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Community Cannot Be Experienced Vicariously

Whether in person or online, relationships are built one interaction at a time.

While the online world is known for snark and conflict, it’s also home to welcoming, supportive communities. The internet makes it possible for us to build deep relationships with people we wouldn’t meet otherwise.

Just like any relationships, however, online friendships don’t just happen. They are built one interaction at a time. It’s tempting to lurk around the edges, seeing others without the vulnerability of letting ourselves be seen. But we miss out on a sense of connection and belonging when we remain hidden. Community must be experienced, not just observed.

When I first started learning to sew, I searched the internet for resources and discovered a large, friendly community of sewing bloggers generously sharing their knowledge and their lives. I hungrily read their online interactions, longing to feel like part of the group. I read not only for the instructions and sewing advice, but also to get to know each person. No matter how well I came to know them, however, something essential was missing.

These new best friends didn’t even know I existed and I kind of wanted to keep it that way. They were all so far ahead of me. What could I possibly have to offer in a real relationship. If they never knew I was there, I would never have to risk them telling me to go away.

I read their words and looked at their pictures, but I didn’t comment or join discussions. I didn’t ask questions or share work of my own. When I cheered them on or empathized with their frustrations, I did so silently. Although I didn’t doubt they would welcome me, I kept myself hidden from notice. I wanted the connection and sense of belonging that comes with being part of a community, but didn’t want to risk being seen.

I always meant to really join in and become part of the online sewing community, but I never felt ready. I told myself that once I was better at sewing, then I’d be ready. Once I finally had my own blog fully established, then I’d be ready to start commenting on other blogs. I actually started a sewing blog a couple of times, but it was hard to stay motivated to keep sharing my projects when there was no one on the other side to see them.

The thing is, relationships cannot be one-sided. Observing other people’s relationships isn’t the same as being part of those relationships. Community cannot be experienced vicariously.

Over time I’ve found other supportive online communities exploring topics that interest me such as writing, creativity, faith, and personal development. I’ve found communities where people are willing to vulnerably share their stories and make space for others to share as well.

I still primarily find myself looking in from the edges where it feels safe. But only receiving without giving back, knowing without being known, is no longer enough.

It’s not enough to know a person or group is welcoming—I want to be welcomed. It’s not enough to see others—I want them to know they are seen and I want them to see me too.

I’ll never get that through waiting and watching from the edges. How can someone invite me in without even knowing I’m here? And really, why is it always someone else’s responsibility to do the inviting?

I can’t just wait for community to happen to me. Building community means pursuing, trying, risking. Truly connecting with others requires me to not only see them, but also to come out of hiding and let myself be seen.

I’ve been hiding so long that even something as simple as leaving a comment on a blog post feels quite vulnerable. There are so many amazing people I’d love to get to know, but when I look at all the people already in community together I easily get overwhelmed. Where do I start connecting with people? How can I find the time and the energy to cultivate so many relationships? Everyone already seems to have plenty of friends, is there really space for me?

It’s not easy to shift from always being on the outside looking in to believing I can belong. But I can start small. After all, whether in person or online, relationships are built one interaction at a time.

I don’t have to become best friends with everyone all at once. Even the most expansive community starts somewhere. Finding my place in the greater community starts as simply as reaching out to one person.

The number of people I’ve connected with is still very small, but it feels good to know there are people who recognize my name when they see it. There are people to whom I have become more than just another page view. There’s so much potential for those relationships to grow, but someone has reach out first.

Your Turn: Think of a community you’d like to be a part of either online or in-person. Who is one person within that community you’d like to connect with? What is one simple thing you can do this week to connect with that person? Some possibilities include sending an encouraging email or note, commenting on a blog post, alerting them to an article they might find interesting, or sharing their work, but there are many ways you can connect with people.