We’ve been going on about community this month, covering the power of togetherness and the power of division. Some people may argue that the benefits of having a community cannot be put into words, but can it be put into science?
Social psychologists and scientists have investigated the impact that social interactions and community can have on brain function and your general biochemistry. The historical importance of socialising and social groups is hard to study because social interaction cannot be fossilized the same way that physical evolution has. Models of social structures suggest that sociality has progressed from a somewhat individualistic nature to large aggregations of people (Shultz, Opie and Atkinson 2011). It has never been confirmed but there is a lot of evidence that would suggest that being part of a community has both physical and mental benefits. Some studies have even shown that positive and encouraging environments can improve outcomes following medical treatments (Lienert et al 2017).
We realise that this year has been one that has lacked in physical social interaction due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so it was only right to investigate the difference between physical and online communities; whether either has more/less benefits or if there are any detrimental differences between online and physical communities. Social media is relatively new so there is definitely a need for more knowledge on the role of technology in communities.
There are those that would argue that ‘online discourse’ should not be likened to communal interactions; its difference in structure does not give it the stature of equal contribution that defines community (Erickson 1997). In the same breath, one could argue that the benefits of a physical community are still present in online communities. One of the benefits of a community is safety or the feeling of safety. When you are in new or situations where you feel like an outsider, your brain automatically scans for 'threats' and it hasn't yet decided what to filter what is important and decide what can be 'ignored' to a certain extent (Learning & the Brain 2016). While this process is passive and automatic, it still takes up a considerable amount of your body's resources. This might explain why you feel a lot more relaxed after a day spent with friends than you do after a day interacting with colleagues - there are fewer threats in people who feel close to. In the same way that you can choose your friends, you can choose your online community. Curating (or tapping into) an online feed/environment in which you feel safe can create a similar environment to that of your inner circle.
When we speak about black history in the future, 2020 will have to have it's own book. So much has happened in the movement towards equality. So much of this has been due to the fact that communities have been formed and amplified online by the faster and wider reach of the internet. In times of trials and in times to celebrations, we have turned to those who have similar experiences and heritages to support our views. We must all accept that this exists in a time where online discourse is often our only lifeline to a community.
As an online network, one of our key aims is to connect women in science and give them the tools to form meaningful connections online. We understand that this may not come naturally to other so we've created a guide on how to make these meaningful connections online. Stay tuned for our upcoming series "Networking Online", coming very soon.
In the meantime, make sure you have read what we had to say about community and togetherness in this series...
Thomas Erickson. 1997. Social interaction on the net: virtual community or participatory genre? SIGGROUP Bull. 18, 2 (Aug. 1997), 26–31. DOI:https://doi.org/10.1145/265665.265673
Lienert J, Marcum C, Finney J, Reed-Tsochas F and Koehly L (2017). Social influence on 5-year survival in a longitudinal chemotherapy ward co-presence network. Network Science, 5(3), 308-327. doi:10.1017/nws.2017.16
Shultz, S, Opie, C, and Atkinson, QD (2011) Stepwise evolution of stable sociality in primates Nature 479 (7372): 219–222