Week 1: what is an online community?

The thing that has been troubling me as I grapple with a definition of online community is the bits that are missing (or not immediately obvious) compared with face-to-face community. I’ve been taking my existing definition of community (which I’m remixing on the hoof and without reference to any texts) and comparing it to what I see online.

Before I start I’ve got say that community is a loaded term. Often a discrete geographic area is labelled a community by someone in authority – but on the ground there isn’t actually a community. Few of the critical elements of community life are present (about which I’m about to list). There are also assumptions about there being a singular ‘community’ with ‘community leaders’, often self-appointed, rather than multiple communities with organic power distribution.

In my rough whiteboard notes, here’s what I see as the characteristics of community:

  1. social norms, shared beliefs and values (eg fairness, reciprocity, love, tolerance)
  2. systems for transmitting values (eg lore, law, education, myths, art)
  3. methods for monitoring adherence to values
  4. systems for investigating and applying sanctions for breaches of social norms (eg courts, tribunals, obudsman, complaints procedures), including opportunities for redress (eg right appeal)
  5. methods for distributing resources to enable participation.

Of these characteristics I can easily see the first four in online communities. Chromatic writes in his article “Building Online Communities” (21 Oct 2002) about the dynamics of setting rules, methods for resolving disputes after inevitable spats and frictions, and loss of face or reputation. Into this neat system dive able and willing members.

Mark Pesce is far more mysterious when it comes to framing community (see “This, That and the Other” 27 September 2008). He implies that in community people know each and are capable of productive joint action. Disillusioned with mere mobs or crowds, who wait for someone else to do things for them, Pesce clearly believes communities can achieve great things.

The oil that greases the wheel – resources to enable active participation – is seldom talked about. When barriers to participation emerge, in whatever shape these may arise, is help available to overcome them?

Online it isn’t easy to find evidence of people sharing resources to help someone else who wouldn’t otherwise be able to join in by paying the power bill and ISP charges for them to stay connected. Or help put food on the table. Scarce time may not be available to both work to earn a living, and allow time to meaningfully participate in an online community.

Would online community members be willing to take steps outside of the community to help someone out? Send a cheque? Make a sacrifice with some future expectation without immediate reciprocity?

The degree to which relations extend beyond the confines of a particular community space with people sharing resources in the real world is a sign of a healthy community.

This relies people connecting and staying in touch one-to-one, in addition to any interaction within an online community space. When bonds and friendship build then people will go to some lengths to help one another. This means members must feel comfortable asking for help and acknowledging problems. It’s also important for people to be able to ask who is missing from the conversation, and what will it take to get them on board.

I found an illusion to this sort of thing happening when I read Nancy White’s recent post about how she uses social media (4 August 2009). She talks about how “online relationships can be real, how they get real, and how they break and fail.”

If communities are merely well ordered places where people talk nicely with agreed rules, that seems to me to be a bit weak. What is often missing are both the means and motivation to contribute resources to move a community from offering just an opportunity to participate to actually providing practical help for people to join in.

[Find out about the Facilitating Online course I’m participating in, see my FO09 page.]