The good trumps the bad in online communities

by Kristin on September 18, 2012

in Love, family & community

Photo by AnneCN

There was no doubt what I would write about today. On Thursday, I will be meeting dozens of my closest Twitter and blogging friends—of course my online community is on my mind. (So much so that I can hardly tone down my excitement enough to write a logical post.)

But even though I had a subject, I wasn’t sure what angle I would take with this post. Online friendships are tricky to pin down. On one hand, they’re often viewed with suspicion—can you really trust someone you can’t look in the eye, who hasn’t physically been there for you? Others, who have never poured their guts out and opened their homes to strangers they’ve met online, like I have, simply discount that these are real friendships, at all.

My mind takes these suspicions into consideration, but my heart knows they’re bunk. Many days, my online community feels like it’s made up of the only true friends I have. Several of the people I’m going to meet while I’m in Chicago this week are people I’ve known for years, but just haven’t met in person. By reading one another’s blogs and daily tweets, I feel like I know many of them better than I know friends who live in my city, and I’m certain these online friends know me better than many of my “real life” friends do.

These deep, gut-level feelings about people I’ve gotten to know online have been confirmed in real life, too. Friends like Ray Hollenbach, Leigh Kramer, and Shawn Smucker have passed through my town and pulled chairs up to my family’s dinner table. Twice I’ve made plans to room at a conference and a workshop with friends I had not yet met in person—Suzannah Paul and Katie Gibson. I’ve sat around a table with Micha Boyett, Addie Zierman, Ed Cyzewski, Stephanie Smith, and Heather Goodman, a group of bloggers who see my heart, and seem to have a special ability to really hear my dreams and frustrations. A few springs ago, I sat on a lawn and talked about blogging with Rachel Held Evans, just weeks before her first book was released, and earlier this month I dove into a conversation about hurt and redemption with Tammy Perlmutter, over coffee. While it might seem to some that I went out on a lot of limbs, these interactions felt to me like the most natural and safe things to do.

Online communities aren’t all hugs and smiles, though. As I started thinking through this post, I wrote a fill-in-the-blank at the top of a piece of paper:

Online communities are ______________.

The quick list of words and phrases I wrote down made me laugh, mostly because for every positive there was a corresponding negative. Here’s what I came up with:

- Online communities are encouraging—when I need a good dose of “You can do it,” by people who believe in me, my online friends are the best (after my husband and my mom, that is). But they can be discouraging, too. It isn’t an intentional discouragement, but there are days when Twitter feels like a running list of everyone else’s amazing accomplishments. It seems like everyone is blogging more, publishing more, getting agent deals, and being impossibly witty, all while making gorgeous pies and running great distances and being a wonderful parent. (In similar ways, online communities can be inspiring and overwhelming.)

- Online communities are both engaging and lonely—I always know there will be someone to interact with or run an idea by on Twitter, but sometimes it feels like you’re standing in the midst of a lively party, with conversations happening all around you and there’s no natural way to ease into any of them. (Or you feel like everyone’s talking about the party you missed entirely.) Similarly, it’s a setting that can be both friendly and intimidating.

- Online communities are transparent. There’s something about the way we hide behind our computers that allows us to be more bold, more brave—to share things and speak up in ways we wouldn’t in person. But at the same time, our computers can be masks rather than shields. Hiding behind them can provide a way to be more false and guarded, to expose only the parts of us that feel polished and perfected. (I also had “deep and surface-skimming” on my list, which goes hand-in-hand with this theme.)

- And online communities are diverse and insulated. I have to admit, I love both sides of that equation. I interact with people on Twitter that are different from anyone I interact with in real life. Part of that difference comes from the diverse geography. Social media erases the miles between me and people who live in Kenya, Puerto Rico and Germany, as well as friends who live in the rural South or New York City. I’m also able to have conversations with people coming from different perspectives of all kinds, whether in terms of religion and politics or health and parenting. But Twitter and blogs also encourage the grouping of people who are all very similar. That’s part of why I love it so much. Where else can I find a bunch of Christian-liberal-beer-drinking-writers who really get where I’m coming from, and make me want to shout “Preach!” when I read their thoughts? Sure, there’s plenty of preaching-to-the-choir, but I think we need a good dose of that, in order to feel less alone, less like a paradoxical freak, and more like we can embrace who we really are and how we really feel, and tell our stories boldly and honestly.

I know I need that affirming refreshment desperately, and it’s exactly why I can’t wait to meet these encouraging, inspiring, transparent, engaging, deep friends at the STORY conference this week. It will be a celebration of all that’s truly good in our online communities.

How would you fill in the blank? Online communities are ___________.

