Online communities - what are they? Who makes them - A mouse or a (wo)man?

The topic of the next two weeks is one I am intrigued to follow as I want to see what everyone's take on an online community actually is. Two questions up front and you can read about how I reached them further on:

What do others think?
  • Can an online community thrive through commensurate (equal) facilitation and and symbiotic (feed off each other) relationships, or do you need one person or several people to take on leadership roles to make it work well?
  • How important is the platform chosen for the online community?
So how did I get to these questions? To start with on the email forum, I found that I agreed with Bronwyn Stuckey's example about learning.

"For me a worrying area is when people call a class of learners a CoP and say that learning is the practice. That is really too large and amorphous to be one practice. A class of students learning accounting by engaging in scenarios as practitioners, possibly with real practitioners in the class as mentors is beginning to take on a CoP approach. According to what you state this course is not a community of practice of online facilitators. We're going there. "

Already the email forum discussion has helped us to see the differences between online communities and CoPs and some belive there is not actually a difference.

I believe there is a difference. However surely an online community is "what you make it". Certainly it can turn into a CoP if it is not already one. Sylvia Currie mentions, "often communities evolve from interest -- to learning -- to practice. is it developmental". Perhaps it is but is it as simple as it seems?

The model of Virtual Community brought to us by Greg Barcelon via Violeta mentions that a Virtual Community exhibits - Responsibility, sharing, celebration - in other words members take the initiative, and they have enjoyment while sharing their ideas and knowledge. As Russ says, "we need to understand the way the community functions". Plus a virtual community can be comprised of groups and is usually interwoven by networks (Bee). This is quite nice but is it too simplistic?

Isn't an online community not just about the participants in it, but also about the ways in which participants interact, and the platforms they use to interact?

For example, as many of you already know, and others will find out as you progress through the course there is a multitude of online community platforms - Second Life, FaceBook, MySpace, Google Groups, wikis, blogs, online games etc, etc, etc. Additionally, some platforms can kill a community as mentioned in Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach's blog post - The Art of Building Virtual Communities - if they are not right for the community.

Therefore if a platform is chosen which does not work for the community, then does this mean that the participants and/or facilitators do not have an adequate understanding of the community or that the platform is at fault? Sheryl also appears to make no distinction between online communities and CoPs.

There is some interesting stuff on Sheryl's post about Member Roles, What makes a healthy community and Derek Wenmouth's The 4 Cs of Participation in Online Communities for blogs. It is an extension and new take on Gilly Salmon's Five-step Model for e-moderation.

According to Greg Barcelon's take on virtual communities everyone is in it together and leadership is not important but is it? Is he just referring to active participation and not leadership? According to the writing by Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, both her and Etienne Wenger believe that leadership is essential.

Bronwyn Stuckey in her post refers to opportunities for leadership as important:
"the opportunity to step up and step into roles - that this event provided. And ..the shared sense of the value of being together - that evolved through the activity"
So maybe we need to do what the fellow in the pic is doing, and take charge of the situation and go for it if we are to create an online community around the subject of this course - online facilitation. I am looking forward to reading more people's opinions about online communities.