Considering Community: The Connect-Align-Produce network model for social-impact networks

Social in silico includes a series of occasional posts focused on community management tips and related information. I’m tagging these Considering Community and you can find all the posts in the series here

For regular online communities, such as those hosted by an organisation, we looked at the four stage model of the community lifecycle described in Rich Millington’s “Buzzing Communities”. Last week, we considered a different type of community – a social-impact network where the emphasis is on group members working together for a social good. In “Connecting to Change the World”, the authors discuss three different stages of a social-impact network – and how it’s possible to transition between them. Let’s consider this connect-align-produce model.

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Considering Community: What’s a social-impact network?

Social in silico includes a series of occasional posts focused on community management tips and related information. I’m tagging these Considering Community and you can find all the posts in the series here.

What’s a social-impact network?

This week I’ve been reading “Connecting to change the world” by Peter Plastrik, Madeleine Taylor and John Cleveland. It’s a focused, practical guide to building a very specific type of community – a social-impact network.

Whereas the word community has now been adopted for somewhat ambiguous use in a wide variety of scenarios involving groups of people, a social-impact network has a clear definition. It’s a collection of collaborators who are working together in some way to address a complex social issue.

Social-impact networks are self-organising – with decision-making distributed across the networks and with a structure that may change rapidly (such as the formation or closure of working groups).

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Considering Community: What types of community are there? (Part one, science edition)

In one of my early Considering Community posts I outlined several broad types of community – from communities of interest to communities of circumstance – and I mused on whether the different types might use online tools distinctly.

In reflecting recently on the different communities represented in the AAAS Community Engagement Fellows Program that I run, I realised that it’s time to dive a little deeper on this topic – considering some of the different configurations of community specifically within science. 

In this first post on the topic, I discuss professional societies for scientists and what I call infrastructure or “halo” organisations. For each, I raise some questions to consider when pondering the role of the community manager to build connections among members.

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Considering Community: The four stages of the community lifecycle

Considering Community: The four stages of the community lifecycle

Social in silico includes a series of occasional posts focused on community management tips and related information. I’m tagging these Considering Community and you can find all the posts in the series here.

This post first appeared on the Trellis blog.

Building online communities can be hard. Maybe you start a discussion and nothing happens – silence. Or maybe last week saw lots of conversation but this week you’re back to worrying that you’re talking to yourself. Combine that with the lack of training and resources for community managers and you can be left confused about what to do to help your community activate and grow.

One of the resources that I’ve used a lot at Trellis is the four-stage lifecycle model presented in Rich Millington’s book, “Buzzing Communities”. Millington’s model is based on a systematic review by Iriberri and Leroy which synthesized the results of 27 papers about online communities to create a model for how online communities progress. This lifecycle model is key if you’re a community manager because it explains clearly what to expect at each stage – and what you should be doing to move things along to the next.

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Considering Community: a brief history of academic studies of online communities

I’ve decided to start a new series of occasional posts focused on community management tips and related information. I’m tagging these Considering Community and you’ll be able to find all the posts in the series here.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about the stages of growth for online communities. I ended up reading a paper that compares the research literature on online communities to come up with a model for the lifecycle that communities follow. While I’m going to blog about that in a future post, the paper also gave a great introduction to how the literature on online communities has itself grown – and the different disciplines that have been involved.

Knowing first-hand that “community” doesn’t fit neatly into one category, this was particularly interesting to me, so I’m going to share the paper’s overview here in case it’s of interest to you too. All text below that is highlighted in italics is taken directly from the paper, which is a much recommended read.

The literature about online communities as 4 waves

The review (published in 2009) describes four waves in the community literature:

i) 1st wave – input from sociologists

During the first wave, which started in 1993 when Howard Rheingold coined the term virtual community, sociology took the lead focusing on online communities as a social phenomenon capable of modifying how people interact in society. Sociologists compared online communities to physical communities and explored the presence of various community-related concepts such as social aggregations, identity, social networks and ties, and social and collective action.

