What Do the Words “Online Community” Really Mean?

Yesterday I had appeared on the IndyTalk WI Radio Show discussing online reputation management, strategies for creating content, etc. with a Web 2.0 lens. (Special thanks to Wayne who invited me on the show.) Even I have a few posts planned as a follow up, to show you “how” I manage my content with the tools available, I find myself asking a very, important question. “What does ‘online community’ actually mean?”

You see dear readers, the challenge that I have with the words “online community” is that I have experience with what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that everyone will automatically be respectful, open-minded and kind. Of a community that involves 1,000 people, you might get a few in the bunch that create some tension. This, to me, is not a “good” thing or a “bad” thing — it’s how people are. In an ideal world, we would all get along with one another and be supportive. It is not an “ideal” world, however. It’s the real world, one that you and I have to navigate in order to maintain healthy relationships and further our professional and personal lives.

Although from my experiences forums are different than Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, it is an undeniable fact that not everyone gets along. The anonymity of the internet used to create more challenges for people, as evident by the articles and fellow writers that would report people adopting a different personality online than in their real life. The benefit to all of these changes in Web 2.0, is that it’s becoming harder and harder to be anything but yourself. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I believe that this is the case. I don’t believe that people are jerks or intentionally cruel; sometimes, it’s too easy to let your anger get the best of you when you rant, comment or share an opinion so it only may seem that way. It’s often easier to react to the things that upset us than to walk away and truly think about what you’re putting out there online for the world to see.

To me the words “online community” is a concept I try to embrace every day. Whenever I post or Tweet or create content, I do it believing that there are people — real, live people — at a different computer somewhere in the world. My preference is to avoid inflammatory topics whenever possible, even though I make mistakes occasionally just like everyone else. Opinions and viewpoints change as you move through life. You and I both know this, yet it’s hard not to get caught up in discussions that are timely. Look at how the election affected so many out there and yet, even though it was a powerful experience, that moment is gone. Ten years from now, will you be happy with the comments you made last November?

Lastly, I feel that the words “online community” are very powerful and quite personal. As writers, we know how important words are. We know that when used in a particular combination, the right set of words can have an amazing impact. Through our words we can meet someone new, offer a smile, incite anger or fear or sadness, encourage our peers, and make us proud. We know this, and yet sometimes we forget that everyone uses words differently to express who they are and what they’re thinking.

I’ve always said that there is no “one way” to write, and I believe this with every fiber of my being. But just like there is no “one way” to put words together, you and I both know that there isn’t one “true” way to be. In this way, “online community” also means being tolerant and respectful of other people’s beliefs within reason. Not everyone will agree with you, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t voice their opinions as well. It’s difficult to manage when negative comments start flying, but it’s important that we choose our battles wisely. In my mind, there are some things that are too personal for public purview, but not everyone may share my beliefs.

I’m sure that as we continue to participant in different “online communities” we’ll learn more about each other and ourselves. I hope that we can learn together as peers, and remember that it’s very important to build one another up along the way.

I leave you with these parting words that are based on true stories I’ve heard from many writers over the years: “The writer you treat poorly today, is the one that may be in a position to help you tomorrow.”

Hope this gives you some food for thought. Watch for a post sharing with you some of the writers who are part of my online community later this week.

Monica Valentinelli is an author, artist, and narrative designer who writes about magic, mystery, and mayhem. Her portfolio includes stories, games, comics, essays, and pop culture books.

In addition to her own worlds, she has worked on a number of different properties including Vampire: the Masquerade, Shadowrun, Hunter: the Vigil, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, and Robert E. Howard’s Conan.

Looking for Monica’s books and games that are still in print? Visit Monica Valentinelli on Amazon’s Author Central or a bookstore near you.

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