Finding Allies

Three Steps to Entering Communities

Friendships in digital spaces come in many forms. Some will vouch for you but never develop a relationship with you, while others will be close friends, offering affirmation and support in private but never in public. We find ourselves in many different kinds of digital spaces: large, public spaces (hashtags, comment sections); websites where people encounter each other on multiple “spaces” (like forums); and even private messages or group chats. There’s also many different reasons that people come into online community -- gaming, hobbies, social justice, and responding to current events are some, but those are just the tip of the iceberg.

What I offer is a model for deepening your engagement while entering a new online space. How do we integrate ourselves into the community there? How do we meet people, integrate into the community, build an identity within this group, and start to form relationships? 

1. Lurk and Self-Disclose

How do we humbly enter a community and learn its rules, norms, and move out of being an observer? Finding allies begins with a vision of this space or community as holding something valuable. This value isn’t an abstract value for visitors or unknown community members; rather it’s a claim that this community is valuable to who we are, and deserves for us to offer our personalities and skills. But, Before we can do that, we have to learn about how the community is structured.

Lurk More

Lurking is well studied by digital media scholars. It is the act of observing, but not actively participating, in an online community. Lurking is a critical first step to observe social norms, and understand how to act within a community. This step isn’t exclusive to being online: how often have you joined a new group and quietly watched and listened to see how you fit in? What is unique to digital spaces, however, is that our silent observation and dis-participation might never be noticed. 

While lurking, you are gathering information. Some questions to consider:

  • How many people are in the community? Who is in a position of influence?
  • Why does the community exist? How do people enter and find it, and what ideas or activities is it centered around?
  • What topics, issues, or conversations are community members engaging in? 
  • What kinds of jokes do you see?
  • How do people show affirmation, or voice critique? How are disputes handled? 
  • How does information pass through the community? 

Once you have a feel for the community dynamics, you begin to transition out of anonymity and into an individual. What information about yourself are you disclosing? 

Often, though this depends on the platform hosting your community, people will look at your public profile to determine who you are. Things like your avatar, personal description, username, and posting history help inform people of who you are. Because they haven’t seen you around, this information tells people that you’re new.

Just like being in a new group on campus, we have to mind what we share. Sharing too little will make you not-memorable, but over-sharing can mark you as an outsider. There’s a fine line to sharing too much. In both cases, our sharing hints to others that we don’t understand the community’s unspoken rules. If we undershare, we fail to critically or relationally engage with the topic of discussion; on the other hand, if we overshare, we take agency from other community members, who did not have a chance to ask you for more details on their own accord.

One way to gauge how to share is by the number of exchanges we’ve had in public community spaces. Online, we build trust through consistency, and each point of interaction gives people a different piece of our identities. These points are invitations for people to imagine who we are, and confirm their idealization by interacting with us.

Other things to consider: Your profile picture should be memorable but not too personal (a picture of yourself, but perhaps not of you with your parents), and your personal description should offer a few insights about your personality without too many details. We can reserve those details for when we begin to engage the community, or when people ask.

2. Find Peers

Especially in larger communities, finding a few individuals to connect with can be difficult. I suggest finding two different people in the community to demonstrate our newfound fluency and willingness to enter. As we nurture these friendships, they’ll become allies and help connect us to others. They’ll speak for us and vet us as important community members.

Another Newcomer 

Other newcomers are easy to spot and easy to befriend - because they’re in the same position as us. They’re also easy to contact - you can message them privately and open by mentioning that you’re kind of new and not sure how it all works yet. For example, as we follow a hashtag on Twitter, we can spot new participants to an ongoing conversation and begin to respond. We can message them privately to see what they think of a post by a more established community member, and agree to share some of those things back into the larger conversation.

We’re doing two things by looking for other newcomers. First, we’re testing our own fluency and understanding of the community. If we can spot other new people, we understand the difference between an outsider and a community member. Second, we’re displaying our willingness to participate, even as we’re still learning. We’re telling the community that we want to be part of the network, that we can play nice, and that we want to help grow the community through our own initiative and skills.

An Established Member

The other key relationship is with an established community member. The definition of “established” is a little loose. This could mean they’re a community leader, a heavy participant, or someone with a particular role in the community. Depending on the community, connecting with them might mean a few things: replying to their posts directly and showing up on their feed, asking them a public question (with a direct mention on Twitter), or waiting for them to reply to you and asking to personal message.

As we connect with someone established, we’re once again doing a few different things. First, we’re publicly “showing” that we understand the group rules and roles. We’re curious and willing to learn about the network, and we’re actively build relationships with people within. At the same time though, we’re also offering a new perspective - as someone that understands the rules but doesn’t follow them so strictly, we’re acknowledging this person’s role in the community without limiting them to following their role.

3. Create a Niche

This is the part where we actually engage with the content of the community. We’ve established that we know the rules, and people know who we are. Now, the task is to offer something to the community. We locate allies by being valuable contributors to the community.

Find a Niche 

We each bring something to the community that no one else can. We have a unique set of interests, skills, and stories that we can offer to the community. As you’ve been reading and responding to content, what’s been missing? 

  • Is there something others have been wondering or asking for, or have you felt a need for a new conversation? 
  • What topics have you found yourself replying to, or drawn to?
  • What parts or quirks of your personality come out more in this community than anywhere else?

Finding your community niche, sometimes, involves asking community members to highlight the skills and personality traits they feel most blessed by. In my gaming community, I often doubt what value I bring into the community. My friends there are quick to remind me that it’s never been about my gameplay, but about the positivity and ridiculousness that I bring in - I make losing videogames fun. My niche has been my ability to see positive things and encourage everyone.

Invite without Inviting 

Knowing that you fill a niche in the community, what content can we produce as discussion topics? We’re inviting others to participate in our interests and passions, and hoping that some will share them. We’re also bridging our interests into contact with the group’s collective interests through the content we produce.

A few examples of this include: 

  • Taking articles related to the discussion topic and contextualizing them. For example, taking an article with a Christian perspective and translating it for a social justice hashtag, and fielding questions.
  • Building a sense of community intimacy by asking others to share about themselves.
  • Sharing your own stories and experiences, especially through a lens that you don’t often see in the community. For example, answering for others how a Christian sense of value shapes how your engagement, and asking others what lens they’ve been using. 

Regardless of how we do so, our goal is to invite others to be curious and ask us questions. As (hopefully) now trusted members, we want others to know us and what we offer to the community. We want to open the door for collaboration and relationships, and be able to engage in the concerns of others as we share our own concerns. We might even want to ourselves become mentors to new community members, and grow these relationships in other parts of our lives: both in other spaces and broader topics.

Want to learn more? Check out Finding Your Voice and Finding Frenemies.

Read more about Angelo on his bio page, or follow him on Twitter @442raph.