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Maintaining the Strong Ties: Community vs. Social Networks 4

Lithium Alumni (Retired) Lithium Alumni (Retired)
Lithium Alumni (Retired)

727i2A698852917EF381Michael 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.


This post is the 4th installment of my miniseries exploring the relationship between communities and social networks. Each article builds on concepts that are established in the previous. So, if you missed any one, I recommend reading them before you move on.

  1. Community vs. Social Network
  2. How Do People Become Connected?
  3. From Weak Ties to Strong Ties

Previously in this miniseries, you’ve learn that weak ties can form two ways: in communities and through social networks. But weak ties are developed into strong relationship in communities. This post will explore what happens after a strong relationship is established.


Communities Need Social Networks to Maintain Relationships

You may recall from previous discussions that any individual is often part of many overlapping and nested communities, because people have many different interests, preferences, skills, etc. So we can create weak ties and build relationships in many different contexts. These are really different relationships even though Facebook simply lumps them together with one identifier ‘friends’. They really should be categorized a little more; such as siblings, beer buddies, badminton pals, chess club friends, foodie network, movie junkies, nature explorers, CA trail hikers, etc. Moreover, people move to different towns, switch jobs, change interests, or move into different stages of their lives, so people are constantly leaving communities and joining new ones.


791iD17CC494D122AE17So, how do people manage all the relationships they developed across different communities? And how does an individual maintains the relationships he has built when he switches communities? You can probably guess the answer. If the relationships are well developed (i.e. they are strong relationships rather than mere weak ties), then they will become part of the person’s social network. Remember (see Community vs. Social Network), each person has one and only one social network. Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social network services (SNS) are really social graphs that reveal different relationships in our social network (see Social Network Analysis 101).


As I’ve mention in earlier posts, I now know quite a few members on Lithosphere and the various LinkedIn groups that I’ve joined. Our interactions around a common topic of interest have fostered the development of our relationships. Subsequently, these formerly community acquaintances have become part of my LinkedIn network, which is a part of my social network that accentuate my professional relationships (see Social Network Analysis 101). Now, even if they leave Lithosphere, or if I leave a LinkedIn group, we still have ways to communicate and interact with each other. And because we have had sufficient interactions to build our weak ties into strong relationships, we will remember the context of our relationships and trust each other’s opinions under the relevant context.


Therefore, successful communities should integrate with SNS providers, so community members can keep the valuable relationships they’ve built. In case you haven't heard, we've just launched our Facebook App yesterday. This is our first step towards integrating our community platform with SNS.


Without social networks, communities are siloed, so when a member leaves a community he  would probably have to give up all the relationships he built in that community. This is certainly not desirable for community members, but it also has adverse implication for the community.


What’s Wrong with Siloed Communities?

What are some of the adverse effects of a siloed community?

  1. Offers little incentive for members to invest and participate in the community
  2. Prevents influx of new superusers, and therefore limits the exchange of novel knowledge and ideas

Today most people joining an online community probably don’t expect much strong relationship to come out of it. Frankly, most community platforms are not designed in such way that would enable their member to keep the relationship they’ve established. Consequently, members are often reluctant to invest their time and energy in building relationships in communities. Personally, I believe this one of the contributing factors that leads to the generally low participation level in most online communities.


For those who have invested time and energy, they are also reluctant to leave, knowing they cannot keep anything they’ve build within the community. This impedes the circulation of superusers between communities. Naively, this may seem like a good thing at first, since you can keep your valuable superusers. But if we analyze this scenario with game theory, the table can be turned 180 degrees around. The reason is because there are many communities out there, and your community is just one of them. Every community has its superusers, just like yours. If all superusers are reluctant to leave their own community, then there will be few available to visit and join your community.


Since the population outside your community is usually much larger than your community population, the potential influx rate into your community will almost certainly be much greater than the efflux rate from your community. Therefore, by restricting the circulation of superuser, you may retain a few of them, but you are losing out on the potential to gains hundreds and thousands of them. This will ultimately impede the exchange of knowledge and ideas between communities.



1. Social networks are what enables people to manage and maintain the strong relationships they’ve built in communities

2. Communities that are well integrated with social networks can:

     a. Promote exchange of knowledge and ideas between communities through circulation of superusers

     b. Foster greater level of participation and better interactions among members


Although weak ties can form either in communities or through social networks, these social structures have different roles in human history. Communities are for cultivating the weak ties into strong relationships; where as social networks are for maintaining and sustaining these important relationships. We need both of them! The complementary role of communities and social networks is precisely why they are two of the most robust social structures ever existed in human history.


This completes our discussions on the social anthropological roles of communities and social network. Now that you have a more holistic view of social media (which consist of all the technologies built around online communities and online social networks), do they look a little less intimidating?


