Stories of finding community online (or failing to)?
July 19, 2021 11:45 AM   Subscribe

Are there any stories out there about whether it's possible/likely to find fulfillment and community online?

I've met lots of people online, but have yet to form any friendships where we talk more than a few times a year.

I haven't made a concerted effort on that front yet, though. I am wondering, are there any stories of a person building out a substantial online presence, joining or creating a non-toxic community where small or large numbers of people interact with each other regularly, and finding fulfillment or friendship that way?

Equally valid are stories of people taking the above steps and failing to find fulfillment.

Here's what I'm looking to find out: if I want to maximize my chances of finding purpose in life, should I even bother building out an online presence? Or should I skip that and focus all my attention on in-person interactions?
posted by commander_fancypants to Computers & Internet (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure if I have what I would call an online presence - and never made any effort to "build out" anything - but I do have several small online communities I've been part of for decades, feel like I belong to, and have made real friends in. This is one of them, in fact.

But finding my various online homes wasn't a result of a specific search for purpose, and I wouldn't say I found my purpose in life in them. I was just looking for people to talk to about the kinds of things I was interested in and cared about, and found a bunch of people who were doing the same thing, and we got along. As a result I ended up tucked into the less-fighty corners of the online media fandom and gaming communities, but I imagine the same thing would have happened if I were more into knitting or scuba diving or cooking or something. I do think having some shared focus helped a lot in forming bonds - we already had something big in common, so really it was just a matter of finding compatible personalities to hang with inside that small group. I would imagine this would be tougher to manage in more generalized "find friends" communities.

Personally, I'm not much for in-person interactions with new people these days, and that will likely continue until either more people are vaccinated or COVID magically burns itself out. So I would say online is a really strong contender for building real friendships right now.
posted by invincible summer at 12:00 PM on July 19 [2 favorites]

It depends on how niche the interest is and how non-toxic people you attract / already there.

Some communities are just elitist that makes newcomers very unwelcome, while others would welcome noobs with open arms, eager to share knowledge without being push-y.

However, this also depends on what you are truly after... are you in it for the relationship, or knowledge sharing?
posted by kschang at 12:17 PM on July 19 [1 favorite]

I am sure you will get numerous stories of people finding or building online communities (after all, you are asking on community...) but I'm not sure how you get from there to "purpose in life." I would wager that life purpose, if it's real and if it's findable (and I am mostly convinced that finding it is a scam, and building it a sisyphean task), is definitely not to be found on the internet.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 12:20 PM on July 19 [4 favorites]

I've found connections online with people who were also local, and then those relationships have been reinforced through in-person activities and continued online engagement. If you're going to develop online community, I'd focus on one that's also local.

But I don't think this is just about in-person versus online. I think friendships and relationships grow when there are two points of connection. For example, there are a few folks I mostly know online who I'm connected to also via social media, and those are stronger connections than just the folks I know in one place.
posted by bluedaisy at 1:27 PM on July 19 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Hopefully-useful clarifications: I have some technical skills and enjoy teaching others. So far I have put all my efforts into doing so online, but it feels like shouting into the void. Every now and again I hear from someone that they appreciated my work, but then I never hear from those people again.

Now I am looking at creating computer and mobile games (an effort that will take years if not decades), and hoping to avoid the same situation happening again. I'd like some insight into whether efforts to build a community around those games (I'm imagining the community around Brandon Sanderson's books, but of course much smaller) will leave me feeling unfulfilled again even if they're successful.
posted by commander_fancypants at 1:59 PM on July 19

I was going to answer from a personal context but it sounds like you're asking from a professional context.

So, as someone who spent over 15 years in online editorial, and then a brief stint in marketing online educational products (in addition to other things): No, in general, your audience will not adore you like a niche book fandom unless something very unusual happens. Also, at times the amount of support and customer support people expect for their $2.99 app or $15.99 annual subscription can be fairly astonishing. Do not confuse customers with supporters. Sometimes you get both, but the business relationship is relational.

I follow a bunch of game devs on Twitter and the amount of abuse they get - even death threats - is really out there.
posted by warriorqueen at 2:07 PM on July 19 [1 favorite]

two strong contendors:

The Wintergatan discord and community has sprung up around that marble machine, and has frequent contributors all working toward the same goal, which is amazing and we all know each other.

I made a private subreddit that adds people randomly with some rules. We've had meetups and have a strong community, we know each other. It's been going for years. It's very satisfying and good. It's mostly a random slice of redditors, so we get a lot of teens with their problems, but also people from other countries or people that need help.
posted by bbqturtle at 2:49 PM on July 19 [1 favorite]

I think it's useful to draw a distinction between customers, supporters/fans, and online friends. Each group will grow in accordance to how well you meet their needs. It may be more work or money or emotional effort than you're willing to put into it, but all of these things can be achieved to some degree with consistency of content, active engagement, and patience. (And good marketing to get eyes on your stuff)
posted by ananci at 3:44 PM on July 19 [2 favorites]

I think this is a great question because I presume that a lot of people have online communities but somehow still feel socially unfulfilled. As someone who was raised and lived as an adult for some period of time before the internet age started, I believe the pre-internet world didn't guarantee friendships and rich social relationships and senses of community but it did require a certain amount of sincerity in and commitment to social relationships and interactions that is not required of online relationships. In that sense, I feel online relationships/communities can often feel shallower and they can also be more fragile (both from misunderstandings and from easy intentional severance). I think it's possible to have a somewhat fulfilling online community if you are aware of those pitfalls and do things to reduce their intensity or likelihood, but for me, they will still never be as fulfilling as in-person communities. After all, in-person communities have attributes that better comport with our evolutionary wiring.
posted by Dansaman at 9:24 PM on July 19 [2 favorites]

"I was just looking for people to talk to about the kinds of things I was interested in and cared about, and found a bunch of people who were doing the same thing, and we got along." I think this is a really sincere sentiment and the fastest way to connection, online or off. The candor is on.

It's possible to build community anywhere (human beings are industrious and have built communities in incredibly inhospitable environments for thousands of years), more pressingly, people literally gain a different style of attachment and chemical exchange when interacting with one another personally. It's one of the greater ethical questions within zoom/vr/even the pandemic (digital versus corporeal attachment).

For the most part, until we're total cyborgs, we're still animals who often require real time touch, taste, scent, or sound to cement connection or information.
posted by firstdaffodils at 9:56 PM on July 19 [1 favorite]

tldr: most people mentally/physically need tangible connection to some degree.
posted by firstdaffodils at 10:12 PM on July 19 [1 favorite]

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