I have been pondering the question lately “are Facebook and Twitter really communities?”
No doubt that community type activities take place on both sites. People congregate, communicate, share, and support, but is that enough to be a community? Normally I would think that it was enough, but one thought keeps nagging at me: Are these communities in themselves, or are they tools that support existing communities? In other words, are these just communication outlets for communities that have formed elsewhere?
In my experience with Facebook and Twitter, and people who uses those sites, I have come to see that they are just community support tools. (As a side note, I know there are exceptions to my claim, but for the vast majority of users this holds true). Facebook relies on existing networks of friends and families to populate people’s connections. Facebook even wants to go through your email address book to make sure that you are connected to everyone you ALREADY know. Facebook has very limited ways to help you make new connections to other Facebook users that are not part of your physical life’s extended social circles. Without existing communities, Facebook would not have a good way to populate your friends list or help you make connections. Facebook was originally invented to help people in existing communities, colleges, to interact with each other. Of course, Facebook can help an already existing community grow, or keep a community together, but it does not create communities.
While the way of interacting is different on Twitter, Twitter is still primarily just a community facilitating tool. There are two major types of interactions going on with twitter. One is people communicating with real life acquaintances; the other is people following one popular/famous individual. Now, are these interactions community? Clearly twitter is helping facilitate community among real life acquaintances, but these communities would still exist without twitter. Real world friends on twitter use twitter, like Facebook, to facilitate their community, but it is only a tool for their existing community to use. The other major type of interaction is people following a famous individual, an alpha twitter. This is following is not a community, largely because there is very little back and forth interaction. The alpha individual makes a tweet and then their followers re-tweet or comment. From what I have seen, the alpha individual doesn’t often respond to any one tweet. Community needs back and forth interaction between its members. Granted some times the followers will comment on each other’s tweets, but without the alpha tweeter they would no longer engage with each other. Because of the lack of back and forth and of the extremely weak interrelationships, the act of following someone on twitter doesn’t make a community.
This primary reason that twitter and Facebook are not communities is that the relationships expressed on twitter and Facebook are not reliant on being connected through twitter or Facebook. If the Internet crashed tomorrow, you would still be friends with your Facebook and twitter friends and you would still be able to contact them. This is because Facebook and twitter are not the locus of your relationships, they are just facilitators of the relationship. Now, if you contrast that with the communities in an MMO, if the internet crashed tomorrow most of those individuals would have no way of relating to each other or even contacting each other. The MMO community would truly be dead. I know that in twitter people would no longer be able to follow the alpha tweeter, but for the reasons I stated earlier the interactions taking place in this situation constitutes community.
The lack of reliance on the infrastructure or “place” of Facebook and twitter for individuals’ social interactions is what keeps both of these social sites from being communities themselves. Both are important social tools, and have changed the way people interact, but they are the new telephone not the new suburbs.