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Online communities vs social networks: What’s the difference?

Mario Bello
Mario Bello
October 6, 2022
Mario Bello
October 6, 2022

The internet is increasingly a primary avenue for people to connect with one another, both at personal and professional levels. We see more and more brands turn their attention towards building online spaces for people to connect with them and with each other.

In a 2020 report, it was stated that 88% of community builders and specialists believe community plays a critical role in brand success. An established brand group also helps your internal team to communicate both internally and externally more effectively, increasing their productivity by up to 25%.

People on the Internet tend to congregate in groups based on their interests, as we have the human desire to seek acceptance and a sense of belonging. Online communication has allowed people to find like-minded peers much more easily than ever before, meaning communities often grow organically.

When building a network of supporters, it’s key to remember that the way people connect can differ between platforms. You need to choose what is most appropriate for your use case. 

Most brands end up hosting their members on a dedicated community platform or an online social networking site. These two options, though similar in concept, offer completely distinct user experiences and achieve different goals that may resonate with one group of users but not the other.

What are social networks and online communities?

Before we compare the factors differentiating social networks and independent communities, let’s establish a baseline understanding of what they are.

Social networks, sometimes referred to as social media, are representations of a person’s circle of connections. Classic social network sites like Facebook and MySpace were built as a place for people to connect with friends and family. 

As these platforms evolve, we see more specialized forms of social networks such as LinkedIn for professional profiles and Instagram for visual content. 

Online communities, on the other hand, often aren’t hosted on traditional social media sites. Rather, they are independent groups of people who share common interests. Think of them as clubs: community members are drawn to a club to participate in an activity and to be a part of conversations surrounding that topic. 

If not on a dedicated community platform like Reddit and Discord, independent communities are often on standalone apps or sites.

Key features setting online communities and social networks apart

The many similarities online communities and social networks share make them easily confused. However, it’s the differences that will help you decide what is the best fit for your brand. There are four key aspects in which the two are quite different. Let’s take a look:

Interconnectedness

Interconnectedness is the degree to which users are able to connect to other groups, platforms, or communities. The more interconnected a platform is, the more easily one can link up with members from other groups.

Online community: Online communities are made up of a group of people who share similar interests. They are formed for many reasons—keeping each other up to date on relevant topics, forming bonds with like-minded people, or even just entertainment.

Most online communities are not created to easily expand to other groups and topics, and this is according to the intended design. Rather, they are typically tight-knit and consist of devoted users who discuss a subject more deeply and technically than the general public.

Social network: Social networks are built with the purpose of connecting as many people as possible. This allows people who are just developing an interest in a topic to participate and join in surface-level discussion much more easily compared to established topic communities.

The drawback of a larger reach is a more generalized audience and less in-depth discussions, which can push the more dedicated and experienced people away.

Group identity

The group we feel most connected to has an effect on how we view the world and how we perceive the world views us. This is called group identity, and the online social community we belong to plays a part in how we interact with people from inside and outside of those groups.

Online community: To become a member of an online community and follow along with discussion naturally, there’s a certain level of topic knowledge you need to have. This exclusivity often leads to a stronger connection with the group’s identity.

Online communities often have a more pronounced culture and consensus that varies from group to group. Bonds between members are also stronger compared to those seen in social networks.

Social network: In a social network community, relationships between members are typically more distant, due to factors such as the larger number of members and the lack of individual conversation between them.

This isn’t always a negative, as the “come and go” nature of these networks means people can dip their toes into many different groups at once. 

Social network users are also more likely to come from different backgrounds, making the conversations on these platforms much more diverse compared to those in many online communities.

Relationship types

The way online relationships are developed changes based on the platforms used due to the nature of how people are drawn to the community.

Online community: Most relationships in online communities are based on common interests rather than real-life connections. Depending on the community, you may feel an air of distance in how people communicate with each other.

The admins of a community have a lot of power to direct conversations within the group. They also have the ability to guide and form cultures based on how they would prefer people to connect with one another. 

Moderation in online communities should be done only to maintain an open and safe discussion, and it should be a collaboration between the admins and other users. The key is to allow conversations to happen naturally while making sure that users remain positive and respectful. Going overboard with moderation hinders conversation and hurts the overall user experience.

Social network: Relationships on social media platforms are typically between people who already know each other in real life. If you go through a random person’s friends list, chances are the vast majority of it is their friends and family.

You can expect most conversations on the platforms to revolve around more mundane topics—work, relationships, vacations, or extracurricular activities.

More technical conversations do exist on these platforms, but they often don’t come up if not initiated by an individual. The answers also typically aren’t as detailed compared to a similar topic in a dedicated community.

Content types

Like relationship types, content posted on different social communities also has different purposes to suit its audience.

Online community: Online community members know what they’re there for, so they generally have a set of expectations for anything posted on the site. There may even be a published set of guidelines for what is acceptable.

The benefit of this higher bar of entry is that posted content is of higher quality, and it usually hones in on a topic that members are interested in. One downside is the reduced amount of content due to greater requirements for creators.

The topic of conversation will also revolve around the focal interest of the group with very little deviation from what’s expected. 

Social network: Social media platforms are designed for fast, easily digestible content suitable for a mass audience. You are more likely to run into surface-level content of a given topic, as it’s intended to reach as many people as possible without segmenting too much of the audience base.

Another thing that you will notice is that the type of content posted on social networks will vary greatly. User-generated content is the most dominant form of media on these platforms, as they are relatively easy to create and publish.

Let users decide what’s best for your community

In the end, you have to weigh your options to see what’s the best fit for your project. Conduct market research to learn more about your target audience and their needs. This step is crucial for the long-term success of your project, as it helps you to understand who you’re trying to appeal to when building a social platform.

A genuine sense of connection and acceptance between people is the true value of these platforms. Any additional features you decide to integrate into your community should help users form these bonds between one another and with your brand.

The goal isn’t to just make a box to put people in. It’s always important to remember that you’re building a community: a place where like-minded people come and share ideas and participate in discussions that they can’t have anywhere else.

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