Managing Communities & Social Networks @ Web Scale: Pushing water uphill?

According to the Oxford English dictionary a Community is “a group of people living in the same place or having a particular characteristic in common”. I guess these days many of us do spend enough time on the Internet that our significant others do indeed feel that we live there :-)

Conceptually communities seem like a reasonable way to organize ourselves, so the problem isn’t with the notion of communities rather it’s the static nature of communities, ala the Social Web. In the real world, communities change and shift in line with how our lives evolve. Some relationships are slower evolving, like family and close friends, whereas others can change at a fairly fast clip, such as work colleagues or acquaintances.

It’s the second category of relationships that I have the biggest problem with re: Social Web, mainly due to the fact that we try to apply fairly static techniques — list, circle, follow, subscribe —  to manage, what can be, a rapidly evolving group of people.

So my question is: Do we really need to group people into communities for no other reason than the fact that they happen to have a common interest at a moment in time?  This only serves to create community spaghetti, where there are half a dozen different communities that seem sort-of the same, which one should I join or do I join all? Keeping track of which communities might be interesting is a full time job, and my interests change so I have to start finding new sets of communities and de-register from the old ones. Then there’s the question of who do I follow, list or circle, is the classification right, what happens when I change job role and am now interested in a slightly different set of topics and hence people.

Unlike personal relationships which tend to have stronger and longer ties, work relationships tend to shuffle and rearrange as you move through different projects.

Maybe the ideal scenario is no communities. We just throw our conversations up into the social-sphere, where they get cyphoned off according to dynamically generated interest profiles (social analytics @ work). So it becomes a completely fluid aggregation of people and ideas according to your specific interest profile at any single point in time. So you get your own dynamically-generated temporally-relevant personalized community. In simple terms a dynamically generated (human tunable, of course) social filter.

I heard a quote some time ago, can’t remember exact specifics, but something to the effect that “Social MEdia is first about ME and I would argue that the same is with Community. No matter how nice we all believe we are, first and foremost we engage with communities for ourselves “what’s in it for me” so making the leap of saying that everyone has their own personalized community centralized around their priorities is maybe reasonable? {even if it does sound a bit self-absorbed}

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6 Responses to “Managing Communities & Social Networks @ Web Scale: Pushing water uphill?”

  1. I guess we need both: opt-in virtual communities (circle, follow, subscribe etc) and automated recommender systems (?).

    Aa couple of remarks about the term community.
    In sociology, the concept of community has led to significant debate, and there are about a hundred definitions of this term, including community of action, community of circumstance, community of interest, community of place, community of practice. It could take years to form a human community, and community could be functional for years. Virtual communities are quite different (Wikipedia – is it a community of practice, or a community of place?). In computer sciences the term community can be used to describe any empirically found group of people. According to Prof. Noshir Contractor “Recent advances in digital technologies invite consideration of organizing as a process that is accomplished by global, flexible, adaptive, and ad hoc networks that can be created, maintained, dissolved, and reconstituted with remarkable alacrity. A central challenge, spurred by these developments, is that the nature of teams and how they are assembled has changed radically.”


    • That quote from Prof. Noshir Contract is excellent and articulates perfectly the challenge in relying too heavily on static approaches to “coalescing people” … trying to think of another word other than communities :-) Thanks for sharing!


  2. Hello Marie,

    I think you are spot on. People engage in virtual communities primarily out of self-interest and then maybe think about mutual interest. This behavior, which is human, makes communities distinct in their characteristics and an interesting subject of study. People show traits because of preferential attachments, which change over a period of time based on what their preferences are at any given time, making these networks very dynamic. I think this is exactly where the social analytic’s folks miss the boat. They try to measure dynamic phenomenons by absurdly static numbers.



  3. Absolutely! This an excellent problem for inter-disciplinary research. I don’t believe computer scientists or social scientist by themselves can solve this problem because of their limited worldview and absolute contempt for each other (if computer scientists are engineer’s then social scientist’s are marketers. Anybody who has seen them work together will know what I am talking about). It’s absolutely necessary to come out with new functional theory as extant theory doesn’t work in this case. That’s one of the reason’s I am annoyed at so called social media expert’s who explain new phenomenons with old examples to suit their worldview.

    Keep up the good work Marie.



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