Looking at an online community like Wikipedia from the outside, it might seem like a tightly organized group of millions of people working toward the same goal. But look more closely, and you’ll see all kinds of members working on a wide range of activities, with varying motivations. Collaborations, various networks, cooperations and coordinated activities run in parallel. For good community management it is essential to understand the differences between them.

Online network

In a network without any collaboration, coordination or cooperation (which is a hypothetical situation, since there is no such thing as a network without any collaboration) members’ motivation to participate is purely extrinsic. They’re looking for an immediate solution to a problem and need the help of other members, or they want an audience so they can show off their knowledge or peddle their goods. The relationships between members are instrumental and are based on an unspoken agreement of ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’. Characteristic for this type of network is that there is a division along positions of power. This means that a small number of members has the majority of connections with the rest, but also that a small number of members produces the most content and answers the most questions. The greater the community, the greater the role played by this power division (probably because the network leans closer to the hypothetical situation of a ‘pure network’). Large networks such as Facebook, Reddit and Wikipedia behave in this way.

de 1-9-90 regel bij online communities

This power division is also known as the 1-9-90 rule, which states that one percent of members are heavy contributors, nine percent of members contribute intermittently, and ninety percent of members only read and never contribute. Large-scale networks often evolve into a system of small world networks. Small world networks are clusters in which the distance between individuals is relatively small (members are four ‘handshakes’ removed from each other, on average). These smaller (local) clusters are in turn connected to each other by linking pins, which then as it were creates the network.

The advantage of these networks with sufficient critical mass is that they are hugely stable. A loss of members will hardly be felt, since the ‘work’ is still being done. Another advantage is that the network is better at maintaining itself. Less effort is required from a community manager to forge social bonds between the members. Social connections are of less importance, because members don’t necessarily have to know each other in order to create added value.

The situation outlined above basically never occurs in practice. In reality, all online networks are made up of more loosely joined networks, and collaborations and cooperations which are connected to varying degrees. Facebook consists of a network of strong and weaker ties, many thousands of communities of like-minded people with shared interests, and groups of members using it for classrooms or teams, to name a few examples. Even a social intranet can be subdivided into networks operating more as pure networks, and private or open groups in which teams collaborate.

Online cooperation

In an online cooperation all participants are connected by a broad common goal. The goal is then split into different tasks which are assigned to the participants. It’s easy to see that the stakes change in a cooperation: everyone is connected by a clear common goal. Most online communities are online cooperations:

  • Community of practice (common goal based on a shared field)
  • Community of interest (common goal based on shared interest(s))
  • Community of circumstance (common goal based on shared living conditions)
  • Community of place (common goal based on a shared location and corresponding stakes)
  • Community of action (common goal is aimed at bringing about change)

The consequence of such a common goal is that more work has to be put into relationships between the members. More trust is essential. There is less of a sense of quid pro quo: some will invest more at times, trusting that this balance will be redressed in the long term. This requires more leadership and relationship management by a community manager. A good community manager can also make all the difference in the level of activity in the cooperation or community. A good rule of thumb is that the better the relationships between the members, the better the results of the cooperation.

Online collaboration

Collaboration is the deepest form of collective achievement. It requires continuous debate and negotiation about challenges or problems which are being tackled together. This is what (project) teams in organizations do all the time. Meetings are held to ensure a consensus and to make sure that roles are divided effectively and that there are plans and schedules which will produce results. All this involves very different rules or regulations than large networks. Everything is based on trust. Members must be prepared to relinquish some control, and to be happy for each other’s successes.

Because the member relationships require a sizeable time investment, there is a limit to the size of the group. This is also common in teams; once a team reaches a certain size, it is split into different team. The same happens in online communities. Research into the game World of Warcraft showed that effective Guilds (small groups of players working together) were always roughly the same size. This research shows that the ideal group size is at most about thirty to forty people.

In an online collaboration the group will also be less homogeneous than in a cooperation. It takes people with different personalities and backgrounds to generate creative and unique perspectives. These personalities won’t have as much in common as for instance members with a shared interest (community of interest), which puts additional pressure on the leader of the group to keep everyone moving in the same direction.

netwerk vs cooperatie vs samenwerking

What does this mean for community management?

For a community manager of an online platform, this means always having to be aware of varying stakes and differing motivations among members. For pure networks, scale is a huge advantage. The larger the critical mass, the greater the chance that some of its members will be actively involved. This can however be at odds with the confidence which has been built up among a small circle of early adopters. They may lose their motivation (which is much more intrinsic) after an influx of new members with completely different motives. It is important to monitor and balance these stakes.

Online networks, cooperations and collaborations also require their own specific approach. A network can be managed with a bit more distance, while leading a community of practice means playing an essential role in the collective (which also includes a proactive attitude). In the case of online collaborations, leadership needs to be even more involved, and more structure and management are needed. It is essential to have strong guidelines, policy and work processes in place. In communities, we always work with about twenty ambassadors. We write official job descriptions for this small group, including the rights and duties associated with the positions. We also use additional tools which enable as much deliberation as often as possible: Whatsapp, Skype and/or Slack, and extra in-person deliberations. Online collaborations have higher overhead costs.

Different situations also calls for vastly different technology. For larger networks, a simple forum or question-and-answer module may suffice (for example Reddit and Quora). Social intranets, communities and online collaborations often call for a lot more: groups, chats, videoconferencing, wiki’s, blogs and so on. Both real-time and asynchronous interaction at many different levels is necessary to build trust and to get work done.

Members often sign up to an online community with opportunistic motives. It is the community manager’s job to make sure this initial extrinsic motivation (‘I have a problem that needs solving’) is replaced with an intrinsic motivation to achieve a common goal (cooperation). Following this cooperation, members who showed high levels of enthusiasm may then also be invited to participate in private working groups for events, or a project to co-write a book (true collaboration). The greater the trust, the greater the commitment. The Community Roundtable summarizes this logical succession of steps in their Work Out Loud Framework.

working out loud framework

The model above is also very similar to Harold Jarche’s model, which describes the roles played by the different cooperations, collaborations and networks within and outside organizations even more clearly. Jarche states that all three are necessary for continuous learning. In his model, knowledge is continuously applied in one context and evaluated in another context.

harold jarche working out loud


Peter Staal

Community Building Consultant at Bind