Communities Are a Subset of Networks

Build Community
Photo by Niall Kennedy

I have long been interested in the need for and value of communities and the fact that we have lost the value and sense of communities to a large degree in our modern society. I have said many times in private and even in public that most of our problems in society would be improved if not altogether eliminated by a revival of community life. Prior to reading Communities vs Networks however, I had never really paid attention to the specific similarities between networks and communities. After pondering the post however I would suggest that rather than networks and communities being on different ends of a continuum the reality is that communities are networks by definition even if most networks don’t rise to the level of community. Allow me to support that claim by sharing tweaked versions of the statements from that post which contract networks and communities:

  • Networks May Be Artificial, Top-Down; Communities Are Organic, Bottom-Up (originally “Networks Are…”)
  • Networks Allow Passivity and Consumption; Communities Require Action and Contribution (originally “Networks Encourage…”)
  • Networks Can Be Location Independent; Communities Are Usually Attached to a Place (added “Usually”)
  • Networks Often Divide a Person Into Parts; Communities Nurture the Whole Person (added “Often”)

Based on those statements a community would be defined as a network that functions organically, requires action and contribution, and nurtures the whole person and that such groups are usually attached to a place. The question in distinguising communities then isn’t whether the group is more like a community or more like a network. Rather, it is how much the particular network fits the definition of community.

I will now go a step further and suggest that whether a particular network operates as a community or simply as a network for a specific person depends to a large degree (although not exclusively) on the choices of that individual.

Anyone reading the post on The Art of Manliness would quickly identify Facebook as an example of a network and for the vast majority of its users that’s all it is or ever will be. On the other hand, I have observed examples of individuals on Facebook who actively contribute to the network and organically find others with shared interests who eventually become a community within that vast network. Within those small communities they do nurture the whole person of their community members. They may share a geographic connection or in rare cases they even travel to meet those who they might first have come to know over what started as simply a network. They become the kind of acquaintances who can and do “come over to clean out your bedpan” in your hour of need. I have seen the same emergence of community in other networks as well.

Further proof of community as a specifically characterized network is evident through the suggestions that Brett offers for those who wish to learn to live in a community again. I endorse all of these suggestions:

  • Shoot for small (the suggestion is to not exceed 150)
  • Break larger groups into smaller ones
  • Create you own tribes (don’t just join them)
  • Get involved
  • Meet physically
  • Share your whole self
  • Be prepared to sacrifice
  • Live by family
  • Don’t move very frequently

I would add clarification on those last two suggestions. First, while I endorse the idea of living near family, some people make the mistake of trying to rely too exclusively on family to meet their need for community. Few families are large enough and strong enough (and close enough) to function as a complete community. While there is much to be gained by living near family most of us should have more community than just our family. Second, not moving frequently applies to both physical communities and virtual communities. In physical communities that obviously means trying to stay within the geographic reach of a single community in order to form roots. In online virtual communities it means not creating disparate profiles and adopting new identities regularly. The key is to form a stable identity and community affiliation so that the bonds of trust have time to grow and mature.

While Brett and I both speak of communities as superior to networks, Brett is very clear that networks are valuable should not be dismissed lightly in our lives.

While I’ve certainly put the idea of networks through the ringer in this post, I don’t want folks to get the idea that they’re evil. They can serve a good purpose. … They’re just not a replacement for true communities. Unfortunately we treat them as such.

I agree with him on that but from my perspective would add that networks can serve as a fertile ground for finding or forming communities when our need for communities is unmet. I’m confident that Brett would agree with me when I say that while there is no limit to the number of networks a person may benefit from, everyone should seek to be part of at least one solid community at every time in their lives. This kind of fate can only happen to a person who lacks any community.

If you feel like you are a currently part of a good community consider how fortunate you are and make efforts to strengthen that community and keep it strong. If you aren’t part of a community now you should seek to find or create one – and looking to your existing networks would be a good place to start in that endeavor.

About David

David is the father of 8 extremely organized children (4 girls / 4 boys) who is constantly seeking answers to tough questions related to parenting, education and politics while moonlighting for 40 hours each week as a technology professional. He also enjoys cooking, gardening, and sports.
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