Building Community Online

Hosting a conference in a hotel, doing an escape room with your colleagues, inviting guest speakers to your class, joining a sports team, cooking dinner for friends, these are all great activities for building community. But how do we translate that to an online environment during a time of social distancing? What do we lose or gain?

As I write this in self-isolation, I’m reminded of the importance of community building. I’m inspired by how people are cheering outside their balconies at the same time every night in support of healthcare workers, putting drawings of rainbows on their windows for kids to count as they walk the neighbourhood, hosting free fitness (or anything) classes, or offering to help pick up groceries. The common challenge we’re facing has led to these acts that unify us. Being in physical isolation doesn’t mean we have to shut down our community or remove any social activity. It’s the sum of these efforts, big or small, that keeps communities running.

In the legal community we see efforts like the #makelawopen project matching legal innovators with projects to #keeplawopen and help others navigate today’s challenges. In Canada, a collaborative site called collects useful resources for the legal profession. The National Self Represented Litigants Project is supporting the legal community by putting together a continuously updated list of court closures.

CanLII is an online experience and our community network is online. Accordingly, we have some experience building community in an online environment. Whether your organization has recently shifted online or would like to grow your existing online community, here are some ideas that might help.

What builds community in an online environment?

I’ll be using examples from my work at CanLII, but I hope that they will translate well in your context too.

  • Identify a shared common interest.
    • CanLII is a founding partner of the Free Access to Law Movement, a global movement sparked by the shared common interest of providing free access to legal information. What is the shared common interest in your community?
  • Create shared responsibility.
    • Using CanLII Connects as an example, the site grows in value because of the increasing contributions of content that each individual person or organization is willing to share. It’s like having a potluck versus a big elaborate meal by one (tired and possibly underappreciated) chef. Every person invested a bit of time and energy into making that meal happen, and who knows, maybe you’ll try a new recipe!
  • Show appreciation.
    • Recognizing, showcasing, and acknowledging contributions when they’re made.
  • Find the right platform(s) for your community.
    • A new website, social media, email, Zoom sessions, carrier pigeon? All of the above? When we learned that a growing number of lawyers were using Instagram, we started an Instagram account. It’s been up for just over a year, but if our following continues to grow at the rate it is now, our audience numbers will soon catch up to our Facebook page, which has been up since 2009. All this to say, it’s important to go where the people go.
  • Add exclusivity.
    • We all want to feel special. Using CanLII Connects as an example again, only members who have been approved are granted posting rights. This has helped the platform keep quality and engagement high.
  • Ask for feedback on the regular.
    • Actively listening to community needs and anticipating them shows you care and will help keep your finger on the pulse of the community. You can do this by making some phone calls to your “power users” or attend online meetings and conferences of members in your community to better understand their concerns and priorities. Let your community lead the discussion and help you build the solutions they need.
  • Be responsive.
    • No one likes it when their date shows up late. Establishing timely and positive connections builds trust. Of course, with a small team and limited resources, it can be hard to answer everyone’s questions immediately, but if you try to respond promptly, your community will know you’re there.
  • Set some ground rules.
    • How are you going to react when someone says something hurtful or wrong? Clarifying what is tolerated and what isn’t will help your online community feel safe and play freely within limits.
  • Track user behaviour using web analytics.
    • Our top search keywords over the past few weeks are coronavirus related. No surprise there. This shows us that our community is looking for this content. What can we do to help them access it?
  • Provide learning opportunities.
    • Any way to help the community feel comfortable using CanLII content will help them grow professionally and feel empowered. Whether it’s how-to videos or handouts, what can you do to help your community learn?
  • Always keep accessibility and inclusivity on your mind.
    • Is anyone being left out? Is there a way we can make our videos, documents or overall online experience more accessible?

After all this, how do you know when you’re doing it right? Your goals will align with the goals of the community and you’ll feel like you’re swimming with the current, rather than against it.

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