Online Communities are a Façade of the Real Thing ☕️
aka, become a "member" of my "tribe"
I’ve noticed a trend lately — perhaps you have, too. There are “memberships” everywhere on the internet. Online retailers and news sites want us to become members, not just customers or subscribers. Internet Thought Leaders™ refer to their followers as their “community,” not just readers, listeners, or viewers. Everything online these days is a community. Become a member and get perks X, Y, and Z. Join someone’s community by signing up for their email list and “you’ll know whenever I create new stuff.”
I’ve been guilty in the past of this practice; here, even. When I first set up this Substack, I wanted you guys — my readers — to feel like part of something. I wanted this place to feel like a community …a common place, if you were. With our added regular discussions and seasonal book clubs, I wanted this newsletter to be a bright spot on the internet, away from the noise and vitriol. I still do.
The problem, though, is that the words “community” and “membership” have become so overused they’ve rather lost their meaning. Somehow by following someone on Instagram, unbeknownst to you you’ve become “part of their community.” Internet creators become so desperate for people to follow them that they feel the need to brand themselves as community leaders: a veritable digital PTA president or scout leader or sorority president. And because they’re aware of the competition, they want people to stick around and feel part of something, so they call their followers members. Part of a community.
(You know, a cozy little comment section on a photo in an app owned by a billionaire.)
I know I sound snarky, and I guess I am. Yet I don’t hold these people (many who I consider friends) ill will. I’m annoyed at the system, the platforms, the tech giants, not these otherwise well-meaning creators. And I’m annoyed at the culture we’ve created that tempts and pressures creative people with the false idea that they need to lead something online in order to matter.
There’s something to all this, I think, because when a brand uses terms like “community” and “membership,” they’re tapping into a core human need for connection. They know that even when we ourselves don’t know it, we’re hopping online to look for meaning and belonging, so in order to sell their wares, it’s a good marketing angle to become the provider of said belonging. You’re not just buying jeans from a beloved store, you’re joining their tribe of die-hards. You’re not just learning from someone smart on the internet, you’re enlisting in their circle of disciples.
In theory, there’s not much wrong with this. We want to feel a part of something, and there’s something downright cool about feeling like an important part of a community, especially when it’s led by a creator you really appreciate. It’s fun to have inside language, welcoming spaces to dialogue, and a like-minded sense of community.
But here’s when it becomes a problem: when it replaces in-person community.
There are unique, rare seasons when we do need some virtual community — say, when a global pandemic breaks out and most of the world is quarantined in their homes. Other times when it’s hard to scratch that community itch in the real world might be during the season of having a newborn, when you’ve moved to a new place and want to meet locals with a common interest, or when an online community revolves around a unique niche you can’t find in-person (i.e., oyster-loving algae gardeners who are allergic to paprika).
But even though it feels like we’re connecting with each other when we’re interacting online, we’re only connecting two-dimensionally, and because we’re three-dimensional creatures, online communities don’t fully meet our deepest, innate need for connection. They might quench that thirst for a while, but long-term they leave us wanting more and leave us aware of our dearth of 3D human interaction. It’s like drinking salt water when we’re parched.
I’m preaching to my own choir here because I’ve experienced this first-hand. In the past, I’ve used my online friendships as an excuse to not go out and make in-person friendships. I’ve substituted virtual church for attending a local parish. I’ve felt like I’ve stayed in touch with friends I could theoretically get together with in-person because I follow them on Instagram, so I know they went camping last weekend or got a new haircut — no need to get together and ask how they’re doing.
I’ve noticed times that when Kyle and I catch up on how we’re doing, I’ve told stories about friends I know only from the internet, and not about my local friends because I honestly don’t know how they’re doing. I’ve gone full days without talking to anyone beyond my immediate family because I don’t feel the need to — I “talked” throughout the day on Twitter and “listened” to people talk to me on podcasts.
Don’t get me wrong; I love the internet in many ways, and knowing the people I know because of it is a bright spot in a sea of dumpster fires. But connecting with people online just can’t replace connecting with nearby people in person. It just can’t. Those of you who came to Georgetown in 2019 for our weekend together: think about how great that was to connect in person. We hardly spent any time on our phones because we were already across the table from each other. It was a delight.
This past week a friend I first met via the internet well over a decade ago was in town, and we got together over meals while our kids played on the playground. I’m not on Instagram much these days (I check roughly once a week), so while I knew her family was on a road trip, I had no idea they were in Texas. It was a surprise and a delight to catch up and hear the things we’d never share online, and it was a reminder of how the internet should ideally work: as a connector for human beings to first meet virtually, and then to meet in the real world. I’m grateful for those rare moments when it happens.
If you haven’t yet noticed, take note of how often brands, companies, thinkers, creators, and influencers talk about their “communities” or ask you to become a member. It’s an interesting trend.
I’ve slowly changed my verbiage here in my newsletter to back to a simple “subscribing” instead of “joining.” It’s not because I don’t want you guys to be friendly with each other — I absolutely do. It’s simply that I want our online interactions to buoy and benefit our offline connections — not replace them.
You’re subscribing to my words so you can find encouragement for your offline life. Deep down, I actually don’t want to be an online community leader. I’m a writer-who-also-podcasts, not a hostess of a digital living room. I want you to interact with what I put out there and in the comments section with each other, but then I also want you to take off the earbuds or close the laptop and legit meet with a friend over coffee. (In fact, in 2022 Seth and I hope to start providing our podcast listeners with starter discussion questions so listeners can have their own drinks with friends and discuss the episodes.)
I hope this doesn’t sound ungrateful, because I’m truly, truly grateful for every one of you that’s reading this. I’m just concerned about our ever-growing trend to replace our real world with the digital world. Lately I’ve become about as anti-Metaverse as someone can get. The more I prioritize flourishing in the real world, the less I feel the need to infinitely scroll, like, and comment. And that’s been good for my soul.
I’ve become more introspective these days, as I tend to do at the end of a year, and as 2021 winds down, I’m viscerally aware of how grateful I am for the people in my life. And as much as I’m thankful for the connections I’ve made online, they’re just not the same as the people who chat with me across the kitchen island as I chop the vegetables for dinner. And that’s just as it should be.
I hope this is an encouragement to you. And I’d love to hear of ways your online experiences have made your offline lives better, instead of replacing them. Have you had any particular moments like that lately? Do tell.*
Oremus pro invicem,
*The irony of asking you to leave a comment is not lost of me... But please do so, and then let this letter be some fuel to talk about this topic with a friend in person.