The internet has not only made it possible for people to stay connected; it has also made new ways of interaction and collaboration possible. Most profound of these collaborations are the evolving digital communities. Community members are strangers who despite never having met share a strong bond.
I argue that the creation of these new types of communities and shared identities are vital for a variety of reasons. Barriers can be broken down more easily when people feel part of the same group. They are more likely to share information and resources with each other because groups emphasize their similarities instead of their differences. But, most importantly, when people feel part of the same community, they are also more likely to work together for the common good and help each other.
People who feel part of the same community do not necessarily have to be from the same place anymore. They do not even have to have met before. What is important though is that they share a common point of reference which they feel emotional about. This is important because it is the shared feeling behind the common point of reference that in the end creates the bond.
Communities between strangers already exist
I studied Development Studies and International Relations in London at a very international university. During my seminars there were people from all over the world. It was thought provoking to discuss the similarities and differences in viewpoints with people from places like Sweden, the U.S., Afghanistan, Brazil and Ghana all at the same time.
During one of my seminars about globalization an American student said:
“When I travel around the world and I see a Starbucks coffee place I immediately have the chance to go there and feel like home.”
Next to him in class there was a girl from Turkey.
Her reply to his statement was: “When I go travel the world and I see a Starbucks, I feel the same as you.”
What a profound statement! Even though these two were from completely different parts of the world they both shared a similar point of reference that made them feel the same way. Products or brands may be integrated into people’s sense of belonging and culture even though they do not originate from where these people are from. In this sense, products, brands or sports teams that people support (or dislike) may have an effect of narrowing down (physical) distances between people. Note: It is not enough just to intellectually know of a common denominator. It is the way it makes people feel.
Simple steps to create a virtual community
Currently, I am initiating and setting up a virtual leadership community that spans the globe. This project is hosted by the non-profit organization Young European Leadership. Here are some important prerequisites that must be given in order to form networks between people who have never met in person and even originate from many different countries around the world:
- People need to have a sound internet connection.
- People need to share a common language to interact in.
- People need to be excited about joining together virtually and need to be willing to collaborate despite physical distances.
How to narrow physical distances in a virtual world
Communalities and Creativity
In order for people to want to work together on the same projects with people they do not know personally it is most vital to find a common point of reference that they are excited about. In the case of the global community I manage it is the topic of leadership that all of the community members are passionate about. Giving the members of this virtual group much scope for action allows them to creatively work on activities together and therefore feel much more like they can own the projects by giving input.
Communication and Cheerfulness
Once people have access to it the internet offers many portals for communication. For communities that are virtual and global to thrive it is important to use those portals in the right way.
- Facebook groups are a nice starting point for people to familiarize themselves with each other. This portal is mainly used to stay in contact with friends and family. So even when interacting with strangers on Facebook this sense of familiarity may easily kick in.
- Youtube is a portal, which can be used to share video messages with groups. Instead of sending another long and boring email that no one reads, why not showcase yourself by talking to people directly through looking into a camera lens? This works really well and participants get the feel for the person on the other side of the camera lens much more easily than they would via email.
- Email is a standard tool for teams to communicate simply because most people have an email account. Unfortunately an interaction between people often gets very messy via email and emails can get lost in spam folders.
- Google Drive is also a nice tool for people from different parts of the world to work on concept notes and strategy papers together. This device allows people to edit documents while everyone else sees these changes in real time.
- Doodle is a very useful platform to schedule virtual appointments for Skype calls. This helpful tool allows people from different time zones to indicate their availabilities and to meet up virtually.
Take note that any communication without having fun or enjoyment will not be a fruitful interaction. Virtual discussions need to evoke an emotional response from participants for communities to thrive and create great output together.
Collaboration and Commitment
The greatest challenge when working in the virtual world with strangers is to create a team spirit. To reach a stage where people feel committed to each other a constant flow of interaction is vital. When people are not committed to a project it dies. Remember people do not feel committed to computers; people feel committed to other people.