Social Networks and Online Communities

Anna Leach

To be social with other people, you need to be connected. These connections form a social network. Social networks are held together by pre-established interpersonal relationships between individuals. You know everyone that is directly connected to you; your friends, your family, and people that you meet through other people. Each person has one social network, but a person can have different social graphs depending on which relationship we want to focus on (Wu, 2010).

What is a social network?

A social network is a network of individuals connected by varying levels of interpersonal relationships.  These individuals can be family, friends, acquaintances, friends of friends, friends of family, someone with a similar interest, or coworkers.  “A social network consists of actors and some form of relation among them” (Brandes et al., 2014, p. 805).  Social networks exist outside of social media.  Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat, are ONLINE social networks.  For another view on what a social network is, check out a YouTube video: Social Networking in Plain English.  The video is older and references sites like MySpace, but has a great, simple definition of social networking.  

Michael Wu identified the following characteristics of social networks:

  1. Social networks are held together by pre-established interpersonal relationships between individuals – you know everyone that is directly connected to you.
    Image of a twitter social network using NodeXL
    Image of a twitter social network using NodeXL(Image: Twitter networking by Marc Smith,, CC0.)
  2. Each person has one social network. But a person can have different social graphs depending on what relationship we want to focus on (see Social Network Analysis 101).
  3. They have a network structure (Wu, 2010).

Social networks can also divide and isolate.

danah boyd’s chapter titled White Flight in Networked Publics in the book “Race After the Internet” discusses the division that emerged during a study of the 2006-2007 school year (2011).

…Those who adopted MySpace were from different backgrounds and had different norms and values than those who adopted Facebook. White and more affluent individuals were more likely to choose and move to Facebook… Page 204

…The college-centered nature of Facebook quickly appealed to those teenagers who saw college, and thus Facebook access, as a rite of passage… Page 207

In James Surowiecki’s TED talk about the power and dangers of online crowds he says that although there are benefits to our online network, there is a dark side. The more tightly linked we become to each other, the harder it is for each of us to remain independent. Once you are linked in the network, the network begins to shape your views and your interactions with others. Groups are intelligent as long as the individuals have the ability to maintain independent thinking (begins at minute 13 of TedTalk below).

As we build our social networks, we may be forced or unknowingly fall into silos of exposure; we do not meet different people. As boyd discusses, we make assumptions on what a social networking site is and how it will help us build our network. In doing so we may be exposed to a limited amount of people and ideas! Furthermore, as we utilize our social networks, consider Surowiecki’s point that we need to maintain individual thinking as we interact within our network. Social networking sites should be a tool for connection.

Social Networking sites
“marketing-with-social-networking-sites” by shopseal is licensed under CC BY 2.0

These social networking sites (sometimes referred to as SNS) are defined by techopedia as an online platform that allows users to create a public profile and interact with other users on the website. Social networking sites usually have a new user input a list of people with whom they share a connection and then allow the people on the list to confirm or deny the connection. After connections are established, the new user can search the networks of connections to make more connections. A social networking site is also known as a social networking website or social website.

Have you ever considered what is at the center of your social network?

Social Media Sties
“me on delicious network explorer” by Noah Sussman is licensed under CC BY 2.0 & Modified by Anna Leach (added blue ink with “you”)

YOU are the center of your social network. The network extends from you and who you know. What does this mean? It means that your exposure is limited to your connections. The relationships are built from who you know.

Social networks are not the same thing as a community. For example, your social network could consist of your siblings or cousins. These are family members that you are connected with, but you may not share common interests. People connecting over a common interest are a community.


“Wyverstone Community Cafe” by oatsy40 is licensed under CC BY 2.0
Communities, from Wu (2010), are:
  1. Held together by some common interests of a large group of people. Although there may be pre-existing interpersonal relationships between members of a community, it is not required. So new members usually do not know most of the people in the community.
  2. Any one person may be part of many communities.
  3. They have overlapping and nested structures.

“[T]he single most important feature that distinguishes a social network from a community is how people are held together on these sites.” (Wu, 2010)

How do we feel connected in these online communities?

