The importance of online communities — How has social media revolutionised safe spaces?
This blog post is an accompaniment to our upcoming student salon, "Press Play".
Human beings aren’t designed to function alone. From our pre-historic origins to today’s technology-driven society, community creation has consistently proved an essential tool for not only our survival, but our peace of mind. With community a natural part of the human experience, we must ask ourselves: how in our increasingly globalised world can we define and operate communities today? And considering our experiences with Covid-19, how has lockdown affected this?
In conversation with Kaneeka Kapur – a British South Asian activist, founder of Pardesi, and upcoming speaker at TEDxWarwick’s Press Play Student Salon – we explore the role of the online community in representation, safe spaces, and activism, all while focusing on the importance of social media.
To begin, we must explore what characterises online community. This term may refer to small online groups connected by shared interests, cultural and religious communities, or even whole companies and their audiences – ultimately, the defining factors being online communication and connection, no matter the scale. As Kaneeka herself suggests, “communities are places where we can belong and show up as our truest and most authentic selves”, noting how a lack of acceptance can often lead people to turn “to digital spaces to build communities”, and that “social media has revolutionised the way that we connect with each other and with ourselves.” Despite the lack of physical human interaction – what we often assume a community is based on – online communities are proving consistently more significant in people’s lives today. As highlighted in a recent study by TheGovLab, ‘a growing number of people around the world are finding meaning and a sense of belonging in online groups… in 11 out of 15 countries studied, the largest proportion of respondents reported the most important group to which they belong is a primarily online one.’
It’s no secret that our generation lives life largely online. Both before and after our experience of Covid-19 lockdowns, social media has functioned as an essential tool of communication, representation, and identity. Through platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Reddit, communities of like-minded or similar people are able to emerge and find each other, regardless of physical proximity. Diverse in their ‘scopes, purposes, and topics’, as well as motivations for joining, online communities – as noted in TheGovLab’s study – “are significant contemporary organizations that can generate impact, and provide their members with a strong sense of community and belonging, despite not operating in physical space.’’ Facilitating this on both small and large scales, social media platforms allow people to connect in ways otherwise not possible, and even across borders. Examples include Female IN (FIN), an online community on Facebook, originally created to connect women in the Nigerian diaspora and create a support-network, now with over a million members. Or Gal-Dem, an online media company who – largely through their social media presence – have been able to bring together a community by focusing on stories of women and non-binary people of colour. In today’s digital age; connection, belonging, and communication are now deeply tied to technology and social media. Their effectiveness derives from how, as Kaneeka describes, they provide “an accessible, instant way to form communities around shared interests and experiences, and through digital communities, people can not only feel like they belong but also choose how and when to participate.”
As these examples have demonstrated, at the core of many online communities is the need to support one-another. Considering how ‘digital communities tapped in to our very human craving for connection’, online communities are effective for creating safe spaces and providing support to others despite physical distance. This support can be both practical and emotional – Pardesi, for example, offers an industry-focused mentorship scheme, while also providing words of advice and comfort through interaction on Instagram stories and blog posts. Social media has allowed online communities to grow and create multi-dimensional safe spaces, catering towards different needs.
Essential to this idea of safe spaces, is the importance of representing marginalised peoples – one of the areas for which many online communities have come to prove effective and significant. Liv Little, founder of Gal-Dem, notes how social media is ‘a particularly important space for marginalised groups to connect’, and as Kaneeka previously touches on, provides the opportunity to carve out space for identities and narratives otherwise unaccepted or ignored. Online communities such as Gal-Dem or Pardesi allow for people from marginalised backgrounds to connect, support each other, and confidently express and explore their identities in a safe and encouraging space. Amplifying this sentiment, Kaneeka describes how “marginalised groups are often painted as “voiceless” but we believe that this narrative is another form of oppression. We have our own voices, but are rarely given the platform to use them and share our stories. Online communities like Pardesi provide the platform to amplify these stories.”
Importantly, online communities and the safe spaces they foster often lead to flourishing activism – particularly in the case of communities which represent marginalised groups. By bringing together like-minded individuals, who often connect over shared injustices, it is not uncommon to see these communities naturally feed into social justice activism. Gina Martin, activist and previous speaker at TEDxWarwick, echoes this when discussing harnessing the effectiveness of online communities for activism – suggesting that ‘collective action online can be an unparalleled catalyst for change’, and that ‘the key is to tap into these communities in order to create a lasting dialogue.’ In the case of Pardesi, Kaneeka explains how “our strand of activism harnesses the power of storytelling to encourage South Asian women to share their experiences through their own words on their own terms”, highlighting the importance of community representation.
While it is clear that online communities have a great and lasting impact, it is arguable that their significance increased during our experiences of the Covid-19 pandemic. Although the world’s increasing globalisation and digitalisation has led to a shift towards online communication already, much of what we knew and understood of communities still originated and thrived on physical closeness. Lockdown, however, forced this to change and completely redefined the way we understand human interaction. More than ever, we could not depend on physical proximity to facilitate connection, leading ‘many of us to take a step back and define the importance of communities.’ For many, online communities – big or small – proved a lifeline during the isolation and difficulties created by lockdown, and allowed us to retain human connection despite physical separation. As Kaneeka explains further:
“Covid-19 showed us that we can look for community online if we do not find what we want in our everyday lives. Online community became an important source of connection for so many people around the world. Not only were they finding relief from the isolation of lockdown, but by joining communities targeted at certain demographics, people were finding connection based on their shared identities. We saw a lot of beautiful connections forming through Pardesi throughout lockdown. People from around the world were finding acceptance and understanding in people they had never met, and were creating strong friendships. Online communities show us how much agency we have to choose the energy we have in our lives.”
When looking towards the future, it’s not hard to imagine communities and safe spaces remaining online. Considering the efficiency for bringing people together across borders and circumstances, as well as social media’s influence in our everyday lives, we can assume that online community-building is here to stay. Alongside the TheGovLab’s conclusion, that ‘online groups are a still fluid form of human organization… who use the platform to build new kinds of community they could not form in real space’, Covid-19 arguably marked a turning point and demonstrated the power of social media to revolutionise online community and safe spaces. Our only question now, is what will the future of digital community-building hold?
To hear more from Kaneeka Kapur on Pardesi and her experiences with activism, be sure to attend our upcoming Press Play Student Salon. Sign up here.
Written by Alana Gaglio
The views and opinions presented in this article belong to Alana Gaglio — not TEDxWarwick.
If you have any questions concerning the article, its research, and opinions expressed, do feel free to comment in the comments section, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.