Communities, networks and open source

Let’s see the difference between the concepts of community and network.

This text is partially included in a paper that I wrote on the relationship between enterprises and the free software community.

Both communities and networks have to do with the identification process aiming to give everybody a place in the society. However, they work in two completely different ways: communities follow individuals, while networks are ever-evolving aggregation entities rising from people’s continuous connections and disconnections to/from the network itself.

The community is an entity somehow closed, organized in an organic way and consequently based on (explicit or implicit) operation patterns, including specific restrictions: you can join a community but you can also be expelled from it, if you don’t respect its rules. The community is perceived as a safe place where everybody knows each other. Moreover, it fosters one’s own personal achievements in different ways, often including terms such as love (of others, of one’s ideals) and gift (such as the free software communities whose gift economy is considered to be of great value). Last but not least, the community is an entity that preserves the personal identity and, at the same time, gives value to common identity.

The network is an open space, therefore characterized by few and simple rules. The participants have no special restrictions and it’s the individual who decides to connect or disconnect to it (e.g.: see the social networks, like facebook, linkedIn, twitter). It’s an unsafe place: each participant does not know all the other members of the network. This is also based on the fact that the network is continuously evolving, thanks to the over-mentioned voluntary connection and disconnection process. In opposition to the community’s “love/gift”, the key words of networks are gain/loss: people enter the net to fulfill their own expectations (for example, reputation or knowledge) and they exit when the network can not meet their expectations anymore. It’s a place aiming at giving value to the personal identity and realizing a “collective marketing”.

To sum up, on the one side, the community meets one’s own security needs, since its members belong to a group characterized by strong connections and a common will and feeling. On the other side, the network is a solitary place, whose members feel the need to set new relationships in order to seemingly feel less lonely and to feel part of a wider group, which is actually characterized by weak relationships aiming to satisfy people’s individual interests.

We are living a progressive shift from profit-based models to value-based ones.

Also if the border between community and network is not always so clear, reasoning about their different dynamics and their relationship inside business ecosystems is a key factor to understand the evolution of the open source model.

One Reply to “Communities, networks and open source”

  1. Gabriele, you have given me a lot to think about here. My first thought is you might be interested in reading Stephen Downes’ perspective as he had a totally flipped view, seeing communities as controlling and limiting, and networks freeing and enabling individuals to their fullest.

    Personally, your definitions really resonate with me, but I have a little more difficulty coming to the same conclusions. For example, about trust/safety in communities vs networks. My experience is that sometimes the broadness of networks where we don’t know each other so well gives a different kind of comfort (pseudo anonymity?) or freeing from the constraints of communities. At other times, community is clearly the place of comfort. So I think context and individual experience and preferences have a role here. (Which resonates with your last paragraph!)

    The other thing your piece raises for me is the role of identity – personal, community and, in some ways, network. I’ll have to “chew” on that for while! I think there are some distinctions across this spectrum that might be worth thinking about together, eh?

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