Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft are terms coined by noted German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies over a century ago, to describe two concepts in social groups. Gemeinshaft and Gesellschaft are loosely translated into “community” and “society” respectively.
Gemeinshaft (community) is characterized by:
- - Emphasis on the togetherness of the group
- - The group being more important than the members
- - Strong communal relations
- - Shared moral values and beliefs
- - Weaker division of labor (less specialization)
Examples of gemeinshaft social groups include rural neighborhoods, families, tribes, garage bands, sports teams.
Gesellschaft (society) is characterized by:
- - Individualism overriding community
- - Contractual relationships over covenental
- - Stronger division of labor (more specialization)
- - Diverse social mores
Examples of gesellschaft social groups include corporations, diverse countries, social clubs, universities.
In practice, Tönnies would not classify a social group as purely either gemeinshaft or gesellschaft. More than likely both types are at work in a social group at varying strengths.
Tönnies theory provides a useful lens to see social groups and social networks through. Because of the mixed nature of gemeinschaft and gesellschaft in social groups, you can see transitions where groups that used to be gemeinshaft-oriented move toward a more gesellschaft nature.
Let’s take a look at Twitter and in particular early Twitter and modern Twitter. In the early incarnation of Twitter, the use case and the social groups that formed around the service were much more gemeinshaft oriented. In a recent Build and Analyze podcast, developer Marco Arment mentioned how Twitter used to be a conversation with friends and now the signal to noise ratio is much lower. When Twitter was small, the community that existed had much stronger bonds. Twitter as a service was used as a public conversation with friends.
As a late-comer to Twitter, I have a very different use for Twitter. For me, Twitter is a utility to get news and stay on top of what is happening. The social group I make on Twitter is predicated on a contractual relationship where I as the individual am much more important that the circle of followers/followings that I formed.
Thus we see the rise of App.net, where the early adopters of Twitter have a chance to pick up and move their social group to a place where gemeinshaft is better facilitated. Because of the paid nature of App.net (a yearly fee of $36 is required), it is likely that the service will keep it’s smaller community and be able to keep the gemeinshaft communities served (providing it survives on a smaller group).
We see this transition from gemeinshaft to gesellshaft often in modern social networks. On Facebook, we see “friends” start as a small set of friends into a directory of acquaintances. In order to restore gemeinshaft, Facebook allows you to now deliniate “friends” vs. “family”. In Google+, this takes a similar form of being able to define “circles”.
As social networks grow in size and scale, there is an almost inevitable transference from gemeinshaft into gesellschaft and an equally inevitable conflict. Periodically, there is backlash and those seeking gemeinshaft splinter off to form a new social network or protest - seeking to return to the days when the network was smaller.
You could also say that gemeinshaft and gesellschaft underlie some of Geoff Moore’s ideas about Crossing the Chasm. In order to move past early adopters and “cross the chasm” to mass market, Moore recommends establishing a small narrow “beachhead”. The beachhead is a small slice of the mass-market - a gemeinshaft community, if you will. Identifying and taking over this “thin edge of the wedge” allows you to expand out to other groups and cross the chasm to mass market.
Gemeinshaft communities are easier to attack because of the nature that these communities take. Gemeinshaft communities are characterized by shared social mores. People in the group tend to share beliefs and values (even if the shared value is individual uniqueness). You can cater to the common elements of a gemeinshaft community much easier than the looser associations and individuals of a gesellshaft group. This is one reason why every other startup pitch is: “It’s like Facebook for X” where X is a smaller gemeinshaft community of:
- - dog lovers
- - urban hipsters
- - vegan foodies
- - vegan foodie urban hipster dog lovers
As Tönnies himself pointed out, gemeinshaft and gesellshaft are “normal types”. They are idealized notions useful for conceptual framing. In real life, they are mixed and complex. They are useful from the theoretical standpoint in framing and talking about social groups but when you’re dealing with actual social groups, it is necessary to delve deep and empirically research the mixtures of the two types.
Comments, flames, thoughts? - @marksweep