Network vs Community

A post by George Siemens on PLN’s earlier this week has really pushed my thinking about legitimate peripheral participation, lurking, and the differences between a learning network and a learning community with respect to social expectations and identity.

I don’t like to think of myself as a ‘taker’, yet I do often consider myself a ‘lurker’. I do not equate ‘lurking = taking’. Sometimes I lurk, sometimes I take. Sometimes I feel I don’t have anything to add to the conversation, so I just like it as a way to acknowledge that I have been there and send a signal to my connection to keep those weak ties bound. Sometimes I contribute something back.

I still find myself uncomfortable. The dialectic nature of learning does not always come easy to me. Even posting my response to George made me uncomfortable, to the point where I was almost apologetic to George for bringing the whole issue of lurking up in the first place as I felt that it distracted from the important point he was making about the need to act by contributing something to all these connections we are busy making.

The reasons why I felt uncomfortable are complex and personal, primarily centered around my own issues of often feeling like I am an imposter at the table. It’s a feeling I have often, even in f2f social situations. I don’t bring this up as a way to exercise my own personal issues as some sort of angst-y therapy blog post, but rather to highlight the complex and highly personal nature of why we may choose to contribute or not contribute (and while reading comments like “Lurking in the physical world is done by thieves, spies and ethnographers” makes me smile, it also doesn’t make a self-proclaimed lurker feel anymore comfortable about contributing). I still feel like something is at risk when I post something. It is a barrier for me, and one that I can’t (or choose not to) always overcome.

I think the fact that I “sometimes” feels like a lurker illustrates the fluid nature of our own personal identity on the web, a point underscored for me when I read George’s reply to  Tannis Morgan’s comment in which he was articulating the differences between identity in a network, and identity in a community.

Hi Tanis – identity and positioning are very different things in networks than they are in community. I don’t want to get into the whole community/network debate here (we do that annually in CCK courses), but networks have different social structures than most communities do. A community has general rules, guidelines, and soft social pressure. We get these in networks to a lesser degree. In networks, for example, we can have parallel conversations where I follow you, I know what you’re writing and thinking about, it forms my development, but I don’t have to focus explicitly on what you (and others) say. Conversations are abundant, diverse, fragmented, and complex. In a community, stronger protocols exist. For example, in a virtual community, if everyone is blasting out random thoughts and ideas, we conclude there is no engagement. On Twitter, I can contribute, create a few resources, post them…and maybe people will respond. Or maybe they won’t. But it’s ok, in a network, to contribute and not be explicitly acknowledged. In a community, contribution has stronger social norms – i .e. it needs to be acknowledge, discussed, and so on. As a result, the identity of individuals in social networks has a different impact than it does in communities. But I need to think a bit more about what exactly that difference is…at this point, it seems to me that identity is more fluid in networks and therefore has less requirements of expected behaviour or roles than we find in communities.

Reading this was a bit of an aha moment for me (and a duh moment as well). A learning network is not a learning community. There are differences, both subtle and profound, between the two.

Which brings me back to Wenger & Lave’s legitimate peripheral participation, and how my thinking got shifted by this post. LPP is a concept that is very much tied to communities, specifically Communities of Practice. But, as George points out, a network is not a community. They are two different entities, and the social expectations for involvement in both are different. In my attempt to understand the nature of networked learning and PLN’s, perhaps I am transferring too much from the Community of Practice model, and not fully acknowledging that there are fundamental differences that exist between learning in a community and learning in a network.

Which makes me wonder at what point do our models of thinking – models that have served us so well over the years – begin to get stretched too far? At what point do our models begin to hold us back instead of give us the foundation to move forward? At what point does our scaffold begin to fall down and need to be rebuilt again?

Finally, this all makes me think that we do a disservice to both the terms “lurking” and “legitimate peripheral participation” when we use them interchangeably (guilty). They are different things, and I sometimes think the (undeservedly) pejorative nature of the term “lurker” often gets dressed up with the much more acceptable term of legitimate peripheral participation. Legitimate peripheral participation may begin with lurking, but there is an expectation that this is the first step in a continuum for a learner in that they will eventually move out of the lurking phase and take a more active role in a community.


Clint Lalonde

Just a guy writing some stuff, mostly for me these days on this particular blog. For my EdTech/OpenEd stuff, check out


4 thoughts on “Network vs Community

  1. Interesting questions about (mental) models. Senge, Schon and Argyris all suggest, in one way or another, that mental models are "deeply ingrained" in any learning entity (individual, organizational, community). They make life easier and unless they are recognized they make it almost impossible to really walk all the way around any issue or concept. There is a tension that occurs as we try to step into in the state of beginningness that we need to be in to dissolve entrenched mental models. At the same time there is huge pay value in accessing existing schema/mental models to help us understand new territory. My 2 cents 🙂

    My recent post Changing the Face of First Nations Communication – Pt 2

    1. I think that tension is why learning is difficult work. You have to rely on your mental models to bring you along and help you understand something new, but then have to have the courage to abandon them when the moment is right. That is the shift, and the moment of "learning".

      Jamie, you have mentioned Schon on many occasions when we have spoken – I really have to pick up on your cues and read me some Schon!

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