the RAVEN FOUNDATION

4 Steps to Building Healthy Community Online

Do you ever feel alone and disconnected from others?

Ironically, you are not alone.

Americans are increasingly finding ourselves feeling lonely these days. This affects each generation, but younger adult generations are especially prone to feeling isolated.

A recent CIGNA report states close to 50 percent of adults in the United States report feeling lonely and close to 50 percent also frequently feel left out.

The study also found that “only around half of American say they have meaningful in-person social interactions on a daily basis, such as having an extended conversation with a friend or spending time with family members.”

Robert Putnam described this sense of isolation all the way back in 2001 with his book, Bowling Alone. Two decades later we are still bowling alone.

As an introvert, I frequently wonder if this is necessarily a bad thing. There’s something nice about bowling alone. I need some time to myself. But there’s a difference between being alone and feeling lonely. It’s the difference between choosing to bowl alone because you want to and feeling left out.

What if social media could actually lead us away from a sense of loneliness and toward a stronger sense of community?

Social media has added its own dynamic since Putnam published his book. It’s easy to blame social media. After all, you can have thousands of “friends” on social media platforms but have no connection to any of them.

Many people warn us that social media is leading to our sense of being disconnected, but the CIGNA study found that social media makes for a good scapegoat. Douglas Nemecek, chief medical officer for Behavioral Health at Cigna, states that “… the level of attachment with social media really did not impact loneliness one way or another.”

What does impact our sense of loneliness? Nemecek explains that “… it’s the in-person relationships that I have with other people that actually keep me from becoming lonely.”

Social media frequently gets a bad rap. After all, it’s fraught with comparison. We can easily fall into the trap of defining our value based on how many friends, likes, or shares we get compared to our peers. This often leads to a sense that we need to keep up with the social media Joneses. But the fact is that there is always a member of the Jones family who will have more friends, likes, and shares than we do. And so social media can lead to a sense of social lack.

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4 Steps to Building Healthy Community Online

But what if social media doesn’t have to be the evil it is often made out to be? What if social media could actually lead us away from a sense of loneliness and toward a stronger sense of community?

We at Raven believe it is possible and we hope to build that kind of community with you. Below are the four steps we are taking to build a healthy sense of online community.

  1. Be Positive.

For reasons of positivity, I wanted to put this first step in a positive form. If I were to put it in the negative form, I would say, “Don’t scapegoat.” Or as the Rev. William Watkinson once said, it is “far better to light the candle than to curse the darkness.” Yes, there is darkness in the world and there are

times we need to name the darkness. But what we all really want is to be *for* something bigger than ourselves. When we get stuck being *against* something we get into trouble. We curse the darkness. And when we curse the darkness we only add to the darkness. So one way to create a healthy sense of community is to stay positive as much as possible. Don’t emphasize the darkness. Emphasize the light that shines in the darkness.

  1. Be Genuine.

But you don’t have to be positive all the time. Creating a sense of community isn’t about being a Pollyanna. (I’m not meaning to scapegoat Pollyanna…) Sometimes life sucks. To create healthy community we need to be honest about that fact. But share personal details at the level that you think is appropriate on social media. Did you or a loved one get a cancer? Did you lose your job or get a divorce? The fact is that life on and off social media can be really hard. Sharing this info online and in face to face interactions can help you realize that you are not alone as people share their similar experiences and offer words of support.

  1. Social Media is a Two-Way Street.

For introverts like me, this is important and tough. There are times when I need a break from social media, but Facebook tells me that someone sent my page a message and I better respond quickly or I will lose some kind of badge. What does that badge mean, anyway? I have no idea, but apparently I need to respond FASTER so that I can get the badge activated. My inner introvert says, “Ugh.” But like all of our relationships, social media is a two way street. Nobody likes being ignored in a community. It takes time and effort, but so do all of our relationships. And social media offers us a tool where we can have deep conversations about life, love, family, religion, and politics.

  1. Don’t Be Surprised that People Can Act Like Jerks!

Here’s a big secret about social media: People can sometimes be jerks. Oh wait, you already knew that? Of course you did. Everyone knows this. So why are we surprised when it happens? There’s something about social media that can lead us to forget that there’s an actual person on the other end (unless it’s a bot, of course.) The other person has a life, family, job, and the same hopes and disappointments and stresses that we all have. And sometimes they act out of those disappointments and stresses in a way that makes them come off as a jerk. And I won’t say this about you because I don’t know for sure if it’s true about you, but there are times when I have been a jerk on social media. Am I surprised? Well, I shouldn’t be. Social media can bring out the best and the worst in people, including myself. Which is why I need to be part of an online community that models for me how to bring the best out in myself.

These are my four steps to create a healthy online community in an age when we are increasingly feeling alone. Do you think it’s possible for social media to lead us to a deeper sense of community? What would you add to my four steps?