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  Community Types?
What are the different kinds of community?

Thank you for your question! It is a very good one and is actually more difficult to answer than it might appear. There's a saying in academic circles that "Geography is what Geographers do" and the same holds true about online community. The statement "Community is what community does" is a good starting point for answering your question, and leads us naturally on to consider what that actually looks like in terms of the communities that one can find online.

So what does Community do? A very simple answer would be:

1. it provides a venue for exchanges between individuals as part of a more or less defined group.
2. it encourages the sharing of opinion, knowledge and/or information between those individuals.
3. it illicits or builds on a sense of "belonging" to a group in the individuals who participate.

So different kinds of community have these things in common in one way or another, but execute each in different ways or in different contexts according to the actual circumstances in which the community exists. It is, however possible to distinguish two types of community and this is what answers your question best. Note: any one community may contain elements of both of these types:

1. Communities of Knowledge or Practice
Some communities, for example, are defined by a professional or corporate body whose members (professionally accredited people, employers, employees and so on) belong to it by nature of their status or membership. An instance of this would be a community of therapists who by nature of their profession belong to an accrediting organisation. Such a community might be termed a community of knowledge or practice, whereby the means and modes of community exchange are aimed at the communication and sharing of professional information, ideas and practices.

Often this kind of community is not open to the general public and is based on an existing affiliation, meaning that there are formal barriers to entry. Indeed, many communities of this type are restricted to an organisation's internal use only, on an intranet or extranet system.

2. Communities of Interest
Communities of interest are built around an identifiable need, theme or interest which extends across organisational boundaries. To extend the analogy of the therapists mentioned, this might be seen in the instance of the patients of therapists who form a support group. Such a community might be termed a community of interest, whereby the community is orientated around a particular need, demographic feature or facet which is jointly held by its members. The vast majority of online communities are communities of interest. Examples include entertainment and fansite communities, communities set up around hobbies and sports, and health and well-being groups.

There are communities which should also be considered, more or less as sub-types which overlap the two main types mentioned above. A good example is what might be called the Customer Support Community. This kind of community is defined more in terms of an individual's relationship to an organisation as a customer or user of a product or service. Participants are able to not only receive support from other community participants, but they are able to receive information and assistance from the provider of the product or service. In this way, such communities blend community with customer relations.

We hope that this helps to answer your question. As you can see communities are complicated and difficult to pigeonhole. The principles that all communities share is what makes them perform in whatever shape or form, but it is possible to identify key distinctions in practice. We thank you for your question and encourage you to further discuss it on our message boards.

- Jon Nix and Pam Thomas
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