Communities Need Social Networks to Maintain Relationships

You may recall from previous discussions that any individual is often part of many overlapping and nested communities, because people have many different interests, preferences, skills, etc. So we can create weak ties and build relationships in many different contexts. These are really different relationships even though Facebook simply lumps them together with one identifier ‘friends’. They really should be categorized a little more; such as siblings, beer buddies, badminton pals, chess club friends, foodie network, movie junkies, nature explorers, CA trail hikers, etc. Moreover, people move to different towns, switch jobs, change interests, or move into different stages of their lives, so people are constantly leaving communities and joining new ones.

So, how do people manage all the relationships they developed across different communities? And how does an individual maintains the relationships he has built when he switches communities? You can probably guess the answer. If the relationships are well developed (i.e. they are strong relationships rather than mere weak ties), then they will become part of the person’s social network. Remember (see Community vs. Social Network), each person has one and only one social network. Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social network services (SNS) are really social graphs that reveal different relationships in our social network (see Social Network Analysis 101).

As I’ve mention in earlier posts, I now know quite a few members on Lithosphere and the various LinkedIn groups that I’ve joined. Our interactions around a common topic of interest have fostered the development of our relationships. Subsequently, these formerly community acquaintances have become part of my LinkedIn network, which is a part of my social network that accentuate my professional relationships (see Social Network Analysis 101). Now, even if they leave Lithosphere, or if I leave a LinkedIn group, we still have ways to communicate and interact with each other. And because we have had sufficient interactions to build our weak ties into strong relationships, we will remember the context of our relationships and trust each other’s opinions under the relevant context.

Therefore, successful communities should integrate with SNS providers, so community members can keep the valuable relationships they’ve built. In case you haven’t heard, we’ve just launched our Facebook App yesterday. This is our first step towards integrating our community platform with SNS.

Without social networks, communities are siloed, so when a member leaves a community he  would probably have to give up all the relationships he built in that community. This is certainly not desirable for community members, but it also has adverse implication for the community.

What’s Wrong with Siloed Communities?

What are some of the adverse effects of a siloed community?

  • Offers little incentive for members to invest and participate in the community
  • Prevents influx of new superusers, and therefore limits the exchange of novel knowledge and ideas

Today most people joining an online community probably don’t expect much strong relationship to come out of it. Frankly, most community platforms are not designed in such way that would enable their member to keep the relationship they’ve established. Consequently, members are often reluctant to invest their time and energy in building relationships in communities. Personally, I believe this one of the contributing factors that leads to the generally low participation level in most online communities.

For those who have invested time and energy, they are also reluctant to leave, knowing they cannot keep anything they’ve build within the community. This impedes the circulation of superusers between communities. Naively, this may seem like a good thing at first, since you can keep your valuable superusers. But if we analyze this scenario with game theory, the table can be turned 180 degrees around. The reason is because there are many communities out there, and your community is just one of them. Every community has its superusers, just like yours. If all superusers are reluctant to leave their own community, then there will be few available to visit and join your community.

Since the population outside your community is usually much larger than your community population, the potential influx rate into your community will almost certainly be much greater than the efflux rate from your community. Therefore, by restricting the circulation of superuser, you may retain a few of them, but you are losing out on the potential to gains hundreds and thousands of them. This will ultimately impede the exchange of knowledge and ideas between communities.


1. Social networks are what enables people to manage and maintain the strong relationships they’ve built in communities

2. Communities that are well integrated with social networks can:

a. Promote exchange of knowledge and ideas between communities through circulation of superusers

b. Foster greater level of participation and better interactions among members

Although weak ties can form either in communities or through social networks, these social structures have different roles in human history. Communities are for cultivating the weak ties into strong relationships; where as social networks are for maintaining and sustaining these important relationships. We need both of them! The complementary role of communities and social networks is precisely why they are two of the most robust social structures ever existed in human history.

Source: Michael Wu, Ph.D., Lithium

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