They also studied the impacts of Internet use on individuals and society, such as social isolation, social involvement, and well-being [Carver 1999; Jones and Rafaeli 2000; Cummings et al. 2002; Turkle 1995; Hampton 2003; Hampton and Wellman 1999; Katz and Rice 2002; Kraut et al. 2002, 1996]. For example, Wellman et al. [1996] and Wellman [2005] found that online communication can strengthen face-to-face communication in local communities, as opposed to producing social isolation. Moreover, they found that online interactions can facilitate accumulation of social capital which may enhance civil involvement.

Those interested in the impact of online communities on society found that by facilitating strong social relationships, trust, and reciprocity, an online community may gather enough social capital to engage in social action to achieve a collective goal [Blanchard and Horan 1998; Chaboudy and Jameson 2001; Hampton 2003; Iriberri 2005].

ii) 2nd wave – input from those studying management and business

A second wave in research on online communities started around 1996 with management researchers analyzing the value to business organizations of the content generated by online communities. Hagel and Armstrong [1997] studied online communities as viable business models capable of attracting customers who are searching for information on products or activities of interest to them, and who want to find and build relationships, conduct transactions, or live fantasies.

They suggest that if organizations provide mechanisms to identify and satisfy customer needs more accurately this can then turn into profit for vendors. When businesses provide the space for interaction, vendors can strengthen customer loyalty and also extract customer information to further improve marketing and customer service programs.

Wegner et al. [2002] focused on online communities that emerge in business organizations and are used by employees as repositories of organizational knowledge. In these communities of practice, the knowledge created and stored by members contributes to the organization’s ability to solve problems, create new products, innovate, and ultimately increase productivity [Millen et al. 2002]. This is evident in the widespread use of wikis, electronic boards, and electronic meeting rooms where team members in organizations add content and share online documents, thus reducing by one-half the time it takes them to complete projects [Conlin 2005; Goodnoe 2006].

Stuck on the shelf: How do you translate knowledge from the literature into practice?  Image caption: Flickr user wy_jackrabbit

Stuck on the shelf: How do you translate knowledge from the literature into practice? Image caption: Flickr user wy_jackrabbit

iii) 3rd wave – input from psychologists

In the third wave of online community research, psychology researchers focused on members’ relationships and attachments within online communities. Blanchard [2004] and Blanchard and Markus [2004] studied sense of community including feelings of belonging, safety, and attachment to the group. When these feelings are present, members develop lasting relationships with other members, feel attachment to the community, and perceive the online community as a source of social and emotional support.

In one online community of multisport athletes, Blanchard and Markus [2004] found that active participants develop personal friendships that in some cases move into private and face-to-face interactions.

iv) 4th wave – input from information systems researchers

Last, in the fourth wave, information systems researchers integrated previous perspectives, developed working definitions, and created research agendas to initiate a more focused and controlled empirical study of online communities [Gupta and Kim 2004; Lee et al. 2003; Li 2004]. The focus shifted to members’ needs and requirements, development of electronic tools to support online communities, adoption and implementation of these tools, online communities for new purposes such as teaching and, finally, outcome assessment [Arnold, et al. 2003; Kling and Courtright 2003; Stanoevska-Slabeva and Schmid 2000, 2001].

For example, Stanoevska-Slabeva and Schmid [2001] described the activities members conduct in online communities and matched those activities with the technology platform capable of supporting those activities; and Arnold et al. [2003] presented a model to translate member needs into technology requirements.

In the latter years of this fourth wave, the focus of the information systems discipline moved toward proposing conditions that would increase member participation and ensure online community success. For example, Preece [2000] recommended following a participatory design approach, which takes into consideration user needs, and establishing a clear purpose combined with policies of behavior to govern the interactions of members. She referred to the fostering of “tacit assumptions, rituals, protocols, rules, and laws” that define the community identity.

Similarly, Leimeister et al. [2005] proposed implementing mechanisms to encourage trust, such as discretionary levels of anonymity, which can help promote lasting relationships. Most recently, empirical studies have been carried out to test independent success factors such as presence of content quality, interaction support, organization of online and offline events, rewards for contributions, volunteerism, and posting of member pictures and profiles.

