Reaching The Online Generation

An Initiative of CityTeam Ministries

Answering @Human3rror – Identifying and Understanding Online Communities

Posted on | February 8, 2009 |

John (a.k.a. @Human3rror) left a great question in response to my last post.  I thought I’d post my answer, because it is a little more detailed than a reply.  First, here is John’s comment:

John (Human3rror)
February 5th, 2009 @ 9:26 am edit

not sure i agree with you here dude. i think the platform conversation needs to be explained deeper, ’cause there’s not enough meat to spill me over into agreement.

twitter is a community. it’s understood as such. a “social tag”? what’s that. and how does that work with your “across multiple platforms” spiel?

Here is the portion of my  post he refers to in his comment.

Online communities are better identified by social tags rather than technological tags.

Twitter is not a community.  Neither is Facebook.  They are platforms that communities use to relate.  The number of followers and friends is not an indicator of the existence of community.  Rather, who are people talking to and how often?  Do they meet offline?  Do they miss each other?  Do they try to help or encourage one another?  Do they have an economy - cash or barter?  These social indicators are better suited to identify community than technological ones.

 Communities exist across multiple social media platforms.

Most communities I’ve found online actually use multiple social media platforms.  They blog via Wordpress or Facebook, talk via twitter, share photos via Flickr, and videos via YouTube.  

John, first of all, thanks for visiting this blog and commenting.  There are times I’m intentionally brief in my posts because I’m trying not to bore people with too much detail.  I figure they will leave a comment if they want more, or if they disagree.  I love comments because they give me the opportunity to elaborate on something I’m very passionate about - online ministry and reaching the online generation.  So, again, thanks for that.

No Matter How You Cut It, Twitter is Not a Community.

So let’s jump right in…Twitter isn’t a community.  It doesn’t really matter how it’s generally perceived or understood - especially if that perception is wrong.  Twitter is a technology that facilitates conversations, like a telephone.  Conversations started on Twitter can, and do, result in the formation of multiple communities, but that does not make Twitter a community.

Often, offline church planters say they want to reach the ‘City of Dallas with the Gospel.’  Because they believe Dallas is a single community, they develop one church planting strategy.  Many effectively implement their strategy and wonder why, ten years later, there are so many people they haven’t been able to touch.  They often believe the problem is programmatic or can be attributed to poor marketing.  Unfortunately, their problem goes to the mistake they made when they developed their initial strategy - that Dallas, TX, is a single community.  Believing Twitter is a single community is the same mistake offline church planters often make when they look at offline cities and believe each city is an individual community.

Dallas, TX,instead is a collection of communities.  Because of geographic proximity, these communities often deal with similar events and issues, but that doesn’t mean they are one community nor does it mean these communities share a similar culture. A ‘One City, One Community’ mindset stands in the way of implementing the strategies required to reach multiple communities that exist in offline cities. 

Unfortunately, calling Twitter a community creates huge holes in any strategy to catalyze Gospel Planting Movements (also known as Church Planting Movements) among the Online Generation.  This mindset makes the assumption that people on Twitter are basically the same and that we can reach them with the Gospel using one strategy and one approach.  This mindset is a strategic mistake.  Individuals and organizations that adopt such a mindset will become increasing frustrated as their efforts have great success among a small number of Twitter users while leaving a significant portion largely untouched and untransformed by the Gospel.

Community Does Happen on Twitter

Community does happen on Twitter.  But it happens within much smaller pockets of people. These communities use Twitter to facilitate conversation and find more people who share similar affinity, similar interest in social objects, and general acceptance of the social markers (these are a few of the ’social tags’ that I referenced in my last post).  They have a high frequency of @replies.  Their conversation moves beyond the original forces that catalyzed their relationship and branches into other, more personal, interests.  Often, they adopt an internal economic system - barter, cash, or something else. 

Not all of these are present all the time.  Some online communities have some and not others.  More mature communities exhibit more of these traits than less mature communities. Although identifying communities is not as simple as measuring fans, friends, and followers, it is strategically important to spreading the Gospel and reaching the Online Generation.

Technological Tags are Insufficient as Community Identifiers.

Fans, friends, followers, and subscribers are not identifiers of community.  Hits and unique visitors are not indicators of community.  These technological tags simply indicate that a group of people find you, and possibly what you say, interesting.  Conversation is a much better indicator.  That is why Community Organizers work so hard to get members of their websites (often mistakenly called ‘communities’) to talk with one another.  But conversation alone is not an indicator, which is why it is so important to have a list of social tags that help identify communities.  Again, I listed some of these ‘Social Tags’ above.

