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Social Network vs. Online Community: What Is the Difference?

I think it’s fair (although somewhat annoying and unfortunate) to say “social media” as a buzzword is here to stay. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn… what is what and where does it all end? With everyone from executives and professionals to college graduates and soccer moms throwing the word around, I thought it was about damn time someone do some explaining.  

First, let’s get one thing straight. Underneath the large, all-encompassing term of social media, there are two types or sub-categories - Social Networks being the first and Online Communities the second. Both have their perks and common uses, but what really are they and who should be using them? Here’s the breakdown.

Social Networks

Social networks, in the simplest of terms, are much like your offline social networks. We all have groups of friends, relatives, coworkers and acquaintances that we speak to and see on a regular basis, right? This is the key to Social Networks – they revolve around a group of people you already know or have already met. Social networks are inherently unique to each and every person who has one for this very reason.

So when it comes down to it, what makes a social network a social network is the fact that you have already made each of the relationships. Your preestablished connections have been built one by one, directly by you and an online social network is where those connections can have a place to live collectively. Once you wrap your mind around this, you can start putting social media platforms into their respective categories. It should now be easy to understand why LinkedIn, Facebook and MySpace are considered Social Networks.

Online Communities

The biggest difference between social networks and online communities is that communities form out of groups of people from all different backgrounds and histories. From a social and anthropological standpoint, these are the most interesting to study because they consist of people who probably have never met yet are held together by a common interest or goal. People join online communities for all sorts of reasons – perhaps they share a preference for similar things or a similar lifestyle.

Furthermore, just about anything can bring a group of people together but it’s what makes each person stay that is polarizing. There are two things that compel online community members to stick around:

1. The urge to contribute to the community

2. The perception of benefitting from the community

In addition to compartmentalizing and retaining groups of relative strangers, online communities can also overlap with each other and even nest within one another. Is it easy to see now why Yelp, Wikipedia, Follr, Digg, Flickr, blogs and YouTube are online communities? People who love the dining experience congregate on Yelp. Those who are proponents of the internet-dictionary-search engine movement use Wikipedia. Anyone can create an online community for their topic or interest on platforms like Follr. In short, these are online platforms where people with a common interest or purpose interact. 

In summary, the biggest difference in social networks and online communities is the origination of the connection. If it was made offline, likely you’re dealing with a social network. If the connection was made online, that’s definitive of an online community.


Social Networks

1.         Bound together by pre-established interpersonal connections

2.         Each connection has his or her own social network

3.         Characterized by a spider web-like “network” structure

Online Communities

1.         Bound together by a common interest or topic

2.         ANY person can be a part of ANY community

3.         Characterized by a more complex overlapping and “nested” structure. 

Hope this helps! Let me know in the comments section below if I left anything out you might like to understand more clearly. For more quick info, visit Community Managers

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