The word “community” doesn’t mean much without context. We all have our own ideas about what a community is, what its like to be in one (or excluded from one), and what it is that connects us most to others. But the scope of the word is so fluid that if you drew a Venn diagram of all the different communities you’re part of, you would probably end up with something reminiscent of your six-year-old nephew’s scribble drawing. What is a community’s scope and where are its boundaries? Are people defined as a community because they go to the same place once and a while? Is community geographically defined to include a population within a specific region or radius? Or do we need to consent to being in a community? Do emotional ties and common bonds factor in? Do community members need to know one another? Can there be a global community? How has the internet changed the way we think about a community?

We didn’t know. So we asked several experts to help us out -- someone who wrote the encyclopedia on community (literally), a sociologist studying internet culture, and an environmental ecologist.



Oswald J. Schmitz

Professor of Population and Community Ecology, Director of Yale Institute for Biospheric Studies

A community is a descriptor of an ecological system in which a variety of interdependent species create a natural economy through engagement in productive, consumptive, competitive and cooperative relations with each other.


Karen Christensen

Editor of the Encyclopedia of Community, CEO and founder of Berkshire Publishing Group and a writer specializing in sustainability and community with a focus on China

Community is like love: hard to define, but absolutely essential to happiness and health. What we call “community” online usually isn’t community at all – we have affinity groups and fan clubs and networks. The kind of community that satisfies our deepest human need for sustaining bonds is characterized by three things: interdependence, diversity, and durability. You can find community in neighborhoods, apartment buildings, and coffee shops, at pick-up basketball teams, and sometimes, now and then, online. Laughter and teasing are, in my experience, key indicators of a healthy, vibrant community: if we can’t laugh at ourselves, we don’t have enough diversity, or durability.

Population of world's smallest countries:


Tuvalu (26 km²)


Nauru (21 km²)


Monaco (2 km²)


Vatican (0.44 km²)


Dr. Allison Cavanagh

Lecturer, School of Media and Communication, Leeds University, UK, Author of Sociology in the Age of the Internet

Online community as a concept is certainly hotly debated and academics have tried to define it in a number of ways - or to argue that it doesn’t exist. When we talk about the community we mean something more than a feeling of belonging, or shared beliefs and practices because these can exist without people needing to see themselves as part of a community as such. Communities tend to be characterized by multiple ties between people such that they have to find ways to ‘get along’. That’s one of the reasons why people doubt whether internet communities are truly communities in the strict sense as there was, initially, no reason for people to try to work out conflict as they could simply move to another group. Nowadays that is very different as online reputation and the dominance of some social media platforms means that the age of anonymity is past, and online community is far more than an adjunct to offline life.

Number of active members in the largest online communities:

1.39 Billion



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ILLUSTRATION:  Nikita Treptsov
Additional sources: World Atlas, Wikipedia