Online communities

People are increasingly engaging in online communities to spend time with existing friends and contacts as well as meet new people. With the rise in public WiFi spots, home broadband and mobile phones with high speed internet (see ubiquitous connectivity) it is easier than ever for people to spend time in online communities. People tend to be members of more online communities than previously. They tend to be more specialised; delivering the particular benefits people seek (networks, culture, ideas). For example, in recent years efforts have been made to create themed online communities for people from a particular geographic area. These are called hyper-local services (see localism agenda).

The biggest online communities such as Facebook, Linked In and Twitter focus on enabling people to connect and communicate. Newer online communities such as Four Square and Farmville go beyond this; by introducing tactics from the games industry they can create and deepen relationships through themed shared experiences which invite amicable competition. Platforms rise and fall in popularity, but increasing numbers of people are becoming familiar with how these sites work, what they can offer, and are comfortable migrating from one to another.

What are the implications?

  • Everyday actions and interactions will increasingly be conducted or amplified in online communities.
  • Online communities can provide a sense of connectivity for people living alone (see changing family structures) or away from their families (see personal mobility).
  • Online communities provide a channel for local and national government to use to involve the public in decision making (see public participation in decision making).
  • Peer-to-peer interactions such as collaboration, shopping and making recommendations are made fun, faster and simpler.
  • Challenges for establishing online identities and building trust online
  • Challenges for organisations wishing to engage people through social networking platforms, when users regularly migrate to newer platforms.
  • Small potential markets develop online, allowing organisations to target niche groups
  • Development of powerful marketing channels, where organisations reach new audiences by using their networks to spread a message to their networks.
  • New norms of sharing and aggregating content.
  • Opportunities to generate revenue (see online revenue) from captive audiences in online communities.
  • A rise of single issues due to the development of online communities of interest.
  • Mobilising and campaigning through online communities requires releasing control and allowing a multitude of voices.
  • A rise in international campaigns and movements supported by global online communities.

Moving forward

People are joining multiple online communities. There is an opportunity for VCOs to engage with people across these multiple communities and potentially engage people who would otherwise not be reached.

  • As an organisation, do you have capacity to engage with people on multiple online communities?
  • Will your organisation be able to behave online in a manner appropriate for the type of community it has a presence in?

Online communities allow voluntary and community organisations to better reach and enable marginalised groups or dispersed people to communicate, mobilise and support each other.

  • Is there a role for your organisation to support online communities?
  • How can you reach new audiences and devolve some of your communications by asking your network to 'recommend' your organisation to others?

Online communities present membership challenges and opportunities for voluntary and community organisations. Top-down networks may not be effective, but reducing central control risks a lack of control over your messages.

  • Should your role be as a facilitator of knowledge creation and sharing rather than simply sending out information?

An engaged online community can be a significant asset for VCOs in many ways. 

  • Can you use your online community to help you develop policies or plans, or to help design better services?

Want to know more?

ICT Foresight: how online communities can make the net work for the VCS

Published by: NCVO Third Sector Foresight

Date: 2007

Format: PDF

What is it?: A report on trends in social networking and the risks and opportunities that social networks present for voluntary and community organisations. It covers how social networks have developed to date and how they are expected to develop into the future, and strategic opportunities and challenges in the areas of: membership; information and advice; transparency; collaboration; fundraising; and, marketing and campaigning.

How useful is this?: The report is aimed at VCOs and includes a short executive summary which includes a table summarising the key opportunities and risks that organisations should consider.

Blogs and Community – launching a new paradigm for online community?

Published by: Nancy White

Date: 2006

Format: Web (also available as a podcast, word or pdf document).

What is it?: An article on how new Web2.0 technologies are changing the nature of online communities.

How useful is this?: This excellent article explains very clearly the difference between the online communities of the last 10 years (eg online forums, email lists etc) and the new fluid social networks that are now emerging based around blogs.

The Permeable Nonprofit

Published by: Telligent / Aberdeen Group

Date: 2009

Format: PDF (1.1MB)

What is it?: A comprehensive report on how companies including leverage their online communities to increase awareness, increase retention and acquisition, and aid the new product development process.