Next time... hmm... I'm not sure what I'll talk about. Got a little distracted from watching the World Cup that I didn't plan anything for next week. It will be the week of the World Cup's Final, so I'm pretty sure you won't have any time to read my boring blog. 🙂 Who do you think will win? Anyway, I'll think of something and hope to see you next time.



About the Author
Dr. Michael Wu was the Chief Scientist at Lithium Technologies from 2008 until 2018, where he applied data-driven methodologies to investigate and understand the social web. Michael developed many predictive social analytics with actionable insights. His R&D work won him the recognition as a 2010 Influential Leader by CRM Magazine. His insights are made accessible through “The Science of Social,” and “The Science of Social 2”—two easy-reading e-books for business audience. Prior to industry, Michael received his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley’s Biophysics program, where he also received his triple major undergraduate degree in Applied Math, Physics, and Molecular & Cell Biology.
Anne van den Berg
Not applicable

Thanks for the interesting read. I think it is really interesting how old principles of how people connect is continuing in the online world. Also, if you haven't read it already, this is a very interesting book on communities: Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson A anthropological must-read. 🙂

Lithium Alumni (Retired) Lithium Alumni (Retired)
Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Anne,


Absolutely. That was the original intent when I started this little research project. My original goal is to see how much of the current social media observations we can explain from a social anthropology perspective. These will be principles that will go  beyond the fluff. And they will last when all the hypes are over, because that is how humans have always been for millennia.


Thank you for the reference. I will definitely take a good look at Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities.


Thanks for commenting and hope to see you here again next time.



complete series: Social Anthropological roles of #communities and #social networks in human history #scrm

Not applicable

Hi Mike...very interesting..thanks for the excellent is something else that came to me while reading your article.

It is clear that people join communities that they have a common intrest in. For e.g. a community of iPhone Users or Social CRM per se. But, this common interest slowly starts transforming into loyalty to the community and thus even the product (for e.g. iPhone).This sense of bonding that one experiences in Communities both online and in the real world has a telling effect on how the person starts viewing the world. It inadvertently has an effect on the person's perceptions.This bonding and implied loyalty acts as another deterrant for a Super User to leave one and bond into another. For the majority folks in any online community who primarily listen in or just read, the bonding may not be that intense. In some communities one can even find that the community is moving towards 'Mob Mentality'.

Lithium Alumni (Retired) Lithium Alumni (Retired)
Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Whatsay, 


Glad you find this mini-series interesting as well as informative.


What you said is absolutely right. Most people who have invested time and energy in the community do tend to stay. Unless something changed so that the interest of the member no longer aligns with that of the community. And this will happen, because the world is constantly changing.


However, a member who chooses to stay because he's deeply bonded with the community is going to feel very differently from one who is afraid to leave because he would lose all his friends in the community. Moreover, members will be more reluctant to invest time in a community where they cannot keep the relationships they built. As a result, it takes longer for members to bond with the community, and also fewer of them will be become deeply bonded.


In contrary, if you open the door, and let people travel and see the world a bit, you'd be surprised how many of them return and become even more loyal. So even though some superusers may leave, most will tend to stay. And those who left (because their interest changed) will probably come back from time to time if there are still old friends in the community (if these relationships are maintained in their social network).


Anyway, thank you for sharing your insightful thought.


Gautam Ghosh
Not applicable

Loved the post.


Intuitively I also see that once a critical number is crossed - a community will try to split to keep the ties manageable - in the real world it usually happens in the sense of identity around clans/regions - once they get too big - people tend to look for things in common in the smaller community and congregate around it.


We've not used the identity defining characteristics in the business world to form communities , and I think getting people to integrate with deeper identity connections will be the way to get to stronger ties in the community - as well as to communicate the community's message on social networks

Lithium Alumni (Retired) Lithium Alumni (Retired)
Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Gautam,


Thank you! And glad to see your comment here.


You are right about this. Such split is one of the reason that the structure of communities tend to be nested and overlapping. Since you brought up this topic, I will dive a little deeper into it.


If the community and its members's interest are still align, the cause of such split has to do more with the time and resource that members have to invest in community interactions. This is related to what some academics called cognitive load. Because we can only spend say 1 hours a day on community activity, we tend to spend it with those we identify with or those most similar to us (a phenomenon that sociologist called Homophily, or loosely what you referred to as the tendency to bond due to some characteristic identity). That is why some community can get very huge and still not split, like countries, ethnicity, race, etc.


Keep in mind that NOT all community split are due to cognitive load and homophily effect. Most of the split actually occur because of a misalignment of the common interest among the members of the community. Because people are different and they will be different no matter what (genetic diversity is what help us survive), this is the major factor that splits large community into smaller ones.