From communities on paper to communities in practice

I’ve been pondering a bit this past year how much professional roles that involve working directly with communities – whether that’s pure community management, or related activities such as marketing, customer service, and market research teams – apply what’s reported in the research literature in their day jobs. As a research scientist – whether in academia or industry – it’s a standard part of your job to keep up to date with current developments in your field of expertise. While some of that may be done alone, for example, by subscribing to updates from your favourite journals, some of it also takes place in communal activities such as lab meetings and journal clubs. How do you find and share knowledge if you’re a community professional?

There are some resources – from the #cmgrchat that takes place weekly on Twitter to the annual Community Leadership Summit founded by Jono Bacon, but it’s my sense that as a lone individual or very small team within a larger organisation, community managers can often end up feeling professionally isolated in terms of knowing how to develop new skills or where to turn to for peer-to-peer support.

Secondly, where there is useful information available  – such as websites that discuss updates to common tools that community managers use – the focus tends to be on technology updates, or on successful business reporting. Especially within organisations that haven’t fully grasped the benefit of community there can be an emphasis on the types of conversations described in wave ii) above – namely how to demonstrate the business value of online communities, whether those are internal employee communities or external engagement channels. By contrast, I don’t see many articles or other professional development resources that really focus on waves i) and iii) as described above – the sociology and psychology of communities.

Are you a community professional who’s found some resources that I’ve not yet seen, or who has successfully created your own peer network? Do you ever consult the academic literature for a different view on the daily activities that you’re involved with – or is this something that there’s not realistically enough time for in a job that already involves doing multiple different tasks in a given week?

Considering Community: What’s a community anyway?

I’ve decided to start a new series of occasional posts focused on community management tips and related information. I’m tagging these Considering Community and you’ll be able to find all the posts in the series here.

In the first post in this series about online communities, we looked at the different types of communities – from communities of practice to those of place. Now let’s think about definitions from a different angle.

I say community, you say… community?

In recent times, the word community is being increasing adopted by organisations but, confusingly, it can have different meanings. Sometimes it’s a rather vague term indicating “something to do with communicating via social media”. In other situations, community is used as a more “friendly” way of referring to customers – whether that’s customer support, customer feedback, and/or marketing activities. In yet another set of scenarios, community is used to refer to multiple, distinct groups, all of whom may be interacting with the organisation is slightly different ways, and not necessarily online. While none of these interpretations are necessarily wrong, they don’t help to clarify the usage of a word that has ended up feeling somewhat ambiguous.

So, can we be a bit more nuanced in our definition of what we mean by community without using more than the equivalent of a few tweets to do so? And can we use that definition to help us work more effectively with communities? The introduction of a paper that I read recently looked at how a range of disciplines describe online communities; I share its examples and some additional ones below. I then consider an over-arching definition of community and what it might tell us about how to successfully engage different communities.

Defining online communities

  • “Social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace.”  – Howard Rheingold, 1993.
  • “Computer-mediated spaces where there is a potential for an integration of content and communication with an emphasis on member-generated content.” – Hagel and Armstrong 1997 (with an emphasis on business models).
  • “Groups of people who interact primarily through computer-mediated communication and who identify with and have developed feelings of belonging and attachment to each other.” – Blanchard and Markus, 2004.

Each of these definitions comes from the perspective of a different discipline (sociology, management studies, and social psychology, respectively). Lee et al., went one step further and combined a total of 9 definitions to come up with the following:

  • “cyberspace[s] supported by computer-based information technology, centered upon communication and interaction of participants to generate member-driven content, resulting in a relationship being built” – Lee et al, 2003

Compare these definitions of online communities to the following from this blog post:

  • “the ecosystem of people that surround a specific business or organization – from customers and employees to fans and partners.”
Defining community - going beyond a Google search.  Image credit: Flickr user dragonbe:

Defining community – going beyond a Google search.
Image credit: Flickr user dragonbe:

Common threads

So, what can we see in common with each of these definitions? Each acknowledges the importance of at least some of the following factors: individuals, online communication technologies, communication among members, content creation, the formation of relationships, feelings of belonging. Perhaps this can be re-written as:

People + online tools + communication –> content creation –> relationships +  feelings of belonging.

