The Benefit of Online Circles

If there’s anything that I’ve learned about social media over the last few years, it’s that people like really love complaining about Facebook. People like complaining about the people they feel obligated to keep in certain online circles, but there are plenty of opportunities outside of that to still get a positive experience out of social media. A Pew Research study shows that people actually still feel this way, and it’s because a lot of what social media comes down to is the kind of experience you make it for yourself, and this primarily comes down to who you choose to keep circulating with your online prescense.

But it isn’t as simple as just being happy about the online circles you maintain. It’s about how we use media to interact with these circles, who these different groups are in the first place and the positive effects it can have on your own personal life.

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Part of what makes these circles beneficial to our lives is how we engage with them in the first place. The major difference in how we’ve communicated on the internet recently is living in a world of Web 2.0, where the internet is a form of social interaction.

“One of Web 2.0's primary features is the ability to facilitate social interaction through different forms of media and to create a “collective intelligence” that differs from mere information provision: “a web 2.0 service is one that provides the platform or service and turns it over to its users, who then create and maintain the content of that service. That content is then shown to others who consume and extend the content.” -Erin Karper

More people aren’t just using social media, they’re using multiple platforms of social media. People are engaging in multiple different online identities in different online communities, behaving differently in each one and fulfilling different functions in each one. They might be talking to people they know in real life in all of them, they might be following people they don’t know in some, and they might be talking to people they haven’t met or are interacting with them in some way. It can be mutual or one sided, it could just be seeing someone’s posts, favoriting the post or sharing their content, it could be a professional space, quasi-appropriate or completely casual, but through the habitation of different online places a connection, a familiarity is formed between the user and where they occupy.

These different online communities are fulfilling different functions and needs that each user needs, congregating in different online spaces based around their connections and their interests. These spaces become reflections of who a person is, and their content influences the user back, creating a reflective dynamic between a person and their online communities that becomes a part of their life. The groups that someone participates in thus becomes an important part of shaping a person’s identity in a media landscape with multiple narratives of information.

“What is an author, a composer, a communicator? How does a technologically rich media convergence shift or alter our own understanding of authoring, composing, communicating — and thus of building connections and creating meaning with one another and with ourselves as reflecting, reflective beings?” — Erin Karper

These circles function as communities for the user in providing a purpose for this amount of usage. As early as 2001, Pew Research Center says that 84% of people in the US, about 90 million, have used the internet to contact or get information from an online group. 79% have stayed in contact with them in some way, and 49% of them said they helped them find people or groups with similar interests.

Online forums have been around since shortly after networks were made available to the public in the 80's, but they’ve become especially popular over the last 15 years. Now, interacting with an entirely different group of people on places like twitter, pinterest, instagram and others, your customized feed allows you to share content, even without creating anything original of your own. It’s also very easy to form sentiment for blogs and people you’ve never interacted with by doing that regularly. Microblogging is one of the easiest yet most expressive ways a person can feel like an active part of an online community. Engagement, even if it’s just mostly one-sided consuming of information, can create a feeling of community.

Social media can provide the opportunity of social support and the way it addresses self identity. The Who Needs Feminism? movement sparked a huge campaign that’s been going on over the last couple years, where people will share pictures of themselves on social media, often being introduced to concepts of equality that they otherwise might not have learned about. Through learning about this campaign, joining in on it or not, a lot of people were introduced to different online circles with feminist and social issue interests, helping shape their own values and sense of self.

In 2001, 31% of internet users were part of an online sports fan community and 29% were part of a fan group of a TV show or entertainer. It’s become easier than ever to be a fan of different entertainment mediums thanks to social media, whether it’s through Facebook plug-ins, Twitter hashtag events or other online websites like livejournal with large fan communities, where people can experience entertainment together with others in a way they might not be able to with most people in real life, if they even know anyone who shares the same interests. They often don’t have to share their real identity and can engage while removed from that sense of stress and self awareness. Fan groups can fill that social function of emotional investment and media entertainment to whatever degree a person is interested in participating.

Online communities can also be a center of relief, comfort and vital information. The MD Anderson Cancer Center allows users to connect to each other through their facebook page with over 150,000 likes and other social media pages to share their stories and experiences. This isn’t anything brand new, though it’s become more centralized the last several years. Online communities for health subjects have been around for a while, like back in 2001, where 28% of internet users had at one point contacted an online group for help with medical reasons or personal problems. It also isn’t just about long term issues, but extreme one-time circumstances. After 9/11, there was a huge surge of internet usage in the wake of devastation to the event as described here, “In the days following the attacks, 33% of American Internet users read or posted material in chat rooms, bulletin boards, or other online forums. Although many early posts reflected outrage at the events, online discussions soon migrated to grieving, discussion and debate on how to respond, and information queries about the suspects and those who sponsored them.” Pew Research also found that online communities are great ways for Volunteer Services to reach people. Places online can provide emotional comfort and consultation on dealing with real world issues.

Websites and online communities so niche now that there’s a potential community for most people at this point. Online communities have become a prevalent source of guidance and commentary from other people, serving as a secondary narrative in our lives layed on top of real life interactions. Through the act of sharing and community, it can have a positive impact on a user’s personal life.

The use of media with community can have positive effects on the persona life of the user. Online communities can help a person shape their identity in a positive way.

In this article from Today, teens say that selfies help with their self esteem. Pamela Rutlede says that it’s the first time that people, particularly young adults have become the creators of photographs and get to control their image of themselves, whereas in the media industry there are a lot of beauty standards that damage identity and self esteem. Insulting people for reveling in their selfies as some kind of lack of self esteem is ignoring that selfies are a symptom of this larger problem, which can help individuals struggling with self esteem. An important part of selfies isn’t just the images themselves, it’s also the online communities in which they’re shared. A teenager or young adult is much more likely to share selfies among their personal social circles, whether its just close friends or mixed in with strangers, versus on a very public platform like Facebook because they want feedback from that particular online circle they’ve formed.

“Both clothing and selfies are useful tools for negotiating identity. As a result, you’ll find selfies that are really healthy and empowering as well as those that highlight how some youth are in pain.” — Danah Boyd

One of the biggest examples of this is with the #Blackout selfie movement that happened a few weeks ago. For weeks beforehand, a day was organized among different online black communities to allow for a day in which only black people would post selfies on certain websites as a way to challenge normal beauty standards and celebrate their own beauty and confidence. People shared their selfies among different online communities that they were a part of, and the result was a very positive and reaffirming experience for a lot of people. It came from communities that formed and shared them online in response to societal standards and expectations. This can also happen with different LGBQT communities and other marginilized people who gain self confidence and identity through finding online communities of people like them.

There are too many benefits to online communities to get caught up focusing in how annoying certain ones can be. Even if someone isn’t interacting with a full conversation with someone online, using the internet and being a part of different internet circles has evolved to become a social facilitator in our everyday lives and is a great way to find and cultivate different interests. Getting caught up in pettyness so much is a reflection of what places online which you have probably trapped yourself in.

I feel that most of your internet experience comes down to what you make it. If you feel like there’s no hope of escaping, you aren’t stuck in just one place on the internet, and if all else fails, just hold out hope that some other website will come along and free the human race like the rest of us.
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