In a virtual world, what do we mean by “Community”?

Back in the day, when tribes were really tribes, the most critical need within a community was survival. Separating from the group introduced risk. Staying close improved your chances. In some ways, little has changed. These conditions seem strangely familiar.

No wonder an emotional connection often exists among the people and places of our local communities.

Borrowing from the anthropology books, the community of practice (“CoP”) concept emerged. It was coined by Lave & Wenger in the early 1990’s to reflect the tendency for professional groups to form based on common interests, independent of local boundaries. With a gradual introduction of work group and email technology, geographic constraints diminished. Knowledge Management (KM) brought recognition that groups in remote places could collaborate.

Today, social media dramatically improves on that capability, serving to amplify, accelerate, and even multi-thread interactions. But there’s a need to strike a balance between capability and usability. For a virtual community to survive, some key ingredients are required:

  1. A common, stated purpose (affinity).
  2. An aligned culture that values participation, cognitive diversity and discovery.
  3. Strong, cohesive relationships, built via engagement, trust and mutual respect.
  4. Support from authoritative external leaders (if applicable), and (at least) rudimentary governance.
  5. Awareness of diverse contexts (recognizing differences across functional silos, or along social vs. commercial, or local vs. global dimensions). This implies an ability to manage your mental filters.
  6. Semantic clarity.
  7. Strong connection (or access), providing intuitive ways for members to interact.

Virtual communities cut across traditional geographic, social and political boundaries; membership in many groups is possible. This allows cultures to mix. With increased interdependence comes new complexity. So it’s a mistake to believe virtual communities work just like the local ones. In the physical world, we had nonverbal cues; getting our bearings involved our ‘line of sight’. Now, we must rely on our ‘line of thinking’. And that can change quickly.

If a traditional community gives us a social context and a sense of place, a virtual community gives us optional contexts, diverse ways to view a problem and its solutions.

It’s more capability, with a price .. it takes more rigor to drive it.

Social media is just a platform, the next set of tools. The hard work of change remains. Is our culture more aligned with a race to the future? Or is our desire for stability prompting us (even subconsciously) to cling to the past?

I’m an optimist, but many take the latter perspective. For the ultimate answer, I’m holding on to the complexity view: the optimal solution is likely someplace in the middle.

11 thoughts on “In a virtual world, what do we mean by “Community”?

  1. Chris,

    Thank you for this great post!

    Regarding “tipping points”: Don’t you think that if we have to get all the way to a “tipping point,” we’ve gone too far? We need to find ways to solve problems before they cause major systemic collapse, large-scale destruction of value, or wide-spread reduction in quality of life, right?

    I’ve been watching as we run around applying trillions of dollars of band-aids to systems that are obviously in need of careful-but-extensive surgery, and I’ve been thinking …

    If the framework (or system) is stupid, any number of smart people doing smart things is still likely to result in a steaming pile of stupidity. For examples of this smart-input-stupid-output phenomenon please see most national governments, large corporations, and white-collar industries.

    The really dangerous resistance to change comes from these stupid frameworks. These stupid frameworks wield the overwhelming majority of power and command the majority of resources. They stupidly work for short-term gains even when this is at the expense of the larger global economy and world community in which they exist–like a parasite unnecessarily killing its only viable host.

    So here’s a question:
    Could virtual communities use this “next set of tools” to create “smart frameworks” where smart people can work together to create something that is brilliant? Or better yet — can we create agile and fluid “learning frameworks” that continuously improve and avoid the need for “tipping points” or violent phoenix-to-ashes-to-phoenix cycles?

    How do we shift the power and resources away from stupid frameworks and towards smart frameworks? Can social networks drive this shift as well?

    Is this already happening? Are and examples of shifts away from cumbersome and ineffective stupid frameworks towards smart frameworks?

    Just some thoughts for a Wednesday. Thanks again for this great post. Really looking forward to #smchat today!

