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What is it? A group? A tribe? A community?

Recently, I was in the middle of breakfast at a restaurant with a group of my girlfriends to celebrate our birthdays. As we were chatting away, talking about the logistics of trying to snag a parking spot downtown, I felt myself welling up with cheer.

Why? I have to admit the topic wasn’t particularly riveting — but the company was. As I looked around the table, I gazed at the faces of these women: We’re all about the same age, but our life experiences couldn’t be more different. Yet here we were, connecting over something that affected us in a small way. We were present and attentive with each other. We were excited to be together and happy to celebrate.

I left that breakfast on a cloud. Later, at home, I logged onto social media and

Facebook communities I have joined over the years. Some were massive, with members numbering in the thousands; some were tiny and largely inactive. As I browsed, looking for the same sort of connection I felt earlier that day, I found the experience a little bit empty. I had endless access to people all over the world who shared my same interests.

So why didn’t clicking on a community help me click with other people?

Online communities are different. Their scope is bigger. The possibilities for discussion and debate are often greater. Yet imagine leaving a conversation mid-sentence or using aggressive language with someone you just met. Impossible, isn’t it? But that is exactly what online communities allow us to do. They promise connection, but do they really help us connect?

With that question in mind, I went through my list of communities and began examining their value to me. Some had been inactive for months or years, so leaving them wasn’t difficult. Some had been wonderful at first but changed over time due to new rules or a shifting focus.

My pared-down list of online communities has a few things in common. The first, and maybe the most important to me, is the possibility of rich conversation. The groups I value most create non-judgmental, safe spaces to express opinions and share confidences. That’s a truly great feat, whether online or in person.

The second is that most of the members are engaged in discussion rather than lurking. I realize that some people are more comfortable hanging around the fringes than others, but I’m seeking true engagement and vibrant discussions. If just two or three people regularly contribute, lively interactions become rare.

The third factor is my own commitment. In real life, our communities require attention and care — care that is much easier to display if we truly value the people within them and are invested in seeing them thrive. Now, I engage in online communities that leave me feeling like I’ve made a difference to someone else.

Will my online communities ever be as rich as my IRL communities? I’m willing to do the work to find out. By being intentional and engaging thoughtfully, I believe I can have richer connections — online or off.

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