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Community vs. Social Network

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

michael-wu.pngMichael Wu, Ph.D. is Lithium's Principal Scientist of Analytics, digging into the complex dynamics of social interaction and online communities.

He's a regular blogger on the Lithosphere and previously wrote in the Analytic Science blog. You can follow him on Twitter at mich8elwu.


Welcome back from the Memorial Day long weekend! In my last post, I promised that I’d cover some new topics this time, so I am going to share with you a research project that I’ve been conducting recently on the relationship between social networks and communities.


Since 2008, “social media” has become a heavily-used buzz word in the corporate world. The question is “what is social media?” Many seem to equate social media to Facebook-liked social networking sites; others seem to think that they are blogs, the Twitter family of applications for micro-blogging, Flickr, YouTube, or similar type of content sharing Web 2.0 applications. Yet, answers to this question may still range from social collaboration sites (like Wikipedia, Delicious, or Digg) to online communities (like those we host for our enterprise clients or Yahoo! Answer).


Well, they are all correct to some extent, and these are functional classifications of social media. Author and blogger Brian Solis, introduced another classification of social media, based on the types of conversation. He called it the conversation prism. However, if you want to understand social media from a relational and social anthropological perspective, you will find that there are really only two major types of social media:

  1. Social Networks
  2. Online communities

Human social networks and communities actually pre-date their online counterpart for millennia. Both are very well-established and robust social structures that have survived the test of time. And they have emerged and reemerged as civilizations collapse and rise. Humans are naturally predisposed to gravitate to and desire this type of interaction. 


For this initial post of the mini blog series, I hope to offer you a perspective that lets you see some basic differentiating features between these two types of social media. Later on, I will show you what we can learn about them from studies in social anthropology.


social_network_structure_resize.pngSocial networks

Everyone has their own social network (whether online or offline). Everyone has friends, families, and people they are acquainted with. An online social networking site simply makes our social networks visible to others who are not in our immediate network.


So the single most important feature that distinguishes a social network from a community is how people are held together on these sites. In a social network, people are held together by pre-established interpersonal relationships, such as kinship, friendship, classmates, colleagues, business partners, etc. The connections are built one at a time (i.e. you connect directly with another user). The primary reason that people join a social networking site is to maintain old relationships and establish new ones to expand their network. With this knowledge, it should be obvious why Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn are social networks as opposed to communities.


One interesting feature about people’s social networks is that they are extremely unique. It is actually very difficult to fake a Facebook or LinkedIn profile, because your friends (or who you connect to) will collectively identify you. Moreover, because people generally do not compartmentalize their life (unless you are a secret agent for the CIA or some cryptic government agencies), people typically have only one social network. Even for the CIA agents, it could be argued that they have only one social network; it’s just that their network has two or more components that have little overlap.



Unlike social networks, communities (both online and offline) are more interesting from a social anthropological perspective, because they often consist of people from all walks of life that seem to have no relationship at all. Yet, as we’ve learned from history, communities are very robust social structures. So what is it that holds these communities together?


Communities are held together by common interest. It may be a hobby, something the community members are passionate about, a common goal, a common project, or merely the preference for a similar lifestyle, geographical location, or profession. Clearly people join the community because they care about this common interest that glues the community members together. Some stay because they felt the urge to contribute to the cause; others come because they can benefit from being part of the community.


Due to the multifaceted lifestyle of modern living, any individual is often a part of many different communities. Moreover, communities can overlap and are often nested. For example, a geographical community, say a town, may contain sub-communities living in different parts of the town that are connected by a finer geographical granularity. But at the same time, the same town may contain several different ethnic communities that are connected by the ethnicity.


Now, do you see why Yelp, Wikipedia, YouTube, Flickr, Digg, the blogosphere, etc., are just communities? Yelp is a community of, originally, food enthusiasts; where as members of the Wikipedia community are passionate about cause of the internet encyclopedia project. YouTube and Flickr are nested communities of video and photography enthusiasts respectively, and they may belong to other sub-communities within the YouTube and/or Flickr community. These sub-communities may simply be your friends and relatives, or people are interested in high dynamics range photography (with 61,000 members) or time lapse videos.


In Summary

Social Networks (see Figure 1) are:

  1. Held together by pre-established interpersonal relationships between individuals. So you know everyone that is directly connected to you.
  2. Each person has one social network. But a person can have different social graphs depending on what relationship we want to focus on (see Social Network Analysis 101).
  3. They have a network structure.

Communities (see Figure 2) are:

  1. Held together by some common interests of a large group of people. Although there may be pre-existing interpersonal relationship between members of a community, it is not required. So new members usually do not know most of the people in the community.
  2. Any one person may be part of many communities.
  3. They have overlapping and nested structure.

