Following on from the previous post that attempts to distinguish between fan, follower and community member, here’s a brief and imperfect review of the major platforms that we generally consider as suitable for community building.
Bear in mind that each of these do some of the other (and increasingly so as they develop more functionality). But this is a broad-stroke review designed to help someone who’s considering how to create an online platform for community (if they’re not custom-designing their own).
Facebook isn’t designed to create distinct communities. Its main function is to distribute information amongst people who already know each other (or are separated through a few degrees of separation if they’re friends of friends).
Its brilliance is that it removes the resistance to communication within a network of strong and weak ties that geography, time, telephone, mail or even email represent. It’s as its makers describe it: a utility, one that enables things to be shared by people who already know each other, and as such it likely makes those ties a little stronger.
But you can’t say the majority of relationships on Facebook are defined by buying into a common goal, doing things together, having complex interactions, being distinct from other communities because of their values or goals. It’s about fast and seamless information-sharing, whether video, photos, messages or status updates.
Fanpages are slightly different. They can be used to create a community of sorts around an idea, person or thing. At least, it’s a group of people distinguished from the larger Facebook population by putting up their hand up to say I’m a fan of x.
But it’s not really designed to create real community. Co-creation is very limited. There are discussion boards, if enabled, and even some offline functionality. You can receive updates from the fan-object. You can post your own updates (if the administrator enables that).
At the end of the day it’s designed for an audience, not a membership. It’s no accident it’s called a fan page. Fandom normally means a two-way relationship between the fan and the fan-object. Actually, on Facebook it’s often only one-way and used as simply another broadcast medium for distributing information from the fan-object to the fan. It’s not designed for relationship building between members, co-creation or any of the other markers of true community.
Meetup is completely different. It’s almost the reverse of Facebook. Where Facebook is about information-distribution amongst people who already know each other, wherever they are in the world, Meetup’s single-minded focus is creating local, sustainable community around interests, passions, needs and causes amongst people who were initially strangers. It creates a framework for strangers to become friends through successive Meetups, co-create and do stuff together.
Its software is designed for people to find each other and share common interests, easily organize events, appoint responsibilities, create economies within the groups (via fees and sponsorships) and recruit. It’s a reinvention of local community predicated on shared interests (not just proximity), using the Internet to get off the Internet.
Ning is like Meetup, in that it is also designed to create community around shared passions and interests amongst people who were initially strangers. But the focus is not on local, face-to-face community. Its Networks (its name for its communities) can be huge and are normally global. If you’re into zombies you can collaborate with other zombie-lovers globally and make a movie together.
If you’re into reinventing government both federally and locally, join the 24k plus members who belong to Govloop. You can create more specialized communities within the Meta-Network (say, of Federal Recruiters), and they can meet locally (although that’s not a frequent thing). Ning has a selection of tools that enable interaction and co-creation: blogs, discussion boards, groups, status updates etc.
Both Ning and Meetup are in the community business. They have software platforms that recognize the need for a strong community to define its purpose, recruit people who buy into that purpose, enable rich interactions between members and encourage co-creation and participation.
Now Twitter. Is Twitter a community-building platform? I would say not. Yes, people can have tweet-ups and spontaneously show up for an event. You can have lists that are predicated on common interests. But in essence it’s a broadcast medium to followers that you normally don’t know, and never will. They’re an audience, or sometimes a fanbase.
Twitter is really the status-update feature of Facebook without the network of pre-existing relationships. It’s being used by some people as a sort of proto-community of similar values and interests that enables peer-reviewed and distributed information. I’ll read x article because y person who I respect and follow recommends it. It’s sort of a select crowd-curated information source if used this way (versus broadcasting your teeth-flossing schedule). But basically it’s a stripped-down broadcast medium, with some direct messaging functionality.
So, if you’re not building your own custom-designed site for community creation, Meetup and Ning are really the only platforms out there that have robust functionality to enable communities of shared interest. Then you have to decide if you’re creating a local or global community.
If you’re custom-designing and want access to the crowd, you can go where the crowd is, or fish where the fish are and create an outpost on Facebook. But it really should be recognized for its limited community functionality. It’s often used as a feeder into the main community site. Twitter is a great communication device to broadcast to your community and beyond, and a great intelligence-gleaning device if you’re monitoring what people think of your fan-object or community-leading skills, or you want recommendations on what to read, see and attend from people you respect.