variety of media primarily dependent upon the internet.

    This is just my crack at it…I think people exchange information but it is in the form of interaction and it can be through any number of media but in defining an online community, we need to emphasis that the community’s existence is dependent upon the internet. (That is, unless the community undergoes a massive formation shift to an offline form)

    off topic: I like that you’ve added the twitter badge to the sidebar! I just wish that twitter would make some designs that weren’t so aesthetically horrid!

  • I like the short and sweet approach. “Similar goals and interests” might be too limiting, though. How about this: “An online community is a group of people who share interests, choose to identify themselves as a group, and communicate about their interests using web tools.”

  • BTW Here are all the responses in Twitter, you can see how we were collaborating in real time:

    Ben Greenberg minorjive @jowyang community is founded on relationships. Are relationships made up of information exchange only? 27 minutes ago from twhirl in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Cortney Sellers CortneySellers @jowyang I like that! 32 minutes ago from twhirl in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Steven Groves stevegroves @Jowyang – online community def is right on; use ‘like’ vs ‘similar’. 35 minutes ago from txt in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Simon Chen sylc @jowyang Community can take the form of both a physical and a virtual place. The link between real and virtual worlds is important when … … 36 minutes ago from im in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Ben Greenberg minorjive @jowyang i still think info exchange is a narrow view of community life, online or anywhere 37 minutes ago from twhirl in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Connie Reece conniereece @jowyang I like the way you are using your Twitter community to come up w/ a definition of community. Appropriate. 38 minutes ago from web in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    prprof_mv prprof_mv @jowyang community cannot be an environment, it’s a group of people. Basic defining characteristics of group: interaction & some common goal about 1 hour ago from web in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Dean Browell dbrowell @jowyang Maybe the question is: is just being online or in the same network enough of a common characteristic to beget community? about 1 hour ago from web in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Dean Browell dbrowell @jowyang I think there’s something to be said for “online geography” re: walled communities or open ones. about 1 hour ago from web in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Cortney Sellers CortneySellers @jowyang Gotcha…I think some sort of commonality is why people sign up for an online thing…but how it evolves depends on the individual. about 2 hours ago from twhirl in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Troy Turner troyturner @jowyang Root of the word “community” is “commune” – exch. of ideas (online or off) – req. particpation & communication, but not cmn goals about 2 hours ago from web in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    TedC TedC @jowyang People derive material value via online communities via ideas, discussion, information. The community is a conduit. about 2 hours ago from web in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Kevin Gamble k1v1n @jowyang @minorjive @mjkeliher It was this Amy Gahran post that got me thinking to start: http://tinyurl.com/294tc5 about 2 hours ago from web in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Bill Johnston redplasticmonke @jowyang – I usually find myself using some version of Amy Jo Kim’s definition of community about 2 hours ago from web in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Mike Keliher mjkeliher @jowyang If not, definition of “online community” should fit with definitions of Latin, college, neighborhood and other “communities.” about 2 hours ago from Snitter in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Cathleen Rittereiser CathleenRitt @jowyang Community: To me “similar goals or affiliations” means club. Good online clubs create a sense of community about 2 hours ago from web in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Mike Keliher mjkeliher @jowyang Are you suggesting that “community” in the online context is actually a different word with a different meaning than in other uses? about 2 hours ago from Snitter in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Mike Keliher mjkeliher @jowyang Why define “community” in the online context any differently than, say, as @shel said, the “Latin community”? about 2 hours ago from Snitter in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Sean Scott kalisurfer @jowyang whether they share ideas, musings or just plain useless banter is up to them about 2 hours ago from web in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Sean Scott kalisurfer @jowyang to me community is a space in which two or more people linked by some affinity have a conversation about 2 hours ago from web in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Shawn Zehnder Lea shawnz @jowyang There are different kinds of communities. Some are geographic. Online is different because we choose our involvement. about 2 hours ago from Snitter in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Amy Gahran agahran @jowyang Interesting point, Jeremiah — although most journalists certainly think they’re much more important than mere “aggregators.” about 2 hours ago from Snitter in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Ben Greenberg minorjive @jowyang @k1v1n what about making meaning and preserving meaning? about 2 hours ago from twhirl in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Shel Holtz shel @jowyang How does that square up with other uses of the term, e.g., “my local community” or “the Latino community?” about 2 hours ago from Snitter in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Ben Greenberg minorjive @jowyang @k1v1n seems to me info exchange is a very market centric view of communities about 2 hours ago from twhirl in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    studionashvegas studionashvegas @jowyang @conniecrosby Yes (to both) about 2 hours ago from TwitBin in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Peter Dawson peterdawson @Jowyang – dm’ed u wrt to definiation of community- the key is passion, experince and sharing and relationships about 2 hours ago from web in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Cortney Sellers CortneySellers @jowyang True – but question…using this basis..what is different between social media and true community? about 2 hours ago from twhirl in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Dean