Social Network or Community?
I’ve been watching the rise of the social networking sites with fascination. There has always been a bit of fuzziness (or violent controversy, depending on in which circles one is having the conversation!) about what constitutes community in general, as well as about what constitutes online community.
I think the rise of online social networking gives us a new angle on this question. It seems to me that my social network forms with me at the center, and allows me to branch out from there. This explains the online social network software’s “me” focus – First you post what it is you want others to be known about you, and then you go out to create connections to others
Community usually forms with something else at the center – a shared geographic location, a shared project, a shared interest – something around which people gather, and as a result of that gathering, develop deeper understandings of one another and of the community focus. Community is where you get things done. A social network is an invaluable tool for pulling people into community.
Social networks form bridges across communities. My memberships at the YMCA and the karate dojo have more than once resulted in my introducing a friend from one to the people I know at the other. Like most people, I’ve landed jobs (and hence new strong ties to new organizations) as a result of introductions from people I’ve met in various communities.
Interestingly, though talk continues about whether a “virtual” community (one which exists primarily online) is in some fundamental way different from an offline one, nobody worries too much about whether a “virtual” connection to somebody through a social networking site is fundamentally different from an offline connection. Now that a critical mass of ordinary people have a presence online, it’s more common to be in contact online with people to whom one is already connected offline. Being introduced online just doesn’t seem to make a difference, what matters is the communities in which one participates after the connection is made.
My 18 year old son caved to pressure from his high school friends, and finally made a Facebook page before he headed off to college. That page was quickly populated by friends from his high school community, and by a friendship link extended to the guy in Texas who was assigned to be his roommate. These days, his friends page is dominated by people he’s met at college, but those other folks are still there, too. It’s clear from just a casual perusal of his wall (I did NOT ask him to “friend” me, as somehow, having a shot of mom on your friends page is not exactly the kind of thing which enhances a young man’s image, but I can see his page because my son and I share a new community now – he is attending my alma mater, which makes him “in-network” according to Facebook) that the network is primarily serving to maintain ties he’s formed through his new community membership at college.
My use of the same resource looks very different. Though some of my offline relationships are represented among my Facebook friends, a large number of my Facebook contacts are people I met online first. That is likely an artifact of my age – most people not working online don’t really need an online presence the way I do so they just don’t have a page to link to, but I do have a lot of colleagues and friends I’ve met online in my Facebook network.
Which is to say, it is the nature of the community in which I participate which predicts the way in which I perform the networking function – almost all work and and maybe half my social contacts (because you make a lot of online friends when that’s where you work and a large part of where you like to play) are the ones which get bridged with my online presence. I’m still making those dojo introductions in person, and I expect to be doing so for some time to come.