Tumblr, Facebook groups, blogs, fandom sites, and now Snapchat groups — are online communities real? Many of our online communities, like our social media outlets, are initiated through direct human relationships and merely extend into the virtual world of the internet. These forums are real, in that they exist via the internet. But virtual connections are undoubtedly not as tangible as direct human ones, through which we can engage all of our senses. We see or imagine, we touch and feel, we smell, we taste, we listen — we can physically express engagement. And despite this, human relationships remain abstract and indefinable in person.
So how does this metaphysical nature of human relationships translate into exclusively online connections and communities?
First, there’s a distinction to be made here: social media versus strictly online communities. I’m exploring the latter, specifically healthy non-transactional online communities that do not disturb the welfare of the internet space. I’m not questioning the validity of social media outlets (that’s another full and hackneyed topic that I will not be discussing here); rather, I’m questioning whether exclusively virtual relationships can truly exist without human contact at some point in the community’s lifespan. What replaces the significance of physically-present human communication? How can exclusively online communities be real without in-person human validation? How can you be sure you’re talking to a human and not a dog on the internet?
It sounds ridiculous to seek validation from people with supposedly no face and physical existence. These “people” are merely personalities, encapsulated in screen names that may not reveal anything about the real human. From the outside, this is the demanding question that taunts you to prove the real existence of these internet friends with no face and physical existence. But from the inside, that’s never been the question. It’s never been about the people behind the screen names; it’s always been about the core of their thoughts and ideas that provide the validation. In a way, the internet becomes a filter for all the small talk bullshit you were never interested in the first place. Strangely and unexpectedly, the internet becomes a facilitator for real meaningful conversation and validation of your interest.
For many online communities, this virtual companionship is enough. In-person communication isn’t a necessity to continue fostering the community. And practically speaking, exclusively virtual companionship is probably a more affordable and accessible way to experience validating communities. Think about online communities that serve as support groups — they provide an easy way to connect individuals experiencing similar struggles, pain, and changes. The recognition of similar struggles, thoughts, and victories is enough to console the soul.
But I would argue that exclusively virtual companionship can be enhanced incredibly with the added component of real human interaction. Even with the understanding that the online community transcends superficial exchanges, there is a undeniable loneliness in stepping back and realizing that it’s just you and your screen. Reaching a whole new level of validation with humans — real humans, not dogs — provides physical engagement that is so vital to human existence. The sights, smells, feels, sounds, and tastes of human interaction can strengthen the pulse of the community and elevate its function. The community becomes tangible, with a new dimension and substance that fuels it with fresh vigor. In the moment of human connection, the virtual community materializes into physical existence.
I think that’s the ultimate test of real online communities — whether the virtual can successfully cross over into “reality.” For these real online communities, there is thoughtful intention poured into the formation of these virtual communities and with that, an extreme risk in its potential translation into physical existence. But I imagine that it’s worth it. It’s worth trusting that there’s inexplicable magic to the translation into our dimension.
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