The paradox of online communities: How to cultivate ones that build bridges not islands

I was recently asked by a friend "Do you think that technology such as social media is causing or healing our divisions?" As a communications professional and community builder, I give this question constant and considerate thought. I take the responsibility of being someone who creates and shares content online very seriously.

As with most great questions worth chewing on, there just isn't a simple answer. Technology has certainly made media more democratized; more people are able to share their thoughts and experiences with many more others. Yet our innate desires to belong and to influence others often causes this sharing to look less like thoughtful conversations and more like reactive speeches from bullhorns. Furthermore, too often face to face conversations with our neighbors are being replaced by interactions with anonymous "strangers." For all our connecting online, we are actually becoming more isolated.

I certainly understand the allure of virtual connections and conversations. Last month I launched my Patreon page, a place where I had planned to not only share my best content but to also cultivate community among those contributing to its creation. But after a couple weeks I had to honestly ask myself: Is this really what community looks like?


You see, whenever I hear the question commonly asked on webinars, conferences, and online forums "How can our networks use web-based tools to improve communication?" it's hard for me to not roll my eyes. Of course there are numerous web-based solutions that aim to help us in this way, but in my experience technology is not a panacea; it's just as likely to present as many problems as it proposes to solve.

But recently I've been deeply pondering something similar: If we know technology can so easily separate us - from our own immediate experience, each other, and our environment - are there ways we can ensure it bridges us instead?

It is my belief that any lasting solution we create is the result of the use of our greatest tools, ones that we often forget because we were all born with them: our heart and our mind. I also believe that very rarely is decision making simply a matter of "yes" or "no." The best answers lie between these two abstractions, and when we are willing to see that, we open ourselves to deeper and deeper understanding. 

Communities are inherently about people, and cultivating them is about making decisions that put people first. Here are some questions I use consistently to make human-centered decisions and some ideas about how they might be helpful for cultivating community online...

  1. Who am I seeking to connect? What is really most important to them? This question is first because it's the most important to ask, but it is also the easiest to overlook. Obviously, community is about more than one individual and their expertise, but because often they coalesce around one individual leader or convener, it's vital that anyone at the helm continues to look to the broader group for guidance, not the reverse. This is especially difficult because it also goes against the norms of the hierarchies we are all accustomed to.

  2. What is the purpose of this connection? What human needs and desires does it meet? Some people seek out online communities to experiment with new tribes, to get support anonymously, or to have a bigger reach than that of their personal networks. Generally speaking, small groups tend to support more participation and larger groups allow for more diversity of thought; each is important to different people for different purposes. Regardless, you need an initial cohort of people sincerely interested in engaging with one another in order for the community to be valuable, so being able to articulate what exactly that value is or will be is absolutely key.

  3. What do I need to have in place for people to overcome potential obstacles and thrive? In the case of online communities, do these connections need to happen online and, if so, why? Whether online or not, it's essential that community members are assured of safeguards to privacy and a fair measure of accountability (which is where most social media platforms fall short). Further, members must be certain of what they are expected to contribute and what outcomes they can expect will result from that contribution. Communities are like organisms; they need more than shelter and water. People, and therefore communities, need dignity, trust, and a path towards achievement and mastery.

  4. How will I know if they are thriving? If participation is active, then the community must be valuable in some way to its members. But measuring how this value is supporting change, in individual members' lives and/or the life of the collective community, isn't easy. While it's very difficult to measure outcomes like trust and shared growth, they remain the only things worth reaching for. Growth is never complete, so it is important to continually revisit all these questions, staying attuned to the lifecycle of the community.

In the end, the question that matters most, the one that will indicate whether you will indeed keep asking all the above, is: How invested am I personally in healing divisions? 

I launched on Patreon because I knew I wanted to dive deeper this year - and so the occasion rose for me to do just that: After asking myself these questions (and being open to the honest answers) over and over, I had to admit that I wasn't building community on Patreon, nor did it make sense for me to try to do so on any online platform at this time. I arrived at this uncomfortable discovery precisely because I realized I don't just want to create another "silo," I want, as I always have, to connect them. This of course is even more uncomfortable because it requires more leg work. And if it ever does make sense to use an online platform in the future, I'll be more certain of why and thus be better able to use it more strategically and intentionally.

Sometimes we are more invested in maintaining our tribal identities than we realize. It’s easy to think about the solutions that meet the needs of those like us because we understand them so well. But this means we aren't actually building bridges, just more islands, or, worse, we are unconsciously choosing who is most important in the community. If we side step thinking and feeling deeply about the problems of our separations and jump right into creating solutions, we are liable to inadvertently and tragically just widen the gaps further. 

The good news is we already always have all the "technology" we need to cross the divides between us! While we can surely connect online, breaking down barriers is always and only an inside job.

What do you think about online communication technologies and tools? What is important and valuable to you in the online communities you may be a part of? Please feel free to leave comments below!

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