Clark Quinn's Learnings about Learning
(The Official Quinnovation blog)

5 April 2009

Real Community?

Clark @ 8:41 AM

I’ve been reading John Taylor Gatto lately, and one of his points is interesting to me from the perspective of social media.  His claim about schools is that they’re dehumanizing (deliberately).  He claims that many of our institutions (and he means more than schools, but groups, organizations, etc) are really networks, not communities, and can’t provide the nurture we need from others: “Networks do great harm by appearing enough like real communities to create expectations that they can manage human social and psychological needs.”

This got me thinking about social media, and how often we call them online communities, but the question is: are they really?  At the same time, Marcia Conner was asking for examples of how someone’s Twitter/Facebook (T/FB) comments have changed your opinion of them.  Personally, I have to say that, in general, the extra ‘human’ bits that show through in T/FB have fleshed out some people I haven’t met and now want to.

Blogs tend to be more formal (tends, mind you), while Twitter and Facebook cross the boundary into informal.  LinkedIn and Ning networks that I’ve participated in professionally are just that, professional.  And maybe then not worthy of being called communities?  What’s critical in making the transition from network to community?  Certainly people will help one another out (Tony Karrer talks about how he uses networks to ask questions), but you might not ask for help on a personal issue there.  Or would you?

Your mileage may vary, of course.  So two questions: is there a difference between a community and a network, and is it important? And, if so (and I’m not certain, but leaning to the answers being yes and yes), should we keep them separate, have different ones for either, and can we have real community virtually?  I’m inclined to believe that you can have real community online, but it’s not the same as a network, and that may not be a bad thing.  You  have to work with lots of people, but only with some of them will you want to share your problems, beliefs, and values. It’s the latter that’s a community.  And while networks are valuable, communities are precious.


  1. How timely this is for me. I’ve been an online community manager for many years, and participated in online networks since the mid eighties.

    I’ve been contemplating the difference between online community, and social media. These are both buzzwords, but each has a unique meaning to me. Online community indicates a shared purpose, a cohesive bonding agent of some sort. Social media on the other hand is (to me) much more of a ‘network’ in your terms. It can of course be wrangled into a community, but it is not inherent.

    In 1984 I created an email “community/network” for Willie Nelson’s FarmAid shows. It began as a network, but over time became much more of a community. In 1999, I created an online community for the employees of Cracker Barrel OCS. This, from it’s inception was built around a common and shared interest, and was very different.

    Does anyone work as a “Community Manager” ? Do you see vital differences?


    Comment by Mark Woodward — 5 April 2009 @ 9:29 AM

  2. Mark, I agree that community is something more. I’d argue it’s more than purpose, it’s caring for the individuals because of that common bond, and reaching out to help them personally as well as professionally. It’s mentoring, but more, helping them develop as individuals, not merely as practitioners.

    Which means that we shouldn’t try to force networks to be communities, but help individuals realize that they need community as well as networks, and that networks aren’t where it’s to be found. That said, some individuals do more than just use networks, and care about the individuals thy’re in.

    That said, I think there are network managers, but I don’t think communities need managing, they need nurturing, and leading, and other community roles.

    Your example of FarmAid, I think, shows how a purpose focused on helping people can gestate into a community. And that’s a good thing. Not sure it could happen around a network focused on a product…

    Thanks for the feedback!

    Comment by Clark — 5 April 2009 @ 10:16 AM

  3. Am sure this will get me into trouble, but…I see a community more about sharing, and a network more about taking.

    Comment by Jane Bozarth — 5 April 2009 @ 10:36 AM

  4. […] Clark Quinn looks at social media, and asks, “… how often we call them online communities, but the question is: are they really?” I’m not going to go into network theory or definitions in this post but I think that the difference, perceived or otherwise, between networks and communities is of importance to anyone engaging with web social media, especially for professional purposes. Understanding what you define as a community or a network can help develop your personal rules for connecting, linking, friending, following and of course unfollowing. […]

    Pingback by Harold Jarche » Communities, networks and etiquette — 7 April 2009 @ 4:40 AM

  5. I see a network as a way of connecting things together – people, in the case of social networks. A community is different in that its a social network in which the members have invested a certain amount of emotional attachment, both in other members, and in the idea of the community as a whole. I think Jane’s right that people come to a network to get something, and to a community to share something – the emotional involvement is what motivates you to put effort back into the community. But there is only so much time and effort any given person has to spend on supporting communities, and invariably we all have more questions than answers; there’s nothing wrong with going to a network just looking to find an answer. So for me the answers to your questions are: yes its different, and yes its a good thing.

    Should we keep them separate? Personally, sure; I have places I go for the people and the social interaction and places I just use for connection. But should the places themselves be kept separate? I don’t see how it could be done; the same network can be used as a community by some of its members and just a network by others. What I do think is useful is facilitating this dual use. In a large enough network people will clump together into smaller individual communities; pick the most abstract and un-social hardware support forum you can imagine, and you will eventually find the two folks who read it so regularly that its become a medium for social exchange between them. Now obviously theres no need to prevent this, nor to take all the folks just coming round once for technical advice and try to force them into some sort of social interaction. (“I know you just want your video card to work, but first, lets play charades!”) But if you can add optional features that make it easier for those micro-communities to form and possibly evolve into a larger community (local status for questions answered, tracking friends online, notification of friends posts, etc.) then help build the core of community that supports your wider network.

    Comment by Rob Moser — 7 April 2009 @ 10:24 AM

  6. Thanks for the contributions, Jane & Rob. Agree with both, I think that community can arise in a network (and vice-versa). Hopefully, communities toss out those who don’t belong, but don’t preclude it or force it via the environment. Great thoughts!

    Comment by Clark — 7 April 2009 @ 10:45 AM

  7. Kia ora Clark!

    This is so pertinent to where I’m at right now. I’m writing a post on community, what makes some communities sustainable and why it is that so-called learning communities are so difficult to maintain for the purpose(s) intended.

    Thanks for confirming the idea that a network may not necessarily be a community and vice versa.

    Catchya later
    From Middle-earth

    Comment by Ken Allan — 9 April 2009 @ 7:51 PM

  8. Kia ora, Ken. I always appreciate your contributions (and posts). Glad to hear if it helps!

    Comment by Clark — 9 April 2009 @ 9:11 PM

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