Social networks and online communities definition and references

Hi all,


I am doing my PhD thesis and was using Michael Wu's blog post from 2011 on the differences between social network and online communities where he wrote that there are 2 types of social media: social networks and online communities. Does anyone know which references I could use to document this? Thanks!



Message 1 of 4
Community Management

I think we've seen things unfold a bit more in the last 5 years. Here's what the landscape looks like to me today:


  • Social Networks - The places you go to consume and engage with people you know (Facebook, Snapchat)
  • Interest-based Networks - The places you go to consume and engage with topics of interest (YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest)
  • Professional Networks - The places you go to to consume and engage with co-workers and industry content (LinkedIn)


"Community" has largely become an umbrella term that covers the gamut and is used interchangeably with the word "Network" by many people.

Message 2 of 4
Thanks, Brian. Are there academic papers that I can reference as well? I have been noticing the shift in how people have been referring to both terms but cannot pin down a reference that I could use to document it. Thanks for your reply!
Message 3 of 4
Data Science

Hello @jjsgva,


Thank you for asking, and my apology for the much-delayed reply.

And thanks, @RobbL, for bring my attention to this inquiry.


So let me try to address the question between the difference between community and social networks.


First of all, I’m afraid to say that there is no academic reference to reference for the specific distinction I made between communities and social networks, because I believe I was the first to characterize the difference this particular way. However, I didn’t just make them up out of thin air. There is an academic paper trail, and very good reasons for my particular definition of community vs. social network, which is based on their mathematical structural properties. However, this mathematical/structural definition does require a bit of technicality and a bit of background knowledge in sociology and network/graph theory to fully understand. So, to avoid creating more confusion with an esoteric definition, I decided to create a definition that is much easier to understand by the layman, that is fully consistent with the more rigorous mathematical definition.


If you bear with me, I’ll go through the logic with you.


As I said earlier, the particular distinction I used between community and social network is a structural one. Keep in mind that there are many other ways to distinguish these 2 social structures (e.g. use case, technology, business applications, or even public perception, etc.). No one is particularly optimal, but some are better suited for different purposes. However, I choose to use their structural properties because they are general and more fundamental to the way people communicate.


The critical concept to understand is transitive closure (which is related to the more familiar triadic closure property in sociology).


Community is a social structure that satisfies the mathematical property of transitive closure. If [person A] is in the same community as [person B], and [person B] is in the same community as [person C], then [person A] will be in the same community as [person C].


Social network, on the other hand, breaks transitive closure (does not satisfy transitive closure). That is, if [person A] is connected to [person B], and [person B] is connected to [person C], then it is not necessarily the case that [person A] will be connected to [person C].




This structural property limits how members of the community/social network can communicate and therefore interact.


In the case of a community, there is no structural communication barrier between [person A] and [person C]. That means in a community, anyone CAN talk to everyone else as long as they are in the same community. A YouTube user can talk to anyone on the YouTube platform. This doesn’t mean that everyone WILL talk to everyone else, because there may still be other barriers to communication (e.g. social, behavioral, psychological, geographic, linguistic, and even political) that prevent people within the same community from communicating. These are very interesting in their own right, but beyond the scope of this reply.


With this definition, many social media channels are really communities, and they are typically referred to, in academia, as communities of interest.


In contrast, a social network will have some structural communication barrier between [person A] and [person C]. If they are not connected, they CAN’T communicate or interact as freely. Exactly how much interaction and communication is allowed will be determined by the particular platform. But there will be some structural barrier. For example, you can’t message people on Facebook unless you are connected to them first, but you can still view their public profile and photos, etc.


In this definition, Facebook, Linkedin, as well as many mobile messengers (e.g. WhatsApp, Line, WeChat, etc.) are structurally social networks based on this definition.


See the distinction between them?


As I mentioned earlier, the transitive closure property is related to the more well-known studied triadic closure property on social network. Triadic Closure simply says that if 2 persons (e.g. [person A] and [person C]) are connected to the same person (e.g. [person B]), then there is a higher probability that they are connected to each other. However, this connection is not guaranteed, otherwise, we have transitive closure, in which case we’ll get a community.


In many classical sociology literatures that study social networks, the part of the network that has a significantly higher degree of closure is precisely what people defined as a community (Coleman 1998). Basically, regions that are more densely connected (i.e. have a higher degree of closure or triadic closure) than their surrounding in a social network is what constitutes a community and what people defined as a community. This is not just a theoretical exercise, as people have developed community detection algorithms that use this property to operationally discover communities within a social network (Newman 2006).


OK, I hope this convinces you that there is truly a structural distinction between community and social networks, and this is documented in academic literature. But as you can see, this does require quite a bit of explaining, and it’s probably overly academic for most business audience.


So I’ve decided to create a simpler definition that is fully consistent with this academically rigorous definition. This is what lead to my definition in the post that characterizes the difference between community and social network based on what held them together. This definition is consistent with the mathematically rigorous definition because they are virtually equivalent.


A community is held together by a common interest. So if [person A] have the same interest as [person B], and [person B] have the same interest as [person C], then [person A] will have the same interest as [person C], satisfying the transitive closure property. So they will be in the same community and thus won’t have any structural communication barrier among them.


Social networks, on the other hand, is held together by interpersonal relationships. Given that [person A] has a personal relationship with [person B], and [person B] has a relationship with [person C], this does not guarantee that [person A] has a personal relationship with [person C], thus breaking the transitive closure property, as social networks should (which creates a structural barrier to communication).


This came out much longer, but the short answer to your original question is, NO. There aren't any academic papers that you can cite that characterizes community vs social network based on what held them together. But there is a very rigorous and academic reason that I define the difference between community and social network the way I did. I hope you can use this resource to help further your study of community vs social network.


Thank you for your interest.


@mich8elwu "Come and learn about The Science of Social"

If this post answers your question, please mark it as an Accepted Solution.