Communities Are Not Bound by Single Social Media Platforms, or Services.

Maturing communities quickly find that Twitter’s 140 character limit restricts their ability to live life in increasing online proximity.  Their conversation spills over into email, instant messenger, tokbox, and Skype.  They want to share pictures of their friends and family.  Sometimes (increasingly so) they want to share video.  They share individual perspectives and issues on blogs for members of their community to comment on, and add to, the conversation.  While Twitter is great for notifying community members that content exists on other platforms, it isn’t designed to host that content.  So, communities naturally use other platforms to meet their communication needs.  This is the reason I believe communities exists across multiple social media platforms rather than within Twitter by itself.

This reality also supports my argument that Twitter isn’t a community, but is a tool communities use to talk and grow.  It also underscores the importance of social tags, because measuring followers is a Twitter metric that doesn’t track conversations in other social media platforms.

Thanks for the question, John, I appreciate it.  I hope my answer better explains my original post.

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20 Responses to “Answering @Human3rror – Identifying and Understanding Online Communities”

  1. John (Human3rror)
    February 8th, 2009 @ 7:31 pm

    do you have any “tech” background? are you a developer?

    the biggest issue i have is establishing a “new vernacular” using borrowed terms from the secular world, which you are apparently pretty comfortable with.

    i don’t believe in creating a “new language” unless there is a deep and sufficient need; the language already here is appropriate enough.

    i think your argument is pretty weak and you’re going to need to do a little more research from the “true” tech end of things.

    but, thanks for the points.

  2. chrisrivers
    February 8th, 2009 @ 7:48 pm

    Great discussion… love the passion you both share even if they are completely different.

  3. Rick Smith
    February 8th, 2009 @ 7:58 pm

    Take a look at and tell me that wasn’t a community doing something for folks in need. We raised over 500 dollars for people in 3 days - all from twitter.

    Twitter is a community.

    (p.s. - I met with TONS of people I met on twitter in real life - in fact to many to count. )

  4. Adam S
    February 8th, 2009 @ 8:11 pm

    I think both you and John have points but both of you are bring assumptions to your discussions about the word “community” that you aren’t really fully explaining. Paul you seems to be bringing a geographical understanding of community and John seems to be bringing a sociological understanding of community. Twitter and all communities really have both of those combined and more. I live next door to people that I haven’t spoken to in months, but I live thousands of miles from people that I speak to almost every day. Which is my community? If you are trying to reach me for Christ, which neighbor is more likely to impact me? Which neighbor will I be more likely to respond to? The answer is different for different people and different groups. If I speak to people around the world frequently but will not be open with them over distance then I need someone local to reach me with the gospel. If I am comfortable with technologies of communication and have deep relationships with people over distance then I might be best reached by my neighbor at a distance.

    The answer is not either or. It is not that twitter is a community alone, but that Twitter is a community and. Paul is right that many people on twitter also communicate through other means after they become community on twitter. But John is right that many of these people still view themselves as part of the twitter community.

    Think of it geographically. I used to live in Chicago. And by Chicago, I mean the Hype Park neighborhood of Chicago. All the time people that live outside of Chicago, sometimes and hour or more say they are from Chicago. Because that is where they view their identity. Those that live in Chicago often view their identity not as the city but as the neighborhood. The key is not to eliminate people but to include them. So if they view themselves as from Chicago, then reach them that way. If they view themselves as Hyde Park first, then they will be a different, but no less important group of people, that you reach for Christ.

  5. John Dyer
    February 8th, 2009 @ 8:15 pm

    If I understand John correctly, he’s saying that using the the technical term “tag” in a novel way to talk about technology is a bit confusing and obscures what you’re trying to say.

    As a student and practitioner of both technology and theology, I would recommend Andy Crouch’s book “Culture Making”. In it, he distinguishes between culture(s) and cultural artifacts. Perhaps his framework might provide some common ground for this discussion.

  6. Paul
    February 8th, 2009 @ 8:50 pm

    Hey John,

    I wouldn’t call myself a developer. I can use Wordpress, Drupal, and Joomla. I know a little html and php. To speak metaphorically, I can drive the car, but I don’t know how to build it.

    I did own a LAN Cafe with my brother and Dad. We had 40 computer on LAN and ran about 60 games or so on each, but I wouldn’t think that makes me a developer.

    I’m a partner in a company designing software that I’m under NDA not to talk about at the moment, but I wouldn’t say that makes me a developer.

