What Makes a Social Community Real? 2

In their latest question of the week, the Social Media Club, asks: What makes a community real? That is, When does a Website feel like a place to be, instead of simply a page of information to visit?

The question was spawned by the Social Media Club, previewing the results of the Social Media Buyer’s Guide at Web 2.0 in San Francisco last week (presentation of results embedded above). It includes some great data, which I’ll likely cover in future posts.

Now for an answer to the question. In its definition, a community (of any kind) consists of a group of people connecting around common interests. That was the original structure for social communities online. However, early models of online communities, structured as such, were often closed to outsiders. Friendster was Facebook in a lot ways, before Facebook was Facebook. However, it was stuck within its walled garden, limiting its appeal as a “place to be.” Why? Freindster never went mainstream enough to allow community members to expand beyond their real-life networks. In addition, after their founding in 2002, Freindster remained closed to developers and outside content for four years – closing off its reach.

The connections that make up an online community determines – in many respects – how useful it is to individual users. Open communities, with wide-ranging ties and social connections, are more likely to introduce new ideas and foster communal results (Revolution Facebook-style). While Twitter’s growth of 1382% is staggering, its connections are minuscule in scale when compared to Facebook. Twitter has north of 6 million users (i.e. connections) to date, while Facebook has 175 million users. The number of connections and groupings that can be made between those 175 million users is staggering. Especially, with the addition of Facebook Connect, openness to outside developers and the limitless sub-groups it provides.  Combined, they’ve made Facebook a “place to be,” and has increased time spent on the site by over 566% in the last year.

However, to play devil’s advocate for a minute, there is a new factor emerging. It’s called interaction, and it could turn the idea that: “connection scale makes or breaks an online community,” on its head. There is a reason Twitter is growing so fast, and a reason everyone from Facebook to FriendFeed are emulating their real-time status updates and conversations. To the next generation of Web goers, real-time connections seem to be more important than the amount of connections possible. At the same time, Twitter’s growth is beginning to make those real-time connections more wide-ranging and meaningful. A combination that appears to be the holy grail of future online communities: Communities with seemingly endless connection possibilities and second-by-second interaction.

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