Does size really matter?

Often when trying to understand an online phenomenon, looking to the non-online version (if applicable) is a useful tool to start with for comparative purposes later of how the entity has changed in its online guise.

“Online communities” – topic of exploration this week

Task: Find an online community and study it.

Instinctively, I felt I knew what a community was – a network of support, usually coupled with a sense of belonging, of like-minded or similarly experienced people e.g. a sports society or local mother and toddler group.

However, despite using all three terms synonymously in my definition, I had absolutely no idea what made a group or a society or a community what it was and whether there was any distinction between them – a useful definition for choosing an ‘online community’ to analyse.

So I went browsing on the internet to find out what ‘community’ meant…

A body of people or things viewed collectively. – OED (#1)

This seemed to give very little further insight, so I continued my quest…

Community usually refers to a social unit larger than a small village that shares common values. – Wikipedia, “Community”

Two interesting elements here: size and values.

Although I had expected a sense of belonging, the notion of values underpinning a community seems more applicable to certain communities than others. Feminist communities have a very clear values base of equality and respect, with magnetism to such collectives if you share their principle beliefs. However, Geocaching – whereby you hide a box and tell others of its GPS coordinates – seems less ‘values’ orientated and more around a shared interest in active games (although an appreciation for the outdoors could be indirectly linked).

Size was the next thing that struck me – how large is a small village? And when does a unit become too large to be called a community?

Micro- > Meso- > Macro-level analysis

According to social science analysis levels, communities fall within meso-level scales – a fairly large category spanning from a clan/tribe up to a city or state. Using such benchmarks, this formula would make a community between 100 individuals – 10 million in size.

So let’s compare this to some typical online communities: 4chan = 110,000 active users currently (*tick*); Hash House Harriers Edinburgh = 120 members (*tick*); @JustinBieber, twitter account = 35 million…

Errr… that’s enormous… over 6 times larger than the whole population of Scotland :S

So Bieber fever hits Macro-level. Bieber is more akin to a ‘nation’ than a community – Twitter king of a country between the size of Kenya and Sudan.

But has this helped at all better understand what a community is? No.

Size has done nothing but further cloud understanding – a red herring of the non-online world when applied online.

This made me think of the MSc Digital Education Manifesto:

The best online courses are born digital.

Could the same be true for definitions?

Could the constant referral to the non-digital be clouding judgement of a truly new form online?

There may be a common etymological root, but they are not necessarily the same thing.

Interestingly, this seems to be precisely what has happened…

An online facility, such as an electronic bulletin board, forum, or chat room, where users can share information or discuss topics of mutual interest. – OED (#8)

I might be back to where I started but it was definitely worth the (virtual) journey! :)


3 Responses to “Does size really matter?”

  1. Candace Nolan-Grant February 26, 2013 at 9:59 am #

    Thanks for taking us along on your virtual journey : ) It does seem the case that many digital communities are based around offline/otherline interests or self-identification rather than a goal/value or random meeting (although it would be interesting to study ‘random communities’ like this as well…!).

    [PS I just made up 'otherline'. I don't think it's going to catch on...]

  2. Giraf87 February 26, 2013 at 9:53 pm #

    A skeuomorphis is what this phenomenon may be related too I think, a word I first heard about not long ago. Apple was suffering from it too… it’s when you use the model of the analogue to replicate the digital… i.e. a chat room, may offer chat, but is it really about a ‘room’.?

  3. Amy Woodgate February 26, 2013 at 10:48 pm #

    skeuomorphis of the otherline – that is exactly what it is!!

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