Last Saturday, I went on a Deutschlandradio Wissen talk show to discuss online communities. The other two speakers were Sarah Krohn, moderator at hungrig-online.de, and Mark Ralea, community and marketing expert. What it came down to was an interesting discussion of large social networks versus smaller niche communities.
What is it?
At the start of the discussion, we quickly agreed that an online community must be some kind of virtual platform where people frequently come together to talk to each other. This “talking to each other” must follow certain rules and norms – either social or technical – and it must have some sense of direction, a purpose. Finally, any community needs its boundary that defines who’s in and who’s out (see my post on online study groups).
This rough definition would include a lot of websites on the Internet where people register and get the chance to interact. Well, there’s no problem with that because the architecture of the Internet and its founding spirit are all about decentralized community.
More than just the big boys
Most people would probably think of Facebook et al. when they hear “online community”. Ralf Müller-Schmid, the host of the show, suggested that these gigantic social networks are quickly taking over all communication space on the Internet, drowning out smaller communities.
The success of “Hungrig Online”, represented on the show by Sarah Krohn, goes to show that this is ain’t so. This non-commerical community for people with eating disorders is very much alive and allows its members to speak anonymously about their situation. It’s organized decentrally by a group of volunteers. Some of them once suffered from eating disorders themselves.
“Hungrig Online” can define its norms and rules according to its very specific needs, for example by offering anonymity. “Hungrig Online” can also draw its boundaries according to its specific purpose: People who join know they will find others with similar problems.
As this example illustrates, a niche community can define a communication space that is most appropriate for its respective purposes. Anonymity, confidentiality, or exclusiveness are three typical parameters that niche communities can tweak.
My conclusion to our on air discussion: Social networks like Facebook will continue to attract the largest number of users and will facilitate a huge chunk of all online communication. Nevertheless, they will never replace smaller, interest-based communities like “Hungrig Online”, which can offer something unique to a group of people who share the same interest.