Community Size & Connection Strength

Britt Watwood asked a thought-provoking question in a comment, and he graciously agreed to let me promote his comment to a post.

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, medium, and weak connections

  • 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?

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8 thoughts on “Community Size & Connection Strength

  1. Nice post and thanks for continuing the conversation. Your model is similar to the one Shirky outlined. He noted that as groups scale upwards they become unmanageable. It is the smaller networks within the larger ones that maintain coherence and connection amidst the larger group (what he calls the “small world theory”). These “small world” clusters work as amplifiers and filters within the larger network, just as your strong connections work across multiple larger networks.

  2. I think it also depends what you mean by ‘manage’, and what ‘venue’ the community uses. I cannot imagine, for example, how people manage large twitter networks. The fragmented nature of the information makes it hard to follow, and I find it easier if I know a little about the person, to give context. On th eother hand, using a forum or Ning, I think the larger the better. A large membership allows for the fact that not everyone actively participates, or has a different focus, and still leaves a healthy number of people to interact with.

  3. Christy,
    I haven’t read the book you mention but it’s on my list now to investigate and after reading through this post, I am thinking about my own blog reading and how long I went without commenting, especially on the blogs of the web superstars. I had my original small circle and most recently I went beyond my comfort zone with the Slices Challenge and now here and it’s comforting to open a strange blog and find a friendly face.
    Nice to meet you,
    Bonnie

  4. @Britt, I definitely will have to get Shirky’s book and see what his model works like. Based on your description, I think I differ with him on the idea of a large group being unmanageable–it’s just manageable in a different way (i.e., you don’t have as much, if any, direct contact). I still think that can be a group based on shared interest or a common goal, even if the members don’t interact. The idea of small clusters within a larger network certainly makes sense though.

    @Suz, “Manage” could be pretty broad. To me, it seems like “manage” is “how many connections can you handle before you lose your mind.” A really large network, like some people have on Twitter, can be managed by people who ignore or filter out a lot of what comes in. You don’t invest nearly as much in each tweet as you do a forum post in Ning or a blog comment, so you can let it pass by you more easily. What you describe for Ning groups sounds like Britt’s summary of Shirky’s ideas: small groups with shared interests within a larger network. Suz, I think you and I both see that larger network as a “group” that is manageable in its own way.

    @Bonnie, you’re always welcome to comment here, and I’m very glad you found your way to my blog! It’s easy to just stay within that “small world” where’s we’re comfortable, but these challenges can help us get out of our mental ruts. I think, especially within the education community, many people blog for their own lifelong learning. We learn more when we push ourselves a little further. I agree with Suz that in something like Ning, larger is better, partly because it makes it easier for us to go outside of our normal contacts.

  5. Pingback: And On the Seventh Day | Learning In a Flat World

  6. @Christy – Kia Ora.

    Your findings about community size and manageability interest me. I like your use of ‘soft upper limit’ to describe the uncertainty associated with putting an exact number on it.

    Some years ago I had a little experience with managing online learning groups in year 10 Science. There were a few other teachers who managed similar sized groups at earlier levels in primary education. Our findings were much in agreement, give or take the usual variations expected between groups in different disciplines.

    In the main, with a lively group (that may have taken several weeks to nurture and grow) the manageable-with-comfort size limit was between 10 and 15 active students. Obviously there were variations. Some groups became almost unmanageable before they reached that range in size. Others could be handled quite comfortably at around 20.

    Of course, with a larger, manageable group, the tendency is for the teacher to apply strategies to encourage participation by those who tended to take a back seat. The paradox with this technique is that the activity of the group starts tending towards the unmanageable zone and eventually has to be divided into smaller groups.

    Much like what you said, group dynamics plays a big part in the maximum comfortable size, not just numbers.

    Ka kite
    from Middle-earth

  7. Your article on online learning communities is great; thanks for sharing it. I agree that with larger groups, part of what makes them manageable is that many people aren’t active. It is a bit ironic that if instructors get a high level of participation from everyone that they make their own job managing the group much more difficult.

    I’m in an online networking community with over 25,000 members called Ask Liz Ryan. The traffic is usually 25-30 messages a day, which is quite manageable. If even 1% of that group posted every day though, the amount of information would be overwhelming. This is a group where most people lurk; they read the information, and perhaps they contact a few individuals privately, but they don’t post publicly. I lurk much of the time; I might go weeks without replying to anything if the discussions aren’t of interest to me or aren’t anything where I can add to the discussion.

    With 25,000 people in the main group, plus a few dozen local groups, one woman (Liz Ryan) is able to manage and moderate everything that is posted. If asked, I doubt most of us would say that we could manage an online group of thousands, but it works here specifically because of the high number of lurkers. This is a drastically different upper limit than what we’d aim for in a learning community or an online course.

    The “soft upper limit” depends on the particulars of each individual group. We can generalize, but I don’t think we can set a flat maximum number for the number of people in a group.

  8. @Christy – Kai Ora!

    Thanks for that. Things I always try to keep in mind (that are covered in the article) are:

    1 – lurkers can learn

    2 – lurkers are potential active participants

    3 – if the management system tracks log-ins and other activities the lurkers may be enticed to participate.

    Ka kite ano

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