Types of online communities

Types of online communities

How can we establish a more differentiated discourse in community management?

I’ve sometimes found it frustrating to discuss online communities and community management because there’s a tendency to keep things too general, resulting in commonplace observations because we’re comparing apples with pears.

Online communities differ vastly in their purpose and formal structure, and so does the community management’s role within an organization.

Right now, it seems, any sort of effort to open up towards an audience/users (i.e. company facebook page) or creating opportunities for online interaction (i.e. dating platform) seems to pass off as an online community.

And they all are, somehow. So perhaps we need a vocabulary to distinguish types of online communities, allowing for more specialized discussions?

Typology along axis of motivation

Obviously, I’m not the first one to think about this. Richard Millington proposes 4 types of online communities, along the axis of motivation (What are reasons for people to join communities).

1. Leisure
2. Relationships
3. Fix something
4. Self-Improvement

This is somewhat useful when trying to understand how communities work and why people contribute to them, but does not really help to differentiate type of online communities because most communities adress more than one of these motivators and the boundaries are too fluid.

Typology along axis of formal strcuture

This typology by Ed Mitchell on the other hand is extremely useful: a typology along the axis of formal structure. Ed Mitchell sees three types of communities:

1. Centralized: one space, one login (exclusive, limited to others)
2. Decentralized (one space, multiple login options)
3. Distributed: using a range of (standard) spaces: facebook, twitter etc. to build community)

This distincition is useful because it helps us understand what type of skills a community manager will need to employ. Will she be working with a custom backend, involved in shaping user management, platform features, and reading community-specific data? Or will she be working mainly with social media tools, listening and reacting to dirstributed conversations and analyzing its impact?

Typology along axis of trust and editorial involvement of members

It took me a while to get Rachel Hinman’s typology, but once I did it turned out to be a rather interesting perspective. Her approach is to look at the level of trust and freedom of the members in an online community (“freedom” vs. ‘editorial shepherding’ by community “owners”)

In her words, an “inner circle” community would be one in which members create all the content, have administrative rights and are (more or less) self-governing. A “Brands that resonate” community is one in which a strong brand invites customers/users to interact with content along the lines of what resonates with the brand, and on their terms. And of course, there are shades in between.

Typology along axis of purpose

Lasty, I’m proposing my own typology, one in which I sort online communities by their purpose. asking the question of what function they have and who participates.

1. Peer-to-peer Community: fan forums, special interest communities
2. Community revolving around editorial/authored/branded content
3. Customer Relations/Support: managing technical support and feedback with community elements
4. Innovation/Ideation Community: solving problems, improving products
5. “platforms”, allowing any type of user generated content to be published i.e. youtube, flickr: are these even communities?

That’s it for now – will develop that thought next week.

One Reply to “Types of online communities”

  1. your typology of choice is workable if you account for overlap. and i do think your type 5 is as much community as the other types, especially if the ability to track the population is implemented. there is a danger on part of the researcher to inadvertently apply arbitrary qualities to characteristics of a community. that’s why a detached mathematical model is preferred. you can rerun simulations to see how varying initial conditions affects overall outcome of goals based on unknown future business models. it is easier to shift the business model than the population itself, so we must be prepared to twist unexpected trends to our advantage. the unexpected trend is often a rival community drawing away interest. however, if you maintain a balanced stance, you can bring 100% of your strength to bear in every effort you make. that can be an advantage over a competitor with more resources attacking from an unbalanced stance. in the end, community definition may hinder the ability to keep an open mind. language is too pervasive to our thought process.