Now that you know the basic difference between social networks and communities from a relational perspective, next time we can discuss more interesting questions, such as the dynamics of tie formation, or what it means to businesses. I haven’t yet decided what I will write, so let me know if there are any interesting topics that you want me to dig into. In the mean time, comments, questions and critiques are all welcomed.



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I like this classification Michael. I would add that there are communities that come together through social networks. For example, a group of people passionate about cycling may find each other through Twitter and develop personal bonds. In that case, the community is tied together through the social network.

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Thanks for writing this, I think we are all guilty at times of merging the meanings of these two words.


Just wondering which side of the fence you'd place Facebook Groups? Many of them, even the very biggest, seem to be very trivial indeed and I doubt most people could name more than a few of the ones they have signed up to.


But more seriously, Facebook seems to have a lot of biggish groups that have a clear focus but still this doesn't translate to any real action. For example in the UK the BBC is consulting on the closure of one of its smaller radio stations 6Music. The FB group very quickly got into six figures but the number of people who had visited the BBC's official consultation site to make comments was stuck at about 5% of the FB group membership.


FB seems to be a place for expressing very casual opinions which makes the Like button seem a little suspect.

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Dan,


Thank you for commenting.


You are absolutely right. In fact this will be a topic for the next few article that I am already writing, so I will only answer you briefly here. It's great that you are already thinking ahead.


People can definitely meet on communities or social network. But community is where they develop these relationships. Community can form anywhere, even on a social network site. It is a natural tendency for human to congregate around similar interest and goals. There are many interesting dynamics between communities and social network that I will cover later. Both of them have very roles in the human socieity; that is why they are the most stable social structure in human history.


So stay tuned!


Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello   Nigel,


Thank you for the question.


As I've mentioned in my reply to Dan above, communities can form pretty much anywhere. And according to the definition in this article FB Groups would be a community, despite the fact that Facebook  is a social network. Because you don't necessarily know everyone in the FB group. You can have many FB groups based on your interest. So it is definitely a community.


Social Network and Community are not mutually exclusive. We are part of 1 social network, but we are also part of many community. Strictly from a social anthroplogical view, there is a very important reason for us to have both of these social structures. These more indepth topics will be cover in a miniseries of article that I will post later.


The question you've ask is precisely why I decided to start this mini-series in the first place. The answer is more involved and not trivial. It has to do with the dynamics of how ties form and the differential tendency to engage with friends with different tie strength. So if you follow my blog, you will find the answer to your question: why FB groups are not very effective. Stay tuned!

Not applicable

Thanks for the clarity, Michael.  It is a very helpful distinction.  It also reminds me that, in community building, the intensity of the "common interest"  can influence the energy of the community.   A hobbyist group may create good energy, but communities with world-changing aims can win presidential elections and create new industries.

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Hi Michael,

Thanks for another great post!

You write, "Now, do you see why Yelp, Wikipedia, YouTube, Flickr, Digg, the blogosphere, etc., are just communities?"  Seems like Yelp is blending both Community and Social Networking features. Yelp allows me to "follow" people I don't know but also to invite/connect with my friends from my address books.  And now through Facebook's instant personalization, my Facebook social graph can be automatically imported to Yelp.  I can see the activity of friend's and those who I follow, but don't know personally, on the site.


Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Skip,


Welcome back. Glad to see your comment again.


The common interest in a community is crucial. Without it, most communities will fall apart.


To tag along your comment, I will quote from the renowned anthropologist, Margaret Mead.

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

The intensity of the common interest is what fuel these "small group of thoughtful committed citizens" who in turn make our communities work.


Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Mark,


Thanks for the comment.


What you said is true. Many communities can have social network integrations (as you mentioned with Yelp). In fact our own community platform is also developing Twitter and Facebook integration to enable social networking capabilities in communities. But social network services are also developing community-like interactions, like Groups in FB and LinkedIn. There is a social anthropological reason for all these trends. And this is a topic that I will cover in the next few post -- to explore the dynamic interplay between communities and social network. It is not accidental that communities and social networks are the two most robust social structure in human history. They needs the other and complement each other.


I will address this issue in greater depth in later posts. Hope this will temporarily address your comment for now. I will have to ask you to come back for the full blown treatise on this topic.


Hope to see you back next time.


Not applicable

Good post. Enjoyed reading this post - a great topic and you brought up some interesting views on both.


I just wanted to expand on the question that I had tweeted to you a few days ago - "Can you not have communities within your social networks and social networking within your community?"


