Ever since online communication has become a regular way to communicate with people there has been a stigma that the connections people make in the virtual landscape or not as genuine as the ones created during face to face interactions. While this may be the case for some people, it is does not apply to everyone. The virtual communities that are built online are often times just as real as the ones made in person, if not more so. This is especially true for those communities which are built around helping people with medical or psychological problems. According to Gruman et. al. (2017), there are four factors that contribute to a positive sense of community among people: membership, influence, integration and fulfillment of needs, and shared emotional connection.
Membership within a community is often categorized by geographical location but is not limited to it. Social boundaries, such as having experienced a mental disorder, can set boundaries, and create a sense of community. Having similar experiences and the ability to share those experiences with others in a safe, potentially anonymous, setting provides people with a feeling of belonging.
The influence that a person has in their community, as well as the influence the community has over them, is another factor that determines affects sense of community. In the case of virtual communities, the ability to message people directly can greatly increase the level of influence they feel they have on the group. People may feel like they blend into the background when in person and surrounded by many people, something that is not necessarily the case in virtual groups.
The third factor in creating a sense of community is one of the greatest benefits of virtual communication. Integrating into the community through shared resources and information is exactly what these groups are created for. People join them to find more information on what they are going through and are able to learn directly from people who may have experienced the same thing. For many people, this may be the only resource readily available to them.
The struggles and triumphs that result from experiencing a mental disorder create a bond with people that extends through the virtual landscape and connects them no matter what. The emotional connection that people experience in person can be more intimate than that experienced through virtual, however the virtual connections can be very strong as well.
People may continue to discount the connections made through virtual means, however, it’s obvious that the sense of community that results from these connections is real. The help that people can get through the virtual communities they become a part of can be invaluable and is a welcomed addition to our social world.
Gruman, J. A., Schneider, F. W., & Coutts, L. M. (Eds.). (2017). Applied Social Psychology: Understanding and Addressing Social and Practical Problems(3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA:Sage. ISBN 9781483369730