    My Dad is also more of a developer than I. He wrote one of the first accounting programs for cable companies. But he wouldn’t consider himself a developer either.

    My brother is a Senior Developer at a company in California that powers a lot of the content on I run my development questions by him. He is the real developer.

    I wrote my first computer program on a Tandy and saved it to a cassette drive, but I was only seven, and it was pretty stupid, so I don’t think that makes me a developer.

    I really don’t understand why I would need to be a developer to observe online human behavior and understand how that fits with ministry and church planting.

    John, I love learning, help me understand what you mean when you reference ‘true tech.” What part of my argument is weak? I’m totally open to being wrong and would love for you to share what you mean? What part of my language is ‘new?’ People have been using the word ‘tag’ far longer in an offline setting than in an online one.

    I didn’t understand your reference to ‘borrowed terms from the secular world.’ I’d love to know what you mean here, because if I’ve done something wrong I need to change.

    Thanks for your comments and for the discussion. It drives me deeper and helps me learn how to articulate things better.

    Rock on!

  7. Paul
    February 8th, 2009 @ 8:56 pm

    @Rick_Smith - I agree that it was community. I agree that the event happened because of interactions you had on Twitter. My point is this - Twitter is not a single community. It is a collection of communities that use it as part of their online interactions.

    Loved what you did with Train Friday! Would have been there, but I couldn’t take the day off.


  8. Paul
    February 8th, 2009 @ 8:59 pm

    @John Dyer - True, ‘tag’ may be a bit confusing. Do you have any suggestions for an alternative term?

    ‘Tag’ has been an offline word far longer than it has been an online term. I was specifically thinking of the way scientists ‘tagged’ particular animals to track and study their behavior.

    You’re right, I probably need to find a different term. I didn’t realize the response would be so explosive!

    Love your blog, by the way. Enjoyed the post about the Paul and his wanting to be physically present with his community. Good points.


  9. Paul
    February 8th, 2009 @ 9:05 pm

    @Adam - Thanks for your comment. Actually, I feel that my position is a sociological one, although I use geographical examples because they are often more concrete. Your point probably articulates the difference of opinion between John and myself pretty well.

    I would be very happy letting people say that Twitter is a single community. It would definitely be more popular! On this blog, however, I deal with strategy to reach the lost who find community online. A broad view of community, in that case, leaves major holes in any strategy designed to catalyze a Gospel Movement.

    Hole like that are the reason we haven’t seen a significant urban Church Planting Movement in the world. I don’t want to repeat that mistake within the online world. Carrying the Gospel to the Lost online is too important.


  10. Paul
    February 8th, 2009 @ 9:05 pm

    @ChrisRivers - Thanks for the encouragement!

  11. Nick Charalambous
    February 8th, 2009 @ 9:18 pm

    I track with your arguments, Paul. But I do think they’re tendentious. Twitter and any other social platform is a communications tool. Of course. But communication tools tend to create subcultures, too. And communities aren’t always about a homogenous set of interest or identities. Sometimes, they are about meeting people you wouldn’t otherwise meet.

    I define Twitter as the community of serendipity. There’s always someone to talk to no matter what time of day or night, and you’ve got at least one thing in common: You like Twitter. That makes Twitter a community.

    The telephone might be a neutral communications tool now, (if we ignore the iPhone culture and the blackberry culture) but there was a time when it provided something very Twitter-like: remember the chat lines that were big in the 1980s? … folks saw them as communities, even if it was about hookups.

    Even in the real world, if folks hang out in the same place at the same times together, they’ll end up seeing themselves as a community … when I was growing up in London, commuters on the tube system sometimes saw themselves as a community … If you see them everyday, know what books they read, what newspapers they find interesting, you feel like you know them. You actually have a legitimate right to call them a community, especially if they end up chatting with you once in a while.

    The big problem is not the notion of community, where it is or how to define it. The big problem for Christians is developing enough depth to the friendships you build that you have the credibility needed to evangelize … but then again, let’s not underestimate the value of serendipity. People are curious about church and Jesus. Always have been. Always will be. Sometimes, it’s not friendship that’s needed for evangelism. Sometimes, it’s just an invite — whether to church or to a Web Campus.

  12. Paul
    February 8th, 2009 @ 10:22 pm

    @nick - As always, I appreciate your comments. I agree with you on the broad definitions of community. But, for the purposes of creating and thinking strategy, we have to adopt a more narrow perspective. Sure, broad community happens, we just cannot hang strategy on it. If we focus on the narrower understanding, we will reach the broad community. If we focus on broad community, we will most likely miss the narrow definitions. I listen to my church planting mentors talk about it all the time.