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  • http://www.somuchshoutingsomuchlaughter.com/ suzannah | the smitten word

    it’s ever the both/and, isn’t it? you’ve put it perfectly, and i so wish i were meeting you again in chicago! our time in grand rapids was a true highlight of this year. these relationships–and you–bless my life for the better:)

  • http://www.leighkramer.com HopefulLeigh

    Such good thoughts, Kristin. I think it’s important for us to find balance within our social media use so that the good continues to trump the bad. For instance, I know I’m going to be crazy jealous if I read all the STORY tweets this weekend. I’m not going to avoid Twitter but I am going to keep a good eye on my reaction to reading all the updates from my favorite people. I’m so glad you get to go! I know it’ll be a great conference and an even better time connecting with like-minded souls.

    What I’ve appreciated the most about my online communities is the depth and authenticity. Many of my online friends know me better than friends that have known me since kindergarten! We’re willing to talk about the issues and risk vulnerability. Often I’m amazed to witness the Body of Christ at work all over the Internet. I’m grateful for your friendship and hospitality. Hoping our paths cross again soon!

  • http://www.inamirrordimly.com ed cyzewski

    I’d say, “Online communities are a great first step and a great way to keep in touch.” I think we see the dark side when we get auto-DM’s or people we don’t know invite us to events on FB that we have no interest in and then get bombarded with junk notifications. It can be so nice to meet people online, provided it’s about actually “meeting online” rather than hitting someone up to sell something, a la “Thanks for the follow, here’s a link to buy my ebook that will change your life!!! It’s only $49.99″

    I’m looking forward to hanging with you at STORY!!!

  • http://www.allthingsbeautifulblog.com Alyssa

    You sum up my feelings about social media perfectly! Although it can be overwhelming and fake at times, when you meet really awesome people who inspire/challenge you daily, it makes it all worth it!

  • Tanya Marlow

    This is brilliant. You’ve summed up the paradoxes perfectly.

    I think the good trumps the bad for me, definitely- as someone who has become housbound in the last two years, it is a lifeline. No question.

    Thanks for this – it’s good to know I’m not the only one who feels it’s sometimes like being left out in a noisy party.

  • http://www.carisadel.com Caris Adel

    What a great post – perfectly described. I’ve been part of a small women’s group online for about 10 years, and we are all probably some of the closest friends we have. The few times we’ve gotten to meet and hang out have been some of the best times. But it is something else, even better to have found a group of people who are like-minded and enjoy talking about life and tension and writing. Even though I’m new to this whole group of bloggy friends, I’m so excited to meet everyone.

  • http://awritespot.wordpress.com Brianna

    Great post–I’m quite new to the Christian blogging community, and though I find parts of it appealing, it’s also intimidating. It’s difficult to know how to begin to break into the community and begin forming these online relationships.

  • http://shawnsmucker.com Shawn Smucker

    Stopping at halfway to normal was one of the highlights of our trip. So glad to have met you and your wonderful family (and your wonderful town).

    Online communities are a lifeline.

    Wishing Maile and I were on our way to STORY…

  • http://www.jenwritesstuff.com Jen

    How timely is this? Wish I could be there to meet you at Story, but Thursday morning I’m heading to Nashville for a similar gathering of online friends. (we call it Hutchmoot. Funny name. Some of the dearest community I’ve had in my life.) I went last year for the first time, and I was terrified at first, but as the weekend progressed, and I began to see those names on a screen as flesh-and-blood humans that love the same things I do, I suddenly felt a sense of home, like I was no longer a misfit. This year, it feels more like a family reunion.

    I do appreciate the paradoxes too. My biggest fear when meeting an online friend for the first time is that I’m somehow not going to live up to who I appeared to be, even though I try to be as close to myself as I can in my cyber interactions. But that’s just fear and insecurity talking. For me though, online community has been affirming. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who loves the things I do, or that there are people who understand and accept me for who I am.

    Maybe one day I’ll make it to Story (if they move it away from Hutchmoot weekend ;)) or even Festival of Faith and Writing!

  • http://www.jenwritesstuff.com Jen

    Oh! And also… I found my first community 10 years ago when I started blogging on LiveJournal. It got me through some really formative, turbulent, confusing times, and I’m grateful for those folks who offered encouragement to my most emo rants.

