Making virtual communities and social networks sustainable

Many networks and communities seem to require constant attention from the leaders or facilitators. Its always the same old people who seem to do all the work. Take away the leader, perhaps because the funding runs out, and the community just withers and dies - sometimes within a matter of weeks. Often this happens because the network has not cultivated the 3 critical dialogues in a community: taking care of business, grooming and emoting. These dialogs must take occur across the 3 key network encounters: one-one, one-many and many-many. Heres how you can make your networks and communities less fragile!


I am thinking primarily about networks which are voluntary and self-sustaining rather than networks which are mandatory for participants as a result of their business or profession.

In a previous article, Design better social software using Living Systems Theory, I looked at networks as living biological systems and the 4 key components which need to be in place for them to thrive.

In this article I present a short introduction on how you can assess the viability and sustainability of a network from a human communications and interactions viewpoint:

Network Dialogs

There are 3 basic types of dialogues humans have with each other:

1. TCB (Taking Care of Business) - getting things done
2. Grooming - Nurturing relationships through trivia and small talk
3. Emoting - Sharing how we feel - good and bad

Proposition#1: A viable network needs to have all 3 types of dialogue present. There may be a dominant dialog but the other two must also be present to certain minimum levels if the network is to be self-sustaining.

Network Encounters

Network participation is a group activity - not just a one to one thing - it seems to me that there are 3 ways we can encounter others as we have our network dialogues:

a. 1:1 (one to one) - a two party conversation
b. 1:M (one to many) - one person is talking to a group
c. M:M (many to many) - a group where all members are talking with each other

Proposition#2: A viable network needs to have all 3 types of encounter present. There may be a dominant type of encounter but the other two must also be present to certain minimum levels if the network is to be self-sustaining.

Network Channels

There are 3 main channels we can use for these dialogues:

x. Speech - over the phone or face to face
y. eMail/Web - any form of asynchronous communications
z. Messaging - any form of real-time communications via web or mobile phone

Proposition#3: Some channels are better for some dialogs than others and some are better for some encounters than others. However if all the Dialogs and Encounters need to be present to some degree then this implies all the channels also need to be present to some degree.

A 3-Dimensional Network Sustainability Model

So if you put all this together you get a 3-dimensional view of a potential network as shown in the Rubik's cube at the top of the article.

To make things easier we can start by looking at any network as a simple matrix and creating a Network Heatmap for it, for example:


To illustrate this lets look at a few very simple 'caricature' examples:

  • Voluntary Professional Networks
    These networks often fixate on the TCB Dialog with no room for Grooming or Emoting - in fact these latter two dialogs might be positively banned or frowned upon.

  • Web-only Networks
    Networks which only use the eMail/Web channel but don't allow Speech or Mobile Messaging make it very hard for their members to Groom or Emote.

  • I-centric Networks
    These networks present the rest of the community mainly as a resource which I can draw upon. Thus they support 1:1 and 1:M encounters but neglecting the M:M encounters which can be great for building group relationships.


Viewing a proposed network using the 3 dimensions of communications can be a powerful way to spot and fix obstacles and problems to sustainability before the network gets off the ground. What you are really looking for is a SUN (Sustainable Unified Network)!

In a future article I will examine network sustainability from other perspectives such as the extent of 'Face to face' (F2F) and unifying force (e.g. money, relationships or advancement).

An earlier version of this article was originally published on on December, 2007

About the Author

Ken Thompson is an expert practitioner in the area of bioteaming, swarming, virtual enterprise networks, virtual professional communities and virtual teams and has published two landmark books:

Bioteams: High Performance Teams Based on Nature's Best Designs

The Networked Enterprise: Competing for the future through Virtual Enterprise Networks

Ken writes the highly popular bioteams blog which has over 500 articles on all aspects of bioteams (aka organizational biomimicry) - in other words how human groups can learn from nature's best teams.

Ken is also founder of an exciting European technology company Swarmteams which provides unique patent-pending bioteaming technologies for all shapes and sizes of groups, social networks, business clusters, virtual/mobile communities and enterprises. Swarmteams enables groups to be more responsive and agile by fully integrating their mobile phones and the web with bioteam working techniques. The latest Swarmteams implementation is SwarmTribes which helps musicians and bands form a unique collaboration with their fans for mutual benefit.

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