It is sometimes helpful to step back and look at some of the definition and assumptions around the foundational areas behind social media and social technology. One of these is the notion of communities, which much exist as a precursor to social activities.
A definition of social: the aspect of life that is lived in communities.
Another definition of social: belonging to organized groups, with a known or assumed boundary that defines the group.
A definition of community: a group of interacting people sharing one or more life aspects in common.
The wikipedia definition of community is longer than these definitions. It delves into sociology, anthropology, psychology, and other areas. One could derive from it that online communities fall into the general category of either “communities of culture” or “community organizations”, with the other category being geography.
Yet online – and virtual – communities have evolved to a different blend that has not existed before. The sheer number of virtual communities may grow to equal or exceed the population that supports it – i.e. the population of the world. This growth won’t happen overnight. But if you assume that 80% or 90% of the population may be candidates for virtual communities (including groups), and people usually join multiple groups, the case can be made for billions of groups existing in 5 to 10 years.
But what is the “blend that has not existed before“? It is the interwoven way that community boundaries exist and change in the virtual world.
In the real world, communities are usually physical, and also non-overlapping. The town of, for example, Fundale, consisted of the society that lived within its borders. Physical borders defined geographical community borders. And the teachers of Fundale would be the community defined by teachers working in the town’s borders.
In the virtual world, communities now overlap. There can be a Teachers of Fundale group on Facebook, another one on MySpace, another one at TeachersOfFundale.org, and numerous other ones. Membership is almost guaranteed to be different in each of these communities, as some of them may not even know about the existence of the others.
Oh, and what about the Instuctors of Fundale? And the Professors of Fundale? And don’t forget the Fundale Educators and the Coaches of Fundale. Each of these communities may differ in name only from the functional boundaries of “people that instruct or teach other within Fundale“.
What’s the point? Why should you care?
The largest social network is… the human race. Some people reading this post may assume (or hope) that one day there will be one online social network that becomes #1 worldwide and that everyone will join. We’re all members of the human race, after all, and we deserve our virtual platform with no walls for everyone on the planet, right? But that one worldwide social networking platform is not likely to exist anytime soon, as there are hundreds of social networks launching each week (our estimate based on a few scattered stories and statistics).
Instead, envision an online world that mirrors – and expands on – the mix of communities in the real world. Boundaries are mushy – membership fickle – and the human nature of competition is just as real as in the offline world. (All your members are belong to us.)
You may believe you are the member of a particular community. When does that membership cross into areas that are outside of the community? How do you describe the essence of your membership? For many communities online, it becomes hard to define the boundaries, especially if anyone can join and quit at will.
The activity of the members creates the community. Usually this description applies to the social activity, and it also includes activity that may not be on-topic for the community. If an online community member (who is a member of 12 communities simultaneously) uploads a video to YouTube or a photo to Flickr, and links it to 4 or 5 communities, and then is removed from 2 of those communities…
…the boundaries and intersections of “community” may start to become more interesting. As does the strength or level of group participation, the distributed nature of community (including what is going to explode with technology such as Open Social and Facebook Connect), and mobile aspects. Understanding the dynamics behind community boundaries is worth exploring, as that aspect has a lot to do with how community exists out of its ability to satisfy basic human needs (to belong, to be understood, to have meaning).
The community boundaries become defined by the members of the moment, and their activities and contributions.
Consider this post to be the first attempt to get words around how to manage the chaos of online communities, and that it is to be continued (link will be added when that happens).
Author’s Disclaimer: Fundale.com is a site that I’m involved in, and is not an actual town (that I know of).