I have followed with interest the conversation that has occured within the google groups email, and followed links suggested from other networks I am associated with. This research has lead me to the following belief of what an online community is.
Firstly, I believe that as educated people we tend to get caught up in the expanding nature of the english language. New words and conjunctions of words are developed at a rapid rate, often without significant attempt to define the emergent terms. When we are fronted with a task of presenting what we believe the definition of a term is, like terms are suggested for contemplation and debate. I do not want to enter into the discussions over the differences between communities, networks or groups. I am not interested in exploring the range of community types that exist and whether they relate to researched models. Rather I want to as simply as I can express what a community is, and then offer thoughts on how online communities differ from face to face communities.
In any community there is a buy in, some action to become involved. This suggests that the individual member has some desire to be involved initially, with depth of involvement to be realised at a later date. This is true for my online communities also. I need to subscribe to the blogs, enrol in the course, follow people on twitter and befriend them on Facebook. I actively seek inclusion within the community. However I also choose the level of interaction.
To me the vast difference between online and face to face communities is the pressure for action. It is difficult to be a lurker in a face to face community. Community members would be suspicious of the person sitting and simply gathering all the information but not contributing. Yet this occurs readily in online communities. We will all see many more visits to our blogs than comments posted. Anonymity is an advantage to some in the online communities. In any community members will have individual goals. Anonymity in online communities allows the uninterrupted (and not embarrassing) gathering of information without contribution.
Another significant difference is the ability to "switch off" interaction with specific community members, or whole communities. If I decide someone's tweets are of no use to me, I can simply switch them off without needing to front the person and asking them to stop sending them. This unlimited ability to build of each community exactly what we desire is specific to online communities. This cannot occur face to face without much emotional strain. Similarly, someone can switch me off and I don't necessarily know about. This has the added effect of reduced feedback to me as the contributor, I don't know I am no longer of interest let alone why.
The benefits of online communities are expressed many times over by many people. To me, how else can I readily communicate with people in other parts of the world as easily (and at the same time) as people in my own neighbourhood.
So what is an online community? It is a unique experience where the individual member can build the environment they desire, contribute at a level they are comfortable with and have complete control over what interaction they experience. I guess this is why some online communities fail, as members with vastly different goals ultimately don't collaborate. Unless there is a motivated group that continue facilitating contributions, the commnity will stagnate.