I agree with the essence of your classification that social networks are based on 'relationships' and communities are based on 'shared space/interests'. The one point I don't completely agree with you is regarding the statement "the connections are built one at a time (i.e. you connect directly  with another user)." My own thinking on this is that relationships in a social network need not always be direct and consequently the connections are also tiered - those made by you directly and those made by your direct connections. 


The dynamics between these are very interesting. As you yourself mention, the two are not mutually exclusive. And when I thought about it, it was easy to see that one can exist within the other (and hence my original question to you). I would even venture out and say that in some ways there is a symbiotic relationship between the two.


When a person joins a community, initially the reason for joining is the shared interest. However, how long that person stays as part of that community is greatly dependent on the kind of social network they build up within that community. In pure marketing terms, I would say that shared interest is a key driver from an acquisition point of view for a community but not as big of a driver from a retention standpoint -- of course, this purely my opinion and folks are free to poke holes or disagree with me:-) .On the flip side, in my social network sphere how strong my ties are with the different nodes/networks is dependent on if I feel a sense of community with the "nodes" (people in this case).


Anyway, there is a lot to talk on this than in a few paragraphs. I am looking forward to your future posts.





Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Ned,


Thank you for posting your question here. As you can already see in the comments, there are some really inquisitive readers here and some of the questions you asked on twitter have already been addressed, either directly or indirectly.


To your point on the indirect (2nd degree) connections as being part of your relationships, I would have to challenge you a bit on that. Since the social network connects everyone on this planet, you kind of have to make a cut off some where. I used a very strict cut off and considered only those that are directly connected to you as a your network. And those are the relationship that I considered truly your relationships.


As I understand it, you want to extend that to include 2nd degrees, and maybe even 3rd degrees. But my question then is why stop at 2nd (or 3rd) degree. Why not 3rd, or 4th. If you continue to follow that argument, then everyone is related to you, because everyone is only about 6 to 7 degrees apart from you. If you meet a friend of your friend and become friends with him/jher, then s/he would become a 1st degree (direct) connection. Besides (a minor point) what do you call the relation friends of friends? If you want to consider that as a valid relationship, why not have friends of friends of friends as a relationship as well. We certainly don't refer to people that way. If you know them they are your friends (your direct connection), if not they are not your friends, even if they are just 2 degrees away from you. You may know them from a friend, so you call them friend of friend, but the fact that you know them already implicitly implies that they are your friends now. Before you know them, you simply don't know them. Anyway, this is my rigorous view (part of my training as a mathematician). But feel free to challenge me...


Yes, the dynamics between communities and social netwroks is definitely very interesting, and it is a topic that I will write about in later post (actually they are already written). As in my reply to  Mark_Kaufman, there is definitely a symbiotic relationship between the two. And your point about acquisition and retension is definitely on the right track. I'm glad you thought about it that way. It definitely reaffirms my research.


There are definitely a lot of loose ends given what I've posted now. Maybe I shouldn't split up my long-ish article into such short chunks of posts, and that it would be more clear to post the  whole thing as one giant article. I have mix feeling about that though... I hope that as I publish the later posts, things will clear up as we go along.


I sincerely appreciate you taking the time to post the question here. Hope to see you next time.


Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Michael,


I like this episode format because it makes a great job educating people and gradually explaining concepts. Every article is thought-provoking and fosters interaction and feedback. And it also keeps us interested and looking forward for the next articles!

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Julian,


Thanks for the comment. What you said is precisely the reson that I chopped up my long article into short pieces of blog articles. I'm glad you like this format. But I can also see why people would ask all the questions they ask when I only give them part of the story. It is a hard tradeoff that I have to make. Anyways, I will experiment with it and see what works best. That is the scientific approach to this problem. But thanks for comment. It will be one valuable data point for me to test and evaluate my posting method.


Not applicable

Excellent points - and welcome the challenge :-). A friendly cerebral tug-of-war is always good in my opinion as it fosters better learning and knowledge exchange.

So coming back to the topic of direct/indirect connections. We both agree that relationships are key to social networks. Our different point of views I think arise from the different lens we are looking with. You are looking at it from a "connections" perspective, whereas I am looking at from a "connections & interactions" perspective.