    All the best,


  2. Thanks for the feedback, Julian.

    Sounds like you are appealing to a transformation from large scale systems integration frameworks to smaller scale, more nimble “hubs” for software innovation? Sounds like a plan .. if CIO’s can unbundle the legacy apps that are feeding transactions in all directions. Based on current scale, it may take awhile (and significant cost) to unwind. Hence some resistance is likely.

    It will be important to demo the new capabilities. Certainly IT communities in #gov20 and #e20 need to embrace the possibility.

    I share your concern about phoenix thinking (reminiscent of ‘silver bullets’) which I addressed in a prior post. Scale begets more scale. It’s a hard cycle to break.

    Let’s discuss at today’s 1pET smchat. Great input!


    • Chris,

      Just to clarify, I’m not talking about systems integration frameworks, or technical framework for that matter. This isn’t stuff for the CIO.

      The two examples that I cited:

      1. – a platform for peer-to-peer micro-loans directly to entrepreneurs in developing nations. Removes the inefficiency, lack of transparency, and lack of control associated with other kinds of development-related donations or loans. Adds a personal element, creates connection and community, and spreads opportunity in the developing world. The old stupid platforms (remember, I’m not talking about computer systems here) can’t get past the fact that many of the recipients of these loans have little education, no assets, and no credit history. So the stupid platforms can’t provide the fuel for bottoms-up economic growth that Kiva can (which, in the end, benefits the stupid platforms too, right?). Although technology is a key component to Kiva, Kiva is not a technology solution. It’s a new paradigm — a smart platform.

      2. – a platform for community-funded reporting. The current stupid platforms figure out what I will find interesting or what I think is important. Apparently this week I’m interested in a couple who snuck into a state dinner at the White House. Oh wait, I’m not even remotely interested in that! Hmmm. (See, the old platform really is stupid) let’s a community decide that they’re interested in a story and then the community funds the research and writing required. So far this is working pretty well in the San Francisco Bay Area. How long before it works elsewhere? Culture is a big component, right? We’re definitely not just talking about technology here.

      Hope that clarifies where I was going.

      Which word would be better than framework? These are large systems that often span multiple organizations, both private-sector and governmental, as well as multiple industries and sectors. System is worse in terms of having a tech connotation, right?

      Anyway, my apologies for poor word choice.

      [Paul and Robert, no I’m not apologizing about using the word “stupid.” These frameworks/mega-systems often produce the opposite result from their stated goal, so the word “stupid” is already entirely too kind.]

      Really enjoyed the virtual community discussion today!

      Thanks for all of the work that you do to nurture this wonderful community!

      All the best,


  3. Chris,

    This is a very insightful post! As an educator (in 16th year), this post causes me to reflect on the hype/excitement surrounding virtual schools and classrooms.

    Some of the hype, I believe, stems from the idea that students will be more attentive and engaged just because it is computer-based . When I hear this, I feel great concern because the ideas that you write about must also be considered. Community building is an important part of the traditional classroom and must be a component of the virtual classroom as well.

    While the virtual classroom allows the “walls to come down” and for the opportunity for greater diversity in thinking, collaboration, & problem solving, there are new sociological parameters and definitions that the teacher/facilitator must understand and be able to apply in the virtual classroom setting. We need our teachers to be not just users of the new tools, but skilled craftsmen who have a deep understanding the learning process and group dynamics who can apply their understanding in a new context.

    Thank you for a great post. I look forward to reading more from you.

    Jennifer Hogan

    • Hi Jennifer.

      Great feedback, thanks much for taking the time.

      I couldn’t agree more .. public education is an ecosystem that’s in need of a major transformation. Christensen calls the current state the ‘factory model’ and you’re right, the community model offers much to consider (local focus, more adaptation).

      In time, the teacher network as a virtual community (above) could gain benefits from expanded curriculum collaboration.

      And there’s the full ecosystem equation, linking parents and commerce to the education process .. community in the strongest, most literal sense.

      If you haven’t seen the #ecosys thread, check it out. We are down the path on framing reform (especially in education) and we’d love to get your thoughts.

