We are built to connect.  Many of our life’s fulfillments are realized through meaningful connections to others.  We are connected to our families, co-workers, and neighbors.  We connect in the marketplace and in our schools. Our places of worship, civic, and social associations, hold space where we connect to others in deeply personal ways.  Connection is how we tacitly live our daily lives; however, it is also how we consciously cultivate environments around us in which we find meaning.   

The need to connect is what drives us to form community.  

Community happens when like-minded individuals come together for a common purpose to create, achieve, and leave an impact on the world in some way. In recent months, the pandemic has driven in-person communities to online platforms. Stay-at-home orders have us spending more time than ever in our homes and on our computers to work, shop, learn, and connect.  This shift has taken a toll on our emotional health and well-being.  As a result, we have  joined existing online communities in efforts to engage in self-care, find a new hobby, stave off loneliness, make new friends, learn new skills, distract us from cabin fever, and otherwise cope with our “new normal.”  

Given these circumstances, it is easy to sink hours of valuable time into navigating online community spaces. Their lure is hard to resist. All it takes is the right sponsored ad, a shiny invitation in your messenger App, a tag from your girlfriend, or a podcast recommendation to catapult you into a sea of online spaces, each vying for your time, energy, and attention.  Suddenly, you are overwhelmed and stressed out in an effort to maintain your new affiliations, which is counterproductive to your purpose for joining them in the first place! Since time is valuable, it makes sense to evaluate the additive return on investment you are making.  How do you know if those new communities you’ve joined are serving you well?

Here are four ways to assess the online communities you are part of to see if they are worth your valuable time:

  • Is this your Tribe?  Communities should foster a sense of identity and belonging within its members.  By definition, there are commonalities that draw individuals together to commune in similar interests and engage in ways that affirm, uplift, and propel forward.  You can tell pretty quickly whether or not your chosen community is that in “name only” by the way you feel when you engage in it.  Are you actively welcomed by the community host and members?  Is there an entry level action to take or activity in which you can engage that brings you right into the momentum of the group?  Do those actions bring you joy and make you smile? Simple and clear welcoming moves on the part of the community host and members is a good indication the community is carefully cultivated to produce the experience it advertises.
  • Cookie-cutter culture? While it is true that a community draws like-minded people together, commonalities should not give way to group-think.  Examine the posts and topic threads in your online community.  Does it foster healthy topic-focused conversations that attract a colorful range of participant responses?  Or does it promote and monitor for monolithic thinking?  Is creativity encouraged in membership engagement, or are the posts and threads filled with pedestrian banter that ends in the same conclusion?  Community gears up for impact in its area of focus.  If the culture of the community is not alive with a healthy variety of ideas, conversations, and thought-exchange, it may not be all it’s advertised to be, and as a result – not worth your time.
  • Can you hear me now? One of the greatest benefits of community is its ability to provide a space for you to find, cultivate, and amplify your voice. There is a reason you were attracted to this particular online community; the content is either your passion or something you want to learn more about, or you are taking a calculated risk by purposefully putting yourself “out there” to join in an online conversation that is completely foreign to you.  Either way, something about the published content caught your attention. Maybe it was the gregarious nature of the host or community founder who won you over in a video.  Perhaps it was the type of audience drawn to the community and you want to align yourself with people of that caliber. Now that you are in that space, is there room for your voice?  Can you post content freely within the scope of the group’s purpose without fear of judgement? Are you encouraged to share your thoughts and generate ideas on the matter at hand? After spending time in the group, has your own voice become more sure, expanded and confident from engaging with the membership and host?  These are key considerations to reflect upon when determining if the community is the right fit for you.
  • Run that back! Effective communities are people-powered.  They are entities established by people, to gather people, to serve the interests of the people while the people power the mission of the community.  It is a beautiful relationship.  Since we are all human, however, sometimes the community may “get it wrong” in a very public way.  When that happens, how does the leadership within the community respond?  Is there acknowledgement and loving correction followed by information published for all the community to see and take notice? Does the offending post mysteriously disappear without comment?   Is there total silence?  Crickets?  Depending on your response to these questions, red flags may abound in terms of the health of the community.  While perfection should not be expected, the sign of a solid online community is leadership that engages its membership and actively cultivates and protects the curated focus of the group.  A willingness to acknowledge mistakes or member-alienating topics and threads of conversation within the community — paired with information, education, and evidence of a changed course moving forward — speak volumes about the intent, heart, and integrity of the online community.  A group like that is a keeper!

We are built to connect.  Online communities are excellent spaces in which we can safely gather to explore our interests, broaden our perspectives, and meet others  who both understand and challenge our viewpoints. Now is a good time to make new online connections that feed your soul and enhance areas of your life in tangible ways.  So go ahead, get online and find a community to join!  And of course, take this list with you. 
For a free download of the online community fitness assessment, and to receive updates on creating communities that matter, visit me at www.karenybryant.com.