The popularity of Facebook has made the concept of community-building via the internet commonplace. But for most of us, our Facebook friends are people we know in real life, even if we haven’t seen them in a long time or do not know them very well. The idea of building a community of people you have never met and probably never will is still a strange one to some people.
I’m thinking about online communities right now because of what I have been witnessing on my friend Katie’s Facebook Wall and in the comments on her blog since she asked everyone to pray for her gravely injured son. Hundreds of people, many who know her only through her writing, have been checking in daily, grieving, praying, rejoicing. Many of the people in her online community have mentioned that they have known her through parenting newsgroups for over 12 years, and that they participated in another prayer vigil for her, when her other son, then a newborn, was ill.
To me, that is powerful, and community is good wherever we find it. It would never have occurred to me to look for community online, but it happened for me too. My first online home was in the X-Files fandom, many long years ago now. And although most of our interaction concerned the show and the fanfiction we were writing for it, it grew personal over time. Several times, regular posters lost loved ones, and all of us supported them in these losses. When I was expecting William in 2001, some of my XF buddies held an online “Blessing Way,” for us, sending me poetry, pictures, and other well wishes.
I grew involved in pregnancy and breastfeeding newsgroups at that time as well. I had a special affinity for many of the women I “met” there and really considered them to be friends at that time. I still think about many of them and miss them, and have kept in touch with a couple. [Edit: One of them took the initiative to form a Facebook group for us and we have all reunited there!] We followed each other’s pregnancies closely, checking in anxiously when someone was due, and looking forward to the birth story. We offered advice and and encouragement. When William’s birth hit  first the local and then the national news, I received probably 100 messages of congratulations from my online friends. When Lorelei was diagnosed with failure to thrive, my friends on the newsgroup were an unfailing and understanding source of support. In short, we did all the things that “real life” friends do for one another.
A virtual community may not be quite the same as a “real life” one, but that’s no reason to diminish it. Friends are friends–people who care about you, even if you’ve never met.
Have you ever been part of an online community? Would you like to be?


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