Maha, I’ll answer here. I think that you are talking about a very real and valuable distinction in the ways that people perceive and engage a group, or an assemblage, to use the broadest, most neutral terms that I can think of just now, whether f2f or online. To use your terms, we relate differently in a social network than we do in a community; however, I don’t think that the differences lie in the groups but in the connections within the groups. In other words, I think that rather than saying Rhizo14 is a community, it is more accurate to say some people found community in Rhizo14. Other people, I suspect, found a social network, which also has value. Thus, the relationship or connection that you are suggesting by community is a characteristic of the types of connections that several people are able to form and sustain within a group. Others in the same group may find a social network, and social network may be more to their liking.
So what is the difference between these two relationships or connections? This has been tugging at my head lately, and I actually spoke with Sarah Honeychurch about this in our Google Hangout the other day, unfortunately after you had left. I will definitely write about this more on my blog, but I’ll suggest here the barest outlines of what popped out of my mouth to Sarah. I think the connections within a social network are more correctly characterized by what the West has called a social contract, with all that it implies, and I don’t have time to go into that here, but suffice it to say that the social contract is a legalistic, mutually agreed upon, and explicit connection between or among parties of equal legal status, with clear rules and an understanding that any violation of the rules invalidates the connection and relieves all parties of the terms of the contract.
I want to contrast this with an older kind of relationship: a covenant, knowing full well that this term carries, at least in the West, religious overtones that some will find uncomfortable. This is unfortunate, for it might just be a fine model, with some updating, for the kind of relationships that are most productive in an online community. This will require much more thought, but as a starter think of covenant relationships as those between parent and child in which one party fully commits to the other, regardless of the behavior of the other party. A covenant relationship says, “I will behave in good faith with you, regardless of what you do. I will not let you damage me, but neither will I abandon my commitment to you.” This is likely beyond what we can commit to in an online community, but it seems to me more in the direction of the connections that some of us feel in communities such as Rhizo14. Perhaps on further analysis covenants will not be the kind of relationship that makes sense in 21st century online communities, but its the concept that I have just now so I’m willing to work it until I prove it wrong. Or right.
Still, even if covenant is the wrong term, you have rightly pointed to a real distinction that someone in Rhizo14 needs to clarify.