Communities in the Online Space

According to Merriam-Webster online, the word community dates back to the 14th century. Community – “a unified body of individuals …the people with common interests living in a particular area … an interacting population of various kinds of individuals … in a common location … a group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together within a larger society … a group linked by a common policy.” 700 hundred years ago and still, how true.

Lately, I have been doing tons of thinking (and work) with regards to community. I have been on a quest to understand, join and partake in strong communities. I want to understand all the important attributes of a spirited community as a marketing professional leveraging the power of social media. This means that I am concentrating on the virtual community so the definition above rings true minus references to location (sometimes).

Last week I tweeted what appeared to me to be a rhetorical question: can there be a community without conversation? Surprisingly, I did not get even one antagonist that wanted to offer a yes. But given the reality of little (if any) physical connection, a virtual community demands more conversations – 2 way dialogue. A community without conversation is “just one large never ending API feed.” (@RelativelyFX) It is not simply producing content – tweets, wall posts, blog articles, etc. You see, content is not king, but conversations around content is king. (@johnhutson – great line!)

And in the end, “The community decides when it’s a community… you don’t” as Mitch Joel put it.

So in the next couple of weeks, I’ll be exploring the makings of great communities (and likely be blogging on it). I’d really love to hear your input (and other readers will surely value it as well) … What do you think makes a great virtual community and what are some of the best examples you see? Please join the discussion!

Social Steve



Filed under community, marketing, social media, social media marketing, social network, Social Steve, socialmedia, SocialSteve, Uncategorized

8 responses to “Communities in the Online Space

  1. Good ‘social thinking’, Steve,

    Matter of fact, I was also purposely thinking (I know, it hurts) in that direction for the last two weeks. After a few sleepless nights and hangovers my friends convinced me that I am up to something. That’s the beauty of dialogue vs. sheer discourse: while I was trying to create some sort of order/taxonomy in the whole process, by virtue of elimination I reached the conclusion that, wow, a community exists virtue of many factors (far to many too discuss here), but my friend, you and I are trying to go on a different level of expression for identifying and building another dimension for a particular community. However, interaction is theee key to making the virtual community work. Otherwise it’s just an assembly of data and records.
    Let’s see how this goes. It seems that you have the oomph, so to speak, and that will take you somewhere, where hopefully we could meet again. Best of luck.

  2. Hi Steve;

    An interesting dicussion, and one that has been ongoing – consciously and subconsciously – in many arenae.

    My immediate interest is piqued by two words you use, that I believe represent the springboards and obstacles in this matter: “community” (obviously), and “conversation”. I hope you won’t mind if I ramble a little, rather than compose, edit, and refine my thoughts to an artificially fine point.

    The etymology of the word “conversation” is as follows:

    Middle English conversacioun, from Anglo-French conversacion, from Latin conversation-, conversatio, from conversari to associate with, frequentative of convertere to turn around (

    Note the diversity of influences, and the final frequentative. Compelling, to say the least.

    In my opinion, a community, both offline and online, is established and maintained when the assembly of individuals, whether vocal or not, find a way to establish an ongoing and multi-directional stream of of “push-pull” relations. One party inspires or instigates reaction from another, while yet another solicits or exhorts the support or collaboration of still another. So long as these connections and influences are in action, and so long as the connecting fibers (be they fiber-optic or hemp!) number more than one or two, the community exists. Sometimes the connection is concurrent, and sometimes it is consequent, as shown in the etymology of the above word. The strongest community, however, is one in a persistent state of growth or, as the etymology of “conversation” suggests, in turnaround.

    So, I would posit that a community can exist without verbal conversation, yes. It must, however, be in a state of connection. that said, I also believe that a community need not be made up of “…a group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together within a larger society … a group linked by a common policy.” the connection must be dynamic, but it need not be exclusively unifying.

    To conclude (at last!), I think we are near that moment in time when we can finally let go of the sense that online and offline activities must be managed as separate enterprises and mutually alien engagements. Social Media is not just about FB and Foursquare, but also about how our networking strategy bridges and mutually supports and inspires our online and offline presence. In the same way, I believe great communities must inspire and facilitate connections between the digital and “bricks and mortar” manifestations of their individual constituents. We have spent the past decade becoming more and more enmeshed in our online interactions, and I sincerely hope that the final representation of the value in Social Media and online strategies in general will be in how these initiatives and investments prove to bring our offline personalities and cultures closer together. A great community is the one that continues to grow and enrich itself and its constituents. I am thrilled to observe and participate in these conversations. Out of these conversations will emerge the blueprints for community enrichment, redesign, and enlargement.

    • Thanks for your input and contribution. Interesting that you state “a community can exist without verbal conversation, yes” and then end your comments … “A great community is the one that continues to grow and enrich itself and its constituents. I am thrilled to observe and participate in these conversations.”

      Social Steve

  3. Community is something we look for and belong to when the “fit” is right. We all want that basic understanding and find it with those who also identify with us.
    I have found incredible community, conversation, inspiration and support in the Virtual Community I belong to in Second Life. What is interesting is that the people are incredibly diverse in every way imaginable and their Avatars certainly express this.
    However inside, underneath our skins (& that goes for both actual and virtual) we share the common ground of being a part of the larger grid and world known as Second Life.