Browell dbrowell @jowyang I feel we sometimes over-use “environment” as if it indicates a level experience. Maybe online geography re: community? about 2 hours ago from web in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Tim Wilson tgwilson @jowyang “An online environment in which people with similar goals, interests, or affiliations connect and exchange information.” My 2 c … … about 2 hours ago from Snitter in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Geri Druckman gdruckman @jowyang actually though twitter is fast, when the WTC were hit i was in Israel and got the news over ICQ as it happened almost at Real-Time about 2 hours ago from Snitter in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    derrickkwa derrickkwa @jowyang Yep. That seems more accurate. Perhaps “interests” instead of “goals”, but yeah. about 2 hours ago from im in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Steven E. Streight vaspers @jowyang – Twitter community hangs together, even in disagreement. Our common goals are not to think alike, but to discuss ideas, share, etc about 2 hours ago from web in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Amie Gillingham gillie @jowyang: I think the connection part is important: you wouldn’t call random people in a mall “community” even if they all share one purpose about 2 hours ago from web in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Micah Baldwin micah @jowyang not similar goals in that everyone in the community has the same aspiration, but by being in a community, your goals become shared. about 2 hours ago from Snitter in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Michael Markman Mickeleh @jowyang I don’t believe he really did that. But I’ve always liked the perspective. about 2 hours ago from Snitter in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Connie Crosby conniecrosby @jowyang A community doesn’t have to be in an online. But, online enviros have helped create communities with geographically diverse members about 2 hours ago from web in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Jeffrey Sass sass @jowyang in truth, the “common” in most communities is location: where you live. Where you hang out online. Presence is lowest common denomi about 2 hours ago from web in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Laurel Papworth SilkCharm @jowyang I like Adam Fields on community – in order to call a gathering a community, if you stop showing up one day, ppl come looking 4 you about 2 hours ago from web in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    bear bear @jowyang just because many people or sub-groups have something in common does not imply they have similiar goals about 2 hours ago from im in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Michael Markman Mickeleh @jowyang I had a high school teacher would keep all newspapers for two days before reading them. He said it cut down on panic reactions. about 2 hours ago from Snitter in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Ed Illig Illig @jowyang Should Twitter advance a CMS UI feature set, i.e., may present systemic off-model social usage issues–or just allow 3rd party dev? about 2 hours ago from twitterrific in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Troy Turner troyturner @jowyang we have Twitter in common, but that’s an env., not a goal – yet idea exch. is everywhere. chk out “The Medici Effect”, incl blog. about 2 hours ago from web in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Cortney Sellers CortneySellers @jowyang True – but the community users may have joined for non-similar ideas…. about 2 hours ago from twhirl in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Amie Gillingham gillie @jowyang: I agree it’s a good general definition. There is always some bond or other that holds community together. about 2 hours ago from web in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    cori schlegel cori @jowyang agreed. about 2 hours ago from im in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Troy Turner troyturner @jowyang I think it’s more diverse than that – I wouldn’t assume “similar goals or affiliations”, but yes on idea exchange – even if subtle. about 2 hours ago
    from web in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    cori schlegel cori @jowyang but you said *and* exchange ideas. perhaps *or* exchange ideas might work better. p2p lending does not “have same goals” *and* … … about 2 hours ago from im in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    derrickkwa derrickkwa @jowyang I actually like a definition I recently heard, I think from CS Penn. “Your community is the place you can do the most good” about 2 hours ago from im in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Laurel Papworth SilkCharm @jowyang aye but the goal is outside the group. They may not share the same values in the group. homophobes & gays both banking = flame war about 2 hours ago from web in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    eden_spodek eden_spodek @jowyang Yah about 2 hours ago from web in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Jeffrey Sass sass @jowyang perhaps omit “similar goals or affiliations…” Not sure that is requisite. Simple presence, virtual or real, can foster community. about 2 hours ago from web in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Micah Baldwin micah @jowyang community is not just about exchanging ideas w/ likeminded people. communities have conflict but only for improvement of the group. about 2 hours ago from Snitter in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Rob La Gesse kr8tr @jowyang – from Dictionary.com: “Sharing, participation, and fellowship.” – simple about 3 hours ago from Snitter in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    derrickkwa derrickkwa @jowyang I don’t think they have to have similar goals or affiliations per se. But I agree with the ideas part. about 3 hours ago from im in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Shashi Bellamkonda shashib @jowyang Yay about 3 hours ago from web in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Shashi Bellamkonda shashib @jowyang Yay about 3 hours ago from web in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Micah Baldwin micah @jowyang I think that online community is a group of individuals that share a desire for the betterment of the group as a whole. about 3 hours ago from Snitter in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Laurel Papworth SilkCharm @jowyang – @cori is right, social banking and peer to peer lending have almost no “social media” community stuff like sharing ‘ideas’… about 3 hours ago from web in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Alfonso Guerra huperniketes @jowyang Your definition of “Community” is too specific. Online communities differ from offline ones only in location and how

