How (and why) to Build an Online Community

Although the internet is notorious for creating feelings of insecurity, Robin Reetz gives us the tools to make the online experience a more positive one.

Image Credit: Erika Raxworthy

The online community isn’t known for its friendliness. More often than not, it’s known for its faceless commenters. The people who hide behind their computer screens and use their laptops as a shield that allows them to say things they wouldn’t dare say in real life.

Or, at least, that’s how it used to be.

These days, the online community can feel more like a free, open, international support group where friends check in to see what’s happening in each other’s daily lives, cheer each other up on gloomy days, and even engage in personal, touching conversations with complete strangers.

This is something I've witnessed first-hand. My embrace of the online world was like a slow clap that didn’t fully materialize until 2013 – very late in the game. Despite a basic online presence and my work in digital publishing, I avoided the online community for years. From the outside, the world of blogs and social media looked like a place that was guarded, shallow, out of touch, and anything but real. It just didn’t seem like a good fit for someone like me who craves authenticity and values genuine relationships.

About a year after I started my blog and gave in to the daily draw of social media, I began to notice a side of the online world that you don’t hear much about: the supportive side. I’ve now learned that in the best cases, social media is a place made of genuine communities of friends who talk as friends do – sometimes about their insecurities, and sometimes about polka-dot ceramic vases and goat cheese.

The sunny side of the social media world is ready and waiting to be found, but the trouble comes in unearthing these communities. Their elusiveness, though, has nothing to do with passwords, early access, or blogger inner circles.

Instead, it only has to do with you.

To create and build a positive online community, you first have to get past yourself and the negative, often overpowering feelings that can accompany the use of social media.

Ask almost anyone who’s active online – either as a blogger or just a fan of Instagram. Most likely they’ll have stories about their experiences of jealousy and insecurity in the online world. After all, social media has perhaps best been described as a place to view the “highlight reel” of the lives of others, while being stuck with in an unedited version of your own life.

We’ve all experienced feelings of not being good enough or not as good as we think we should be. And when you’re feeling that way, social media can be the worst place to be.

But it can also be the best place to be.

Rather than using social media as a place to build resentment and jealousy over talents you wish you had, incredible dinners you didn’t host, or professional successes that feel just out of reach, consider using social media in another way: as a source for support and positivity, a place to discover new makers, and a platform for building friendships.

If you don’t already look at your platforms in this light, consider giving it a try. You’ll be surprised by the truly transformative effect that a positive outlook on the online world can have on your relationship with yourself.

Suddenly, rather than leaving Instagram or Twitter feeling ungrateful and less-than-successful, you’ll feel inspired and connected. See a blog post that was refreshing, or maybe just a really great photo editing job? Let the writer or photographer know. Not only will the good feelings come right back to you, but you’ll begin to build a positive, supportive, online community with each friendly acknowledgement you make.

Double tap, like, comment.

Think of the online world as a place for inspiration and discovery rather than a place for comparison. A place to applaud and admire the talents of others, rather than to obsess over a skill you lack. A place to do research, connect, stay in touch, and feel creatively challenged. By offering support to creatives and potentially soon-to-be friends, you’ll not only lift their spirits, but you’ll lift yours as well. And if you don’t believe me, take it from Buddha: “Happiness never decreases by being shared.”

If it helps, think of your practice in building a positive online community as a spinoff of Shine Theory, an easy way to gain free creative inspiration, or even abbreviated (read: uncertified) therapy.

If you truly adopt this attitude and commit to serving as a positive influence online, before you know it, you’ll feel better about yourself and inspired by the work of others.

Maybe I value the potential positivity of the online world so wholeheartedly because I began to embrace social media when I was in a vulnerable place after having just moved to another country. Though it’s now been a few years, I’ve come to value my online community for the connection and that extra reminder that we all sometimes need: we’re not alone in our thoughts, feelings, and insecurities, no matter where we are and no matter how great our lives might appear online.

No, we’re not alone. Not even on a rainy Tuesday morning or a grey March day. After all, if an Instagram friend I’ve never met in Oregon or Romania suffers from the same insecurities or knows the same obscure song lyrics that I do, then maybe the world isn’t such a scary place after all. We’re all more similar than we are different, no doubt, but the online world can be the perfect place to nurture and grow this sentiment.

It can be difficult to open up online to complete strangers. But for a lot of reasons, there’s a need today for more openness both online and in the real world.

That’s hard to do. So when someone does it, it deserves applause. Or at least a sunny comment.

p.s. Now that you have the tools to make your online space more positive, try doing the same with the physical space that surrounds you.