      Focusing on ‘community’ could be a key missing link, in many contexts!


  4. Great post Chris;

    I hope to be able to dip in to #SMChat but won’t be able to do all of it….

    Some great comments from Julian and Boris’ related post.

    On Change…

    Change is painful hence the resistance to change.
    People like the status quo – it is comforting to know what to expect, where the boundaries are and what is expected of them.

    Individuals who relish, drive and in deed flourish in a ‘continually’ changing environment are the minority in most organisations. As such it is down to us to make the change process effective, minimise the pain and support others.

    This is where virtual communities can play a great role; the change protagonist can build and support the community with information, guidance and virtual mentoring.

    Ultimately the sense of belonging and support is what keeps comunities thriving sometimes long after the orginal raison d’etre has passed.

    Looking forward to reading the chat (and hopefully contributing)


  5. Wow Chris! Really well thought out and well written post.

    I think one of the most important aspects that you talked about is SHIFTING frames of reference. Many frameworks are not “stupid” as Julian called them, but just no longer nearly as relevant or superior to other frameworks as when they were created.

    A question that interests me is, “How can we get CoP’s to do more than share information? Can we get them to work towards goals?”

    For those that are interested in community building, I recommend #CmtyChat which can be found on Twitter, but chats using FriendFeed.

    Find even more Twitter CoPs at

  6. Paul, Rob – again, appreciate these insights, including those you shared live at SMCHAT on 12/2.

    Boris – interesting thoughts on the semantic issues around the use of the terms team vs. community in a corporate setting. I think I agree on your distinction, w/ the caveat that a well managed group w/ any name can be effective. Often the issue w/ semantics is one of buy-in and cultural alignment. Again, what is the overarching context? Who has to buy-in? What are they likely to buy-in to?

    Thanks to @allisunelearns for sharing this link from Rich Millington, providing even more views of online communities and CoP’s.

    8 Brilliant Posts about Online Communities

    And here’s another related post from a few weeks back by Mandy Vavrinak:

    Truths About Building Community

    Thought I’d repost here to keep all the links in one place. This is one of those convo’s that needs to keep going.

  7. Hey Chris-

    I appreciate your post in that we all tend to get caught up in the sexy technology side of the social web and we forget that there are principles of virtual social interaction that can’t be solved with technology alone. I’ve worked in a large corporation for 14 years, half of which were as a remote worker, and I’ve been involved in virtual teams and CoP’s for most of that time.

    What I’ve found is that trust is the critical component that underlies the success of a virtual team or community. Not to say that cultural alignment, tops-down support, etc. is not important. But as a team or community evolves, and the stakes of interaction increase, the presence or lack of trust is what I’ve experienced as making or breaking the virtual team/community.

    Technology can help provide context, semantic clarity, and even the stated purpose, but only to the extent that it also provides a level of transparency that makes the content believable and credible. Transparency is, by and large, a choice – and a very important one that the team or community organizer(s) must make up front to set the tone for the group. And it is more than visibility settings of the platform; it is also inherent in the behaviors that are encouraged and discouraged within the group.

    So thank you for reminding us that virtual communities are still very much about human interaction, and that some time-honored principles still hold true, regardless of the forum.


  8. Carlo – You’re spot on, of all the factors listed, trust and transparency (and the strong, cohesive relationships that result) will out weigh the technology factors every time.

    Semantics is a tricky one, as is it lies in between the tools and the talents of the people to figure out. It determines if there’s a shared understanding of context (which can change) and the ability to get to a shared vision. It’s amazing how much time can be wasted in debates over scope, strategy, mandate, cost/benefit, etc., all because no one took the time to establish definitions.

    Here’s my post on semantics.

    Culture is also tricky. It sets the stage for participation. Without a healthy, enabling culture, people never show up, or if they do, they’re apt to hold back.

    I plan to post on that one too, in the weeks ahead.

    All these issues are wired together. You can’t have a viable CoP, SIG or web-based virtual community without them.

    Thanks to all for the insightful comments, we’re definitely headed in the same direction.


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