I’ve noticed several recent discussions that relate to the over-arching question of "what is an online community? I’ve been studying online communities from an academic perspective for a decade now and keep returning to this question with interest.
Online Community Defined
My favorite definition is from Lee Sproull’s entry on Online Communities in The Internet Encyclopedia (Bidgoli, 2003):
An online community is defined as a large, voluntary collectivity whose primary goal is member or collective welfare, whose members share a common interest, experience, or conviction, and who interact with one another primarily over the Net.
Some key implications of this definition include:
- Online communities are fall somewhere between a small group where everyone knows each other and large anonymous groups like mobs or crowds.
- Compared to online teams, there is no shared tasks or interdependent outcomes.
- Shared interest and experience does not require shared goals or outcomes.
- Most online communities operate on open-ended time frames. Unlike project-oriented collectives, there is no set beginning or end.
- Using this definition, we can also differentiate online communities from social networks.
Platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn are based on overlapping ego-centric networks. There are some vibrant online communities supported by social networks, but most people use social networking systems in very different ways. (Likewise for content oriented platforms like Flickr and Instagram.)
In summary, an online community is an Internet-enabled collective bringing together people with common interests.
Note: Although this post appears to be written by me, it wasn’t. It was imported from our Drupal platform and I have no idea who originally authored it.