Posted by: Nathaniel | June 30, 2008

Communities, Networks, and social media for social change

The Knight Foundation has just announced a $24 million grant program to challenge community foundations to “find creative uses of media and technology to keep communities informed and citizens engaged.” Todd at Inside Philanthropy thinks that corporate competitiveness has forced (or enabled) major media outlets to “abandon their role as social watchdog and resource,” and that nonprofits and community organizations need to make and take opportunities like this to fill the vital information gap.

It reminded me of conversations I’ve seen on Twitter from Nancy White and Beth Kantor in the last couple weeks, asking about the space between “communities” and “networks.” I don’t think there are necessarily rigid boundaries between the two, but I do think in general communities are organized around shared experience and mutual interdependence more often than networks, which while perhaps organized around common experience don’t necessarily involved shared action.

In terms of what a nonprofit organization can draw from a community vs. a network, an over-simplified but still maybe useful way to think about the difference might be “depth” vs. “breadth.” Communities often have untapped depths of resources and assets that can be leveraged to create social change – everything from skills and talents to material posessions to relationships. Because the members of communities have a deeper stake in one another, nonprofits often have the opportunity to draw more deeply from these assets. Networks, on the other hand, are often organized around a single common experience or goal, such as networks of academic researchers. If its harder to draw a greater depth of types of assets from these types of groups, it seems to me there is an opportunity to draw from a greater breadth of individuals who organize themsleves around the networks founding principle.

This may all be gibberish – I’m not quite sure myself – but the implication for the Knight grant might be that smart community foundations find ways to help their communities tap into existing citizen-led or socially concerned news networks and become human filters and hubs for the information most relevant for their daily lifes.



  1. Nathaniel,
    While the difference between networks and communities may seem like a slight distinction. It is an incredibly valuable framework for me. I work for a local United Way. In case you don’t know how United Ways function, we invest in a set of partner agencies and work to prevent and coordinate responses to major community challenges. Right now I am for the first time working with some colleagues to develop an online community for a small cohort of those partner agencies who are all focused on answering an increased need for healthy child development services in a particular neighborhood of Boston.

    The goal of the online community is to enable each of the agencies working toward the same problem to communicate with each other about their progress and challenges. The distinctions you’re making in this post are really helpful in framing our work with this group. Do you know of any good examples of online communities acting in the way you’ve defined them here?

  2. […] rest of the post offers distinctions between communities, networks, depth, and […]

  3. I like how you make the distinction between depth and breath – it’s useful.

    I think what I’m trying to see – if it is possible – is a community working together in a networked way.

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