Online Communities are a Lifeline

Don’t throw them out with the social media bathwater

This post is part of a series about community. Here’s a link to the previous community posts. The groups I’ve discussed so far all meet in person, although they do use a variety of online tools for organization including email, Facebook, and GroupMe. In this post, we’ll look at groups that meet primarily online.

After COVID pushed in-person groups online, using technologies such as Zoom to meet, many have chosen to stay there. With the descent of X, Facebook, and Instagram into algorithm-driven advertising and outrage sites, people are turning to other online platforms to find meaningful connection. Online groups connect us with people we might not find in person; people who can offer support, share our special interests, and who don’t live near us. Here are three examples that embody all of those.

A Community of Practice

In 2015, I found myself being called into leadership positions in some volunteer community organizations. My experiences at school and in corporate life had led me to conflate leadership with hierarchy and authority, and left me reluctant to step in. I needed to find a model of leadership that might work for me. Some rabbit holing eventually led me to a weekend workshop on Authentic Leadership1 that looked to be a good fit and was happening close enough for me to drive to. I signed up. I spent a weekend being pushed gently out of my comfort zone. I came away with an understanding of leadership as holding space. I’m no longer afraid of leading from wherever I am in the room.

A group of local workshop attendees decided to host an ongoing community of practice, meeting monthly in Seattle. I was on the email list, but never attended as evening meetings in Seattle keep me up way past my bedtime! When COVID moved the meetings to Zoom, I joined. So did another who also lives a little too far from Seattle, and, more recently, a workshop attendee from Australia. Another was able to stay with us after relocating to Arizona.

Our stewardship team volunteers embody gentle leadership. Many of us have chosen focus areas for our practice. I’ve had a few different ones, but the universe keeps bringing me back to “Notice and name (what’s happening now? In me/others/the environment?” It seems I’m not done with it yet. At the suggestion of one of our stewardship team, I’ve expanded the focus to “Notice and name … and write about it!”

We recently held a session of case clinics, where three community members brought leadership challenges they were facing. In three breakout rooms (Zoom again!), teams of us worked with each case giver, listening and discussing the challenge without getting into problem solving. That last part was so hard!

This group helped me survive COVID lockdown and has become a cornerstone of my spiritual life. Since I joined, we have had one in-person meeting and hope to soon have another, but our monthly meetings will remain on Zoom.

Science Writers

As I decided to make my mark on the world less through committees and more through writing, I figured I should take some steps to learn the craft of writing about science. Earlier this year, I signed up for a Science Journalism Master Class from The Open Notebook2 on How to Ace the Study Story, in other words how to write a story covering a scientific study.

After the class, TON invited the students to meet the instructor on a zoom call. The call was great, so great in fact, that one student emailed the rest of us afterwards to suggest that we continue to meet weekly on Zoom. And so, we did. We have recently moved from Zoom to Discord and have added a couple more members. Our members are in the US, Canada, and Europe. Most are young PhDs, with a leaning towards the biological sciences. Among them, I feel like a complete imposter, but I occasionally surprise myself by having useful things to say or connections to make.

We support each other by critiquing pitches, offering suggestions on where to submit and people to talk to. Recently we tried a close read of a scientific article. It was so much fun that we’re doing it again!

We are, as you might have guessed, nerdy. How nerdy? We “like” with that anatomical heart emoji🫀, that’s how nerdy.

A writer’s lounge

It’s been almost a year since I moved my newsletter to the Substack platform. In that time, the platform has moved beyond being just a place to publish a newsletter. A feature called Notes is a little like social media, but it’s really more of a writer’s lounge where we can hang out and discuss our craft. It’s an open community, rather than a group. Within that community, it’s been easy to find supportive people with similar special interests and other great writers in general. And for geographic reach, it excels. My own newsletter is now read in thirty-two states and fifteen countries. It’s great to compare notes on water and societal issues with writers in India and New Zealand. As with the Community of Practice, we’re hoping to have a couple of in-person meetups for writers in the Seattle area soon. My writing is better for Substack’s existence.

Community right here!

I appreciate my online communities. But how about you? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments. Here are some questions to get the conversation going.

  • Which online communities are you in?

  • Have they helped you?

  • A lifeline, or a distraction?

As always, thank you for reading or listening! Please feel free to share.


ALIA, the organization that offered this workshop is alas no more, but our local group endures.


The Open Notebook is a wonderful organization that aspires to help beginning science journalists. These master classes are free and come to you in daily or weekly emails. If science writing is your beat, please go check them out and sign up for TON’s weekly newsletter, or better yet become a patron.

14 thoughts on “Online Communities are a Lifeline

  1. Yes, many of my science writer friends are in NASW. I should check it out. I’m really impressed with TON. I’m a donor. Another friend, Jane Hu, is on the board.
    These online groups are the best! I’m glad the post landed. I’m never sure!

  2. Can’t quite give it up either, as there are a couple of groups that use it still. And there are some writers I follow on Instagram. I wish they’d just move over here!

  3. No one reads post there anymore, just stories and reels, and I can’t be bothered. Í check in once a day, that’s it.
    I’ve never had much success at moving my followers over here because the engagement is so low.

  4. I was never there. I was very active on Usenet newsgroups back in the day (1995!) before the world wide web came along and pretty much killed it off.

  5. Thank you, Kim. 🫀
    While I’m certainly preaching to the choir here on Substack, the email comments I’ve received have been equally positive. It gives me hope to see the yearning for true connection and understanding beyond the algorithms.

  6. Thank you so much, Freya. I remember reading that piece from Katherine May and thinking that there is a difference between communities that are not of our choosing and those that are more intentional. I started writing this series on community after a frustrating period working with communities that weren’t working, specifically community water systems, and certainly that were circumstantial rather than intentional.
    I want to look at successful communities to see if there are lessons that could carry over. Thanks for reminding me of Katherine’s piece, and through it, of my intent here!

  7. That’s so great, Michelle. It’s been so much fun finding out how many of us are in these kinds of groups. What a rich vein that turned out to be!

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