What is an Online Community? Why Do You Need One?

 What do you think of when I say “community?”

Your neighborhood? Your city? A group of people with similar interests in which you interact?

Working in social media and community management for many years, I’ve been asked this question a lot. Some people get it, some don’t. As social media grows and more and more people are aware that there are a lot of channels out there in addition to “the Facebook” and Twitter, it is getting easier to explain exactly what community management is. Then again, it isn’t.

Social media gives you the ability to create a virtual community of people you can talk with, in any place you want it. Did that make it easy?

Thing is, if you haven’t experienced it firsthand – the connection with total strangers that morphed into valued relationships – it isn’t easy. It’s hard to understand the need to “put your private life out there” if you can’t relate to the positive responses it brings and the feelings of connection and of belonging.

Don’t we all want to feel like we’re connected and that we belong, to something, somewhere?

Give a person a fish and they eat for a day. Teach a person to fish and they eat for life.

It’s sort of like that.

Give a person a computer and internet access and they have the opportunity to build a business and become technologically savvy. That’s a big deal. BUT, if you give a person a computer and internet access and show them how to find people online, you’ve given them a world of possibilities to connect and belong.

What is a community?

Throughout the years, I’ve introduced a lot of people to the potential friendships, resources and support systems online. Most became hooked and are still on the net to this day. Some, they burn out because they don’t find the right communities, and some end up completely frustrated, swearing off from online interaction, because they don’t find the formula of HOW to connect and belong.

It’s not a science, it’s an art, and what works for me won’t work for you or maybe you and yes, even you, because your own art is already working but won’t work for me. Phew.

If you can give a person just that one positive engagement though, they are more than likely going to continue to find more, or at least remain receptive in that particular initial area.  Once a person is properly introduced to social media, they can decide what kind of community they are seeking.

For me, I seek communities where I can be myself. Where I can talk with <keyword: with> others who have similar interests, at least in some regards, and who will listen, provide support, maybe some resources, and not judge. Social media has made it so easy for people to share opinions without the basic courtesies they would employ in a face-to-face situation, they often forget that the screen name is a person with feelings. Another common ‘oops’ is to judge and/or tell someone they’re wrong, because, well, I’m right..right? The line between respectful disagreement and willingness to realize your way is exactly that – your way – is blurred. Using social media as a bully pulpit hurts a community, and if you’re trying to build one, remember that people don’t (usually?) want to be preached to, but taught and engaged. Leave room for others to have different feelings and a community thrives.

But I digress. When I try to explain my field to people, so often they think I’m sitting on Twitter all day sharing what tv show I’m watching or that I just checked in at the gym. (I don’t think I’ve ever tweeted about a tv show and I don’t have a gym membership…I think my husband would wonder about that one given the elliptical, treadmill, Bowflex and tons of pilates/yoga equipment we have.) I have to cut to the chase: I engage with people online all day, building relationships to introduce people to things and each other, provide resources and generally, make us all happier. Can’t beat that, right?

Look around you. Think about the people you work with, meet or talk to on a regular basis. You’ll find communities everywhere. A community is wherever you make it.They develop without you even realizing it, and that can happen online, too. Pick a topic, a need, and head there online. (Google if you need to.) You’ll find communities galore, and if not, create one of your own on any of the too-many-to-mention social media channels. Online community is a vital, growing, undervalued (still, yes) source of belonging that’s available to almost everyone. Take advantage of it. Follow the basic safety rules and you won’t be sorry. You can find me on social media later and thank me.

Check back as I’ll be sharing tips on how to grow a community once you’ve started it. Not as hard as you think, worth every second, and definitely not daunting.

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