A short while ago I was quoting Valdis Krebs’ piece on the SNA-derived picture of a community (the highly networked core, the isolated periphery). As I said, it highlighted a lot of things and helped to tell parts of the story… but it was not the whole story.
The reason is simple: as the very pictures show, networks and communities are different beasts. You can map networks in a community, but not use them to describe them fully.
Networks are nets of node-to-node links. Each node holds a “directory” of its individual contacts, and expands them through direct, usually voluntary contact. Whereas a community has a shared directory, and is an entity on its own right. This can be described in two ways at least:
- Community as network aggregation. A community is a different entity: a different player in the relationship network, one that links to every member. This introduces a node-to-whole type of conversation in the picture. A member of an online community can address “the community”, not any specific member, and get a response from “the community” (any number of members, probably few of which had any previous direct contact with the initiator). Equally, it enables to speak appropriately of “community product” or “community opinion” or “community practice”.
- Community as channel and memory. As an alternative model, we can think of the community as just a communication channel among individuals, with a core and the ability to provide direct connections between users. The core broadcasts any conversation to every user, so everyone can listen and participate (yes, I’m ignoring backchannel tools). This enables direct member-to-member communication, but it’s by nature public. It also enables member-to-all, many-to-member, many-to-many, and all manner of streams of meaning. It also introduces an asynchronous element, since that core enables anybody, at anytime, to participate in a conversation whose originators may be long gone.
There may be other ways to picture it, all of them reasonable. The point I want to make with those two is that, while networks exist inside communities (and thus SNA can help explain the working of communities) and across them, a community is not a network.
It’s a slightly more complex beast.