Before the holidays I made the following promise:

However, to put all of this in context, I've decided to share the planning process itself -- how we think about planning social computing initiatives. It's my hope that clarifies how we make investment decisions and gives anyone interested in doing so an opportunity to point out any flawed assumptions that have crept into our thinking, and suggest improvements. I see that happening in several installments, each one building upon the last:

  • Defining terms: community/social software/social computing
  • Detailing association/relationship types and the development of strategy
  • The foundations of online social interaction and the development of tactics
  • The role of guiding principles in an ongoing creative development process
  • The roadmap

I suspect we'll get to each of these over the next three to four weeks.

The post received quite a few views, but no comments. I've been mulling over the meaning of that. And mulling. And mulling. And still mulling. In the meantime, I've decided to forge ahead.

Defining terms. Terms, ahhh, a favorite subject of mine. You see, according to the Insights Discovery System I'm predominately blue with yellow running a close second. (The Insights Discovery System program is one of those things companies do from time to time for a host of reasons including, but not limited to, team buildimageing, personal discovery and exploration of self, interpersonal awareness, and spending money. We all put up with it because we have to, and it's usually amusing, if a bit long winded. Here's an example of the kind of report you get after you take their test the graphic  was pulled from that pdf.)

Anyway, us blues often insist that we have some agreement on terms. That requires a special effort and is not always a popular use of meeting time. Red's in particular often lack the patience for that sort of thing. 

Defining community should be easy right? And it is, sort of. It's a "how far down the rabbit hole do you want to go" sort of thing. Community, and the phrase social network, each have a lot of layers. The wikipedia definitions continue to be refined. They've been edited a couple dozen times so far this month.

Here's the table on contents for the Wikipedia entry for community:


To be clear, I like the entry. It provides an interdisciplinary view of the subject and makes it clear that there's more depth and breadth than your membership in Facebook might suggest. However, I like to start simple, and simple is tough to tease out of that treatment.

And the plot thickens. It turns out that there's another entry on wikipedia that might meet our needs better. Wikipedia offers a second entry dedicated to virtual community. Here's the table of contents for that entry:


This one is not quite as long, and a lot more fun. Consider this quote: "Significant socio-technical change may have resulted from the proliferation of such Internet-based social networks." Or this, "The agglomeration of all online communities is sometimes called the metaverse." Wow. Here we are, right this very instant, in the midst of socio-technical change and with full membership in the metaverse. I should add that to my LinkIn profile.

Along with that excited commentary, however, are a number of gems:

  • "A virtual community is a social network with a common interest, idea, task or goal that interact in a virtual society across time, geographical and organizational boundaries..."
  • "Virtual communities depend upon social interaction and exchange between users online."

Gems? Yes, because they're simple. You may have great depth in your understanding, but you must also start with simple definitions -- however superficial -- if you intend to get any conversation started. With that in mind, I would simplify further and say that at root a community is a group of people with a common interest and shared activity. It doesn't matter whether they're grouped online or offline, or what the interest is, as long as it results in related, and relating, activities.

On to "Social Network". In popular parlance, the phrase social network and community appear to be synonymous. 

image Technically, there is a distinction (and Wikipedia, in their definition of social network clearly warns us not to confuse the two). A social network is the structure underlying the community -- the web of relationship or association. Social network analysis is the process of describing and understanding the relationships between the related entities -- not necessarily human individuals (just as community, more broadly defined, does not require people -- though that is an assumption I've made herein to save space).

Here's an observation that makes the distinction: it is possible to be a member of someone's social network and not know it. It commonly occurs. My RSS reader represents one of my most prized and certainly most professionally valuable social networks. It's not, however, a community. Personally, I experience the sensation of dissonance at the idea that I could be an unwitting member of some community. Community membership connotes (at least) knowledge of that fact, though I've been known to ignore that distinction myself. Therefore, a community is a type of social network (web of relationship) where the members are cognizant of membership.

Consider this question: will community form around the OfficeLive Workspace product itself? I suspect that a community of experts in the technology will form. I hope it does. In fact I'll be continuously evolving the community site to support that goal. However, they will very likely represent only a tiny percentage of the overall population of workspace users. Any other communities? Again, I surely hope so and will be designing and redesigning services to support that end. But I don't think all, or even most of those communities will center on the product itself. Heresy, I'm sure, but the more likely outcome is that communities will form around the activities the technology supports, rather than the technology itself.

Will social networks form around the technology? The answer is yes if I have anything to say about it. You see, support is one of the reasons for the existence of And social networks may be a more important concept than community when we're considering support scenarios specifically, or information worker scenarios generally. I've written about that before, and likely will again -- just not right now.

So, with community and social network defined, are we ready to go determine strategy? Not yet, but at least we can begin talking sensibly about the subject. The next job is to define the nature of the relationships or associations that are most likely to best support the activities in question.