Applying the notion of homophily (identity) in the business context is an interesting idea. I believe that marketing professions have tried do this. Before producing any TV comercials or ad campaigns, they will try to find that identity defining characteristics among their target audience and try to create the ad/commerical with elements that are most easily identified with their target audience.


You can argue that this is only an ad campaign (a departmental strategy to reach their audience) and not the whole business, and I would agree. In some sense I would even say that this is not very authentic if the characteristics identities in the ads are not aligned with the business. Aligning these departmental strategies with the entire business, and at the same time being able to identify with their audience is the challenge that many people are facing today. I believe that social media is one way to achieve this. Because people can connect at a personal level, and through these personal coonection identify with a particular brand or business.


Anyway, thanks for the great comment and hope to see you on Lithosphere more often.



Not applicable
Great post, Mike, and I enjoy the comments, too. Agree, social networks help to dissolve silo walls, and it is important that people can carry their connections independent of the network service providers. The Diaspora project proposes to give us just that.
Lithium Alumni (Retired) Lithium Alumni (Retired)
Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello CoCreatr,


Glad you like the post. I've just look at the diaspora project. It's an interesting idea for user to control their own node in a social network. This is indeed more similar to the how humans work in the real world. I'll be interested to see how it pans out in the long run.


Thank you for commenting and bringing my attention to it. See you next time.


Anandan Pillai
Not applicable

Hey Mike,


I am undergoing PhD from one of the leading management institutes of India.I am interested in the social media and exploring the domain of brand communities for my thesis.


Got to know about you from tweet made by Gautam Ghosh. As suggested by you in the beginning of this post, I went through all your earlier three posts before reading this one. Your series of four posts provoked lot of thoughts in me. It was really eye-opener to learn about the complimentary role of communities and social networks, to which I too agree.


I would love to see your thoughts in a post wherein you unravel the dynamics of "communities" on "social networks" which is becoming a latest phenomenon these days, with the increasing number of organizations participating in social networking websites by creating their brand communities on Facebook, Twitter, Slideshare, LinkedIn etc. So apart from the distinct community oriented websites (Yahoo Answers, etc.), the phenomenon is now moving towards engaging users (customers) on a community, which is in return created on a social network.


Look forward to see your comments on my idea!




Lithium Alumni (Retired) Lithium Alumni (Retired)
Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Anandan,


Wow, you are such a good student... Actually follow my suggestion and do all the homework (reading all the articles in this series). I am very glad to hear that there are PhD students interested in social media, we definitely need more of them in this space. Thanks Gautam for your RTs. They are reaching future leaders in social media, so keep on Tweeting.  🙂


This series of 4 articles is only the introduction. They covered the basic theory and the framework from which we will look at the social media and establishes some context so we are can speak at the same level and be on the same page. Next, I plan to put forth a series of articles on the implications of these basic theories. That is, what does this means to the end users, business and brands. And one of those will be on communities in social network platform.


I haven't figure out the order at which I will present them, so I got some work to do. But I can assure you that what you mention will be a topic that I will cover.


So stay tuned, and finally, thanks for commenting on my blog.


Peter Bekel
Not applicable

Michael, thanks for the very interesting series. And my apologies for this late response. Especially this post in the series I found an eyeopener. As a complement:


Richard Millington (he has a great blog called distinguishes communities and big followings. F.i. Coca-Cola’s  fan page on Facebook he calls a big following. Fans have a very weak tie to Coca-Cola, They´re merely just interested in the brand or they drink Coca-Cola.

Within this big following there are probably also people who collect Coca-Cola bottles. These could, in my opinion, very well form a strongly tied community in which they trade Coca-Cola bottles. A community can thus be formed as an offspring from the big following. Companies can facilitate this proces if they listen carefully to the fans.


Good luck with your interesting blog!

Lithium Alumni (Retired) Lithium Alumni (Retired)
Lithium Alumni (Retired)

Hello Peter,


Thank you for all the RTs and for stopping by and commenting. I'm glad to hear that you find this series interesting. Although this series forms the foundation, there is another set of post that I want to write on the application of these ideas. But I seem to always get distracted. I will try to come back to this topic soon.


What you said is a commonly observed situation. Fan pages on FB is really intended to be a community, however, FB being a social network is not very well suited for tie strength development. So, as you said, this community consists mainly of weak ties. It is like all the millions of fans who follow a certain celebrities on Twitters. They form a community, but not all the fans know each other (note, this is one characteristics of a community).


But if there are sufficient interaction between these fans/followers of Coca-Cola (or celebrities), strong ties can develop. That is the case you mentioned about Coke bottle collectors. Companies can definitely facilitate this process by hosting coke collection show (either online or offline). But there may be other common interest in the Coke Fan pages. And companies should do more listening before they act. The results can be much more effective and can benefit for both parties. Fans are happier because they get what they want, and Coke gets more loyal fans.


Great to see your comment here. See you next time.