Five Types of Power and the Online Community

Leadership is about influence, and influence is about power. What are the attributes that can make you influential in the online community? Social psychology provides insight into such attributes by distinguishing among five types of power.

  1. Coercive power. This means the power to punish. It can typically be used in an online community by a moderator, who can ban an account or certain comments.
  2. Reward power. As there are many kinds of rewards, this power can be used in a variety of ways, ranging from a positive comment to financial reward.
  3. Legitimate power. This is the power granted by some kind of authority. On a social networking site, it normally belongs to the organization operating the site, which can define the rules to be followed and execute them.
  4. Expert power. Extremely relevant in the online world, expert power comes from experience or education. If you are recognized as an expert, people will count with your opinion and are more likely to follow your leadership.
  5. Referent power. This is probably the most important type of power in the online communities. Referent power comes from admiration or respect. In the online world without hierarchies and boundaries people with referent power are the most influential ones. This power comes from character, the values and integrity that a person represents.

So now that you know the types of power, how do you go about executing the influence in the online world?

First, you need to build relationships with your potential followers. People need to know you in order to recognize your expertise or respect you. Second, you need to build trust. Before someone follows you, they need to believe in your intentions. Third, be attractive and become friends with your potential followers (see my previous post about attraction). We are all more likely to be influenced by our friends than foes.

Do you have any examples of how power can be used in online communities? Please share them in the comments!

Here you can read more about social psychology. You can also see my other posts about social psychology and the online community.

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22 Responses to “Five Types of Power and the Online Community”


  1. 1 Becky Blanton March 11, 2009 at 4:13 pm

    Great post – love the details about the kinds of power. I see a lot of articles and commentary on power, how to get it, how to recognize it, what to call it, but I rarely see anything on how to keep it. In the online world it feels like we walk a razor’s edge – make one mistake and lose it all. It’s the sit-com or reality show version of leadership. One error and you’re cast off the island, out of the group, or off the list. Why? In the real world, conflict, properly handled, discussed or understood, leads to greater bonds, more power, tighter tribes.

    So why is no one talking about handling conflict issues? It seems like the bigger a “leader” grows, the more control they seek to influence over followers so there are no conflicts. The push to lead and spread ideas becomes one of controlling the inevitable – that we all fail, have conflicts, get upset, and are “human.”

    The strain of being “in power” would be so much less if we grasped this reality – that leaders make mistakes. Would love to see you talk about how to err and recover, how groups should see failure – theirs and that of a leader, in context.

  2. 2 Dr. D. Beauchamp August 21, 2010 at 11:12 pm

    Power can be conflictive in that with it, we can help and harm others if not used properly. The reactive nature of people allows them to confront others provided that the power imposed on them is not abused. When power is helpful and renders what others are seeking, then that power can be triplicated in its legitimacy.

  3. 3 JAMES OKOLIE-OSEMENE March 7, 2011 at 9:24 am

    It is obvious that Power plays a role in most conflicts. You cannot have a conflict without power politics. Whenever there is conflict there is power play. I think the power of Parents over there children is “Referent” because some children do not respect their parents. Another example is the President kneeling down before a Pastor to pray for him, making the pastor have a referent power over the president. It should be noted that expert power is not enough in Nigerian politics. Power is necessary because the history of all existing society is the history of class struggles.

    • 4 MIGUEL ZEPEDA July 24, 2012 at 10:29 pm

      I was under the impression that “Referent Power” came from “admiration and/or respect.” This post show that “Parents” have “‘Referent'” power over their children for “children do not respect their parents.”

  4. 5 USMAN ABUBAKAR USMAN May 4, 2011 at 9:24 am

    THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONTRIBUTION

  5. 6 paul August 25, 2011 at 2:45 pm

    power is necessary

  6. 7 Sami Noori October 1, 2011 at 5:45 am

    thank you so much for giving a very benificial information …for ESL people it is so simple to get these types of powers

  7. 8 Frederick Duruamaku November 4, 2011 at 3:55 pm

    From all indications, everyone has a power – one way or the other. Though, I detest coercive power because implementation of such power might result in abusiveness and or excessiveness. I am okay with the rest of the powers in the list, especially referent power which associates with admiration, respect, and love. This goes without saying that one with referent power is perceived as transformational leader.

  8. 9 Dominic December 4, 2011 at 3:46 am

    There certain type of power i need to know more about ‘condign power’ incase you get it post it or it could be, i am wrong

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