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Comparing Social Networking to Online Communities

Lately I've been promoting the possibilities of using social networking to bring managers together within an enterprise. Recently, after introducing the concept, a teammate said: "This is just another virtual team/community collaboration tool- we've seen a lot of those and they never work."

 

While my introduction to the concept surely played a part in this perception, I couldn't help but wonder about the real differences. What are the significant differences between social networking and more traditional online communities? How would I describe the differences?

In my mind, they are different. Social networking represents a related but significantly different animal than more traditional online community/collaboration tools. Before going forward in comparing the two, let me be more specific:

I mean "social networking" to mean sites/communities like Orkut, Tribe, Ryze, etc.

I mean "traditional online communities" to mean discussion or message board-based communities (there are a million variations).

Following are the points that I believe make the biggest differences:

  • Use of the Member Profile
  • Identity without Collaboration
  • Explicit Relationships with Forums and People
  • New Forum/Group Creation
  • Network Centric Navigation

 

Use of the Member Profile

Perhaps the most compelling difference in my mind is the use of the member profile to represent member identity. What enables many of the differences I outline below is the way in which social networking communities use the member profiles or member homepages to build identity.

In most traditional online communities, members have profiles that may display a picture, location, recent posts and membership tenure at most. These profiles can provide valuable context to the community, but they are often peripheral to the discussions and remain somewhat hidden.

Here is an example of a more traditional profile:
workspace copy.gif

In contrast, social networking communities have elevated the user profile to become more like a user homepage that displays a very rich and contextual set of information. The member home pages are not peripheral to the discussions or a subset of the community; they are at the very core of the system.

This is an example from the social networking service Orkut:
orkut copy.gif


Identity without Collaboration

In traditional online communities, discussion is the center of the interaction and identity building. Members create relationships (and their own community identities) based on information they post in online discussions. A comparatively small number of all members in any online group choose to actively participate in discussions- most "lurk". In this situation, the ability for any single member to build an identity hinges upon participation in discussions.

In contrast, social networking enables the creation of identity in the community without participation in discussion. By allowing members to have a personal homepage (instead of a user profile), identities can be built based on the display of the member's choices of memberships in forums and connections to other people (among other things) on their home page.

Explicit Relationships with Forums and People

In traditional online communities, connections to particular forums or sub-communities are implicit. Members connect with forums by reading or participating in them, but do not make their preferences of forums explicit in the community.

The same is true with people in the community. Relationships in traditional communities are rarely made explicit. Everyone has their favorite members and forums, but that information is not shared with the community.

Social networking, on the other hand, enables individual members to share explicit relationships with people and forums. Members use their home pages as rich representations of their preferences- which enable them to express their identity through explicitly shared forum membership and connections to other members.

Further, forums within a community display explicit links to those members who have chosen to join the group. In this case, the forum becomes an aggregator of all the members who have chosen to join and links directly to their personal home pages.

New Forum/Group Creation

Often, traditional online communities are managed so that new forums are built within a specific structure (often for good reason). Members (or specific members) can branch the community into new sub-forums within a more static hierarchy. The community is often organized into buckets within buckets that get more focused as the buckets get further down the hierarchy.

An example of bucketed forums may be Technology--Internet--Online Communities--Moderation Techniques--Dealing with Spammers.

In social networking, the creation of new forums is done in a more emergent way and within a flatter hierarchy. A single member is free to create a new forum without placing it into a preset hierarchy.

New forums are a child of the whole system instead of being a child of a more general branch of the system. As new forums gain membership/popularity, they have equal opportunity to gain visibility in the system, similar to the weblog community.

Network Centric Navigation

Traditional discussion-based communities use discussion and/or organizations of discussions as the primary form of navigation. Members navigate from forum to forum like nodes in a network, with each forum often having a different focus, informal membership and sometimes culture. Rarely are members able to navigate using other resources than forums or discussions.

Social networking enables a new level of community navigation. As discussed previously, members have home pages and displayed on those pages are explicit links to other members and groups. Further, groups display links to members who have joined the group. This sets up an interesting scenario:

I visit Ryan's Page and see he is a member of the Rock Climbers Forum, so I visit that forum and see Sharon is a member, so I go to Sharon's page, where I see that she is connected to Jason, who is a member of the Kayakers forum. I didn't even know there was a kayakers forum! I love kayaking!

I was able to navigate the community through individuals who are explicitly connected to other people and existing forums. The connections are held together by explicit relationships (people links) and interests (forum links) and do not depend on discussion content.

Final Words:

I realize this post may seem as though I believe that social networking is more effective than traditional online communities and that is not my intent. The traditional online community model has stood the test of time and will be around for years to come. My intent is to outline the major differences I see.

However, I do see opportunity for traditional online communities to take a new look at member profiles and how they can be used build identity. Participation in discussions should not be the only way to have an identity in an online community.

Like most of what I write here, I'm putting this out in the world for your comments. Do you see these differences? What have I missed? What do you think the future holds?

See also: What are the Differences Between Message Boards and Weblogs?