A question I think for all of us – which ties in with Shirky’s latest book – is at what point does a “communuity” grow to the point where you can no longer connect with everyone. I have 40 some blogs that I track with RSS…which to me can be managed. Any thoughts or suggestions?
I haven’t read Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody yet, so I can’t respond to that part of the question. However, the idea of community size and an upper limit for size is intriguing.
Some of this certainly depends on the individual; where Britt can manage 40, others might only really be able to manage 15. I have many more than 40 RSS subscriptions, but I don’t really interact with everyone in my reader.
Perhaps in my network, I see different degrees of connection intensity. Don’t look at this as definite layers with clear starting and stopping points; there’s a lot of blurring between them. It’s more of a gradual change.
- Strong: I have a handful of people I interact with pretty regularly, like Michele Martin. Those are stronger connections.
- Medium: I have a bigger group of people I’ve interacted with several times, but maybe it’s less regular.
- These medium connections might be people I interacted with several times over the course of a few weeks but haven’t talked to in months since then.
- They might also be people I interact with sporadically: a comment or two every so often.
- Weak: I have a large group of weak connections.
- Some of these are blogs I read but haven’t ever directly talked to. I read Stephen Downes for months before I commented on his site or emailed him; ditto for Jane Hart, David Warlick, and many others. I have had direct contact with all 3 of those people now, but they started out as very weak, one-way connections.
- I consider blogs I read but have only commented on once to be weak connections.
- Sometimes I might comment on a blog once but not subscribe. That happens now when I get trackbacks here. I try to go out and read any posts where someone links to me, and I often comment. Sometimes I do subscribe, but I admit that I have too many subscriptions already to add everyone to my list. So I might have a weak connection to someone who reads my blog, but I don’t read theirs.
Then again, even in face-to-face communities, you don’t have the same relationship with everyone. Do you have the level of connection with everyone in your department or team at work? What about in religious or volunteer organizations? Heck, do you have the same relationship with every member of your own extended family?
Perhaps when I think of “community” online, I don’t see it as something with hard and fast borders. The edges are much fuzzier than that; it sort of gradually fades from strong to weak. Face-to-face communities seem to have harder edges; you either are employed by a company or not, you are a member of an organization or not. It’s easier to identify who’s “in” and who’s “out” offline. There’s a clear line between people who have an online presence and those who aren’t online at all, of course. But once you have a blog, I don’t see bright line distinctions anymore, just different intensity in the connections. There’s affinity, but not a clear boundary.
Obviously, not everyone sees the online community that way. The recent conversations about whether the edublogosphere is a closed, elite cocktail party certainly demonstrate that some people do feel like they are outside looking in. I guess I’ve never really felt that way online though; I’ve always known I could express my thoughts and join the conversations anywhere I wanted to. (As a side note, I just have to point out that I find it very ironic to look at Stephen Downes and think he’s elitist. Elitist != socialist. I’m just sayin’…)
Getting back to Britt’s original question, I think there might be a soft upper limit on how many strong connections any single person can manage—with the caveat that the “limit” varies widely between individuals and can change over time. I think the technology allows us to have many more medium and weak connections and to manage those effectively.
That raises some other questions:
- Do the medium and weak connections constitute a “community,” or are they something else?
- Does a community have to have a distinct boundary, or can it be something more fluid and dynamic?