Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Community Building

This is a post devoted to the nuances of community building on the world wide web, which is a loosely defined category including social networking, affinity groups, fan bases, and interest groups.

The phenomena of Friendster and MySpace and Facebook have shown amazing growth and have garnered great interest. But what are they? What is a social network anyway?

A community is built around a premise. The premise behind is clear: meeting people for dating and marriage. Similarly, the premise behind Friendster and Facebook are easily discernible; Facebook is wildly popular in its target community, college students.

These so-called social-networking sites start with the premise, and try to build a community around it. There are a lot of other community sites that you've never heard of where the premise might be reasonable, but the site doesn't catch fire, for whatever reason. I think of these as speculative communities, where the premise is established (fans of "The West Wing", perhaps) and an attempt is made to establish a community around the premise.

The difference between a real community and a premise for a community is subtle, but critical.

Consider the "community" of people who are interested in Harley-Davidson motorcycles. There is, conceptually, a single, large community around this single premise. There's even a word for it: "bikers". But is it really a community? It's actually a large number of individual real communities. Local chapters of the Harley Owners' Group club. A dozen or so folks who congregate at Alice's Restaurant on Saturday mornings. The set of members of an online community, perhaps....

So there may be a single "virtual community" (the premise), but there are likely many splintered real communities, some of which overlap, some of which do not.

A real community that already exists, that needs a better way to communicate, is a much more tangible thing, and target for software, than just a premise.

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