My response to some of the points (focusing solely on the online world as offline is another story).

a. You said, "Since the social network connects everyone on this planet, you kind of have to make a cut off some where". Well, I don't think you necessarily have to make a conscious cut-off.  While you might be 'connected' to everyone in the planet theoretically, I think your social network is made up of those nodes that are influenced by you. These could be those directly connected with you and those who interact with you but are not directly connected. For example, I constantly get invites from folks in linkedin not part of my direct network to join a certain group. I do think of them as a part of my social network since they are "aware" of me and my interactions.

b. Which brings up two other points: (a)Social networks are not static, and (b) You only have partial control over your network. To the point you made about direct connections and truly 'your' relationships, I agree that this makes up the core and is relatively more stable (though constantly expanding). However, the periphery of your social network is always in fluctuation as you have no control over who and when someone (not directly connected with you) comes under your influence and initiate an interaction. Now I will agree that in many cases, these non-direct connections turn into direct connections if the interactions continue.

c. While connections are important, [I think] your social network is determined by the type of connections you have and the extent of reciprocity. You and me might be connected with 5 individuals but it makes a big difference in my eyes who those individuals are (a John Doe vs Bill Gates for example) and to what extent they identify with and reciprocate your interactions.

Anyway, these are my viewpoints based on observations rather than a rigorous empirical research. And irrespective of whether our opinions converge or not, I think you have an excellent blog with some cool information and so you should continue to pursue your path based on what you believe in.


Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Ned,

Glad you carried on the discussion.


I’ll add a few more comment to some of the great points you’ve made. Some of these I agree with you, and of those points where I disagree, I will try to explain the differences.


(a). First, social network connecting the whole planet is actually not a theoretical construct. There are pretty convincing hard data and evidence for this. But I guess that depends on what you mean by a social network. This proved a point that in most cases we need a definition. I guess that is just ingrained in my mathematics training. Because what we can conclude depends on the precise definition. In traditional sociology literatures, social network are often defined to be a collection of entities that are connected by the relationship among them. So a person’s social network includes all his friends, relatives, colleagues, acquaintance, both online and offline. This basically includes everyone that a person knows on a first name basis.

Second, the online social network (e.g. Facebook, LinkedIn) is really just a social graph that represents a part of the whole social network, because it only show a part of the social network by accentuating a particular type of relationships (see Social Network Analysis 101). And these online social graphs certainly that does NOT connect everyone on Earth.

I believe that a rigorous definition is important if you want to do some empirical and theoretical work. Anyone can simply talk about these topics casually, and a general understanding is sufficient to get the idea across without the details. But for deep theoretical abstraction and synthesis based on empirical data, we often need a precise definition in order to make accurate and rigorous predictions. For example, If I were to take your perspective and include the notion of interaction or influence, then I would define something like interaction network or influence network. It is probably more descriptive that way, and we don’t have to qualify which definition of social network we meant and whether our data is generally valid for which definition of social network.


(b). I agree 100% that social network is not static. In fact there is a whole field of knowledge pioneered by CMU professor, Kathleen Carley, called Dynamic Network Analysis (DNA), which combines statistics and time series analysis with social network analysis. Another very interesting topic that I would love to cover in a later post.

I believed what you said is mathematically equivalent to mine. Only under my definition of personal social network, I would simply said that everyone has full control over who he wants to be friend with b/c his personal social network include only those who are directly connected to him. But he may not have control over the 2nd degree network (maybe we can defined this to be his personal interaction network), or the 3rd degree network (maybe we can define this to be his influence network).


(c). I agree 100% with this too. In fact the relationship that I will focus on is the one that are reciprocated. If you are familiar with social network analysis (SNA), the John Doe vs Bill Gates distinction will naturally come out from an eigenvector centrality analysis of the social network. Influence can bleed over to graph neighbors on a the social graph, and this is captured by SNA as I’ve illustrated in an earlier series of blogs on influencers identification, this particular post shows you the result of the computation.


Thank you so much for taking the time to voice your view points. They are definitely valuable and offers a different perspective. I hope we will have opportunities to meet in the real world to discuss some of these interesting topics. Hope to see you back on Lithosphere later.






Hello Ned,


Glad you carried on the discussion. I’ll add a few more comment to some of the great points you’ve made.

Not applicable


No arguments from me about the need for a precise definition.  Having been an academician before I crossed-over, I can definitely appreciate the need for rigor and proper design to be applied on a topic like this (especially as there can be various nuances of the term).


Definitely enjoyed our exchange and as I said before, looking forward to future reads.




Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Ned,


Glad that we agreed.


What area of academia were you in? From the short bios on my Lithosphere's profile, you can see that I'm used to be a computational neuroscientist. Basically, I use math, stat, machine learning to model how our brain process visual information. I'm very happy to meet another ex-academician in the social media industry.


The next installment of this miniseries (on the dynamic interplay between communities and social networks) is already out. This one explores the first stage of any relationship: The formation of weak ties.


We should definitely connect up. Maybe we can take some of these more personal conversation privately.