 Elijah van der Geissen asked the question “how important is it to you to feel a sense of community with other community members?” (2018). Online communities are groups of people, connected online, that share a common interest, and research has found both that they are everywhere and that they have characteristics in common. McMillian and Chavis (1986) study elements of community.

One element is membership. Membership is the feeling of belonging or of sharing a sense of personal relatedness. People feel they “can trust people in this community”.

A second element is influence, a sense of mattering, of making a difference to a group and of the group mattering to its members. People feel that the community can influence other communities.

A third element is reinforcement of needs: integration and fulfillment of needs. This is the feeling that members’ needs will be met by the resources received through their membership in the group. People connect strongly with the belief that “being a member of this community makes me feel good.”

The last element is shared emotional connection, the commitment and belief that members have shared and will share history, common places, time together, and similar experiences. People anticipate being part of the community for a long time and feel hopeful about the future of the community.

Communities of Practice

One model of community in the fields of social science and education is the Community of Practice (CoP).

Image source:

CoP’s can be distinguished from other communities through these three main points (Carol Ormand, 2017):

  1. Members learn from others’ expertise while sharing their own. I am part of a crochet group that meets every 1st and 3rd Friday of the month at a local coffee shop. We each bring our crochet projects and chat while we work. I have been crocheting for about 8 years. When someone needs help reading a pattern or picking out new yarn, I am happy to help. When I need help with a particular stitch or idea for my next project, they help me.  Another CoP that I am a part of is a Data Science slack group. Here we share tips and tricks for analysis. I learn from their experience and they help me to improve my skills.
  2. Members are motivated to continue to develop their own skills. By attending the crochet meetings I continue to be motivated to finish my projects and show off the finished piece. We are also intrinsically motivated to try new patterns because we encourage each other to try different yarns and patterns. In the Data Science slack group, we also share Python code that can help us improve our processes. I am motivated to stay connected with the group because I will improve my skills as a data scientist.
  3. Members are resources for each other. As was shared in the previous points, my CoPs are resources for information and I am a contributing resource for them. One of the best parts of these CoPs is that we also communicate online. The crochet CoP, has a Facebook page where we exchange information about meetings, pattern ideas, crochet items on sale, or fun memes!  The Data Science Slack group is all online and we have never met face-to-face. These online CoPs are convenient for quickly sharing information and asking questions. I don’t need to see them in person to connect with them.

A little more about your guest writer for this chapter…

Anna Leach is a PhD student at the University of Arizona. After completing her Masters of Learning Technology, she decided to research the use and interpretation of data in Learning Management Systems through the iSchool. She worked as a graduate assistant with Prof Daly in the fall and spring of 2018-2019 for the ESOC 150: Social Media and Ourselves class. The following summer, she and Prof Daly researched the student-pay model of instructional technology. Then in the fall of 2019, Anna worked on this book chapter with Prof Daly through an independent study and taught ESOC 211: Collaborating in Online Communities. If this chapter was of particular interest to you and you would like to learn more about how we collaborate online, check out ESOC 211 for your next semester!

Core Concepts

social network

a network of individuals held together by pre-established interpersonal relationships

online communities

a group of people, connected online, that share a common interest

social networking sites

online platforms that allow users to create a public profile and interact with other users on the website

elements of communities

membership, influence, reinforcement of needs, and emotional connection

communities of practice

groups of people informally bound together by sharing expertise and passion for a joint enterprise

Core Questions

Questions for qualitative thought:

    1. How are offline social networks and online social networks different from one another?  In what ways are they similar?
    2. Consider your online communities.  What are they?  What makes them a community?  Talk about the elements of communities with respect to your online communities.
    3. What community of practice are you a part of?  What about that community of practice has helped you learn from others, stay motivated, and be a resource for each other?  Are you an active member or a peripheral member?  What are the benefits or disadvantages of your level of activity within the community of practice?

Review: Which is the best answer?

Related Content

Social Networking is about a person’s connections on and offline.  They are important and there are many benefits.  Explore this article that examines the importance of social networks and why real world connections matter.






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