Human social networks and communities actually existed for many millennia before their online counterparts appeared. Both have established themselves as reliable and sustainable social structures that have passed all the tests of time. They appeared again and again, despite the collapse or blossoming of civilizations. People by nature are definitely attracted to this type of interaction.

In this text, which is the beginning of a series of publications, I want to offer you a perspective from which you can see some basic features that distinguish these two types of social media from each other. Later on, I will show you what we can understand about these two types of media by studying social anthropology.

Social networks

Each of us has its own social network (whether online or offline). Everyone has friends, family and people we know. The social networking site simply makes our social network visible to other people who are not included in our direct network.

So, the simplest and most important feature that distinguishes a social network from a community is how people stick together in both cases.

In a social network, people stick together thanks to pre-established relationships: they are already relatives, friends, classmates, colleagues, business partners, etc. On the social network site such connections are built one at a time (i.e. you connect directly to another user).

The main reason why people join such a site is to maintain old relationships and establish new ones, expanding their network. Knowing this, it should be obvious why Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn are social networks and not communities.

Human social networks have one interesting feature – they are all absolutely unique. Indeed, it’s very difficult to create a fake Facebook or LinkedIn profile, because your friends (or those with whom you have established a connection) immediately recognize you collectively.

Moreover, people don’t usually put their lives in shelves (unless you’re a CIA secret agent or some other secret government organization), so they usually have only one social network. It can be argued that even CIA agents have only one social network – their network simply consists of two or more segments that do not overlap with each other.

Communities

Unlike social networks, communities (both online and offline) are more interesting from a social anthropological perspective because they are often made up of people from all walks of life who seem to have no relationship at all. And yet, as we know from history, communities are very reliable social structures. So, what is it that keeps people together in communities?

People stick together in a community because of their common interest. This interest can be a hobby, or something that community members have a passion for, a common goal, a common project, or just preferences for the same lifestyle, place of residence, or profession.

Undoubtedly, people join the community because they are concerned about the same common interest that binds community members together. Some are involved in the community because they feel they want to contribute to the common cause, while others are involved because they can benefit from being part of the community.

Because of the diversity of modern life, everyone is often part of many different communities. Moreover, communities can overlap or be nested in each other.

For example, a local community, say a city community, may contain subcommunities located in different parts of the city and linking people to each other more subtly. And at the same time, the same city may contain different ethnic communities that connect people with their common ethnicity.

Now you see why Yelp, Wikipedia, YouTube, Digg, blogosphere, etc. are communities? Yelp is initially a community of food lovers, while members of the Wikipedia community have a passion for the common cause of creating a global online encyclopedia.

YouTube and Flickr are communities nested in larger communities of video and photo fans, respectively, and these people may belong to other sub-communities within YouTube and Flickr.

These subcommunities can be just your friends and relatives, or they can be people interested in HDR photography (with 61,000 members) or slow motion video.

To sum up.

Social networks:

  • People stick together because of preestablished relationships. And you know everyone because they are directly connected to you.
  • Everyone has only one social network. However, a person may have several social graphs depending on the type of relationship we want to focus on. (See Bases of social-networking analysis).
  • Social networks have a network structure

Communities:

  • People stick together because of their common interests and can form large groups. Although there may be pre-established interpersonal relationships between people, this is not necessary. Newcomers usually do not know most people in the community.
  • Everyone can be part of multiple communities at once.
  • Communities can overlap and be nested in each other.

So, we learned about the basic differences between social networks and communities in terms of people-to-people connections. Next time we will be able to discuss more interesting issues, such as the dynamics of networking and what it means for business.