Not applicable
Hello MikeW. Great posts. Quick question Is there not a social network structure underneath any community as a result of social interactions of their members? Talking about on-line social networks, if I think about my facebook's social graph I can see it is made of overlapping communities: a very tight community (family and off-line friends), acquaintances, people I do admire or follow, etc. If analyse it in depth, you could find many overlapped communities, maybe bridged by weak connections with different connections' strength . Sorry, but for me the difference between social networks (as it is defined in your post) and communities is not very clear. Can't wait to move to the next topic in the series. Best Regards c.
Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Cristinaalp,


One thing I must emphasize is that the distinctive characterisitcs between communities and social networks should not be be viewed a strict definition. Being in academician yourself, I think you might have heard people at conference saying that there are 19 definitions of community and the only common thing among them is people (I forgot was it 19 or some other numbers). There will always come up with exceptions. So what I've outlined are not really strict definitions, they are merely distinctive characteristics of these two social structure.


I think your question is more or less in the same vein as the comment by Nigel Sarbutts and comment by mark_kaufman. You can take a look at my reply to Nigel and reply to Mark respectively to see if they help addressing your question.


In short, social network can form within communities. In fact, if you go to the 3rd post in this mini-series, you will find that community is where relationships are developed and become part of an individual's personal social netowrk. So social network naturally form within communities. On the other hand, there are communities within the social network as well. The topological structure of these two social structure are are actually quite complex and interwoven. This seem to be a concept that is particularly confusing. Maybe I will write another post to explain it further.


Thanks for your comment, LinkedIn, and Retweets. Hope to see you next time and have a Happy July 4th.


Not applicable

Hi MIkeW.


Many many thanks for your answer. It clarifies some of my questions, but I need to move on and read the second article in the series.  


It is very refreshing to read a post that marries the mathematical study of  social networks (as graphs) with everyday networks structures. I think applying social network analysis is one of the easiest  ways to understand the true nature of social relationships. And why not, to infer possible future behaviors.  Have you come across with Mark Newman ( and his seminal work on the structural of social networks? 


I do admire your work at lithium and will follow comments within the lithosphere.   


Greetings from UK,  Best Regards



Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Cristina,


Glad to hear that my reply clear up some confusions.


I totally agree that SNA is probably the easiest way to understand the nature of social relationships. The trouble is that most people still don't understand the basics of SNA, or how to read and interpret a social graph. I've attempted to give it a more rigorous treatise at the laymen's level with this post: Social Network Analysis 101. I would be interested to hear your comments on that.


I know Mark Newman's work quite well, and I really like his approach. In fact I used some of his modularity based community detection algorithms in my analyses. Some of them might even make it into our product.


Thank you for asking the your question initially. It will certainly help many others who have the same question but didn't ask it. Also, thank you for your affirmation. Sometimes I feel that don't interact enough with researchers and academicians to get the proper perspectives from the scientific community.


Not applicable

Thanks for your social relationship.  I totally agree that SNA is probably the easiest way to understand the nature of social relationships.

Not applicable

Thanks for the comment. I like this post. What you said is precisely the reson that I chopped up my long article into short pieces of blog articles.

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Allen,


Thanks for the comment.


I've written a series of SNA articles too. But with an emphasis on identification of influencers. If you are interested, please check out


Articles here are probably listed in reverse chronological order, so the most recent ones are at the top.


Thanks again for commenting.

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Malcom


Thanks for commenting.


Some of the subject that I've dive into can be quite involved. That is why I put usually write a long article and then divide them into smaller blog posts.


Thank you for stopping by.

Not applicable

Thanks for your social relationship.

Not applicable

very nice post indeed.


another very interesting form of community, often overlooked, is the ephemeral discussions that form for instance around online journal articles ("comment this article"). they are short-lived but often exhibit extermelly high intensity, especially if the topic is hot enough (soccer, politics, you name it!). in such cases, my empirical intuition tells me that they tend to reveal, highlight extreme opinions, in a sense the limits or boundaries of such communities of interest.

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Xavier,


Thank you for the comment.


Yes, communities can have various life span. Some are very transient and totally even event driven. I think the kind of discussion communities around online journals would be a very short live communities, because people move on to other more interesting things.


BTW, communities with a common interest can (and often do) have many different opinions around that particular interest that glue the community together. That is what make the community interesting and dynamic. If all opinion is the same then there is no discussion and the community will probably dissolve.


Anyway, thanks for stopping by and commenting. See you next time.



Not applicable

very clear, but I agree with part of it


I don't think that each person has one social network, today one of the problems is to manage our presence in many social network: me and most of my friend have account on fb, twitter, linkedin, foursquare and some others; there is also a trend on smaller, private, platform which are both social network and community. The difference between them is becoming a very thin line



Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Donatella,


Thank you for the comment.


