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Ways the Internet
Is Shaking Up The Idea Of Community

Written by Alanna Vitucci

The Internet has changed the building blocks of community.

“It has shifted our notion of community from an experience that is fundamentally place-based to one that is based on relational ties, creating an unprecedented opportunity for people to connect without geographical constraints,” explains Eva Mika, assistant dean of NCU’s Graduate School.

“Online, the definition of community seems to be stretched to cover all sorts of interactions,” concurs Richard Millington, founder of FeverBee Community Consultancy located in London. “Offline, we know the difference between a crowd, mob and audience by the nature of [the] relationships between the audience(s). Online, we tend to ignore that; our definition is a specific group of people who have developed relationships around a strong common interest.”

It is this communal interest that communities coalesce around online.

Millington has observed that communities tend to fall into one of three types.

The first are groups of people with a shared experience, such as an alumni group, religion or even artists that work in the same medium. The second are groups with a common interest that encompass emotional reactions, such as a political organization. Meanwhile, the third are groups that are relationship-centered; in these instances members have formed a relationship based on mutual trust and sharing.

“Google almost any topic and it is likely that you will find an online community to meet your needs.”

“Relationships with one another are what separate a community from a crowd or an audience. It’s why Facebook pages and Twitter accounts usually build a strong audience, not a community,” explains Millington.

In many ways, it is easier to join a community online than locally.

“Google almost any topic and it is likely that you will find an online community to meet your needs,” shares Mika. “Many are exclusively online, while some communities…combine online communication and face-to-face interaction.”

Face-to-face interaction does not have to include meeting locally; it can encompass webcams and tools such as GoToMeeting that integrates face and chat functionality.

Millington and Mika both agree that a moderator or community manager is an essential online community resource.

“Having a moderator is a great way to facilitate engagement in online communities; the moderator can establish community boundaries, and watch for toxic dynamics,” notes Mika.

Toxic dynamics are a risk in online communities.

“Online, people tend to be more forthright in their views than they are in person. The ability to hide behind a screen is both positive and negative. It lets people express themselves honestly without fear of being in a socially awkward situation…[as] we’re less concerned about upsetting someone else; it also reduces our empathy towards other people,” says Millington.