How to bring together a digital community?

An old colleague of mine at Marco Polo Project reached out the other day for advice. He’s now tutoring at Melbourne University, in a subject with a lot of Chinese students. With the Covid-19 madness, a lot of them are stuck in China. He was looking for ways to improve their experience, and give them a sense of community through digital channels. It was a great way for me to think through questions that had been bubbling in my head for a while, and I thought I might share them in a blog post.

What I soon realised is, we’re prone to think in terms of ‘what’s the thing I should do’, when the better question would have a plural object, and focus not one the one thing, but the set of complementary actions that will work together as a system. So, I said, let’s think of the type of encounters and exchanges that happen in a campus experience, and how to replicate this online.

  1. It’s important to develop a loose sense of ‘emotional community’. We feel connected with our classmates simply because we’re in the same room and the same building at the same time for so long. So, I suggested he set up a dedicated channel on WeChat simply to build a sense of connection. A place to post selfies and photos of the classroom or campus, and encourage cheerful exchange of memes and joyful messages – what we called a ‘Dionysian channel’ for extraverted connection.
  2. Most LMS are their own circle of hell, but tutors or fellow students can remind you what the deadline is, reshare the readings, assignments or links. That’s important, it gives a sense of structure and safety. So, I suggested that should be reproduced online, but in a very different place from the first channel – one where, essentially, whatever comes first is what’s due next, and you can easily find past references in an archive, without scrolling through thousands of dancing unicorns.
  3. What brings a group together is not just that everybody feels part of the same community. The mesh of connections between people, and all the gossip and drama that comes with it, is just as important. Those lateral relationships develop in all sorts of ways – quick chats outside the room, group assignments, discussions in class, student clubs and cafeteria habits. To replicate this online, I suggested a ‘speed-dating’ system: once a week or so, during consultation hours for instance, students will be invited to make three video call of 15 minutes each with 5 minute intervals, with three people from their cohort assigned at random, and discuss a question related to the course. This to get new perspectives, possibly make new friends, or even give space for gossip.
  4. We form some of our most important friendships and lifelong bonds at university. There’s pre-filtering at play. We’ve chosen the same subject, matched our timetables, live in the same city. Statistically, we’re likely to find compatible people in our cohorts. And spending time with those people we ‘click’ with is extremely important. We do that spontaneously after a while, but assigned tasks and hours spent together anyway are an important way to deepen the relationship. One way to get this to happen is to increase peer-work – for instance, by increasing the rate of pair-work or small group work, and encouraging students to do it on video calls.
  5. A university campus is a chaotic place. On the way to class, you pass a young couple with pink hair and piercings, someone with glasses playing with a drone, a Marxist protest for animal rights, and a poster advertising the next medieval cosplay gathering. Not all of that may be for you, but it stretches your brain, so to speak. There’s the stuff you go to once, and never return to. And then there is the serendipitous encounter that sets your life in a new direction. So, I proposed that one way to do that was to create channels with themes – the future of medicine, cool piercings, sci-fi movies, etc – and invite interested to join as part of the first channel. Nothing compulsory, just a regular pop up among the flow of unicorns, to keep the brain stimulated.


I’ll be curious to see what other people are doing to keep communities together as Covid-19 reduces in-person social gathering. If any of this makes sense to you, or you’d like to share what you’re doing – please, leave a comment!

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