These themes about online community first developed around the year 2000. It is surprisingly accurate even more than fifteen years later. These themes were not written with consumer-oriented social media sites in mind but rather were focused on a wide variety of collaborative communities that were developing and which continue today:

  1. Common purpose. Online communities must serve a need – a “common purpose” (Kim). They don’t just happen: they arise for a reason (Bird). Physical communities develop by the “accident of (physical) proximity” (Rheingold). Online communities are created in a more intentional manner.
  2. Scale. Because of the proliferation information technology in general, and the Internet in particular, online communities can scale to many users quickly, well beyond the bounds of many geography-bound communities (Rheingold).
  3. Intimacy. Paradoxically, online communities can feel intimate, even though the size of the participant group can be quite large. Many of the most successful communities limit the size of their memberships (usually to no more than a few thousand members).
  4. Breadth. Because of the relative ease and low cost of launching an online experience, even just an e-mail list, online communities facilitate the blossoming of narrow areas of interest. This allows a broad range of topics – some popular, many obscure – to thrive.
  5. Timely. Online communities are always “on.” They can accommodate any schedule. Some participants expect an immediacy of response that is often left unfulfilled. “Timely” can easily become “just in time.”
  6. Anonymity versus identity. Some online communities thrive on allowing people do “wild things” they would never do as themselves. Others ensure civility by requiring use of true identities. Either of these can make a community successful depending on the wishes of the participants and the nature of the subject matter.
  7. Fewer inhibitions. Online communities allow a richness of participation that may overcome the natural inhibitions of some people. Because you can’t see the other participants, some feel fewer assumptions are made based on race, gender, cultural differences that may be more difficult to perceive (video may change this). Many find participation in a virtual community to be a “thrilling” experience.
  8. Inclusion. Playing off the expression, “If you build it they will come,” two ideas emerge: “You don’t build them, they emerge” (Kelty), and “If they help to build it, they will stay” (Wilkinson). Successful online communities develop strategies for “inclusion” to develop this sense of participant contribution. Strategies that encourage participants to explore diverse resources may interfere with the “stickiness” that strives to keep users within the community’s boundaries.
  9. Fragility. Online communities are very much a human experience, and they emulate the fragile nature of many human interactions and personalities (Wilkinson).
  10. Low participant risk. Online communities have low participant risk in most cases. Unpleasant interactions can often simply be avoided. It’s easy to lurk without active participation, and in many settings you can hide behind anonymity.
  11. The New Intermediary. Online communities increase opportunities for relationships to be formed. They accelerate change by providing new intermediaries for business to business and business to consumer transactions (Walsh).

S. Elizabeth Bird, “Chatting on Cynthia’s Porch: Creating Community in an Email Fan Group,” Southern Communication Journal, 65(1), Fall 1999.

Bill Kelty as quoted by David Higgins, “Virtual Villages,” Sydney Morning Herald, 11/17/99.

Amy Jo Kim as quoted by Paul Van Slambrouck, “Netting a New Sense of Connection,” Christian Science Monitor, 5/4/99.

Howard Rheingold, The Virtual Community, 1998.

Mark Walsh, Lecture presented at “Virtual Communities and the Internet,” The Wharton School, Philadelphia, PA, 4/7/00.

Lawrence Wilkinson, Lecture presented at “Virtual Communities and the Internet,” The Wharton School, Philadelphia, PA, 4/7/00.