On the surface, a social network and an online community can appear very similar. They both bring people together to share and discuss in a digital context. But when you dig in, there are stark differences between these two.
In this article, we'll unpack these distinctions, including:
Ready? Let's dive in.
Engagement vs Connection
Social networks are primarily designed around one thing: user engagement. The aim for social network platforms is "How long can I keep this user's attention on me?". Social networks endeavor to accomplish this goal through engagement algorithms. They seek to learn your preferences and serve you content they think you'll like. Most social networks make money selling advertisements, so if they can keep your attention, you'll see more advertisements, and they'll make more money.
On the other hand, a community's goal is increasing connection between its users. Thus the job of a community's leadership is to help its members connect to one another. Sometimes these connections are transactional in nature, such as a discussion on product support. Other times they're more relational, such as discussing a product they enjoy or hobby interest.
Broadcast vs Relationship
Defining the Web 2.0 era, social networks democratized communication and publishing, making it accessible to the everyday person. Because of this focus, the core mechanism of social networks is one-to-many broadcasting. Whether you're sharing a company update or a birth announcement, these platforms are great for getting the word out to a large number of people at once. As a result, social networks are not great for building relationships or having conversations with people. The connections born from these one-to-many interactions are often fleeting.
Communities excel at relationship building. The spaces created by communities are designed for person to person long-term connections -- two or more people coming together to have a conversation about something. Since communities are designed for relationships, conversations can be longer, more nuanced, and thoughtful as opposed to social networks where they are often terse, negative, or shallow.
Network vs Place
Social networks benefit from something called the network effect. The network effect is the draw a platform has to attract new users or hold onto existing users because others are there. Think of it this way: It's Friday evening, and you want pizza. You know your friends planning a get-together at a local pizzeria. Even though you don't enjoy where they chose as much as your usual, you'll probably still go with them because you want to be with your friends. In essence, that's the network effect – why would I go somewhere else when everyone's here already?
Some communities form on social networks specifically because of the network effect. It's easy to draw people in to participate on a platform they're already using, leading to easy community formation and growth. However, since these group features are designed around the engagement mechanisms of the platform, conversations are easily lost or missed if they're not promoted by its attention algorithms. Being on a shared platform also means there are many other communities and conversations vying for your members' attention. Something more interesting can (and often will!) grab their attention away.
As you can probably see, a community built outside a social network doesn't have the network effect to boost its growth. That can be a good thing. A dedicated space for your community gives a sense of belonging for your members. Since no other communities or conversations are competing for their attention, this becomes their special place to connect, discuss, and build relationships with one another.
What about community growth? Doesn't the network effect make growing your numbers easy? If you're looking at membership numbers alone, that might be the case. What matters more is long-term community engagement. In a dedicated community platform, the members you attract and who stay engaged are ones choosing to be there. While overall membership numbers may be smaller to start with, these engaged community members are the foundation to a healthier, more successful community in the long run. A community subject to frequent "drive-by" bursts of people driven there by the algorithms won't develop as well.
Data Lock-in vs Portability
Since they are often extremely large platforms, social networks offer very little in terms of data portability. Unfortunately, this means if you want to move a group off one of these networks, you'll be starting fresh on a new platform.
Here's why: most social networks collect and retain a large amount of personal information about their users. They restrict the extraction of any of this data for multiple reasons, partly due to previous abuses of this data, and partly because they recognize the power of platform lock-in. People are more likely to stay because they don't want to lose the history of their community, and the burden of moving it is too high.
Conversely, community platforms like Discourse provide a high level of data portability. Instead of the platform owning your community and the data within it, you do. That means if you decide to migrate to a different platform or host, you're free to do so. You won't have to fight against the platform's data control policies or pay exorbitant fees to move your data.
Which to Choose?
If you're struggling to choose between a social network or an alternative community platform, check out our guide on when to use Facebook Groups or seek alternatives.
Did I miss anything? I'd love to hear from you in the discussion linked below.