    Don Ettore DonEttore @jowyang Do all have to have similar goals or affiliations, or could it include those with interest in the community? about 3 hours ago from TwitterFox in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    bear bear @jowyang s/exchange ideas/interact/ about 3 hours ago from im in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    cori schlegel cori @jowyang: nay. that *might* work for “*online* community”, but even in that not all communities exchange ideas or share goals. about 3 hours ago from im in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Marshall Manson marshallmanson @jowyang Nay. It’s not necessarily about goals or affiliations. It’s about common interests. about 3 hours ago from im in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Tim Wilson tgwilson @jowyang “goals for affiliations” — seems like “interests” is another biggie, which you could squint and put under “goals,” maybe. about 3 hours ago from Snitter in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Kevin Gamble k1v1n @jowyang Communities happen everywhere and not just online. Defining them is really hard – it’s an EIM problem. about 3 hours ago from web in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Laurel Papworth SilkCharm @jowyang nay – community, where people with differing values debate it out. e.g. … now. 🙂 about 3 hours ago from web in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Mack Collier MackCollier @jowyang I think that’s good. With all members having a shared sense of ownership in the group, to varying degrees. about 3 hours ago from web in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

    Mack Collier MackCollier @jowyang That’s because Zuckerberg is acting like Facebook’s CEO, instead of a member of the Facebook community. about 3 hours ago from web in reply to jowyang Icon_star_empty

  • Simon Chen

    In response to Laurel’s comment I would say that community can take the form of both a physical and a virtual place. The group that meets once a year at a conference can extend their relationships via an online discussion forum. Or vice versa.

    I’d try to incorporate a statement of purpose to the definition. Etienne Wenger defines a Community of Practice as “…groups of people who share a passion for something that they know how to do and who interact regularly to learn how to do it better.” Any thoughts on this?

  • Personally, with the blend of online+offline that exists with “community” these days, I don’t think it’s worthwhile to try to define online community and offline community separately.

