Is there a difference between online and real-life communities when it comes to social connection and support?

by Lauren Piro April 05, 2023

Do you remember the thrill of logging into a chat room for the first time and realising you could talk to someone on the other side of the world?

Today, using digital channels to communicate with friends, family, and strangers is so pervasive it’s almost mundane. People are now more likely to find their romantic partner online than through personal contacts, and global internet usage figures show we’re spending more than six hours online daily on average, including around 2.5 hours on social media.

It follows that finding belonging with others who share your interests, experiences and challenges on the internet has become a powerful tool for social impact and support, in a world where many people feel isolated and overwhelmed. 

In fact, we’d argue that online communities are essential for creating strong social networks in the absence of available ‘real-world’ alternatives. Connections made via social media and other platforms also supplement face-to-face communities: particularly in the cases where privacy, stigma, or geographical isolation make it hard to access conventional supports.

Is the term ‘online community’ still relevant? Does connection happen differently online?

You can’t talk about community and social connection in any meaningful sense without including how people interact online. We’ve previously written about the difference between online and real-life community and how the boundaries between them have blurred—because communities of like-minded people are rarely solely engaging ‘online’, and nearly all groups that operate ‘offline’ also have a virtual presence. 

Being alive necessitates involvement in communities: and our lives now unfold across both virtual and physical spaces. There’s no longer a sense that online activities are make-believe or that the relationships formed online are less intimate.

Having said that, people do tend to communicate differently online. The medium shapes how messages are delivered and perceived. Online communities are usually free, searchable, accessible 24/7 and teeming with content and multimedia generated online. People are more in control of what others see and know about them and can also remain anonymous. 

That means online communities are always open; inclusive of diverse, global members; enable asynchronous conversations; and have interactions steeped in ‘internet culture’ references or community-specific language, memes and in-jokes. Active and safe online communities help people make connections, find answers and get support from peers and experts in ways that aren’t always easy or possible in real life.

Examples of how social cohesion and support can be better served by online communities 

Here are just a few scenarios where online communities provide social cohesion and support in ways that can’t readily be matched by in-person communities:

  • Enabling access to anonymous peer-to-peer support where the topic being discussed makes in-person conversation feel too overwhelming, difficult or risky—such as seeking help or guidance around mental health issues. Many people still experience, or fear experiencing, stigma. Black Dog Institute says roughly 60 percent of people who experience symptoms of mental health won’t seek help. 
  • Opening up a world of options for people where physical travel or attendance is difficult and cost-prohibitive: for instance sufferers of chronic illness, people with disabilities, and people who live in remote or regional areas without local support groups or a significant population of people with the same values or experiences. 
  • Enabling people to seek help and feel connected to others even when it’s unsafe to physically gather—in recent history we’ve all seen a clear and obvious example in the Covid pandemic, which resulted in lockdowns and social distancing requirements.
  • Providing networking and support for people whose work is stressful and isolating. For instance, a focus on ending isolation and reducing stress among Australia’s freelancer community spurred the creation of the 6,500-strong Freelance Jungle Facebook community, which was named Workplace Wellbeing Award Winner for 2019 in the WayAhead Mental Health Matters awards.

How to ensure an online community is an antidote and not a cause of toxicity?

You’re much more likely to read news headlines about the harmful effects of social media—bullying, doom-scrolling, misinformation—rather than about online communities’ power to make people feel good. 

Well-run online communities can be the antithesis of social media’s toxic and addictive vibe by helping people establish regular, positive connections with others.

Research from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in 2020 explored the question: ‘What is healthy vs. potentially problematic social media use?’ It found that using social media everyday, in a mindful way, can be beneficial for creating a strong social network.

One of the study’s authors said: “Routine social media use may compensate for diminishing face-to-face social interactions in people’s busy lives. Social media may provide individuals with a platform that overcomes barriers of distance and time, allowing them to connect and reconnect with others and thereby expand and strengthen their in-person networks and interactions.”

Organisations and brands that run online communities have a clear role to play here. Creating a psychologically safe and lively online community comes down to your community management capabilities. How you shape your group’s purpose, encourage contributions, and moderate behaviours is critical if you want to make a positive impact on people. 

Contact us if you’d like professional help with managing your community to foster valuable social cohesion and support.