There’s an additional point to be emphasised here, which is that community refers to a group where people have relationships with each other, not just one-to-one relationships with a central hub – whether that hub is a leader figure, an organization or a product. Not every member may be connected directly to every other member, but they almost certainly do have interactions with more than one other person in the group.

This inter-connectedness of members encourages us to think of communities as an ecosystem – where the actions of individuals may propagate through the system in ways that cannot be controlled from a central point. As we’ve all seen on social media, you can start a hashtag campaign, but you can’t decide what content gets posted to the hashtag. And this becomes an important distinction from more traditional marketing and customer service models where interactions were more contained.

Implications for working with communities

What can we take away from the factors in this final equation about working with online communities? Admittedly, each of the ingredients would make at least a blog post in its own right, but here are some quick thoughts:

People – Do you know who is in your community or who you’d like to see join it? In order to identify potential new members, you might look for who tweets on relevant hashtags and who uses those hashtags in their online bios. Events are another good place to meet future community members.

Tools – You don’t necessarily need to provide the communication tools yourself, but you do need to be present on the channels that your community is using – whether that’s twitter, a blog network or a listserv. The channels you choose to use will depend largely on what you hope to accomplish through your interaction with the community: if it’s customer service you may need to be in multiple places where the conversations are happening, if it’s about assisting a group to organise an event, it may be that a single, central online home is needed to plan and share resources.

Communication – I think a key question to ask here is: Where can you usefully fill any communication gaps, while also respecting that you don’t need to be visibly part of every discussion? I mentioned above that a community is an ecosystem, and that means giving up the idea of dominating all the conversations and thinking about how you can make useful contributions with any content that you do create. This could be making sure that you’re clear about new developments on the project, visibly introducing and welcoming new members, and sharing details of opportunities for the community to meet in person.

Content creation – What does content creation mean to your community goals? Is it just the back and forth that happens on social media, or something more structured such as guest blog posts sharing tips and activities, or even co-creating a book together?

Relationships: Remember: you don’t control all the relationships in a community! And one way you can add value if you’re hosting a community is to help members to build relationships with each other. People love meeting like-minded people and this will result in a greater sense of belonging within the community as a whole.

Sense of belonging:  Ultimately, this is what becomes very powerful for any organisation or mission-driven group as advocacy grows from a sense of belonging. Once you’ve got an emotional investment, people are more likely to tell their friends and colleagues about their experience – just make sure that it’s a good one! 🙂


Considering Community: What types of community are there?

I’ve decided to start a new series of occasional posts focused on community management tips and related information. I’m tagging these Considering Community and you’ll be able to find all the posts in the series here.

Defining community

I’ve talked before (e.g. see my Storify notes from the #scioCommunity session) about how a community can be defined in general terms as people who come together around a shared interest. Once community members start communicating with each other about that shared interest, then a sense of belonging grows, and that can form the basis for creating a deeper sense of purpose within the community – such as identifying specific goals or projects to work towards.

Depending on what the community is trying to communicate or accomplish, it can fall into a number of different categories. Let’s take a look at these options below, and then consider what implications these might have for the online tools used by the community, as well as the community management needs.

Categories of community

i) A community of interest

A community of interest consists of members who are interested in – and passionate about – the same topic. The topic could be a TV show, a celebrity figure or a subject area such as an historical event. Community members come together with the purpose of sharing their enthusiasm and knowledge about this topic. Given that members might be located anywhere in the world, online tools are vital for the ongoing interactions of the community.

ii) A community of practice 

The term community of practice was originally introduced as an concept in the field of education to refer to groups where members who share a profession or craft come together to share experiences and expertise, and thereby improve themselves professionally or personally. MOOCs could be a particularly interesting example of online communities of practice, except that in many cases the tools available for direct interaction among members of a course are very limited, if they exist at all.

iii) A community of inquiry

A community of inquiry also has an educational focus, the aim being to bring together people involved in considering a problem from an empirical or conceptual perspective. The idea is that, by bringing together different members of the community, a greater overall understanding of the subject at hand might be obtained. Science as a community falls into this category, as might hackdays and similar participatory events where the end output is not clearly known in advance.

