Online communities have been a thing for a long time – however, not everyone knows about them or makes use of them. As someone who found many friends and learned a lot from such places, I’d like to shed some light on the general benefits and experiences that can come with them.
What’s the first thing that came to your mind when you read the words “online communities”? Maybe it was an image of a kid in a dark room sitting in front of his computer talking to his friends on Discord, or maybe you envisioned some sort of fringy online forum that’s all about illegal stuff. Whenever I hear the word, I go with the first option (maybe minus the dark room). I tend to think of it as a place that has the ability to bring people together from all around the world, the only requirement being internet access.
To give some context, I started being active in online communities when I was about nine or ten years old. It started with me playing games like Fly for Fun, which – as an MMO – obviously heavily focused on the (multi)player interaction and thus also the social aspect. As a consequence of that, the website of that game came with a forum where players shared their tips and tricks, asked questions and sometimes even cursed at the game developers saying how terrible their game is but how they just can’t stop playing it.
An argument I had to deal with very often was how spending time on my computer (most of that time was spent on online communities) is no replacement for “real life” in general. I don’t think online communities are meant as a replacement in the first place! However, that’s not really what this text is about. What has got me thinking is the potential that lies in online communities in terms of education and meeting people. I have been part of many wonderful examples like Elitepvpers or Reddit (although that last one isn’t always so wonderful) that taught me many skills I would probably not have learned otherwise, e.g. basic webdesign. To be able to make my point here, I’d like to widen the scope and include online learning platforms, too, since communities tend to also play a crucial role in those.
So, why is it that I think I wouldn’t have been able to learn certain skills or meet certain people at school? There’s multiple reasons I can think of:
First of all, “on site” education, at the very least on a primary and secondary school level, is predetermined. There’s not really much room for individuality – if a kid feels like learning about Web Design, there’s not (or rarely) just a teacher there waiting to teach him. However, there’s always an online community/learning platform waiting to teach a kid about Web Design, as long as he or she goes looking for it! Also, individuality is how online communities are built in the first place, as they focus on very specific interests, which automatically means (more or less) in-depth content. There is an argument to be made here that online communities are exclusive to people with money, as internet access isn’t exactly free and some communities even charge a membership fee. However, we’re currently counting 4.13 billion internet users (according to Statista) and that number is increasing every year. Furthermore, many great online communities/learning platforms like Khan Academy are completely free, and many others offer discounts for students, or low prices in general. I think that’s a decent start!
Another thing about online communities/learning platforms that I appreciate a lot is how you get to decide your own pace and style of learning. Want to speed up, slow down, rewind or skip that video about algebra? No problem. Want to speed up, slow down, rewind or skip your teacher at school? Well… that might work in the movie Click, but not in reality (and I do not recommend trying it). You get the point. These two “worlds” have started to blend because of online lectures/classes during COVID, as a lot of what’s taught is recorded and made accessible afterwards, but that seems to be a very recent development.
The last point I’d like to bring up is how – from my experience – online communities help with finding friends. Since their default form of communication usually is text or voicechat, only few people care about looks, age or any other kind of superficial indicator. There are exceptions to this, and there obviously also are dangers that come with that kind of anonymity (which I won’t get into right now), but I see it as a net positive overall. If one was to compare the way groups are formed in “real life” to the way they’re formed online, I think it’s fair to say that the latter is a tad more flexible and uncomplicated. There may even be studies to be read in relation to that, but that’s for a next time.
This was a very short dive into what I consider to be (some of) the benefits of online communities and learning platforms. Up until this day, I profit from friends, knowledge and experiences I made thanks to them, which is also why I still spend a lot of time online looking for more.
That’s all for now – see you next sunday!