    Back in 2002, I worked up an definition that I’m still very happy with, even if long. (One of these day I’ll get around to shortening it) Original post is here: http://tinyurl.com/2unecc

    “A community is a group of people who form relationships over time by interacting regularly around shared experiences, which are of interest to all of them for varying individual reasons.”

    Check out the full post for quite a bit of explanation that, 5 years later, I’m still quite satisfied with.

  • Reed

    While the inclusion of the term “information” doesn’t sit entirely right with me, I’m curious how your definition meshes with the presence of people who simply act as observers of online communities. By taking a passive role, these people do not exchange information or interact in any true sense of the words.

    Are they part of the community?

    This is a wonderful discussion, by the way. Thanks for getting the ball rolling, Jeremiah!

  • Indeed a deep and wonderful discussion.My abstraction of the community definition would be:

    “An online community is an associative set comprised of people sharing thoughts, ideas and information on common interests through a communication medium of electronic artifacts.”

  • Jake

    How important is ‘time’ as a concept in community, it seems to be an important part of your definition.

    Reed, they exchange something, what is it? Can people that simply sit around and have the same colored hat be a community?

  • An online community is: People acting collectively using the web infrastructure surrounding content, information, and social networks.

  • Simon Chen

    @Reed:

    I’m thinking of Wenger again. He’s talked about lurking (‘act as observers of online communities’) and I recall that his findings are that they learn from the ideas they encounter in the online community and generally find participation therein to be valuable although they don’t participate actively.

    One assumes the lurker is there because of his/her common interests, and I would consider the lurker a part of a community. So maybe I’m okay that it’s not essential for the user to actively participate. The definition could be adjusted by adding the word ‘can’ as in “Where a group of people with similar goals or interests can connect and exchange information using web tools.”

    Yes it is a nice discussion!

    Happy (early) New Year!

  • Jeremiah,

    I guess a good definition of a community can be derived from Etienne Wenger’s theory on communities of practice: “Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.” It would be great if this can be achieved with online communities

  • Julie Katz

    Hi Jeremiah,

    Chloe wrote a great post on Forrester’s Marketing Blog a few months ago that you might find useful:
    http://blogs.forrester.com/marketing/2007/08/is-your-network.html

    Happy holidays,
    Julie

  • Jeremiah, the issue of “time” came up back in the original days of the discussion I linked to earlier. More here:
    http://tinyurl.com/2cyrsn

    But yes, I think time is crucial. Saying in my definition above “relationships over time” is a bit redundant, right? Relationships, by their very nature take time to form. (I included “over time” to specifically lay out the fact that they take time). So if you agree that communities are about relationships, then you must agree that it takes some amount of time to build.

    The relationship component (and thus the time component) is what, IMHO, separates a “interest group” from a “community”.

  • Julie! Thanks for this. Chloe, as usual, has a great perspective.

    interesting definition of a network:

    “My working definition of network is: a group of people who have something in common and who have a motivation for connecting.”

    Jake, While I agree that communities have some sort of relationship, I’m not convinced that it has to be a deep one.

    The question remains, can a community exist, even for a short time?

    Can a community exist if the members don’t have a deep relationship?

  • Adding to the lurking discussion, I believe a lurker is an active member of online community. Just as in a real-time conversation, lurking is your active listener that just at that moment doesn’t respond (comment)directly to the post.

  • Zena

    I agree, and this addresses any node toward participation, one doesn’t have to participate to be part of a community. I’ve updated the definition in the main post (Update 2)

  • A lot of people join a community in which they don’t participate, yet they still feel like participants by virtue of listening in. I know I’m picking nits, but how about, “…in which participants can exchange information using web tools”?

  • Shel Holtz

    See my latest updated in the main post, I’ve removed the exchanging information part.

    “Online communities are bodies of people joined together by a common interest”

    It’s a modified version of Shel Israel’s definition

  • It seems like there is consensus on the idea that one doesn’t have to actively contribute to be considered a member of an online community, this distinction is ignored by definitions that attempt to specify the actions undergone by members.