    I just don’t want to miss people. There is too much at stake.


  13. Gabe Taviano
    February 8th, 2009 @ 10:45 pm

    To me Twitter is not a community/. Without people forming small groups (that might eventually grow / might not) they are just a shopping mall. It’s a large hole on the web where communities can be formed, but can also be a mass of chaos. Just because people discuss things or share life together there doesn’t necessarily mean it is a community.

    I have met new people on Twitter, and have even started “communities” from them. So I guess it’s a decent launching pad. Twitter doesn’t even have groups yet, which would be key to turning it into more of a community. We use Facebook groups all of the time with two communities I have started. The question to me is, could the community exist without these tools. Yes.

    If we stepped back and realized how much chaos goes on with Twitter I think we’d be shocked. The amount of friends we don’t interact with much far outweighs the amount we do. To me, a community needs consistency and direction. Twitter is great as a quick email replacement or shorter blog tool, but I’ve missed too many discussions to think of it as a community.

  14. David Watson
    February 9th, 2009 @ 1:22 am

    The term “community” has caused debates in the various disciplines for more than 100 years. As I read through these responses I am stuck by the similarity with the on-going debate regarding the definitions of community. The definitions fall into broad categories…


    The above domains can all be found on/in Twitter. Twitter, as a domain in itself, is like a city or nation, and therefore broadly defined as a geographical community. Within geographical communities, all other communities reside.

    I know some would like to argue that Twitter is not a geographical domain, but by the fact that there is Twitter-space and we are on Twitter or in Twitter demonstrates that it is geographical. It is a geographic community where other kinds of communities can meet or be facilitated to meet.

    The only category or domain that may be difficult to apply to Twitter is the biological one. No one physically relies on Twitter for their physical well being.

    So, bottom line is that everyone is right depending on the domain from which they are defining community. Domains matter, and words often have different, but related, meanings depending on the perspective of the user.

    I hesitate to use the word “domain” in a computer forum, simply because it has a fixed meaning for many who work in the computer field. In this response I have used the sociological meaning of the word “domain”.


    David Watson

  15. Adam S
    February 9th, 2009 @ 4:20 am

    @Paul - Re: Urban Church planting issues

    I actually think urban church planting is an example against your argument. There is urban church planting going on but it is not coordinated or strategic. It is tenuous, small and scattered but much stronger on the whole than usually observed. I had a friend that did a study of Boston in the 1990s. The assumption was that Boston had one of the lowest church populations in its history and the city was being lost. When they studied they found that there were tons of small, minority and other language churches in Boston and that more people were in church than any other time in Boston history. But it wasn’t the white upper class people that were in church. So most denomination church planters (that are white and upper or middle class) assumed that there wasn’t anything going on. Because it wasn’t a part of their community. Like urban church planting, on-line church planting is going to be scattered with lots of people trying to reach a small segment. Does this mean that there won’t be a overall strategy? YES. There will not be an overall strategy outside the understanding of the Spirit. If the Spirit is planning then there does not need to be an overall strategy. This does not mean that we as Christians shouldn’t work together, or make plans or try to strategically reach people groups. Only that, no matter what are level of planning or strategy it is not big enough to reach everyone. There is always someone that is unreached. But there is someone that the Spirit is prompting to reach those people. What we need to do is encourage others to reach out in their way, using their strategies, and their passion.

  16. Sergio
    February 9th, 2009 @ 6:10 am

    Alot of “philosophical” point of views flying around. Simply put a picture of a tree is not the tree, just a representation of the three. So is Twitter a platform in which a community chooses to communicate with, not the community itself.

  17. Paul
    February 9th, 2009 @ 6:50 am

    @Adam S. re Church Planting

    I don’t know about the Chicago example specifically. I have heard of lots of individual churches being planted. My question is, “How many of those churches have in turn planted churches that planted churches?” I was looking specifically at church planting movement activity within an urban setting.

  18. Paul
    February 9th, 2009 @ 6:50 am

    @Sergio - Thanks for your comment. I appreciate your simple depiction of the reality of Twitter.

  19. Nick Charalambous
    February 9th, 2009 @ 8:35 am

    Paul, in response to your response, I see your point. I guess I wonder whether strategic influencing has ever been successful in the interpersonal method … there are just too many variables it seems to me. Great conversation

  20. P. Ngwolo
    February 17th, 2009 @ 4:09 am

    Great page overall — lots of insightful stuff.

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