Is Twitter a community? For many, it’s a straightforward answer. Here’s the catch: not everyone agrees on what the right answer is. Some say ‘yes,’ some say ‘no.’
So what’s the deal?
That brings us to the (digital) age-old question: what’s the difference between social media and online communities? Many people think they’re one in the same -- they both bring people together, right? -- but there are important differences to be aware of.
The Difference Between Social Media and Online Communities
First let’s think about what community is. It’s usually easy to feel community, but difficult to define. The Community Roundtable broke it down nicely on its blog. You know you’re in a community when your group or online social circle has these characteristics:
- Tight interlinking relationships between a significant percentage of members
- An acknowledgment of shared fate or purpose
- A potentially wide range of topics/conversations within that shared purpose
- A distributed leadership network – sometimes with a single leader, sometimes not
- A core membership that is relatively stable and active
How does that look in practice? In your organization’s community, members or customers tightly interlink because of their dependence on the organization or cause. Since everyone is connected mutually, members or customers have a shared fate and purpose -- everyone experiences similar ups and downs. A thriving community usually has many topics of conversation, which further bonds members or customers. That shared purpose and common bond creates a core membership of both active participants and lurkers who hold the community together. And there is usually a community manager or administrator leading the way.
Big picture, that’s what online community looks like.
Now let’s compare The Community Roundtable’s definition of social media:
- Socially- or conversationally- enabled content
- A loose network with the predominant structure being a hub and spoke model of interaction between an audience and the content creator
- Comment/response transactions
How does this look in practice? Think about your Facebook or Twitter account. You have social interactions online, but those interactions are individual and aren’t connected by one shared purpose. Your network is probably wide ranging and loose over all, with some exceptions, like family members, close friends or people with a common interest -- you’re more tightly bonded with those particular groups. You comment and respond on peoples’ posts, but they aren’t necessarily conversations since many interactions are one way. A perfect example of this is a social media marketing campaign -- a company makes an announcement that people comment on, but there isn’t dialog. Another example is when you “like” someone’s new profile picture, and you don’t expect a reply. Social media is often communal monolog, which definitely has it’s place in the world, but doesn’t inherently create community.
Facebook’s mission statement doesn't even mention community. Their purpose is to “give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.” Having a space to share and stay connected is powerful, but connection isn’t inherently community.
Community is Intentional
But sometimes social media feels like community, doesn’t it? And sometimes it’s hard to make your online community interact as a community should. Facebook and LinkedIn groups -- not Facebook and LinkedIn as a whole -- increasingly fit The Community Roundtable’s definition of community. They create tight networks and spur related conversation -- people can even act as community managers within those groups. Depending on how your social media is curated or functions, it can become a community. And depending on how your online community is run, it may or may not be successful. Community doesn’t just happen, it’s intentional and needs to be taken care of.
Twitter—a Rare Bird
And that brings us to Twitter. Is Twitter a community? Twitter is different from Facebook and LinkedIn because you can’t create smaller or niche groups -- you can create lists and direct message people, but it’s not the same as a specific Facebook group for Star Wars fans who want a community. Twitter often feels like a free-for-all with people tweeting blindly into the ethernet. If people do take notice, favoriting or retweeting isn’t the same as conversing with someone. And if there is back and forth, it’s only between two people, not a community. Plus, Twitter is infamous for facilitating trolls and other abusive interactions.
Yet, depending on the user, Twitter can feel like a community. How does this happen? If you curate your followers based on common interests, then your newsfeed becomes more interesting, interactive and communal. Rather than just posting tweets into space, if managed with community in mind, Twitter can create space for meaningful conversations between a group of like minded people with a shared fate -- which sounds like community. Think of conversations surrounding hashtags or how the Arab Spring was fueled by Twitter -- that’s when Twitter can act more like community.
To create community on Twitter, don’t get caught up in the competition to have the most followers. Think quality over quantity. By being intentional about who you follow and who follows you, Twitter becomes a smaller, more engaging space. Remember: community rarely “just happens” -- it’s intentional and takes hard work to maintain.
Do You Want Community?
Even though social media can foster community, it’s important to know the difference between the two. Knowing what community should look like helps you manage yours, whether it’s your organization’s community or your Twitter or Facebook account. When trying to curate community on any platform, think of The Community Roundtable’s list and ask yourself, “how tight are the relationships? Do we share a purpose or fate?” If you’re answer is ‘no,’ that’s where you need to work. Or perhaps your social media is, in fact, just social media and not community.
Going through the community definition checklist is helpful in spaces that are supposed to be community, like your organization’s member/customer community. Are you missing a stable and active core membership? Or are members/customers not fostering tight knit relationships? If not, analyze your community metrics and work on your weak areas.