    I think that Jeremiah’s latest definition – by focusing on the ‘why’ of the community rather than the ‘what’ – is a good one.

  • I know I’m a little late to the party (online community party… who brought the chips and dip?) but I’d like to add to the pot that the root of “community” isn’t “common” it’s “commune” – as in sharing.

    No definition that excludes the word sharing quite works.

    People in online communities share. They share thoughts, goals, information, interests, and ideas. Not necessarily all of those with all other community members at all times. But the fundamental idea is sharing.

    The first truly “online” community I ever belonged to was alt.calahans on usenet some 12+ years ago. The motto there was “sorrow shared is halved, joy shared is doubled.”

    Since then, it has been impossible for me to have a definition of community without the word sharing in it.

    Ergo, I’m not subscribing to this one as it’s currently worded.

    That’s my 2 cents which is about all it’s worth.

  • Yndygo,

    I think that the current definition meets your standard because the community members share at least one common interest. What they share is what brought them together in the first place.

    That having been said, I agree with your post. I just don’t think your qualifications are exclusive of the current definition.

    Reed

  • I like the latest def’n because in the first one, the inclusion of ‘web tools’ is redundant with ‘online’.

    ““Online communities are bodies of people joined together by a common interest”

    (And I agree that listeners are participants – they represent the majority.)

  • What about the time required to form an online community? Are online communities created instantly with utilities like Twitter? Or does real community only happen after a certain amount of time passes to develop trust and relationship?

    Another angle on defining an online community – are they interactive audiences (to a topic, or a personality, or …?) You can be part of an audience without having similar goals, yet interact and engage with the topic, performance, or personality. A crowd can have similar goals but no focus. Perhaps the point of focus is the difference between an online crowd and an online community.

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  • Hi,

    i think, the problem is, that this is two definitions in one:

    1) community: the bodies of people joined
    2) online – which seems obvious, but i think that one needs more research. – email is online, right? –

    last: i think the commmon interest is not always needed in a community – as meeting known people (and so on) is not really a common interest – see facebook

    bye,

    Michael.

  • Jeremiah, I agree that “deep” isn’t necessarily the only kind of relationship (sorry if I implied that, I certainly didn’t mean to). But a relationship, thin or deep has to evolve over some amount of time.

    If we are both into knitting and show up at a local knitting meetup and introduce ourselves, we haven’t formed a relationship… we’ve made an initial connection.

    People who own Apple products aren’t part of a community, they’re part of a crowd (nice one, Jasmin). People on Twitter aren’t a “community” either. But when a group of Twitter users start to share ideas, thoughts replies, etc. that still doesn’t make them a “community”. It takes time for a conversation to turn into a community.

    Looking at a real world example for a second, say a typical rock concert. That crowd of attendees could certainly be called a “community” if said community was defined as:

    …”bodies of people joined together by a common interest”

    Certainly the attendees are all there for the same reason: the band. Certainly they’re joined together in the same physical setting. But did this group actually “commune” (as mentioned above) on any real amount? Other than a few people sitting next to a particular attendee, was there any relationship formed? Not at all.

    Contrast this with my bro-in-law getting stuck with a specific group of people in Mexico during a hurricane a few years ago. Sure it was a large group of people, but after nearly a week of being there, there was an exchange of contact info and a reunion in person 6 months later, as well as a mailing list.

    To your original question above, Jeremiah, IMHO community doesn’t form without a time element. That may be a small increment or a very large one. I’m not sure what the threshold is, but there is one.

    At the end of the day, I want to see a definition that specifically answers “what makes a community different than a crowd”.

  • agree Jake – you could use the same definition for a crowd.

    Perhaps something to do with the “frame of reference” more than common interests?

  • I definitely see merit to Jake’s point. I’m not sure I totally agree that time must be element, but I think there is something to the nurturing and development of relationships that is tied into the essence of a community.

    Perhaps something like:

    Online communities are bodies of people joined together by a desire to connect and share their common interests.

  • A friend of mine who’d just moved to New York once wrote on his blog that he was looking for a society, but not a community. When I asked him what the difference was he said that a community makes demands on its members.