The story of the group of blindfolded men each trying (incorrectly!) to identify an elephant is an example of when a community of inquiry would be useful. In such cases, each person would pool their experience to create a bigger picture. Image credit:

The story of the group of blindfolded men each trying (incorrectly!) to identify an elephant is an example of when a community of inquiry would be useful. In such cases, each person would pool their experience to create a bigger picture. Image credit:

iv) A community of action

As the name suggests, this type of community is focused on bringing about change in the world. The Open Access community would fall into this category. As the Open Knowledge Festival showed, if the unifying ideology is large enough, a community of action may in fact be comprised of multiple sub-communities. So the “Open” community includes communities interested in Open Data, Open Spending, Open Education and Open Science. Each of these may be able to learn from similar challenges faced by the others. Online tools can be important for these groups to coordinate their activities as well as to share news and resources about what they have achieved with others who may be interested, but who are not active members of the communities of action.

v) A community of place

A community of place consists of members who are co-located – this might include a neighbourhood watch scheme, a parent-teacher association at the local school, or a group of independent shop keepers from the same part of a town. It’s likely that most members will know, or get to know, each other in person due to the opportunities for meeting up offline that are afforded by them being in the same location.

vi) A community of circumstance

This type of community consists of people who come together to share experiences related to being in a particular life situation or other circumstance, rather than a shared interest. This might include health communities – from people fighting cancer, to those experiencing adverse drug reactions – as well as LBGT communities.

Considering community 

I wonder if each of the types of community described has specific, measurable characteristics that distinguish them. And if so, can these be used to infer their needs, in terms of online technologies and community management? For example, a community of circumstance may rely more than others on anonymity so that patients feel comfortable talking freely about their health conditions in an online environment that may include complete strangers. This type of online community may also see an increased use of private messaging once members identify others that they want to reach out to in order to discuss the specifics of their shared situations in more detail. A community of this nature seems unlikely to thrive on platforms such as Facebook or LinkedIn where members would be identifiable and directly linked to some of their other communities – of work colleagues or family members from whom they may want to keep their personal circumstances private.

By contrast, a community of place is likely to consist of people who know each other, at least by sight, and probably through mutual connections – meaning that this could be a much denser network of members. Does this restrict the amount or type of information shared among members? Would an online element to this community consist more of news and information about the community’s meetups than of detailed conversations? For example, the Facebook pages that have been created for science tweetups in various cities typically serve to let members know of the date and location of the next meeting. There is little additional visible interaction within these pages. Is the role of the “community manager” in these cases primarily to organise the in-person gatherings of the community, with less emphasis on online tools?

As already noted, it’s possible for any community to fall into more than one of these categories e.g. a local cycling club would be both a community of place and of interest. And if members decided to take action against proposed changes to the road layout in their city, they might also become a transient community of action. Perhaps, if a community grows to encompass new types then its online needs will also change. To continue the cycling club example, initially a basic website with bulletin board and calendar might be sufficient. But once members want to coordinate a petition to protest the changes to their cycling routes, maybe they add or migrate to discussion boards, or arrange to meet up more regularly in person.

Finally, I’m also curious as to the sense of belonging felt by members of the different types of communities. Do communities of circumstance and communities of action result in more sharing of personal information because members are particularly emotionally invested in the outcomes of the community’s activities? And does this sharing of personal information then result in an increased sense of belonging?


Each of us is likely to be a member of multiple communities at one time. What are your experiences of the different communities to which you belong? I’d love to hear your examples and how you’ve used online tools in the comments.