Friday, June 20, 2008

The idea of online forums as communities...

I participated in a debate a few months ago about online communities, specifically the one I'd call my home community, and idea of them being supportive communities that people need to be accountable to if they decide to leave - i.e. don't just go away, at least tell us you're going away, and why go away anyway, we're nice...

LOL, my perspective was that if people who have been part of an online community find support in real life and therefore no longer feel they need the online community, THAT'S FANTASTIC, and we really shouldn't want them to feel that they need to keep coming back. This perspective stems out of the feeling I have that online communities are really nothing more than a poor facsimilie of REAL COMMUNITY.

This perspective offended quite a few people, who argued that online communities could be real, and practical, support. I tried to point out that, in our community - for example - that real and practical support was only partially available to a few members of the community who met regularly IN REAL LIFE, and therefore had actually formed a real community, but that relying solely on the online support was quite a dangerous situation to be in.

At the time we had one member who was in dire need of real life support to get out of a situation that was dangerous to both her and her child. I really felt quite scared for this woman. She'd poured out her heart on our forum, and as best we could, online, the various members of our forum had implored her to seek in real life help. The problem was that for many people in very difficult emotional circumstances, it is so much easier to reach out virtually, where there is still a degree of anonymity, that to open up in real life to people and ask for help...

Well, this week, I feel this reality has been highlighted in the news.

Two 18 month old babies were found, deceased, in their family home. They had passed away over a week prior to being discovered and an autopsy showed they had slowly starved to death. The immediate reports about their circumstances told that they had been kept in one room of the family home for most of their short lives, and that the parent - who had four older children - had not fed or changed them regularly.

Last night, on one of those current affairs type programs, it was further revealed that the mother had actually posted on an Australian parenting forum, and in hindsight, her posts were a cry for help. She had posted pictures of her, then, healthy rotund twins but at the same time had shown signs of depression and anxiety and generally not coping. She had sought virtual support, and as best they could, the members of the forum had supported her with their words and ideas and probably their virtual (((((HUGS))))), but this had not saved those twins from a slow, painful death of neglect.

I can't be angry at the mother, I just can't.

This is one of the saddest stories I've heard in a very long time, and to me it strongly highlights the dangers of assuming that virtual communities are as good as, or at least a good substitute for, real life support and community.

Online communities should be nothing more than a bridge. A vehicle that allows isolated people to START the process of reaching out. Through online communities, individuals should be strongly encouraged to reach out and form real life communities, because obviously more and more people in our society are becoming isolated. When someone finds real life community, this should be celebrated, and if people leave online communities because they've got real life community and support, they should not be expected to continue coming to the virtual community, or explain their lack of posting - to me that is simply backward thinking.

If people post to say they are switching off their internet connections because they just don't have the time, or they feel it's taking up too much of their time, they should be applauded!!! They should not be implored to not completely give up the net just because other members feel it somehow reflects on their own priorities or suggests they themselves don't have a life balance...

Virtual community is like vitamins, it can NEVER replace fresh foods (real life community and tangible support) for nutritional advantage...

4 comments:

Stitch Sista said...

It's a bit sad really isn't it :(. There are days where I just don't want to be out there in the 'real world', and so am seeking solace online, and yk it's not enough.

One thing that has always frustrated me with online communities is people giving advice for very serious situations(yk like you should leave your husband) without really knowing all the facts (or the actual person) on an intimate level...I mean I've given advice myself obviously, but I stop short of suggesting someone turn theirs and their kids lives upside down unless I'm sure I can give some IRL support...

I dunno, the reality is cyberspace is now a very *real* place for some people, and the only way some people will ever connect. These people who we would otherwise call 'loners' and who really aren't going to partake IRL anytime soon...

Leah said...

Such a sad situation, those babies were let down by many people.

I do think that online can take away some momentum for people getting out there ... if you are at a low ebb, forums demand little of you, you can feel like you get that bit of socialising met - it's a small need and you get a small fix. It's like sending someone a txt message instead of ringing - it shuts down the opportunity of having a good chat, something you didn't realise you needed until you got it, when you'd only intended to quickly ring and organise something. If you took that small effort and doubled it, still not much effort, you might get back something 100 fold which makes the next effort that much easier and so on ...

cesca said...

Great post! I agree, online communities can't take the place of real life communities.

cramstankin said...

i agree too sif, well said!