To the uninitiated outsider, social media can seem pointless. ‘Why do people care about what I had for breakfast?’ is a common criticism of platforms like Twitter, while Tumblr can seem totally baffling unless you’ve spent countless hours scrolling through feminist rants and GIFs of Doctor Who.
Yet social media and the online world is about so much more than pictures of cute cats and inane, seemingly pointless, updates. At its heart, social media is about communities. Of course, online communities (just like physical ones) can spring up around anything. There are whole communities on YouTube dedicated to people who like reading Young Adult fiction, and there are subsets of Tumblr which blog about science, history, American TV shows, and anything else you can think of. But the real beauty of social media is that it can be a safe space for many people who are marginalised in the physical world.
I first became part of an online community when I was about nine, on the chatrooms of popular pet site Neopets. After that, much of my childhood and adolescence centred largely around online communities and friendship groups, particularly when I was 15 and struggling with mental health issues.
YouTuber Lindsey, also known as PotterMoosh on the internet, talks of a similar experience. “I made my first ‘internet friends’ when I was maybe 12 or 13, on the Harry Potter side of Bebo,’ she explains. “I’ve also made friends through Twitter, Tumblr and YouTube… I also indirectly met my boyfriend of over three years through YouTube.”
For others, online communities can be about so much more than friendship. Anna, who founded Girlcon in 2015 (and is organising another outing of the conference aimed at women and non-binary people this summer), believes that online communities can be a source of great comfort for marginalised people.
“I think people whose identities and experiences are consistently validated by the current structures of power take for granted having spaces where they are reflected and celebrated. So having dedicated communities for any marginalised group is so important,” Anna says. “Walking into a room, either physically or in cyber space full of people like you, with empathy and solidarity with you, is a wonderful feeling. It’s like your whole body is full with exclamation marks and that feeling is so nourishing and helpful.”
That feeling of solidarity and nourishment is exactly what draws many to online communities – either as founders or participators. Blogger Jessica Hutchby joined The Girl Gang (an online community of predominantly female bloggers) precisely because she was looking for support, friendship, and help in the blogging world. Like Jessica, Tash attended Girlcon 2015 to meet likeminded people that could relate in terms of identity and experiences.
Jessica admits that she finds online blogging communities less daunting and awkward than the physical communities of bloggers. And both Tash and Lindsey believe that it is the opportunity to make endless connections across the world that draws people to online communities over communities IRL (in real life).
Online communities, while wonderful, welcoming and supportive for many, are not without their drawbacks. Just like IRL, online spaces have room for improvement. For example, prioritising and respecting the needs of survivors of assault or abuse is an issue that online communities can often struggle with, just as much as their physical counterparts.
“Listening to and supporting survivors of sexual violence and abuse [is so important],” says Anna. “Whatever their sexuality or gender or race or behaviour, they deserve to be heard and believed, and their abusers don’t deserve sympathy.”
Similarly, since inclusivity is the main goal for many online communities, it’s important that they are, and appear to be, open and welcoming. One of the biggest problems with The Girl Gang, according to its founder Jemma Morgan, is that from the outside it can seem like a clique, rather than a supportive network.
“I always find this baffling because The Girl Gang is open to anyone and has no requirements really. It’s literally just about having a group online for support. Whether this is real life issues, tech help, blogging chats – whatever,” says Jemma.
Despite the challenges, it’s clear that for many these online forums are intensely important. Everyone deserves to have a safe space where they can feel valued, validated and supported. Unfortunately, many people can’t find these places in IRL, and so online communities are a vital way for marginalised groups to feel accepted – a feeling that everyone deserves to experience.
Picture credit: vbulletin.thesite.org
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About the author
Olivia Woodward is a blogger, social media and marketing consultant, social media enthusiast and history graduate from the University of York. She has been actively involved in student journalism from the age of 16, writing on a wide range of topics from politics to theatre to fashion. In 2014 she launched Petticoats and Patriarchy, a blog that tackles social justice issues and popular culture from a feminist perspective. Since then, she has become increasingly interested in the way that women are using the internet to speak out against injustices, and the effect that the digital world is having on young women and girls globally. On Digital Women UK, Olivia blogs on social media trends that impact on women and young girls, intersectionality and intends to highlight examples of digital platforms being used to innovate the way women communicate and share online.