Is Twitter a Community of Practice?

CoP lifecycleAs we move forward as a collective community of health professionals on social media, I have been thinking a lot of what a major role Twitter plays in the connection and collaboration of such an incredibly large amount of people.

Communities of Practice are defined by Wenger as

groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.[1]

And even though now that Twitter (and many communities of practice within it, including #hcsm/ca/eu) has matured and is being used effectively by so many people, I am growing concerned about its future and about the deep reliance that we have on it for much of our day to day practice. The paradox of social media is that we are currently slave to the tools at our disposal. The more we espouse Twitter’s revolution on communciation practice, the more deeply we become inextricably tied to its specific solution for our broader desire: simple connectivity to a broad community of people “who share a passion.”

In a 2002 book, Wenger, McDermott & Snyder describe the 5 stages of the Community of Practice lifecycle [2]. Consider for a moment where you consider Twitter to be in the stages below:

  1. Potential (informal network of people with a commmon interest)
  2. Coalescence (Value seen from connection)
  3. Maturity (Focus and roles are clarified, active and dynamic enagagement)
  4. Stewardship (Organically evoloving and growing, CoP maintains relevance)
  5. Transformation (Radical transformation, dispersal, or death)

Here is how I think Twitter fits into this model:

  1. Potential. 2006-2007: Twittr launches as primarily SMS-based status tool, tech geeks at SXSW sign up.
  2. Coalescence. 2008: Membership moves beyond tech community as users begin to see promise in sharing more than just a status, and on more devices than simple cell phone. TinyURL,, and other link shorteners bloom.
  3. Maturity. 2009-2010: Active communities form as membership mushrooms and communication and collaboration protocols are ironed out. First hashtags, then lists, continue to foster collaborative growth. Recognizing the ability to connect directly with their customers, businesses and celebrities invest heavily in their Twitter presence.
  4. Stewardship. 2010-2011: Twitter’s value beyond “what you had for breakfast” is no longer up for debate. It is finally OK to ignore the naysayers, and get to the meat of demonstrating and advocating for Twitter’s presence in a professional and collaborative context. Promoted Tweets appear. Increased pressure for Twitter’s monetization looms large as critical mass has been acheived in nearly every aspect of professionals, consumers, news outlets and advertisers.
  5. Transformation. 2011-?: The pressure for Twitter to become a business and not a collaborative tool grows too great. Maturing CoPs within Twitter (eg #hcsm/ca/eu) begin to look for other ways to collaborate and grow their practices beyond one platform. Businesses, advertisers, mass media outlets, and celebrities finally consolodate their hold over Twitter’s userbase.**

The importance of this model lies in the ability for us to evaluate our evolving use of Twitter as it fits into our work lives. Many of the people who read this blog I anticipate as being involved in health care, which is a field that is, in many ways, only beginning to incorporate social media into its professional practices and communications efforts.

Strategy is everything these days. Of course the broader concepts of information access and changing paradigms of online collaboration take precedent over any specific technological or software solution like Facebook or Twitter. But the extent to which the strategic conception of social media is incorporated into our on-the-ground work is still unstable. By that I mean, it is not unheard of to recommend Twitter to literally every organization that declares an interest in social media without a second thought. Today this is a safe bet. Next year or three years from now, we may be thinking twice.

But framing Twitter as a transforming Community of Practice may help to contextualize the position that we are all in as we build and invest our communications strategies on top of tools that are often less interested in freedom of information and communication than we may care to think. Because I believe in the collaborative power of social media, however, I look forward to seeing Twitter and the communities within it transform. And I also look forward to whatever it is that comes next.

**Excuse me while I digress as I truly don’t want to speculate as to the “future of social media” beyond this, but I feel the need to say: I have a feeling that blogging may see a resurgance as people grow weary of “promoted tweets” and ad-spam (I am already there and it has barely begun), and as they begin to seek ways to exert more control over their social media presence. Those who were on the social web before Twitter may return to their roots; Twitter natives will explore both the newest and oldest forms of online identity. And as for Facebook… well, who knows.


  1. Wenger E. 2006. Communities of Practice: a brief introduction. [link]
  2. Wenger E, McDermott R, Snyder WM. 2002. Cultivating Communities of Practice. Harvard Business Press. [link]

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