This is the first in a series of posts about online community, and about the problems we face as a generation whose relationships and communities have shifted more and more to an online setting.
I asked a few friends the following question:
What is the greatest difficulty facing online communities?
Here are their responses.
I would say the biggest challenge is authenticity.
When a “community” exists solely online, there is no compelling reason to be authentic. What I mean is, if I wanted to I could portray myself as a high level professional with all the amenities being a high level professional affords: great schooling, fast car, big house, successful.
No one would have to actually know I’m just an average person living in my friend’s basement.
It is very easy to put on a mask in an online community and then live out of that mask, rather than bring our true selves to the table. When I am in “face to face” community it is much more difficult to hide who I really am.
Online communities let us be the person we want to be, which may not be the person we actually are.
Bigger is better. We all want to belong.
Great communities make people feel welcome by intentionally keeping things small and personal.
If you’re building one, the best choice you can make is to not try being all things to all people.
For me, one of the more prevalent problems facing online communities is the consistency of the participant.
It’s something that is almost by definition ‘available’ to you at any time, and I think that’s what makes it easy to put off one’s involvement and settle for doing it ‘later’.
The biggest problem facing online communities today is when people use the computer as a chance to say harsh things that they would rarely—if ever— actually say to someone in person. Trolls certainly do this, but even genuine community members who just get caught up in the emotionless void of the screen can, too.
Even people who mean well, but forget that the typed word lacks the softening of body language and tone, can turn a community from engaging— or even tough-love—to just plain mean.
Overcoming the the undertones of apathy that have crept into our generation.
In a world that demands instant gratification you have to captivate the audience quickly and hold their attention when the average attention span is decreasing.
I think the biggest difficulty is to create spaces where members of the community can be vulnerable, not necessarily being comfortable with it, but where it can be respected.
Technically I can say anything online, but when my words or any form expression can be tied to who I am in the physical world, then I have a reason to keep a guarded front – and I am not talking about anonymity, but true freedom of expression.
The challenge of every community, whether on-line or off-line is authenticity.
Real change and real loyalty happens when people open themselves up to others. If you can create an example and a place for authentic relationships then your community will thrive. This is true of great churches and great Twitter followings.
Authenticity wins every time.
I would say the biggest issue is being afraid to be honest and yourself. If you can’t be transparent in a place where you feel safe you won’t be able to grow.
The greatest challenge in forming genuine community for an online environment is how easy it is to avoid interpersonal friction or inconvenience.
Without situations where we are forced to deal with an interpersonal problem on someone else’s time and turf, we will always think we are wiser, kinder, and holier than we really are.
We are creatures of expressed emotion. Retorts drip with sarcasm, jokes are accompanied by laughter, stories of frustration are told alongside sighs, and tears provide a backdrop to tragedies.
The problem with online communities has nothing to do with gathering people together. In fact, digital media does that very well.
The difficulty with online communities is online communication. Communities are centered on communication…and tears, laughter, sighs, facial expressions are all easily lost online.
One may say “But video!”….but really, when was the last Skype conversation you had that was just as good as the person being in the room? You can’t feel their stories, their problems, their presence. You only get a digital representation of it.
We are creatures not just of expressed emotion….but of tangible emotion.
And ‘LOL’ doesn’t cut it.
As you can see, the problems we face are numerous and won’t be easily overcome. We at PFC are currently brainstorming a few ways to help address them (here’s one we’re close to launching). But if we’re going to take them seriously, we must first begin by identifying what the problems actually are.
We’d love to hear what you think, too. If you’re willing to share, leave your thoughts in the comments below (sorry they’re hard to read- we’re working on it).
*Photo Credit: Thomas Bower (Creative Commons)