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Community

What Is a Virtual Community? All You Need to Know in 2024

Virtual communities are thriving. Here's everything you need to know about where they came from and who they're for.

By Mighty Team

January 28, 2024

9 min read

IN THIS ARTICLE

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    Virtual communities are thriving, as people from around the world come together to connect with brands, creators, and friends. In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about where virtual communities came from and what they’re for. We’ll cover:



    • What a virtual community is & key characteristics.

    • Benefits of virtual communities.

    • The business of virtual communities.

    • A history of virtual communities.

    • Some virtual community examples.


    ((toc))


    What is a virtual community?


    A virtual community is made up of a group of people bonded by a shared interest or motivation. They meet up in a dedicated digital space, where they can form connections with each other, tap into each other’s stories and experiences to fuel progress and build meaningful relationships.


    These communities are usually led by a creator or Host who structures why and how their members build relationships with each other in the quest to master something interesting together.


    In a virtual community, members get added value from the connections they make with each other. This distinction—the ability for members to foster relationships with each other— is what sets virtual communities apart from audiences on social media channels and subscribers to email newsletters.


    Oftentimes, the term “virtual community” is used interchangeably with “online community” (and they’re essentially the same thing).


    Mighty Networks - Graphics - Event Series -Body Soul Collective


    Characteristics of a virtual community


    All virtual communities require at least three main components:



    1. A creator(s). This is the person or people who bring the community together with a founding vision, set up the online community platform, and get the discussions moving.

    2. Members. The people who join around a shared interest or motivation. Each new member adds value to the community by bringing their own expertise, experience, and perspective to the table.

    3. An online community platform. The digital space where a virtual community’s creator and members come together to master something essential together. A good online community platform will give you features to organize discussions, host events, charge for memberships, build subgroups, live stream and even build and sell courses!


    But we can add one more set of characteristics that every virtual community has:



    • Shared interests and goals: Every virtual community starts with a shared Big Purpose. There are no exceptions. Because in order for people to show up, engage, and create content, there has to be something they get out of it. Sometimes it’s just to be around people with similar interests. Sometimes it’s a shared transformation they want. Or conversations they can’t find anywhere else.

    • Communication: All virtual communities need a communication framework too. Often it’s text-based (e.g. a discussion forum), but communication can include videos and livestreaming, virtual events, photo-sharing, GIFs, and pretty much any other kind of human communication.

    • User-generated content: Finally, every virtual community needs user-generated content. It’s what makes a community grow and scale (and it’s also why a social media following isn’t a community).


    Mighty Networks - Graphics - Events


    Benefits of virtual communities


    Here are some of the benefits of virtual communities, and many of these you won’t even find in traditional communities!



    • Connecting with people you wouldn’t otherwise meet, building real social networks across the world (a following is not a social network–it’s broadcasting). Since they’re not limited by geography, virtual communities can nourish diverse membership, live experiences, and perspectives.

    • Progressing, learning, and growing, gaining value from people who see things differently and operate in different worlds (network theorist Mark Granovetter described these as “weak ties.”)

    • Combating loneliness and making connection possible anywhere, fostering well-being.

    • Connecting into a community of practice for professional skills and networking.

    • Opening up new avenues for collaboration and shared creativity.

    • Organic member growth: If you’re looking for growth, virtual communities can grow naturally as members engage with each other and tell their friends.

    • Real connections: Don’t be fooled by the word “virtual.” Virtual communities are a great place to grow real, rich connections with people from around the world.

    • Personal development: For communities focused on learning and growth, going through transformation with others gives accountability AND people cheering you on.

    • Conversations in your pocket: With a community app like Mighty Networks, you can bring the power of connection right into your pocket.

    • Recurring revenue: Virtual communities with a paid membership fee generate recurring revenue for their Hosts.

    • Centralized business: A virtual community can bring together all the elements of an online business, from memberships to courses to live events.


    Mighty Networks - Graphics - Optimistic Entrepeneur - Page Paired Dark


    Types of virtual communities


    Here are some (not all) of the types of online communities:



    • Health and wellness: formed around subjects like eating right or getting in shape.

    • Personal development: formed around personal mastery and progress towards your potential.

    • Hobbies: formed for the shared love of a hobby (e.g. knitting, quilting, photography).

    • Careers or entrepreneurship: formed around career mastery and entrepreneurs learning from one another.

    • Mastering skills: formed around learning a new skill (e.g. marketing or coding).

    • Spirituality or religion: formed around seeking spiritual or religious growth or community.

    • Healing: members connecting over shared challenges or even trauma (e.g overcoming postpartum depression).


    Even within these different types of communities, there may be a lot of variation. Some can have as few as 10 members (like a micro-community), others have memberships in the thousands. Some virtual communities are free, but others charge for access. But no matter the structure, they often go hand-in-hand with a membership, an online course, a mastermind group, and much more.