I think you are saying that because you are thinking of online social networks. In that case, what you said is true. We have many online social networks. But that is an artifact of the technology and business competition out there. From a sociology and social anthropology point of view, we really have only one social network in real life.


You wouldn't say your high school friends belong to your social network, and colleagues are not part of your social network, woud you? Just because the data of our professional network sits in a different social netwroking service from our friendship network, it doesn't mean they are not part of the network. In real life, they are all interconnected.


However, people can have different social graphs of your single network. I highly recommend you take a quick read on Social Network Analysis 101. I think it will address the confusion between social network and social graph. And I believe it will be clear that we only have one social network, but many social graphs.


OK, hope I addressed your question. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.



Dear Mike,


I just came across your article in the course of my literature review for my phd on - a special type of Soc. Comm. in the context of knowledge exchange. 


I was wondering, if you could recommend me literature where SNS and SCs are clearly separated.


Thank you for the article - very well written  and taken to the nucleus. 





Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Patric,


Glad you find my work useful in your PhD studies.


First, when you said social communities, do you just mean online communities? If that is the case, then I don't think they are separated. People belong to social networks through pre-established interpersonal relationships, but we also at the same time belong to many communities through common interests with other people.


You can take a look at a later article that I've written on this subject that explains why there are communities in social networks, but there are also social networks within communities. You can find the discussion in this blog article:

Cyber Anthropology: A Unified View of Communities and Social Networks


I don't know what your PhD thesis is on. But feel free to explore the rest of this series on Cyber Anthropology. I hope to see you on Lithosphere in the future.


Not applicable

I'm not a mathematician, but the plain english of your case here seems less than convincing to me, but only if you insist that Facebook is a social network and not a community.


So riddle me this, why isn't Facebook a community (with lax general rules around egress and ingress) whose common focus (shared purpose) is status updates. Like many other communities as you define them, I don't know all the members. Like many other communities as you define them, people come and go all the time -- the boundaries are just like facebook boundaries. Everyone in Facebook is a "card-carrying" approved member by virtue of the formal registration process. If you haven't gone through the process you're not in. Therefore, facebook has the same "network" structure, and the same firm boundaries, that you describe for communities. And the Facebook community overlaps with other entities you describe as social networks, but I'd say also fit your defintion of community.


Let me say this same thing one different way. It seems to me you have members of your social network that come from any community to which you are affiliated, and that Facebook is just another community that happens to contain members from many communities including the Facebook community. Surely you would not suggest that people have not added to their social network via connections made within [the community of] facebook.


In any event, thanks for putting in the time and making the case. It was a great read.



Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Bob,

Thank you for the comment and the inquiry. In order to respond to you, this reply may be a little philosophical in nature.

First of all. There is nothing mathematics about any of the social stuff that I blog about. Sociology, even with the most academic exposition, is fundamentally not an axiomatically rigorous with definitions and logical deduction. It is an field based on observation and summarization. So what I offer here is merely a perspective. There are many perspectives out there, like the Conversation Prism mentioned in this post. And there are many if you want to look into the academic literatures.


Second, the difference I mention are not meant to be taken a definition. There are always exception. With systems that is merely as complex as biological system, scientist already knew that any strict definition simply don’t work, because there are too many exceptions. Human and social system are even higher order complex systems, so I wouldn’t even try to put forth a rigorous definition.


So what can we do. We build models! No models are perfect, some models are more useful than others in some cases. Especially in social system, you have to take a look at what question you are trying to address and what problem you are trying to solve and pick the model that is just complex enough to help you, but not anymore complex. That doesn’t mean that the model is correct, right, or true by any means.

You can certainly treat Facebook as a community too. It just won't help you. Because if you do, then everything is just a big social network and every platform is a community too. This is like highlighting everything in a book. It provides no information as if you didn’t highlight anything at all. If everything is the same as everything else, you don’t get any benefit from those perspective. That is not to say that they are wrong or anything, They are in fact the ultimate truth. They are call tautology in mathematical logic. Undisputable, obvious truth, with absolutely no exception. But they tautological truth are not very useful.


I decided to use this model / framework, not because they are undisputably correct. It is because it allows me to understand the science of relationship (see My Chapter on Relationships: The R in Social CRM). This is just the very first post. If you adopt this view, then you can get the rest of the insights I wrote about in the 13 articles linked in the chapter above. If you don’t accept this perspective, you may get some of those insights elsewhere too. There are many ways to understand the world. And you are free to pick and choose what works for you.


