Lessons from HS2 for Online Community Building

Four years ago my life split apart at the seams, along with the lives of 200 other families on the estate that I lived.  Emotions ran high.   Anger and fear and sadness.  Some people hid in their homes.  Others sought out solace in those around them.  News crews swarmed and reported and blew out of proportion.  What would happen in the end?  Nobody really knew.  But I knew that if we were going to get through it, we had to pull together.

The news of HS2 coming through the estate where I lived happily brought so many similar things to what society as a whole is feeling today as the coronavirus pandemic worsens.  Yes it was on a much smaller scale, and the outcomes are very different.  No-one was going to die of HS2, and nobody was stock piling toilet paper!  But the feelings that it brought were very similar.

I decided that standing out on the street and crying wasn’t the most helpful of reactions, and instead set up a Residents Facebook Group.  We needed to be community, to strengthen each other, and the best way to do that when we had no community hall or space to gather was online.  Today we see many churches and organisations trying to figure out how to be community online.  And I wanted to share my wisdom and learning from what happened with us four years ago.

Not everyone will want to be involved

My heart for setting up a Residents Facebook Group was so that no-one would have to deal with that news on their own.  I imagined a utopia of support and encouragement, community events off the back of it with happy smiling faces, everyone patting me on the back and saying how great it was.  But that is not the reality.  Truthfully, not everyone will want to be involved in an online community, and THAT’S OK!! Maybe they already have their own support networks – leave them to do their own thing.  Maybe online isn’t for them – pop round and see them instead.  Maybe they just want to deal with it on their own – you can’t force them not to!  But providing an option for those who are feeling scared and vulnerable to connect with others in the same boat is a really valuable thing to do.  Don’t let those who don’t want to be involved stop you from doing it.

emotions will run high – don’t take it personally

In the first few weeks after the news had dropped on our estate, everyone was dealing with it differently.  My husband was calm as a cucumber.  I was crying at every little thing.  My next door neighbours were angry with the government and ready for a fight.  Emotions were right on the surface and people were all to ready to share them online.  Yet there weren’t so good at accepting others had different views to them.

I felt like, as the admin of the group, it was my job to calm everyone down and make it all better, BUT IT WASN’T!!!  We must not fall into the trap of feeling responsible for the wellbeing of those in our online community.  Let them process what is going on.  Let them share their fears and emotions.  Let the group as a whole minister to them.  And don’t take emotional outburst personally – you are just the person providing the forum for it.

aim to be a peacemaker Not a peacekeeper

Sometimes, as the admin of the group, you are going to have to make controversial and difficult decisions.  You won’t always be able to placate everyone and keep the peace.  Sometimes you will have to stand up and MAKE the peace (read my keeper vs maker post from 2016!).   Fight for what is right – freedom of speech but not those who abuse others from behind their keyboards.  Maybe sometimes you’ll have to offend or upset your friends or neighbours by doing that.  It is really really hard to be the keeper for an online community.  But try being a good role model, sharing positive and encouraging things, and praying for those in the group.

digital detox will be needed

Some nights I literally could not put my phone down.  There would be a constant stream of notifications and comments to vet on the the group.  It started to take over my life and head space.   And with so much of our lives likely to enter into an online space over the next few weeks you may just end up with square eyes!!!

So schedule in some digital detox time.  Put do not disturb hours on your phone so notifications don’t ping all night long.  Make it clear on your online group when you will or won’t reply to comments.  And then switch off.

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