How useful is this?: This contains a variety of next steps to choose from depending on how much resources and effort your organisation is able to invest in online communities.

Other comments: This article requires website registration to view.

Last updated at 11:16 Tue 08/Feb/11.

Recent comments

Karl's picture


Third Sector Foresight

There is an interesting quote on Wikipedia’s internet entry from an american writer called N J Slibbert of the Urban Land Institute. He states that “the Internet is fast becoming a basic feature of global civilization, so that what has traditionally been called civil society is now becoming identical with information technology society as defined by Internet use.”

Interesting comment, especially given other drivers on here regarding the digital divide and the critique of Robert Putnam (which I think he has subsequently addressed) that theories about the decline of social capital failed to take account of digital communities.

The quote is orginally attributed to: Slabbert,N.J. The Technologies of Peace, Harvard International Review, June 2006 and can be found here This is actually an article about the US peace corps and its role in international security (!), and the idea that technology is civil society is not expanded.But its an interesting idea that needs exploring.

On average UK adults spend 36 minutes online each day. A quarter of UK web users are over 50. 18 to 24 year olds spend almost 38 hours each month online*. The new media world is growing rapidly and yet it’s still the most under used form of communication employed by charities.

VAMU have just set up a new free website which gives lots of information and tips on how charities can use the power of the media to attract more volunteers. There’s a section on new media and social networking sites.

Written as Policy Officer at NCVO

I read an interesting review on pickled politics of a new book by Clay Shirky – Here comes everybody

I think that the summary of the book in the blog post, particularly the discussion about online vs offline campaigning, is really interesting, and I like that Shirky seems to address the potential negative consequenses of new technologies too.

Véronique's picture


Third Sector Foresight

Demos have just published Network citizens: power and responsibility at work which looks at the growing power of networks and online communities.

The report explores how the principles of social networks intersect with the interests of traditionally structured organisations and examines how organisations are responding to the increasing importance of social networks.

The organisational case studies in the book look at the challenges and opportunities that new social networking technologies offer. These organisations were faced with a range of dilemnas including questions around the right mix of online and offline networking; the tensions between managerialism and organisational ‘looseness’ and the blurring boundaries between professional and personal.

Megan 's picture


Third Sector Foresight

The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project has released a new data memo revealing that the share of (US) adult internet users who have a profile on an online social
network site has more than quadrupled in the past four years, from 8% in 2005 to 35% now.

Overall, personal use of social networks seems to be more prevalent than professional use of networks, both in the orientation of the networks that adults choose to use as well as the reasons they give for using the applications. Most adults, like teens, are using online social networks to connect with people they already know.

When users do use social networks for professional and personal reasons, they will often maintain multiple profiles, generally on different sites.

The memo is available to download here.

S 's picture


NCVO Web Team

I just found some info about citizen engagement that might be of interest.
Source: VolResources Newsletter

Community engagement strategies
Urban Forum, along with NAVCA and the Improvement and Development Agency for local government, has published ‘Developing Your Comprehensive Community Engagement Strategy: A Practical Guide For LSPs’, providing “essential information that local authorities and LSP partners need to develop a joined-up approach to community engagement”. Can be (pdf, 730KB) Downloaded from urban forum website".

More info at

Joh's picture


It definately seems that stuff like mobile broadband is really proving to add more and more to the social media networks

Readers of this thread may be interested in a research project being run by my organisation,Networked Neighbourhoods, into the impacts of citizen-led online neighbourhood networks on neighbourhoods and the implications for public service providers. We'll be publishing in the Autumn. An overview of the study is on our microsite on Capital Ambition's website.

Kathryn's picture


Third Sector Foresight

Hi Hugh Thanks for letting us know about this project. Have you also had a look at our participation driver and the one on community responsibility? How do you think they might play out with citizen-led online networks going on?

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How will this affect your organisation? Have you considered it during your strategic planning? Can you share any interesting relevant links?

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