  • Long ago…before this whole Web 2.0 thing…my business partner (that I met on Guy Kawasaki’s Rules for Revolutionaries listserv – a very pretwitter experience – and someone who I’ve still never met in person)and I created a little online community called MyReadingList.com which we said was a place where people could create, publish, and share lists about the books that matter to them. We were, I fear, just a wee bit ahead of our time but…I think the idea of a place online (and therefore accessable to large number of seemingly disparate people)where people can share with each other about the things that matter to them is key to what online community is all about.

  • @Simon Chen – Yes, I also include Lurkers (90% of members lurk initially, 9% respond, 1% initiate – Dr Nielsen). And I also include Newbies in communities and, strangely enough, Trolls. Because of the impact trolls have (argumentative types just there to cause fights), they can bring together or divide a community and therefore impact it. I therefore see them as part of the community, particularly if they stick around – heaven help us – for years. They are good at throwing differing values into sharp relief and polarising discussions.

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  • I think that “online community” or “virtual community” are nonsense.
    In the past a community was a group of people who shared the same land and the same values.
    Now it’s cool to use the word “community” but, for example, i like radio (i’m in Europe) and other 2 persons (1 in the US and 1 in Japan) like radio and we talk about it on the net; we don’t know anything else about ourselves. Are we part of the same community? Sorry, we aren’t.
    I would say “online network” without any strong ties instead of community.
    When i hear “online communities” i think about “imagined communities” of Benedict Anderson

  • So many varied points, thanks everyone. It’s clear that there is no one definition, it really depends on the forces that shape the individual.

  • @Reed – I see your point, but I see “sharing” as an active verb, not a passive one. Hence “sharing” an interest doesn’t count.
    But I can see your point.

    I’m actually back because I’ve been thinking about this proposition for awhile now, and one of the things I’m stuck on is that the word “community” is troublesome for me as well.

    I’ve used the metaphor of a cocktail party for twitter – because to me, it’s more of an ongoing event than anything. When we start defining it as a community, we start seeing inclusions and exclusions. I belong to several “communities” inside the larger one that might be defined as Twitter, for instance.
    In these smaller communities, there are sometimes overlapping members, and other times, I am the only common point.

    Visualizing here if you will, a puddle that is an “online community” – be it twitter, facebook, myspace, seesmic, whathaveyou – and raindrops falling into it, with ripples echoing outward and intersecting. We are all at the center of our own outward radiating circles – and while they may overlap in interesting ways – we are not all intersecting.

    So there’s this definition of an online community – but where it falls apart is in scope.

    Okay, sorry to throw another wrench in there.

    I think there might be smaller communities inherent in larger arenas, but I think I prefer to hold to the concept of these social media sites as ‘ongoing organic social events’ rather than communities.

  • Jeremiah, I think your question is a good conversation starter.

    I think what’s noteworthy in your question is the “online” qualifier. Which take any one of the good definitions for community that facilitates interaction via a scale-free network. This allows communities to easily grow beyond the typical bounds of geography and even language (think Babelfish and Google Language tools) and become more efficient in their interactions. This additional dimension is what is really novel when compared to other communities that don’t have an online component. The next question worth contemplating, “Do these online communities lack the level of intimacy as those that occur in person?”

  • When you add web tools into the picture, you immediately give an advantage to those in the “community” who understand how to use these tools. And therein lies part of the challenge of the web and communities as they relate to the web. For most of these communities to be successful, there needs to be a certain element of ‘technical ability’ involved and that gives an unfair advantage to the geek squad amongst us.

  • Everyone,

    I’ve updated the post with a third updated based on your feedback.

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  • Ray Valdes

    At what point does a random collection of people become a community?

    Key aspects in emergence of community: start with group of people; then add shared experiences; finally arrive at group self-awareness.

    A bunch of people standing waiting for a subway train are not a community, they are just random social atoms that have not (yet) coalesced into a more cohesive molecule.