    It is a remarkable place for education, video, information exchange, business and much much more. The science community is pretty remarkable in Second Life for example, and the great opportunities for conversations between us throughout the world & in real time really do integrate this platform for much.
    At the risk of a shameless plug – Alan Boyle the MSNBC science editor just included a link to the show of mine, The 1st Question, that he was just on –
    That is building something amazing!

  4. Lots of thought-provoking stuff both in the post and the comments. I’m home with a touch of flu so I’ll ramble at the length of @dewprocess but without the etymology references and clear thinking.

    (Love the etymology, though–I majored in linguistics and I think you’re on to something with the idea of conversations turning around.)

    The first example of good online communities that I thought of are the blogs that have a robust comment space with regulars who get to know each other.

    That doesn’t mean they all AGREE with each other. I would include in my definition of community the curmudgeonly types who don’t have my clear, rational understanding of the world and how to fix it :D. If we’re engaging with each other, we’re in a common community because we both care about the issue.

    Some communities have IN and OUT groups, so part of their definition is the idea of a boundary. Some communities are more open and inviting than others, some are more open to inclusion of differing opinions.

    Early in my use of Twitter I followed a link, read a blog post, had a different take on the topic than the blog writer, and posted a comment. Not rude–just not in 100% agreement.

    The next comment posted was someone saying that since I had very few followers on Twitter I wasn’t worth listening to. (Good thing my self worth doesn’t reside in a follower count.0

    There were other posts leaping to the defense of the blog writer (who, by the way, took my comment in the spirit in which I intended it and didn’t jump me–honestly, I didn’t say that much!).

    I ended up bonding with another comment poster who had a similar experience on that blog, and to this day we follow each other on Twitter. We agreed there was a definite tone to the blog comments–all were acolytes of that particular marketing guru and wouldn’t allow disagreement. We weren’t welcome, and we left.

    That was a community with a clear definition that I discovered the hard way. The lack of welcome certainly had an impact: I unsubscribed from the blog and stopped following the writer on Twitter. Even though he himself hadn’t slapped me around, I didn’t like the community that had formed around him.

    All of this obviously took place through the medium of conversation. As humans we use that tool to connect (and to distance). In the absence of physical proximity there IS no other tool with which to form a community.

    A sense of community might emerge among, say, people watching a parade together. But for that community to last it needs some unifying mechanism over time–either ongoing physical proximity as with people who live in the same town, or a connection over distance that will require conversation.

    For a specific blog example I’d point to (disclosure: I’m a guest blogger there on occasion and serve on a committee with blog owner John Speare).

    It’s a personal blog that has served to bring together diverse voices in the cycling community in our region. People feel free to disagree but it’s generally respectful in tone.

    Last year John sent an invitation to a number of people with different experiences and perspectives on cycling. He said that given the name of the blog, he wanted to include a wider variety of voices so it truly represents cycling in Spokane. What a great way to expand on a personal passion and turn the blog into even more of a community space.

    Looking forward to more comments on the topic.


    • Barb,

      Great input – thanks!

      Couple of things to think about …

      1) You might want to check out “The Social Technographics” by Forrester analysts Josh Bernoff at This is a great look at how individuals “participate in social media” and what it means from a know your customer perspective.
      2) You bring up some very interesting points with regards to what I would term “social media bullying.” I am interested in researching this more with regards to effects that disenchant people to the put that leave a community.
      3) I enjoyed your perspective on conversations and community.

      Social Steve

      • Barb;

        Thank you for your kind comments on my ramble!

        I have countless direct and indirect experiences of what Steve refers to as “social media bullying”, and I believe it is a natural, albeit often highly unpleasant, phenomenon – representative of relationships and discussions developing without the multi-sensory benefits usually available to offline “communities”.

        Facebook Walls have become renowned as hotbeds of innocent comments vilified by what I call “OPAs” (Original Posting Acolytes). FB walls are supposed to where we can post our thinking and exchange opinions, even sometimes messily. It is perhaps the most unfortunate element of written communications that we never FULLY manage to convey or infer the fullest sense of the writer’s intent. It’s why Shakespeare is considered so much more brilliant than he actually probably was (do we REALLY think he imbued every word of every play with so many varied nuances of imagery, metaphor, meaning, and more?..He didn’t write 20 million different layers into his work…10 million critics read IN TO his works).

        Thus, I now accept that I likely fail to communicate my feelings, thoughts and beliefs in the manner I would have preferred, the moment I begin doing so!

        It depresses me no end to see how people (more in this country than anywhere else, I fear) choose to avoid talking with one another, for fear that they will disagree. The fear is somewhat well founded, as all too often it seems that people get unreasonably upset when faced with differing points of view, and furious when those points of view are opposing ones!

        We should welcome opposing points of view, as this is inevitably the ONLY way our POV can be changed or strengthened. I do not want my child to grow up in a society wherein she cannot engage in spirited yet respectful debate with others. Yet that seems to be what is happening. It seems that we risk alienating our fellow debaters more often than engaging them, simply because we want to offer up different perspectives (and sometimes they may not necessarily be our own, but rather ones we find worthy of insertion into the dialogue).

        How do we encourage debate, inspire dialogue, and support healthy disagreement in the pursuit of mutual enlightenment – without unwittingly creating confusion and offense? If we don’t welcome different thinkers into our forums (forae?), and invite their perspectives, how are we to grow – intellectually, socially, etc? Perhaps this leads to an inversion of Steve’s original question, so that we now ask “can there be a conversation without community?”…

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