Online Communities or Social Networking Sites?

My Computer Mediate Communications class conducted it’s last discussion today. (Next week is the last class, where we’ll give presentations of our papers.) One article we discussed was about the importance of social networks in EverQuest. Another article was about the intentions of people who use Twitter. And, the last article was about how people in Italy used SMS and interactive TV to have conversations.

While discussing Twitter, someone made the claim that they didn’t think that Twitter was good for groups to communicate. That gave me the perfect opportunity to talk about my two favorite new uses of Twitter: #tow and wwtweets

About a month ago, one of my tweeps, @typewriter tweeted that he was looking for support in losing weight and he was going to use #tow and invited others to join him. It just so happened that 4 days before that I had recommitted myself to Weight Watchers. So, I joined in.

Anytime any one of us wants to announce something we did for our health or ask for motivation or toot our own horn, we just include #tow in the tweet. To see all the #tow tweets, you just have to make use of the many Twitter search engines. The API I use to get tweets, Tweetdeck, has a nice search feature that refreshes automatically.

Maybe a week or so later, @jen_da_bookworm tweeted to #tow about wwtweets. To participate in the wwtweets community, I direct message wwtweets. Whatever I write is then retweeted by wwtweets. That way, anyone who is following wwtweets will see my tweet.

Yes, Twitter was not designed to support groups. But, as the two examples above show, people are finding ways to make it work for them.

Similarly, the Italian interactive TV study showed that people sent text messages directed to specific people that were displayed on a TV station for anyone to see. Yet, that was not the use that the TV station had anticipated. The same can be said for some of the aspects of social networks mentioned in the EverQuest article.

In all three cases, people were using technology that wasn’t designed to foster community to do just that. Unintended use of technology is nothing new. That was how email got started, for example. But, I just find it curious that all of these unintended uses were for the same purpose–to make connections with other people.

A classmate said she’s heard criticism that all of this newfangled (my word, not her’s) technology is causing a lot of isolation…people are spending more hours alone in front of computers and xboxes. But, if a lot of the new technologies are being hacked to support communities…what does that say?

I think that humans really just pack animals and we have an instinctual desire to seek others out. And, it appears that the emerging method of seeking others out to form online communities in whatever way we can.

Speaking of online communities….I’m writing my capstone paper and I can’t decide whether or when to use the terms “online communities” or “social networks”. Some papers I read use the terms interchangeably, some use only communities, some use only networks. What’s the difference? Is there one?

I asked this question in my CMC class today. We couldn’t come up with an answer. So, I’m asking here on my blog.

Do you think there is a difference between Online Communities and Social Networks? If so, what?


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Nitocris on December 4, 2008 at 3:04 pm

    This is what Nate said when I asked if he thought there was a difference between the two terms. Online community implies a common issue/subject holding it together while social networks do not. Slashdot is an online community while MySpace is a social networking site. I tend to agree with that.


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