Defining Online Community

I have noticed the word community is being tossed around inappropriately lately. It seems many people are trying to make online community analogous with social media. Perhaps the holiday season is a good time to explain the difference.

You know how you walk down the street in your neighborhood? Hopefully, you live in a neighborhood where you see your neighbors on the front porch or in the front yard. If not, think of a show, like Sesame Street, where people run into their neighbors every time they walk out of their door. That may feel like a community, but it’s not. It is a group of people in similar proximity who have the ability to socialize. That is social media in the real world.

Social media is a set of technical tools that enable people to express themselves, “house” their personalities, and socialize with each other.

photodune-348156-friends-xsNow, raise your hand if you were invited to a holiday party, game night, or to help a friend move over the weekend. If you raised your hand then you were invited to be part of a community; People who get together to enjoy each other’s company, share ideas, and help each other out. Online this is most similar to communities that have existed for years, inhabited by the members who share information, ideas, and solutions to problems.

Today there are many other wonderful online communities of people who share information about their hobbies, interests, and struggles. Within these communities, each person knows and supports each other and more often than not there is no real defined leader or sponsor within the group.

Most of the time online communities such as these are spontaneous, people who are searching for connections find each other, but it is possible for a brand to “orchestrate” such a place. To do so a brand might want to think of themselves as an HOA where they meet and listen to the community members, set the rules for the community, and find ways to connect and support each member within the community. This definitely takes time and commitment, beyond just creating content that is generated and pushed through social tools such as Facebook and Twitter.

To reiterate, social media is for people you say hi to as you pass them by, a community is for staying connected to and supporting the people you care about. So the next time someone refers to their online community ask them questions about what they know about the people they supposedly care about.

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