What is Community Anyway?

We talk a lot about Social Networks, Social Software, etc as Web 2.0… as if using technology to manage human relationships was a novel phase in the progression of technology. We like to think that we invented computers to help us do “important” work like math, and eventually co-opted it to our human needs of community and communication. But electronic community predates the web. BBSs, Usenet, MUDS and MOOS, and of course The infamous Well popped up as soon as there were modems. In other words, as soon as one human could send a message to others, they did.

Web 1.0 had innumerable examples of community, and social behaviors intentional and un. We are all humans, and as such we work though Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs even in new mediums, seeking first animal comforts then working upward to abstract intellectual pleasures.

“My direct observations of online behavior around the world over the past ten years have led me to conclude that whenever CMC [computer-mediated communications] technology becomes available to people anywhere, they inevitably build virtual communities with it, just as microorganisms inevitably create colonies.”

~~ Howard Rheingold, in The Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier

So if humans acting like humans online is not new, why the hubbub? We are seeing now is the arrival of Social Software on the Web, and this is a bit different —in scale of distribution, if not in originalityand it’s worth noting that the social is now part of almost every online activity, including those originally considered data-only tools, such as bookmarking or spreadsheet creation.

Social Software can be loosely defined as software which supports, extends, or derives added value from, human social behavior —message-boards, musical taste-sharing, photo-sharing, instant messaging, mailing lists, social networking.

~~ Tom Coates, of PlasticBag.org

I don’t want to be too quick to dismiss the “Web 2.0” part of this conversation, since so many smart folks have said firstly that we are in a sufficiently different time in the evolution of the internet to be versionworthy, and secondly that that versionworthy change is marked by collective human behavior.

In other words, Web 2.0 is made of people.

Tim O’Reilly, carrier of the 2.0 flag, worked hard to find the dividing line between the versions of the web:

Web 1.0   Web 2.0
DoubleClick –> Google AdSense
Ofoto –> Flickr
Akamai –> BitTorrent
mp3.com –> Napster
Britannica Online –> Wikipedia
personal websites –> blogging
evite –> upcoming.org and EVDB
domain name speculation –> search engine optimization
page views –> cost per click
screen scraping –> web services
publishing –> participation
content management systems –> wikis
directories (taxonomy) –> tagging (“folksonomy”)
stickiness –> syndication

Almost all of these differences can be reduced to injecting the element of human behavior into what was previously a data-only system. Some of these differences are labored… (akamai vs. bitorrent?) but overall the pattern is persuasive and clear.

I can’t help but think of Peter Morville’s terrific little essay from 2002 on Social Network analysis. It was the first time I’d seen data and social networks used in an integrated manner, if it was mapping real-world and not virtual world systems. 02212002_snastory.gif Looking at the key diagram for it, you begin to see how social networks can be as effective in solving retrieval problems as data networks (i.e. taxonomies, controlled vocabularies, etc.) This was but a hint of what was to come…

I also want to call attention to the fact that at Graphing Social, O’Reilly also presented this slide :

tor-web20.png

And this one

tor-hippies.png

Placing these items together presents a ironic look at how analysis can lead to Kumbayah moments.

I notice how terrified we in the technology business are of the human aspects of our work. This theme will come up later, as we look at the question “does technology matter to virtual community building”, but for now let’s note it’s hard to use “peace” and “love” these days without irony and a certain amount of distancing. Are we so scared of aspirational emotions? If we are going to talk about social systems, we are going to have to face the fact that terms like Love and Caring and Friendship are probably going to come up, so stop giggling.

What I find funny (perhaps intentional on O’reilly’s part?) is that one can hardly trace the roots of the computer industry without hitting enclaves of hippies. Peace love and understanding … if they make you uncomfortable, go look for a blog on CSS. This one is about to get gooeyer and gooeyer.

At least embracing our softer side also opens up consideration of a dirty word banished with Web 1.0’s crash: Community.

Virtual Community

A virtual space supported by computer-based information technology, centered upon communication and interaction of participants to generate member-driven content, resulting in relationships being built up. (Lee & Vogel, 2003)

I was delighted when I read this definition (emphasis mine), as it has led to two more definitions of my own

The Social Web
is a digital space where data about human interactions is as important as other data types for providing value
Community
is when those humans care about each other.

Why does this distinction matter? Because I’m going to spend the next several… well, essays now, but originally it was hours in a workshop… explaining how each design elements affects the nature of the social space. And that social space can be social without being a community. I think that’s an idea worth thinking about. Do you care about the other del.icio.us users (those you didn’t know before using the website)? How about Digg users? When does it change? How does it happen? Does it matter? What’s love got to do with it?

next: The who what where when and why of the Social Web.