Three types of community

This is a brief overview of three community models. They are theoretical models, but they are ones I have used with a variety of people on a variety of real projects. They are very useful tools to abstract and discuss the myriad issues that communities throw up for their hosts to handle, starting with the one big question:

“So, what sort of thing do you mean when you say – we want a community?”

Just as there are over 1,000 definitions of ‘Community’, so I am not trying to say ‘this is the absolute truth’; perhaps add these to the growing list. They are models to assist with understanding, conversations, planning etc.

The three are not necessarily sequential; although (1) and (2) could be as an organisation opens its previously private communities up to the wider web. (3) is very unlikely to follow (1) or (2) as it is rather different in nature – but it could, I guess.

Each of these has a related ‘facilitation’ style which I (and fellow facilitators and clients) have found works. I will write another post about the facilitation styles in due course. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this way to think about stuff.

Centralised community:

Centralised community

This is a diagram representing a traditional online community with a clear boundary defined by membership and related login. This could be a closed google group or any website which does not allow you to read much before you have to log in.

Information does not pass through the boundary, non-members cannot see anything going on inside. There may be some reporting about the internal discussions on the perimeter for non-members to see, but this will be carefully edited, and is generally for PR/marketing purposes only.

This model serves only a membership who are happy to log in to a central site, keep all their conversations therein, and, most importantly, dedicate 100% of their attention to the community.

It’s a robust model and one we’ve been working with online since 1997. It has many benefits, and there will always be things which are best kept private and thus need to be behind a login.

However, things have moved on. Asides to technology coming on in leaps and bounds, we live in an era of much distraction; the term ‘Continuous partial attention syndrome‘ was coined this year and has stuck. In light of this, the centralised model suffers as people simply don’t give 100% of the attention to much any more.

De-centralised community

De-centralised community

This is a de-centralised community. It has similar boundaries (membership) to the centralised community, but they are porous. The CILIP communities space is like this, and possibly the blogging platform and stuff that The Foreign Office released recently. The Innovation Exchange bid was based on this concept.

Information can flow through the boundary to/from members’ other spaces including blogs and other social network spaces. There is still a private hub behind a login.

Many people who are trying to engage their members/clients/advocates/volunteers etc. have found that a centralised community (also known as a walled garden) does not satisfactorily do this as more and more of their people are in other networks, platforms, or have their own blogs, and they are happy there – and increasingly reluctant to come into your special space.

Given this reality, expecting your ‘target participants’ to come and dwell solely in your space is unpractical. And selfish.

This model offers members in spaces outside of your hub an opportunity for inclusion without having to log in to the central community. It does not assume that they will give 100% of their attention to the centralised community; in fact it supports their activity in other spaces with a mixture of technical (RSS aggregation) and social (external facilitation) activities.

It is a pragmatic approach to the increasingly distributed nature of people across the internet. It needs to be matched with a rational and clearly explained engagement strategy for the other social networks (ie. What is the point of this space in this social network, and how does it relate to the membership hub?) .

Distributed community

Distributed community

Here is a distributed community. This is the model we are seeing more and more of on the web. Amnesty’s Unsubscribe campaign hub reflects this; The We Love Ashton Court Website was one, my local techno-bods mailing list is putting one together as I write. The key is aggregation at the core.

Here, the community managers see the web as the platform with all of its different networks with their related behaviours and practices, not an uber-controlled centralised hub to which punters must come and behave in the way they are told to.

The community’s boundary is defined by a brand, a concept; it is a theoretical association represented by a keyword which can be shared across the different services and used by members in each one (e.g. CILIP can be used as a tag in delicious and technorati, a group in flickr, a channel in youtube etc.).

From a member’s perspective, this model enables them to interact with the community in any way they choose in an ever expanding universe of web based platforms, and the ‘community’ does not suffer; indeed it benefits.

Asides to letting members interact with whichever tool they prefer, it also takes into account that we are all different – some of us like to chat in forums, others like to blog, others swap photos etc.: all of these are valid additions to a community, so why force people to interact in the way you say?

So what does this mean?

We are beyond hoarding and into sharing. Hopefully. We have realised, after more than 10 years of web development and Knowledge Management, that when you put knowledge in a box, it becomes something in a box; only by setting it free and sharing it does it grow and thrive through distributed conversations.

The logic behind forcing people into centralised communities is based on controlling them; in the early days of the web this was their only option, but people have control now and have realised their own two feet. And they are using them.

They can finally manage their own knowledge and interaction spaces and choose to share things with us, rather than having no other place to develop personally.

Good for them. Good for us.

10 Responses to “Three types of community”

  1. DavePress » links for 2007-11-18

    […] Three types of community Ed Mitchell on 3 types of community: centralised, decentralised and distributed. Interesting reading. (tags: communities edmitchell) […]

  2. Ed Mitchell: Platform neutral » Blog Archive » Customer engagement survey 2008

    […] puts the thinking around how to approach the three types of community (centralised, de-centralised, and distributed) into an interesting organisational context. And […]

  3. Ed Mitchell: Platform neutral » Blog Archive » Three types of facilitation

    […] post compliments my earlier post about the three types of community where I described three ways of looking at communities from the point of view of centricity and the […]

  4. Joitske

    Hi, that’s an interesting distinction. I wonder if not all communities are type 3, but in some cases the facilitators think they are type 1 or 2? (so 1 and 2 are blinded visions of the facilitator?)

  5. Ed

    Joitske: weclome :)

    The temptation for a facilitator may be that way, but thinking NLP world views (as only one example), perhaps it’s all about awareness stuff, one’s perception of the universe, desire for control, passion for fringe innovations etc. And we have personality types to think about herein as well…

    The more I’m thinking about all this stuff, the more I think most things are actually [#2] – campaigning is certainly [#3] – but .. hmm… i really should be down the pub it’s my birthday!

  6. Ed Mitchell: Platform neutral » Blog Archive » Strategic planning for group spaces

    […] The third option is beautiful. I admire those spotters who see the crests and curls of rising emotio-energetic waves breaking in cyberspace, grab their virtual surfboards and lead a movement from the fore into the unknown with gall and daring. This is crazy brand and campaigning and sudden stuff. They opt for a distributed model. […]

  7. Ed Mitchell: Platform neutral » Blog Archive » Networking - past, present and future

    […] wrapped up in nice talk about engagement, but if not handled sensitively, rather whiffs of centralised community dictatorship. I’ve been there and know that when you obssess over this as the facilitator, […]

  8. Socialreporter | Connecting the excluded

    […] I’m naturally pleased by Clay’s analysis. I think it also ties in with the analysis of different types of online community identified by Ed Mitchell and the challenges of facilitating […]

  9. New year, new blog, new journey | Paul Henderson

    […] you may (I am just kidding on this description – I hate one-stop-shops. And portals. The future is distributed, get used to it. Read Ed Mitchell’s excellent blog if you want to know […]

  10. Types of online communities |

    […] This typology by Ed Mitchell on the other hand is extremely useful: a typology along the axis of formal structure. Ed Mitchell sees three types of communities: […]

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