So if you don’t think this model is sufficient for you, pick a different model. There is no perfect models out there. So as a scientist, when I disagree with  someone else, I always first question myself, "Is it because I didn't see their perspective? What is the benefit from adoption that perspective vs. ignoring it and adopting a different perspective?" Life is full of choices, that is what make it interesting  😉


BTW, if you want to be rigorous, I’m happy to talk real math with you.

Thanks again for the comment and see you nex time.



Thanks Mike,


I wasn't really expecting a response, given the vintage of the post. I do appreciate it.


I believe I understand your view. And for what it's worth, it makes good sense to me.


The only utility I can imagine to understanding community as I describe it, is so that we understand that our communications walk edges in a social network, and that those edges are in part qualified by the community in play. Communities differ in terms of the artifacts created, the communication channels employed, the supporting tools in play, and of course -- at root -- the passions that drive them. All of the latter will impact the transmission rate of a given message within a given community. As I'm confident you get, some messages are better suited to some communities (some channels, some formats, etc.) than others.


When I talk to my customers, or to my team, I talk about the characteristics of some networks versus others in those terms and often call out the characteristics of different communities to make the point. It seems to help with a few things.


Anyway, your work is awesome. I'm going through the book now.


Thanks again,



Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello  Bob,


Thanks for the quick turn around and the discussion.

I will always try to respond if I can. If I don't it's simply because I just don't have enough time. I rarely give up on interesting discussions, because ever since I left academic, I miss these nerdy chats... I'm actually sick and resting at home now, so I have some time today.  😉


I'm glad to hear that you have your own framework that works for you. I totally get what you are saying. Communication is a very valid perspective. I just like to look at community vs social network at an even more fundamental level, more stable and longer term, because the way we communicate changes rather quickly. But if that suites your need, that is great! It is a good model for what you are trying to do.


I tend to be a purist when It comes to Occam's razor, and adopt the simplest model that explains the most observation. But as I said before, since social sciences are not rigorous, there is no way for any model to be complete. It comes down to choosing between the following scenarios. Suppose there are only 3 phenomena (say, A, B and C) that we care to explain.


   Model 1: explains A 60% and B 70% and C 65%


   Model 2: that explains A 90%, but 10% of B and 10% of C.

   Model 3: that explains A 10%, but 90% of B and 10% of C.

   Model 4: that explains A 10%, but 10% of B and 90% of C.


Most social scientist tend to create models that explain their data (observations, phenomena) without consideration of all the other data out there. So they tend to create many different models (theories), that explain their observations very well. I, on the other hand, would rather sacrifice the explanatory power for individual phenomenon to get a more holistic understanding of all three phenomena. Otherwise, I would have to adopt many different models. But if phenomena A is what you care about, then clearly Model 2 is better. But if you need to explain only B, then Model 3 will do just fine. Likewise, if you don't care about A and B, then Model 4 is probably better.


See my point? It's a matter of taste, which you pick. I just like the elegance and simplicity better. Moreover, there is more internal consistencies. Since it's just one model (even though it's not as good as other models with respect to different problems), I don't have to worry about reconciling the difference between the models.

Anyway, that is the trade-off I constantly have to make when constructing my models and perspective. They are not necessarily the most impeccable models, but they tend to be the simpler and more elegant ones. 


Thank you for your validation and I appreciate the discussion.


And I'm glad to hear that you are reading the book. It's written more for a business audience, so it's definitely not as rigorous as I like to be. But let me know what you think.


Thanks again for the conversation and hope to see you next time.

Hello Michael!


In your different articles you repeat again and again in different words that "social network extends indefinitely and wrap around the globe". Why  this statement is so important for you? And is it really true? What is about different little settlements isolated from other world by their geography position or cultural differenses? 

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Maxim,


Thank you for asking this excellent question.


To answer your question of why this is important, it is because this gives a natural scope of the potential size of community vs. the potential size of social network. Social network can grow very big, where as a large community will tend to fragment and create sub-communities within the larger community. And that is what we see today, both online and in the physical world. You can consider Russian as a huge community, but within this community there are sub-communities of people from different regions, with different religion, with different political views, etc. These are sub-communities within the larger community of Russian as a country.


The validity of this statement is never been experimentally verified rigorously. However, observations shows that it is largely true in the modern world. If you randomly pick any 2 persons in this world, it is possible to construct a chain of friends that connects these 2 people. And in fact this chain is usually pretty short: roughly 6 degrees apart.