    If you apply some external catalyst or force, anything from an unexpected long delay, to a charming street musician to a fire in a trashcan, community can arise. The catalyst for this emergent entity is shared experience leading to group self-awareness.

    Likewise Twitter starts out as a loose aggregate of individuals (many pair-wise friendships and connections, plus a layer of many-to-many circles of friends, but not a community).

    Through various shared experiences (the “frozen pea” meme, the response to Bhutto tragedy), the loose aggregate catalyzes into an emergent community. This entity may just as easily disperse back into its constituent atoms (imho, the most likely outcome for most emergent communities), or further evolve into multiple cohesive distinct communities.

  • Jeremiah~

    Have you seen this video of Patrick Lambe? http://tinyurl.com/22ajee

    I think he does a good job delineating online communities.

    I often wonder how many people are part of real-world communities. In real life they’re usually pretty small and focused. Bike or book clubs. Religious or support groups. The connections they make with people are very real, frequent and dimensional. Online communities rarely offer that level of intimacy.

    That said, online I think people identify themselves across multiple locations. A sort of aggregated network of communities. My networked-community encompasses the places I’ve invested time, and particularly, assets. I have little pieces of me in those places that I’ve filled out profiles, left comments, and uploaded media. The people who invest significant energy in one particular community seem to do it out of muse or pain.

    One thing I’ve been thinking about recently is how blogs fit into the online community paradigm. A lot of blogs seem to fit the “online community” definition. Potentially they don’t fully meet the criteria because many of the people leaving blog comments don’t connect with each other.

    Regardless, it seems that there are a lot of blogs out there that have enough gravity and focus to profit by graduating their environment into a community. Techcrunch was going to do that. They added a forum to their blog but it never seemed to fully capitalize on the opportunity.

  • Sam

    Great video. Yes, I’m familiar with the book “cultivating communities of practice” I’ve quoted from it and used the diagrams when I was deploying.

    Interesting insights comparing real world to online. Some would say that online communities echo or reflect real-world ones and vice versa.

  • “Online communities rarely offer that level of intimacy.” [vs. offline community]

    See, that’s the problem with defining “online community” so broadly… when everything is a “community”, nothing seems to be a “community”. And when we define offline community and online community with two levels of requirement, we’re comparing apples and oranges.

    @Ray Valdes nails this point in his comment above. As he says, people standing in line for the subway aren’t a community, at least not be default. So why does the online environment illicit such vastly more broad inclusions into the community definition?

    (Online) Community has to mean something or else it means nothing. With an overly broad definition, it means nothing… in the same way that the way people talk about a message boards equating to “community”.

  • Jake

    I’ve been wrestling with that too, so there’s a few options: Is it over time, is it a developed relationship, is it interaction (although most agree that not all members in a community will interact), or a combination of all of the above?

    Something tells me we won’t be able to nail it down, as it will likely vary on the type of community.

  • I think you’re right – I think definition is largely unreachable because of two things:

    1. Context
    2. Person doing the defining

    As much as I hate to say it, it seems as though there’s a bit of the Supreme Court porn decision going on – “I don’t how to define it, but I know it when I see it”.

    On top of that, there’s a definition (which can likely be somewhat broad), and application (which can be different in the eye of the various beholders). I think Ray nailed it above with a couple of points:

    * External catalyst
    * Self-Awareness
    * Shared Experience

    That said, I’d still have to say that time is a crucial component. (Not necessarily a LONG amount of time, just SOME amount of time)

    People can make *connections* to groups/people, this happens all the time. Sticking with Ray’s point about a subway queue, an external catalyst (say of an extended delay) can *connect* people… but only after a period of time does that connection turn into something deeper, more significant – a *community*.

  • Thanks Jake, this is tremendously helpful. I’ll subnote my definition with these intangibles.

  • Devdas Bhagat

    Online communities need not be based around the web. The web is just one technology amongst many other communication channels.

    My primary online communities are IRC and/or email based, with the web being pretty much an information source.

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