The internet has shrunk the world in ways that were scarcely conceivable before its creation. It’s changed the way we do everything. From how we get our information. To the way we work. To how we interact with each other on a social level.
Social networking platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have experienced phenomenal growth as they’ve exploited new technologies to promote this brave new world (and make super profits in the process).
Inevitably, and rightly, there has been a backlash as people have cottoned on to the downside. Which is, let’s not kid ourselves, considerable. Privacy issues, cyberbullying and peer pressure (especially amongst younger people), the spread of conspiracy theories, its use to spread hate and prejudice, potentially detrimental impact on people’s mental health, the effect on people’s social relationships… I could go on.
But, like any new technology, social media has the potential to deliver incredible good as well as evil. Particularly where it’s designed to suit its audience’s needs, is carefully curated, and makes user safety a priority (as we’ll see with new ways to connect with fellow members being unveiled today by The Joy Club this week).
Why we hang together
The thing is that we’re social animals. We successfully evolved as a species because of our ability to work together, protect each other and form social groups. As human beings, we learn, grow and play together as part of societies which help shape our identities and define how we participate in the wider world.
A study reported in Nature of the evolutionary history of social living amongst our pre-human ancestors suggests we came together because there’s safety in numbers. Being social was an essential component of their survival as they switched from foraging for food by night to foraging for food by day and faced a wider range of predators. In turn, these larger social groups facilitated the evolution of cooperative behaviour, altruism and language skills which provided the basis for the eventual development of more complex societies and what we now recognise as civilisation.
Fast forward to modern human society and it’s evident that socialising with others confers a range of very real physical and mental health benefits. An article in Psychology Today describes how connecting with friends can boost our brain health, increase our feelings of wellbeing, help us live longer and lower our risk of dementia.
Having friends to socialise with, celebrate the good times and support us through difficult times, protects against disease and cognitive decline. Sadly, loneliness and social isolation tend to increase as we get older. Retirement, moving home, bereavement and ill health can all reduce our social networks and make it harder to stay active socially. Worryingly, Britain is facing a loneliness epidemic as c.3m UK adults report always or often feeling lonely (of which c.47% are older people according to AgeUK research).
For sure, we differ in the extent to which we seek out the company of others, depending on where we sit on the introversion/extroversion spectrum. But we all share a fundamental need to interact with other people in some shape or form.
A tool for happiness and wellbeing
So where do online communities feature in all this?
At a general level, online social networking can help us feel closer to friends and family who don’t live nearby. It can introduce us to new friends in circles outside usually accessible networks. It can help people who lack social skills, are shy or socially isolated to connect with others.
Social media can help us keep abreast of the news and other developments, local, national and international. It can help us feel more connected to society and facilitate our engagement with community causes and broader environmental, political or cultural campaigns.
Online communities offer a more targeted form of this social engagement. And maybe this is the key to their value. They are not a substitute for physical communities. They can’t replace the intimacy, immediacy or sense of personal connection they provide. But they can complement face-to-face contact. Connect us with others when physical connections aren’t possible (because of age, distance or other barriers). And enrich our lives.
This was demonstrated in spades during the pandemic. I, for one, found the various professional and social communities I was plugged into on Twitter a lifesaver. I made new connections, discovered new friends and stumbled across all sorts of interesting things I’d never have encountered otherwise.
Ultimately, people come to online communities because they want information, support and conversation. But, as this piece of research indicates, you get out of it what you put in. To survive and thrive, online communities need to provide the benefits and experiences that members seek. But members themselves need to commit to the aims of the community to help it fulfil its role.
Being an active member of a community, which has a well-defined sense of purpose, provides meaning to our lives and deepens our sense of self-worth. Collaborating on things, learning from others, supporting people all help to develop a sense of belonging and strengthen the overall community.
And it’s fun! Staying up-to-date with what others are doing. Sharing reflections, stories and jokes. These things can all brighten our day, help promote deeper levels of social engagement, and facilitate a sense of community, wellbeing and joyfulness. As Plato said, “The part can never be well unless the whole is well.”
Which, of course, is where The Joy Club comes in! Bringing like-minded people together to enjoy shared activities, try out new things and feel part of a positive, supportive community.
Have you got any thoughts on the benefits of being part of a community (physical or online)? Share them with fellow members of The Joy Club in the comments below.