    Mighty Networks - Graphics _ Members Paired Light Achievement Academy


    The business of virtual communities


    Virtual communities tap into our shared humanity, but they also have powerful business potential. A virtual community creates a space of shared vision, but it also creates what Charles Tilley calls a “trust network.” A trust network means that a shared social network creates trust. This trust is what economists call an “institution”--or, in plain English, people can do business in a community because they feel safe and trust each other.


    Mighty Networks - Graphics - Livestream Paired Light


    We see virtual communities becoming huge businesses–doing 6-, 7-, and even 8-figures in revenue a year. And it all happens because people come together around a shared purpose, trust the people in charge, and are looking for opportunities to grow and learn. This means communities can sell memberships, courses, events, coaching, masterminds, and all sorts of other high-ticket or low-ticket products.


    But it also makes virtual communities useful for brands, as spaces for building loyalty and doing customer engagement.


    This has given rise to a new business model called the Community Flywheel, which has been called the business model that will dominate the 2020s.


    Mighty Networks - Graphics - Body Soul Livestream Paired Light


    History of virtual communities


    1960s-70s



    • Douglas Engelbart was a pioneer in the infrastructure for virtual communities. He was fascinated by how technology could enhance human intellect. His Augmentation Research Center held a demo of the first video conferencing in 1968, and his lab created many of the ideas that virtual communities rely on today.

    • The ARPANet (Advanced Research Projects Agency) was part of the U.S. Defense Department and used phone lines to link agencies around the country. The network grew and evolved beyond Pentagon agencies, to include academic and civilian components. Joseph Carl Robnett Licklider is credited with seeing the potential for a human network (instead of just military), but the creativity and freedom of ideas the network celebrated led to breakthroughs. ARPANet lasted until 1990.

    • The PLATO system allowed users to communicate through a message board online.


    Mighty Networks - Graphics - Live streaming


    1980s-90s



    • In 1984, artists Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz connected five LA restaurants and an art museum through a live video link–people in these locations could interact in real time. The social theorist Gene Youngblood called the project a “virtual community” (becoming the first person to use the term). Youngblood’s idea of a “virtual community” saw tech and human creativity mixing, and helped create the concept of a virtual community we use today.



    "Kit and Sherrie create context rather than content. An artist can enter the context they create and make content, which will now be empowered and revitalized in a way that it could never have been empowered without the context that these people set up." -Gene Youngblood - Electronic Cafe




    friendster


    2000-10s



    • An explosion of possibilities with new software for online connections and creativity: instant messaging, blogs, RSS feeds, wikis, photo-sharing communities (e.g., Flickr), massively multiplayer online games (e.g., Lineage, World of Warcraft), and immersive virtual worlds (e.g., Second Life).

    • The rise of social media from Friendster (2002), MySpace (2003), and LinkedIn (2003) to Facebook (2004), YouTube (2005), and Twitter (2006). Each platform created new ways of networking and set the scene for modern virtual communities.

    • Social media platforms continue and grow new features: private groups, photo sharing, livestreaming, and more.

    • Introduction of private community chat and messaging platforms: Ning (2005), Slack (2013), Discord (2015), Teams (2017).


    Slack channel 1


    2020s



    • We’re just getting started, but the 2020s have already transformed virtual communities. The rise of AI and ChatGPT have already transformed what’s possible for virtual communities. This could include the mass creation of content, but that’s the minimum. We’re seeing the future of virtual communities being co-hosted by AI, where AI can streamline and automate administrative functions and leave humans in a community free to create and connect.


    Virtual community examples



    • Wealth Without Wall Street is a membership site by financial advisers Russ Morgan and Joey Mure. Within their virtual community, Russ, Joey, and their team coach people to become their own bankers, generate passive income, and attain financial freedom without relying on the stock market. They also offer members access to online courses, mastermind groups, and weekly live Q&As with experts in the financial industry.

    • LuvvNation, a virtual community curated by author and podcaster Luvvie Ajayi Jones, acts as a safe digital space for Luvvie’s socially-minded followers. Members are offered multiple ways to connect, including online courses, challenges, and live virtual events.

    • Wanderful is a membership community that connects solo women travelers across the globe. Led by creator Beth Santos, Wanderful provides its members with webinars, learning modules, virtual events, free admission to in-person chapter events, and much more.


    Mighty Networks - Graphics - Achievement Academy SingleEvent Paired Dark


    Want to start a virtual community?





    If you want to build your own virtual community, come start with Mighty! It’s free for 14 days and comes with world-class community features: discussions, livestreaming, virtual events, member profiles, and chat & messaging. Our AI community assistant–Mighty Co-Host™ can build a community instantly and surface valuable connections, automating landing pages, course outlines, and more. Charge for your community in 135 different currencies, or even monetize with token-gating.


    Now Read: How to Create a Virtual Community in 6 Easy Steps

    Ready to start building your community?

    Start Your Own Mighty Network Today!No credit card required.

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