    Oddly, one of those friends works in the same industry I do now. I see him every year at a radio convention, and we always end up telling somebody that “we met on LJ” story. It freaks me out that he may know more about me than some of my co-workers. :D

  • http://denisedilley.blogspot.com Denise Dilley (@denisedilley)

    Your words sum up my thoughts on social media and online community perfectly. 10 years ago it used to be easier for me to get on chat rooms and talk to complete strangers, call them up on the phone, and meet in real life. These days, I feel like the girl standing in the corner at the party just waiting for someone to strike up a conversation with me. Despite my feelings, I’ve engaged with some really great people online these past few months and even call some of them friends. Do they know more than my real life best friend? Not a chance. But my hope is that God will build an online community tailor-made for me…with incredible people who encourage each other, challenge each other, and pray for each other. I just need a little bit more confidence to step away from the corner and say ‘hi’ to a few folks first. :)

  • http://michaboyett.com Micha Boyett

    Kristin, I’ve thought about this so much this past year as I’ve tried to settle into Austin. There were times when I’d think about how few “mom friends” I’d made here and I’d question if I even needed them. My “mom friends” were online. I’ve worried about that. Is that unhealthy? Where’s the line beween real life and virtual? Can I really get the support and fulfillment of friendship in social media? And I’m not sure I really know.

    It has to be both/and, right? We need friends who will watch the kids last minute and bring over a casserole when it’s needed. But I also know that in the midst of not having that local “mom” support, I’ve been really happy this year. And I’ve felt cared for in plenty of ways that haven’t included casseroles or free babysitting.

    Thanks for making me think, as usual.

  • http://www.beingabranch.com Erin

    Oh yes. Getting to know this online community makes me feel not alone in so many things. (Although sometimes alone in real life, because I want such soul understanding people to be the people I regularly have dinner with, too.)
    Hope you have a wonderful time with online friends this weekend!

  • http://lisadelay.com/blog Lisa Colón DeLay

    Online communities are legit.

    I didn’t know for sure, but I saw it borne out. In real life the online friends were even kinder, funnier, and more wonderful than online. (Not that there can’t be bad surprises.)

    I’m thrilled to have met you in-the-flesh, and sit by you at supper. I wished I lived closer to more of the lovelies I’ve met online, but it’s like waiting for heaven, isn’t it? It can be great here, but the eventual meetup will be the bomb!

    thanks for making getting together for a meal a reality. That was a bona fide gift.

    -L

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Hi all! I’m back from STORY, where I got to hang out with almost too many wonderful people to list! Sorry for the delayed response to your comments.

    suzannah, it’s so wonderful when you’re able to not just meet someone you know online, but actually spend lots of time and conversation together, like we did. I’m so thankful to have you in my community of encouragers and inspirers!

    HopefulLeigh, yes to this: “What I’ve appreciated the most about my online communities is the depth and authenticity.” I hope the STORY tweets weren’t too much for you! I know how jealous I have been in the past when I see evidence of good stuff happening without me. You were missed!

    ed, I think you’re right—social media is a great first step in terms of introducing and staying in touch. But at the same time, some of my online friendships seem to take subsequent steps deeper even without the benefits of a face-to-face meeting. (And having said all of that, I definitely feel more connected to you and your writing after being able to hang out together at two conferences in one year!)

    Alyssa, it just takes a while to meet those amazing people who will inspire and challenges you, doesn’t it? And usually—at least with a site like Twitter—there are dozens of connections that fall flat in between each one that takes hold. I’m glad you’re persevering and being rewarded for it!

    Tanya, thank you! I can only imagine how much of a lifeline social media must be for people who are housebound. And my guess is that the intensity of emotions around those connections rise in proportion to your reliance on them. I hope the “connected” feeling continue to outweigh those left-out-at-the-party times.

    Caris, that’s so impressive—being a part of a small online group for 10 years! Also, it’s so crazy that when I wrote this post and you wrote your comment, we hadn’t met yet; just a few days later you feel like an old friend! I’m so glad we had that time together.

    Brianna, I know how you feel—a few years ago I was right there, trying to figure out how to find a spot for myself without being too pushy. It’s a fine line! I guess my advice is to just be both realistic AND outgoing. It takes a lot of time to find the right mix of people to be your “tribe,” and there will definitely be flops along the way. But if you’re friendly, helpful, and completely *yourself,* it will fall into place!

    Shawn, our entire family loved meeting your entire family! Thank you for taking whatever detour it required to make it happen. :) (We all would have LOVED seeing you and Maile at STORY!)

  • http://themchadley.wordpress.com/ Michael Hadley

    Community in person is important too! But I agree with your post. We need fellow writers to bounce ideas off of, people who may not know us as well as our friends. The trick is finding a community, as well as being accepted in to one. Great post!

  • http://www.alifewithsubtitles.blogspot.com/ Sarah Quezada

    Thank you for this post. After using Twitter for a while, I just recently starting “making friends” that I really enjoy through that medium. Some of our commonalities are specifically different than my friends in real life currently. I have wondered if these social media relationships can perhaps provide outlets and connections that aren’t part of my community in person. I had never really considered that before, but I am beginning to find a very special opportunity for new friendships online. Thanks for this balanced perspective!