How Meaningful are the Connections in Your Online Community?

Engaging through sharing by Kristen Fleury

It was in the living room on Christmas Eve, surrounded by family, that I noticed both myself and fiance’s grandmother were the only ones not engaging.  I sensed a loneliness that we both shared in that moment.  We were both absolutely a part of it, yet for different reasons we were both not truly engaged in it.  In her lap sat a present she had received earlier that day from her son.  It was a photobook of old images of her hometown and family. I sidled up next to her and asked her to show me her new book and tell me about some of the images.  I’m not sure how long we sat there lost in looking at the images and chatting, but I know we made a memorable connection then.

A similar feeling of connection can be, and should be, fostered in online communities.  Over the course of the past month, we ran a photo challenge in our Loyola community encouraging members to share images of what they’re thankful for this time of year.  We put no parameters on it – we just created the opportunity and waited to see what returned.  What we got back blew us away!  Stories of sweet notes given by a student to her teacher; deep sibling connections that keep people going in their toughest moments; descriptions of the hardships of being so far from family; tributes to new-age families composed of the closest of friends. Each story was a unique window into who our community members truly are.
To get an idea of the kinds of connections this type of sharing can create, check out a couple of our favorite posts by our community members below:

“I am thankful for the times that students totally surprise me. I received this note last year from a student who I always felt like I struggled to connect with – she was very shy, and we rarely had one-one-one conversations or connections. But at the end of the year, she wrote me this note and I was totally blown away! Moments like this remind me that I am affecting more students than I realize.” – Rachael Degnan

“Hey everyone! I am thankful for my parents because without them I definitely could not have afforded these past four years at Loyola. They are my rock, and clearly from this pic they do love me and appreciate me back…HAHA! It’s always tough not being able to go home whenever I want (my home is Guam, so more than just “a flight” away), and jump and hug them, so pictures have to suffice.” – Stephanie Bordallo

Creating moments of authentic connection like these should always be a goal in an online community.  Here are some tips to help foster this type of sharing in your community:

  • Know the Room:  Be sure you know your community well enough before asking them to share.  For example, if your community is hesitant to discuss topics that go beyond work-related commentary, asking them to share photos or stories about their families may not get the type of response you’re looking for.  Instead, draw on what you think your community is on the brim of sharing naturally, rather than trying to force an unnatural sharing of personal stories that they may not be ready for.
  • Be Clear, but Flexible:  You have to set up an opportunity calling for community members to share personal stories, but know that it can be intimidating for someone to share something personal in this kind of setting.  To help make it more approachable, be sure expectations around the flow of participation is clear (i.e., will people have the chance to respond?) and provide clear guidelines for what you’re asking, but also leave room for participants to make it their own.
  • Be Human:  Remember that just because you’re online doesn’t mean you can’t be honest, open and real with one another.  If someone showed you a photo of their family or friends in person, you wouldn’t just think, “That’s nice,” and walk away.  Instead, you’d respond, comment on the photo or ask a question.  Doing the same thing online reassures the sharer that someone is there, paying attention, and most of all cares about what they’ve put out there.

Even if you’re not sure of whether your community is ready to start sharing such personal photos, you can always start with stories.  It’s amazing what you can get back when you give a group a prompt they’re excited to share about.  Bottomline:  don’t be afraid to break out of the professional box once in awhile!  Doing so might help create an even deeper spirit of sharing and collaboration.

This article was authored by Kristen Fleury.  Kristen currently works as an 8th grade science teacher in Milton, MA.  Having only worked for one year in the classroom, she is intimately aware of the challenges that new teachers face as they start their careers.