Several conversations in the last days have made me think that we need to progress on some definitions. The confusion between the terms might be troubling for a few.
Let me propose the following simple operation oriented set of definitions (as opposed to an academic one)
· A directory is a facebook with more or less elements about the members, including in general their contact details. The most sophisticated directories describe the content of an individual’s experience and knowledge. LinkedIn or University alumni directories are the best examples. No specific activity is expected from a member (except to pay its membership or its usage fee, even the update of one's profile is voluntary).
· A networking platform is a technical system allowing individuals to know that other individuals exist (like a directory) and proposing ways to contact them. It can be called “network” if there is no ambiguity (e.g. a telephone network, an alumni network, the Internet to a certain extent; LinkedIn). Such network has no activity in itself except as a connector and in some case as an aggregator of individuals according to certain criteria (like LinkedIn’ groups or Facebook’ networks and groups). No activity is expected from a member but anyone can propose things to others.
· A social network is a group of people who are bound together through some social relationships. The bonds between some of them might be tight but in general the bonds between members are relatively loose. They more or less know each other directly or via one or two intermediaries. A social network has no strict boundaries and changes all the time as people join and leave. On the web, you belong to a social network when you are registered on a “social networking” platform. Older examples include the Lyons, the Rotary, etc.
· A community is a group of individuals having some level of personal bonds with each other, for any reason that could range from friendship to business to family to residence to culture to religion, to politics, etc. A community can have all sorts of activities, from chatting to creating knowledge to organizing events to having fun etc. Communities are generally formed within networks. Therefore a professional usage of networks can accelerate the birth or growth of communities (it is particularly important within corporations). It requires, for being active, all the tools of the network, the collaborative team, the social network and the directory. Contributions from members are encouraged and are the very substance of the community. Without activity there is no community but not every member is required to be active on every activity and every time. A community allows members to be as active as they want on what they want. The “politics” of activity therefore is part of a community i.e. the fact that some members are more visible than other, that some appear as leaders, other as followers, others as neutral listeners. What distinguishes a community from a social network is the gate keeping: the social obligation of its members for one another or the required closeness of ties implies that not everyone is welcome to join.
· A community of practice is a community of professionals whose purpose is to create and share knowledge on a given practice common to all members (e.g. a community of cardiologists). Its objective is to foster incremental innovation. They are not necessarily “colleagues” nor “friends” and their relationship is purely on narrow professional matters.
· A collaborative team has a purpose, producing an end product. It is a group of people defined by a final joint deliverable, which can be a methodology, a piece of software, or a complete knowledge repository. It may have an indefinite life or a finite life, the usual example is Wikipedia or Sourceforge. In many cases what corporations call Community of Practice are in reality collaborative teams expected to deliver regular updates and progress paper on specific issues. Contributions from members are expected along the lines of the purpose. Politics are not welcome and silent members are often rejected de facto if not de jure. In most cases members are “colleagues” and have no other relationship with each other than the project at stake.
Finally I do not approach “technologies” here because they might be very different for each situation. The most important difference might be actually in the content rather than in the name. A technology can provide a “directory” but the word might as well mean a simple address book or a sophisticated profile. The same is true for any feature and therefore does not deserves to be discussed within the same stream of discussion.