The Value of Online Communities
How often have we heard the narrative of the lonely introvert (or Goth, or shy nerd, or...) who spends all their time online? How horrible, they need to get out more, make friends! It's a message that often goes unquestioned, that someone cannot get their needs for interaction and community met online. It's not a fair message.
Despite being an introvert, and valuing my weekends where I don't have to talk to anyone, I do enjoy meeting with people in person. That's not the only way to make meaningful human connections, however. I offer forward here some personal examples of online community and relationship building that has been hugely important to me, in an effort to add to the counter-narrative, that online communities and relationships can be just as important (if not more) to huge swaths of people. For some, nothing will replace meeting someone face to face. And that's ok. But that doesn't mean that digital relationships should be discounted, or that they can't be just as profound and powerful as their in person counterparts.
The Brown Eyed Wonder Brigade
My very first fandom, waaaaaay back in the day, was for the A&E miniseries Hornblower. While my absolute fave was Archie Kennedy, played by Jamie Bamber (of later Battlestar Galactica fame), I ended up falling in with a smaller group who were fans of the character of Wellard, played by Terence Corrigan (the brown-eyed namesake of our group, the BEWB). I look back on it now with a wry smile, as our antics now seem goofy and juvenile, but it was truly my first experience encountering people who were just as passionate about a piece of media as I was. Growing up in a small town, it was hard to meet new people, let alone people who liked the same things as I did. My internet connection, all 56k of it, opened a literal whole new world for me.
Fast forward to a few years ago, and I was able to track the main players down on Facebook. Now, I'm reconnected with four of these women - we've grown up, moved around the world, started careers, gotten married. But we still remember the in jokes and squeeing, but now we have been able to become even closer friends, through good times and not so great experiences.
I value these women greatly. These friendships were a huge part of my teen years, and were a formative part of my development in fandom. And I've never met any of them in person.
The Schliemann Grad
As I neared the end of my BA, graduation loomed for us in WLU's Archaeology department. We knew that we'd convocate with all the other BA students at the school, but we wanted something with more meaning. Some of my classmates arranged what would become known as the Schliemann Graduation. (This was named after Heinrich Schliemann, who excavated Troy. Along with Arthur Evans, who excavated Knossos, he has now become known for his, uh, interpretive relationship with historical truth. Basically, he made a bunch of stuff up. Thus, our fake graduation was named in honour of him.)
The Schliemann Grad took place in the Regina building, where our department was housed, in the lounge. We wore fake laurel wreaths and had fake diplomas, signed and delivered by a prof of our choice. The osteo classroom skeleton was all dressed up (in a cummerbund, if I recall correctly). It was hilarious and meaningful and more important to me than walking across a stage with hundreds of other people I didn't know.
Fast forward till last year, when I discovered that pictures from our Schliemann Grad, and subsequent events, were on Facebook! I didn't realize it had become a tradition, or that there were pics surviving. I've been able to reconnect with some of my classmates (including going to see The Hobbit in theatres, complete with cosplay), and one of the ways was through reminiscing about our fake grad. This wouldn't have happened if I hadn't been able to find these people online.
The Super Secret Facebook Group
Western's MLIS program works on a cohort system. A new cohort of students starts each term, so you end up taking your required courses with the same faces. Though we don't all graduate at the same time (depending on if you do a co-op and if you are full or part time), there was a group of people that I started with.
One of the first things we did was create what I refer to as our Super Secret Facebook Group. Most cohorts have one. It's locked down to just members of the cohort, and it was a place to be able to speak frankly, rant, and ask questions that we didn't want other people to know about.
As we've navigated through the program, it's become less and less active. It allowed us to connect with each other in a more private community when we needed it most - new to the program, some of us for our first grad degree and some of us coming back after being out in the work world for a while. We all knew each other in person, but it was a place that existed on the side, and in some amount of privacy from the rest of our peers. It was such a relief to have a place that I could vent or ask a stupid question, and know that I wasn't alone.
These are very personal examples of online relationships and communities that have been (and still are) very important to me. I'm by no means advocating that people seek out online relationships if they don't want to. But next time you read a histrionic think piece about how our society is wasting away due to losing ourselves online, perhaps try to think of some of the ways in which our need for relationships and human connection can be fulfilled through a screen, not just face to face.