Social networks vs online communities: The important distinctions to know

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As part of a new series, Michael Wu, principal scientist of analytics at Lithium Technologies, shares research findings on the relationship between social networks and communities.

Since 2008, “social media” has become a heavily-used buzz word in the corporate world. The question is “what is social media?” Many seem to equate social media to Facebook-liked social networking sites; others seem to think that they are blogs, the Twitter family of applications for micro-blogging, Flickr, YouTube, or similar type of content sharing Web 2.0 applications. Yet, answers to this question may still range from social collaboration sites (like Wikipedia, Delicious, or Digg) to online communities (like those we host for our enterprise clients or Yahoo! Answer).

Well, they are all correct to some extent, and these are functional classifications of social media. Author and blogger Brian Solis, introduced another classification of social media, based on the types of conversation. He called it the conversation prism. However, if you want to understand social media from a relational and social anthropological perspective, you will find that there are really only two major types of social media:

  1. Social networks
  2. Online communities

Human social networks and communities actually pre-date their online counterpart for millennia. Both are very well-established and robust social structures that have survived the test of time. And they have emerged and reemerged as civilizations collapse and rise. Humans are naturally predisposed to gravitate to and desire this type of interaction. 

For this initial post of the mini blog series, I hope to offer you a perspective that lets you see some basic differentiating features between these two types of social media. Later on, I will show you what we can learn about them from studies in social anthropology.

Social networks

Everyone has their own social network (whether online or offline). Everyone has friends, families, and people they are acquainted with. An online social networking site simply makes our social networks visible to others who are not in our immediate network.

So the single most important feature that distinguishes a social network from a community is how people are held together on these sites. In a social network, people are held together by pre-established interpersonal relationships, such as kinship, friendship, classmates, colleagues, business partners, etc. The connections are built one at a time (i.e. you connect directly with another user). The primary reason that people join a social networking site is to maintain old relationships and establish new ones to expand their network. With this knowledge, it should be obvious why Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn are social networks as opposed to communities.

One interesting feature about people’s social networks is that they are extremely unique. It is actually very difficult to fake a Facebook or LinkedIn profile, because your friends (or who you connect to) will collectively identify you. Moreover, because people generally do not compartmentalize their life (unless you are a secret agent for the CIA or some cryptic government agencies), people typically have only one social network. Even for the CIA agents, it could be argued that they have only one social network; it’s just that their network has two or more components that have little overlap.


Unlike social networks, communities (both online and offline) are more interesting from a social anthropological perspective, because they often consist of people from all walks of life that seem to have no relationship at all. Yet, as we’ve learned from history, communities are very robust social structures. So what is it that holds these communities together?

Communities are held together by common interest. It maybe a hobby, something the community members are passionate about, a common goal, a common project, or merely the preference for a similar lifestyle, geographical location, or profession. Clearly people join the community because they care about this common interest that glues the community members together. Some stay because they felt the urge to contribute to the cause; others come because they can benefit from being part of the community.

Due to the multifaceted lifestyle of modern living, any individual is often a part of many different communities. Moreover, communities can overlap and are often nested. For example, a geographical community, say a town, may contain sub-communities living in different parts of the town that are connected by a finer geographical granularity. But at the same time, the same town may contain several different ethnic communities that are connected by the ethnicity.

Now, do you see why Yelp, Wikipedia, YouTube, Flickr, Digg, the blogosphere, etc., are just communities? Yelp is a community of, originally, food enthusiasts; where as members of the Wikipedia community are passionate about cause of the internet encyclopedia project. YouTube and Flickr are nested communities of video and photography enthusiasts respectively, and they may belong to other sub-communities within the YouTube and/or Flickr community. These sub-communities may simply be your friends and relatives, or people are interested in high dynamics range photography (with 61,000 members) or time lapse videos.

In summary

Social networks (see Figure 1) are:

  1. Held together by pre-established interpersonal relationships between individuals. So you know everyone that is directly connected to you.
  2. Each person has one social network. But a person can have different social graphs depending on what relationship we want to focus on (see Social Network Analysis 101).
  3. They have a network structure.

Communities (see Figure 2) are:

  1. Held together by some common interests of a large group of people. Although there may be pre-existing interpersonal relationship between members of a community, it is not required. So new members usually do not know most of the people in the community.
  2. Any one person may be part of many communities.
  3. They have overlapping and nested structure.

Now that you know the basic difference between social networks and communities from a relational perspective, next time we can discuss more interesting questions, such as the dynamics of tie formation, or what it means to businesses. I haven’t yet decided what I will write, so let me know if there are any interesting topics that you want me to dig into. In the mean time, comments, questions and critiques are all welcomed.

Michael Wu, Ph.D. is  the principal scientist of analytics at Lithium Technologies. Michael was voted a 2010 Influential Leader by CRM Magazine for his work on predictive social analytics and its application to social CRM. You can follow him on Twitter at mich8elwuThis post originally appeared on the Lithosphere.


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 Hi Michael,

Great article, very interesting and it got me thinking. I'm not sure that I agree with your classification of communities and social networks into two rigidly separate groups. I think that this discussion is particularly interesting when taken in the context of Google+ that we've heard so much about this week.

If we think about our own social network what do we see? We have groups of friends we know through work, some we know through kinship relationships, some we know through old connections such as school and others we know through collective interests such as hobbies and sports. Google+ has seen very perceptively understood these relationships and has broken their social network down into these sub groups. Are these sub-groups part of the social network? Yes, definately. Are some also communities with a shared interest? Also yes. So how do you distinguish between the two. 

I think the answer can be most readily seen by looking at groups in LinkedIn and Facebook. When we join a group we're effectively joining a community that probably has people in it from our social network but the group is a superset that has many social network interactions running from it. Some people's social networks may cross over in a community and for others their social network may be entirely inside a community.

I'm not sure that I agree that the primary reason people join a social network is to maintain old relationships. It can also be to chat about shared interests (an aspect of community?) Take this example, I'm a keen skiier. I have lots of friends who are keen skiiers, we're all on facebook, we use the event mechanism to organise ski trips and facebook to talk about ski equipement. We all join the "skicrazy" group (community) - the lines between social network and community blur. Our reason for being on facebook also blurs, it's not just to be part of a social network it's also to enjoy a shared interest.

In summary I think that to separate community and social network so rigidly is a simplification. In reality the lines are much more blured and can only be well understood in terms of set theory.

Best regards,

Orhan Ertughrul, D.Phil.

Hello Orhan,

What you said is totally right. Communities and social network are not distinct. And it's never my intention to make a rigid distinction. In reality, there are communities within social network, and there are social networks within communities. These social structures overlap.

In fact the subsequent post in this series will address precisely the issue you raised. This is a series that explores the nature of relationship. And there are probably at least a dozen more articles on this subject that will be publish in the subsequent weeks. I hope you will be patient with me a bit and wait till these articles come out. I'm certain they will address your concerns.


Michael Wu, PhD

 Hi Michael,

Thank you for the reply. I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the series!

Best regards,