It doesn't matter if you have a tribe that is isolated geographically or culturally, someone in that tribe knows someone outside, So everyone in that tribe is basically connected to the rest of the world through this critical person. It is hard to find some self contain social networks where people within this network ONLY knows other people within this network and no one outside. If this network exist, it is the entire earth. Until one person on earth establish friendship with extra-terrestrials, earth is the extent of the human social network. But once earthlings made contact and establishes friendship with an aliens from another planet, then basically the entire earth's social network become connected to the social network of the other planet.


Alright, I hope this address your question. 

Thank you again for asking and see you next time.


Michael, okay, we can believe that we can reach everybody on our Earth through the chain (maybe throuh the very long chain) of our acquaintances. I will give you one example which can cast doubt on this a little lately. But my main question is about what does it mean for us that we can reach everybody? What consequences do we have? How can we use it? And what does it give to us - as for humans, brands or service developers - in opposite to community restrictions? 


p.s. One little example that casts doubt on ubiquity of the globe social network.


One author from tried to examine the theory of six degrees of separation. He got the data of "friendship" between users of (also known as Vkontakte), the biggest socila network site in Europe (this is a Russian counterpart of Facebook). And then he found that about 50% of all users are grouped in isolated cliques that don't have any relations with other part of the network or just have just 1 connection. He had to exclude thу data of these users from his analysis arguing that all of them are fake accounts. But it's rather strange because Vkontakte has more then 100 million users. Here is the link to the article I told:

Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Maxim,


Ah, I see. You are talking about social netowrking platforms, which is not necessarily a realistics reflection of our physical social network in the real world. The key importance about how much value a social network can give you is completely unrelated to the number of people who are in the network, rather it is the connection and interaction between them. In social network analysis terms: the nodes doesn't matter, it is the edges that matter. Moreover, the edges has to reflect true relationship in the real world. Otherwise, the network has limited or no value. may be the biggest Russian social network, in terms of it's member, but that is irrelevant. This social network has no value if it does not reflect the connections between those 100 M users in the physical world. You can have a email database of every person on this planet, but if they are not connected by real relationships, and they don't interact, its value is very limited, because it is not really a network anymore. That is the same reason that Facebook is so much more sticky than Twitter, because the connection on Facebook reflects the real connection between individuals in the real world, whereas Twitter doesn't (or at least to a much lesser extent).


If the social networking platform is not reflective of the real human social network, then it certainly won't extent to the entire world. Just imagine, if you have every single person on the earth get on a social network, if no one connects with anyone else, then there is no network. It doesn't extent beyond yourself. That is probably why has a much longer chain than real social networks in the physical world. No only the users are fake accounts, the connections may even be fake. That is not to blame, because it is not easy to build realistics social networks the reflect true relationships in the physical world. Twitter has the same problem.


The 6 degrees of separation has been tested in very large (almost planetary scale). You can take a look at the academic paper by Jure Leskovic here: The average path length between 2 IM users is about 6.6 very short chain.


So if you don't have a realistic network, then you can't really talk about value yet. If you do, then you can address the question about value. And I wrote about it in the following posts. I recommed you take a look at these:

  1. Virtual vs. in Real Life: The Value of Relationship Perspective
  2. The Social Dynamics of Facebook Fan Pages
  3. The True Marketing Power of Facebook: Sociology Perspective
  4. Still Fishing Where the Fish Are?

Alright, I hope I've address your question. It is a very deep subject. And without rigorous analysis, it is very easy to come to the wrong conclusion. So we have to be very careful about what we read out there.


OK, thank you again for the discussion. See you next time.


Not applicable

With the proliferation of social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and Google+, what is your notion of “community” in today’s world? How is community stability evolving and what impact will that evolution have on society?


Please personally email me with any info you may have.



Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Matt,


The proliferation of social media will not change the fundamental characteristics of a community. Regardless of all the social media out there, community is still a group of people held to gether by a common interest. That is it. Nothing more and nothing less. This has not change for thousands of years. The advent of social media didn't even make a dent in this concept that is very robust in human history.


The different social media channels simply provide the community members with different ways to communicate. If you limit yourself to one platform, then in this narrow view, community may seem to be destablize with the proliferation of social media channel. But if you look at the community holistically. The community still exist, they just become distributed on different channels.


All discussions here are open, so I will only hold the conversation here. Email = Evil and selfish.

Hope this address your questions.



This topic about Facebook is still up to date on some points ! 


Communities became popular even before social media had dawned. Social media has information about everything and anything with less engagement due to overflow of information, but communities have a purpose and stick to a certain field of expertize with numerous engagements and discussion.  The data about a specific topic is arranged in a quick to refer way as threads with indepth interaction. 


Hi Michael,

Thank you a lot for your article!

I liked it, really 

In addition, I also agree with your opinion, especially "social network extends indefinitely and wrap around the globe"