Communities are complex social formations with a nuanced system of structures, roles, and behaviors. In the world of brands and corporations, this fact it too often overlooked in favor segmenting communities according to the priorities of the brand. Brands need to know who can help push their agenda amongst the community — communities are segmented into “influencers” and “everybody else.” Or, the oft-referenced “ladder of participation” gets trotted out. Though it has more segments, it nevertheless defines participation according to criteria of activeness.
Of course, who wields influence in a community and which activities (blogging, linking, reading, etc) are common are things that marketers need to know. But if we want to actually act upon this knowledge and influence those influencers, it’s equally important what aspects of a community different types of members influence and how (and why). Similarly, with the ladder of participation, it’s incredibly useful to understand what people do (or don’t do). However, as more and more people are adapting participatory technologies into their lives and communities, it becomes equally important to understand what they’re doing it for.
In short, communities and their members must be understood in the context of the community’s structures. Only then can we begin to understand not only who they are and what they do, but how their actions and their brand relationships will be received by the community at large.
Community Structures: Types, Roles, and Behaviors
Every community is different, of course. They develop unique systems and social contracts amongst the members that define the boundaries of the community. There are, however, a some definitions that we can use as a baseline to approach understanding communities online.
While I have my own loose , they aren’t nearly as thorough as what Lara Lee and Susan Fournier developed with over 30 years of research on community formation.
3 Types of Community Affiliation
Fournier and Lee describe 3 types of community affiliation:
Pools are groups who “have strong with a shared activity or goal, or shared values, but loose associations to one another” whose affiliation is created through “shared activity, goal, or values.”
KEY EXAMPLES: Apple fans, Political Parties, Ravelry
Webs are groups who “have strong one-to-one relationships with others who have similar or complementary needs,” where affiliation is primarily defined through “personal relationships”
KEY EXAMPLES: Facebook, Twitter, cancer-survivor networks
Hubs are groups who “have strong connections to a central figure and weaker associations with one another,” and define their affiliation through “a charismatic figure.”
KEY EXAMPLES: Oprah, Joss Whedon, Obama
These categories, of course, are not absolute and there’s plenty of cross-over. For instance, we might characterize a typical high school social system as a web that has within it a number of different hubs and pools. Similarly, Obama-supporters can easily also be seen as a pool, and Apple fans might cluster around Steve Jobs as a hub.
Fournier and Lee also outline 18 typical roles that individuals take on in communities:
1. Mentor: “teaches others and shares expertise”
2. Learner: “enjoys learning and seeks self-improvement”
3. Back-up: “acts as a safety net for others when they try new things”
4. Partner: “encourages, shares, and motivates”
5. Storyteller: “spreads the community’s story throughout the group”
6. Historian: “preserves community memory, codifies rituals and rites”
7. Hero: “acts as a role model within the community”
8. Celebrity: “serves as a figurehead or icon of what the community represents”
9. Decision-Maker: “makes choices affecting the community’s structure and function”
10. Provider: “hosts and takes care of other members”
11. Greeter: “welcomes new members into the community”
12. Guide: “helps new members navigate the culture”
13. Catalyst: “introduces members to new people and ideas”
14. Performer: “takes the spotlight”
15. Supporter: “participates passively as an audience for others”
16. Ambassador: “promotes the community to outsiders”
17. Accountant: “keeps track of people’s participation”
18. Talent Scout: “recruits new members”
I would also include two additional roles that are prevalent amongst content-creation communities:
Curator: organizes and curates community content for easy navigation
Enabler: scaffolds the creation process to encourage community content production
Community Behaviors & Activities
Finally, all communities have their own set of specific activities, but the rise of participatory culture and the networked information economy has lead to the increasing scale and visibility of a general set of behaviors.
Building from Clay Shirky’s work, Kevin Kelly of Wired Magazine describes four key modes of online participation: Sharing, Cooperation, Collaboration, and Collectivism
Sharing: One of the most fundamental logics of social participation online. We use YouTube to share videos, Twitter to share status updates, Flickr to share images, Delicious to share links, blogs to share ideas and information.
Cooperation: Sites like Flickr aren’t just used to share photos, but tag, group, organize, and reuse under creative commons. Through cooperation, it becomes more than just a sharing platform — it’s a vast archival resource. Similarly, aggregation sites like Digg, Reddit, and Slashdot use cooperation to “steer public conversation.”
Collaboration: Collaboration describes more organized and focused cooperative efforts, where groups and individuals pool resources toward common goals. Open-source software is a key example, where many contribute labor and expertise towards shared software development.
Collectivism: More clearly structures and potentially ideologically driven examples of sharing, cooperation, and collaboration activities.
Thus ends the basic primer on online communities, compiled from observations from my work at the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium and the work of many individuals way more awesome than myself.
The bottom line though really is that communities — online and off — are social and cultural formations. Understanding the surface trends and tools is the first step, but if we must also seek an understanding of the deeper driving structures if we hope to develop long-term strategic provisions in addition to short-term tactical responses.