What is a community: characteristics, structure, examples of communities

The definition of a 'community', highlighting the pivotal elements that transform a group of individuals into a connected and engaged community.

  • Community building

In an age where the word "community" seems to be thrown around with ease, it's essential to step back and consider what truly constitutes a community in the most natural sense. As a person who is passionate about the dynamics of social connections, I find it crucial to delve into the anatomy of a community and its characteristics.

A community cannot be conjured up out of thin air. A website or a social media page might serve as a platform; however, it's not the mere presence of people that creates a community. It is the connections between individuals, the moments when they meet and communicate, that form the foundation of a true community. A community lives in the minds of people. As long as we desire to communicate and horizontal relationships develop, we exist within a community.

There are several definitions of community online. I like this:

A "community" is a group of people establishing social connections and collaboratively creating common ideas, experiences, and structures through collaboration, cooperation, competition, and conflicts.

Community Characteristics

It's important to make a clear distinction: a community is not equal to an audience or a social media page. The main criteria of a community include:

  • A group of more than three people, if they share common goals and interests.
  • Having something in common that binds them together.
  • An acquaintance or a willingness to get to know each other.
  • A recognition of their involvement in the community.
  • Certain users possess specific formal or informal roles or identities.
  • Awareness of the community's written or unwritten rules and principles.

Synthesizing the above,

a basic community is a group larger than three people, provided they have common features (mission, values, interests) that encourage them to learn more about each other.

As the community evolves, additional criteria such as a sense of belonging and behavioral principles emerge. Roles also develop, which participants follow, whether formal (like a moderator) or informal (such as a person who resolves conflicts).

Types of community relationships

The types of relationships within a community can vary:

  • Cooperation occurs when people come together to achieve personal goals (for example, joint gym sessions where one aims to build muscle, and another wants to lose weight).
  • Collaboration is when individuals gather to achieve shared goals (like teams in competitions).
  • Competition is the contest itself (all participants have a single resource they strive for, yet they remain a community of athletes).
  • Conflict is a form of competition or a clash of interests. Conflicts of interest can underpin a community and propel it towards a goal, but in the long term, it will likely transform into another type of relationship or cease to exist after achieving its purpose.

Examples of Communities and non-Communities

As we delve deeper into the concept of community, it's important to illustrate the distinction between true communities and mere collections of individuals. To better understand the nuanced differences, let's explore some tangible examples that embody the essence of the community as well as scenarios that, while they may appear communal at first glance, do not meet the core criteria that define a genuine community.

Remember, the hallmark of a true community lies in the web of relationships, shared values, and active participation among its members. It's these connections that transform a simple group into a thriving community, where each individual feels a sense of belonging and purpose. Conversely, a non-community lacks these connections, leaving individuals isolated within a group, even if they share a common interest or space.

With these principles in mind, let's examine some real-world examples that will help us to distinguish between communities and non-communities, shedding light on the social dynamics that either forge or fail to forge the bonds of community.

Examples of Communities:

  1. Local Book Club: A group of people who gather regularly to discuss a particular book they have all read. They share a common interest in literature, engage in discussions, and form social bonds.
  2. Online Gaming Clan: Gamers who play together online, often forming teams to compete in tournaments. They communicate regularly, develop strategies, and build friendships beyond the game itself.
  3. Neighborhood Association: Residents of a neighborhood who meet to improve local conditions, organize community events, and advocate for shared interests in local governance.
  4. Support Groups: People dealing with similar challenges (e.g., addiction, grief, health issues) who come together to share experiences, offer support, and provide a safe space for members to express themselves.
  5. Professional Networks: Individuals from the same profession or industry who connect to share knowledge, opportunities, and advancements in their field, often through conferences or professional social media groups.
  6. Environmental Activists: A group of individuals who are passionate about environmental conservation, engaging in activities such as clean-up drives, awareness campaigns, and policy advocacy.
  7. Cultural Societies: People who share a common cultural background or interest and come together to celebrate their heritage, organize cultural events, and educate others about their traditions.

Examples of non-Communities:

  1. Television Audience: While many people may watch the same television show, they typically do not interact with each other, share common goals, or form relationships based on this solitary activity.
  2. Social Media Followers: A person's followers on Instagram or Twitter are not necessarily a community. They may share an interest in the content of the person they follow but do not interact with each other or form any social bonds.
  3. Online Shoppers on a Commercial Website: While they may be purchasing from the same online store, they do not form relationships or a sense of community with one another.
  4. Crowd at a Concert: Although they share a momentary experience and may have similar tastes in music, the crowd does not constitute a community unless they form lasting connections and continue to engage with each other beyond the event.
  5. Readers of a Blog: Individuals who read the same blog might share an interest in the subject matter, but unless they interact with each other through comments or forums and form social connections, they are not a community.

Community structure

Within the intricate fabric of community structures, there lies a natural progression of growth, similar to the ripples on a water surface or the links of a chain. At the heart of these expanding circles is the community leader, akin to the stone that initiates the ripples.

Adjacent to, or sometimes replacing this leader, is the community manager or another prominent figure within the group. They play a crucial role in nurturing the community's growth and maintaining its core values.

At the epicenter of the community is the 1% of active participants – the core. This group is deeply engaged with the community; they create content, monitor discussions like moderators, and assist in the community's development.

Following the core group is the 9% of engaged members. These individuals actively participate in discussions, contests, and express their engagement through likes or shares.

Community structure

The vast majority, the 90%, are passive participants. They may seem silent and less visible, but their presence is no less critical to the community's existence.

This distribution is often referred to as the 1% rule, which has been observed in various communities. It's not a cause for concern if 90% of your community is passive, but if the core constitutes less than 1%, it's a sign that something needs to change.

Core participants may experience burnout and move on, but it is essential for new members to step in and fill their roles. The community manager's task is to keep this wheel turning, to ensure that new leaders emerge, and the community continues to thrive and expand.

In essence, a community is an organism that flourishes through the contributions of its members at all levels, from the most active to the quiet observers. Each member, regardless of their level of participation, adds value to the collective, and it is the community manager's role to catalyze this process, fostering an environment where everyone can find their place and contribute to the community's overall growth and success.

Where does a community begin?

As we draw our discussion to a close, it is essential to revisit again the core question: where does a community begin? The inception of a community can be traced back to three foundational elements:

  1. Participant Identity: This is the bedrock of any community. It consists of common goals, interests, and values shared by its members. In the absence of these identifiers, they can be cultivated. Such markers of identity form the basis for classifying different types of communities.
  2. Regular Communication: Consistent interaction is vital for fostering a habit of engagement within the community. A group without any comments or discussions is not a community. Even sporadic comments can signal the potential for a community to develop, provided they are nurtured into regular conversation.
  3. An Activator: Every community needs a catalyst – be it the founder, an activist, a community manager, or a driving force within the community.

So, if you are in the process of creating a community, these three elements should be at the forefront of your planning: what unites your members, how you will facilitate regular communication, and who will take on the responsibility of driving these efforts. By focusing on these factors, you set the stage for a vibrant community where members feel a sense of belonging and actively contribute to the group's shared purpose.


Communities are intricate entities that cannot be artificially created. They are born from the natural human need to connect, share, and grow together. As we navigate through the complex web of social interactions, it's essential to foster the fundamental criteria that underpin community development—shared goals, mutual understanding, and a collective sense of belonging. Only then can we truly appreciate the power and value of the communities we are part of.

Related Articles:

John Swales Discourse Communities

NN/g The 90-9-1 Rule for Participation Inequality in Social Media and Online Communities

Jens Allwood Cooperation, Competition, Conflict and Communication

Published: Feb 28, 2024