Recently my (Software Developer) partner asked if any of the community connecting/ inclusion work I do focuses on Internet friendships. He asked this with due recognition that this would ideally be supplemented with face-to-face interactions, but also with an understanding that an online presence can lead to a signiﬁcant sense of belonging for many people. In fact, he shared a couple of stories which gave me goose-bumps. One was of a woman who frequently posted in a forum; fellow users of the site so valued her presence there that they noticed when she stopped posting. The woman had become very ill quite suddenly and had passed away. Her family were sorting through her emails and realised that the site was a big part of her life and when they looked there, they realised there were posts pondering her absence. When the family told the forum users what had happened, the community set up a part of the site that was dedicated to the contributions she had made.
I use Facebook a lot and I love the way it supports friendships that I have ‘in the real world’. But I also have regular interactions there with people I haven’t seen for many years. There are friends from school with whom I would have lost touch – I know the names of their children or pets. There are people I met when travelling – I know where they are in the world and discover shared values and beliefs. There are friends of friends with whom I can have direct interactions, strengthening our rapport for the next time we meet at a party. I ride alongside all these friends as their lives take twists and turns, and I really care about what happens. I have many times felt a surge of support from these people in return.
There are a couple of groups which have really helped me to feel more connected in my village, too. Just commenting on or ‘liking’ posts from our local community café, pub, or even the PTA (despite being a few years off school yet!) prompts interactions with fellow community members. There is a group called ‘Ratho things for sale or free to a good home’, set up by Annette (whom I met in real life but we have certainly had extra interactions thanks to Facebook). Let me share the following screen shot of a discussion there:
What you can’t see in this image is the original offer my friend Kim (yes, that Kim!) made a refrigerator she no longer needed. Matt wanted it but needed transport. Donna appeared from left ﬁeld and offered to help. I love it!
Online interactions are expanded in time and space. We don’t all need to be in the same place at the same time to follow a thread or to build some form of friendship. The reason I loved the above exchange was that these are people who will see one another in real life; it’s just that their real life connection has been enhanced. Fundamentally, someone needed something that someone else had and the delivery of that something was facilitated by someone who cared enough to make the offer; the Facebook page just offered a context for it all to happen.
Sometimes I feel twitchy from spending too much time compulsively checking that I have read everything in my News Feed. (Sometimes…!) But mostly I am grateful to have a handy window into the lives of people I already cared about, or have come to care about. Others ﬁnd similar connections in forums or shared interest sites and those relationships can matter too, as described to me by my partner. My online interactions are not the most important interactions that I have, but they provide another dimension of community which contributes to my sense of connection.