Saturday, January 09, 2010

Why Networks Do Not Equal Community

There is a lot of talk and print these days about networks and networking. From a mathematical perspective, networks are real, powerful, and tend to be underestimated. Network effects often surprise us because by default we tend think in linear fashion. Technology helps us create networks of people,

Let me narrow our focus to people networks. These are the kinds of questions people ask about people networks:

What's the size of your network? (How many people do you have following your Twitter feed or blog posts or Facebook wall? How many associates do you have on LinkedIn?)

What's the extent of your network? (Do you have many people in your address book who live in different countries, work in different industries, represent different organizations?)

How can you use your network? (Can you get quickly get answers by posting questions on Twitter? Can you connect to the right people who can help you? Could you find a new job opening through your network? Will you network give you money if you ask for it?)

Note what drives those questions: pride, comparison, greed, selfish interests. Yes, there are plenty of people who understand that the way to build a people network is to provide them value, but the desired end-results are still selfish.

I believe a common misconception today is to think networks of people are communities. Writers and speakers use the language of community when describing networks. "My tweeps give me a lot of help and support." "I've never met most of the people I know except through Facebook, but they love me."

Networks are not the same as communities (though communities may in part be supported by networking technology.

Here's a suggested test for community: a community serves the weak, the unsuccessful, the inarticulate, the ordinary.

Network success gravitates towards whatever defines success for that network. People like to associate with those they admire or want to emulate or find entertaining. (Consider the celebrity effect.) But networks dissipate rapidly for anything less.

Another test: community has an ongoing sense of history. Networks tend to exist in a non-real ever-present. The past is meaningful to community, and helps shape the future. Network past is irrelevant.

Community, because it is rooted in service to one another, continues forward under all the circumstances in which networks dissolve. In truth, community often becomes stronger in those circumstances.

Don't fall into the trap of mistaking networks for community.

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