What’s a community?
This is the second of a three part blog series on digital communication & how people online communicate, form communities, create identity, build relationships, and develop intimacy. In this post, we’ll talk about how we’re already part of online communities, and how to build our own online communities through bible study.
Material in the first section is from Nancy K. Baym’s Personal Connections in the Digital Age, 2015 (link), summarized and applied for a ministry context.
Defining Online Communities
How do you define a community? It’s a difficult thing to articulate. There’s no single definition, especially not online, because different platforms have different practices and purpose.
Baym offers us five qualities of communities that make sense in online contexts, but are also found elsewhere:
- Digital spaces on a spectrum of metaphorical to physical - from interactive Virtual Reality rooms, to MMORPG worlds, to voice servers, and eventually text chat only
- Regardless of what kind of space it is, what’s important is that communities share space
- Habitual and unconscious practices, especially language (but also including virtual practice, like a how you play your in-game character)
- Shared practices mark insider status and set up norms (and therefore violations), which “guide one’s communication without having to be considered” (Baym p. 79)
- Insiders display, reinforce, negotiate, and teach these norms through shared behaviors, often forming hierarchies and power structures
Shared Resources and Support
- Sometimes direct support through relationship building
- But also feeling part of a group with shared interests and participating in gathering/sharing information
- Broken down into emotional support (caring for others), esteem support (positive feedback), informational support (offering solutions to a problem), and tangible aid (money and other services)
- Personalities and roles that define the group
- This includes lurkers - people that watch from the outside rather than participating
- Can create in/out groups, and sometimes forms because members already share a social group (like race, gender)
- Strong one-on-one relationships (covered later)
Identifying Online Communities
Are you already in some kind of online community? Can you identify where you see these qualities in your community? Some common examples of communities with different dynamics, and questions to help you think through how they work:
- What platform do you use to communicate?
- Why did you start messaging as a group?
- How do people join the group? When does it happen?
- Do people respond immediately, or when they’re free? How did you all learn those rules?
- What kinds of discussions, language, jokes, or emojis have a special or unique meaning to this group?
Private Facebook Group
- What’s the purpose of the group? What do you talk about?
- How did you meet or connect with everyone here? How did you get there?
- Is there some kind of structure of organization, perhaps posted in the group description? Are there rules to follow?
- Is there a power structure or sense of leadership? Who posts often, and who does administrative work?
- Is there anyone in the group that you’ve found yourself talking to or agreeing with a lot more than the others? Have you messaged them privately?
Twitch or Youtube Channel
- How did you find this channel? Did you search for it, stumble upon it, or did someone introduce you?
- Why are you sticking around to watch? What about the stream/video is entertaining or engaging?
- Do you participate in the chat, or interact with the streamer/Youtuber?
- Have you talked to other people (especially other viewers) about the channel outside of the chat?
- What interactions between viewers and streamers happen across all platforms? Inside jokes, emoji or emoticon uses, shared phrases?
Building Online Communities
Online communities already exist, but just like how we enter campus communities and establish our own witnessing communities, how can we enter online communities and build our own? One opportunity is through bible study.
What happens at a small group bible study on campus?
How do we build communities around bible studies? Using the qualities from above:
- We meet in a room together regularly, and at other events, like church, large groups, retreats, meals, study parties, and game nights
- We study the bible and engage with each other through the structure of bible study (personal time, group sharing, prayer). There’s a leader and a sense of seniority
- We offer each other support as Jesus offers us challenge; we share those experiences with each other
- We come together to study the bible for similar reasons - we want to grow in our discipleship with Jesus, explore what he’s calling us to, and see a part of our campus transformed
- We bond with one another in different kinds of relationships, like discipleship or accountability
What would happen at a small group bible study online?
What if we brought these things together? If we took the best of bible studies and the best of online community? An intimate community with a heart for God’s word all over campus, not limited by sharing a physical space.
How has Jesus already placed you in a position to see what could happen?
- Are you involved with a group that wants to do a bible study, but have issues meeting or gathering? Do you have far-away friends, or busy students?
- Are you a part of a group that meets regularly online and would be open to learning more about Jesus?
- Are you in a community with members that are leaving soon - graduating students, moving for a new job or vocation, or even summer vacations?