Building community in a digital world: the role of the Internet in establishing connections
May 27, 2024

Building community in a digital world: the role of the Internet in establishing connections

Do you remember the time when attending an online meeting was more of an exception than a routine? Well, I do. Going to school every morning, then hurrying across the city to take part in extracurricular activities, and then, exhausted, going back home, sounds nostalgic now because such a way of life has now sunk into oblivion.

Everything has changed since the start of COVID-19 pandemic, when we became locked in our flats and houses. The Internet was the only way to keep studying, working and simply communicating with each other. In challenging circumstances, we realised the role of the digital world in our everyday life and, despite the fact that the pandemic is no longer the threat as it was a few years ago, the Internet remains a crucial tool for every one of us, and I find it extremely important to learn how to be a part of the online community to keep my motivation, energy and connection.

A great example of a strong digital community is the YEA Network. Having joined this initiative at the end of 2023, I’ve already experienced the power of its connections, even though I haven’t participated in any offline event yet. So, what are the secrets and benefits of the role played by the Internet in building the YEA community?

In our physical life, we are not always surrounded by like-minded people, and believe me, this can be a problem. Often, I would have inspiring ideas, but it was difficult to turn them into reality because I couldn’t find a close-knit team! Since I have joined the YEA Network, things have become better because via the Internet it is much easier to find a group of volunteers to participate in a project or activity.

So, yes, one of the biggest advantages of online networking is accessibility. A lot of people from different cities or even different countries can work together digitally.  For Ukrainians, this advantage is even more important, as many of us had to leave our homes because of the full-scale invasion. I remember myself living in Slovakia for almost a year after 24 February 2022. Despite the fact that people in Slovakia were supportive to me and my relatives and tried to do their best to help us feel better, never have I ever been so homesick.

Things got better when I joined one of the EU-funded projects, the EU Study Days, that gathered online representatives of Ukrainian youth, and that was the moment I realised the benefits of online communication, which makes us feel connected in spite of physical distance. Today in the Ukrainian chapter, there are YEAs who currently live in Poland, Germany, France, Spain, the USA, and a lot of other countries, but we still can stay in touch with our homeland and dedicate ourselves to its European integration.

Apart from this, not everyone has an opportunity to travel due to various reasons, but thanks to digital accessibility people still can experience multicultural communication, which helps to establish worldwide connections, spread horizons and come off the shelf, without coming out of the home!

For instance, at the beginning of February 2024 I attended an online event, Ambassadors Talk “Moldova & Ukraine’s EU Membership journey”, where Jānis Mažeiks, the EU Ambassador to the Republic of Moldova, and Katarína Mathernová, the EU Ambassador to Ukraine, spoke about the similarities and differences in the cases of Moldova’s and Ukraine’s euro integration. What inspired me the most was the fact that during that meeting YEAs were presented not only from Moldova and Ukraine, but also from other countries, such as Spain or Italy. It helped to build bridges of solidarity and understanding between representatives from different European countries, in spite of physical distance between states.

Adding a lot of people to one chat doesn’t automatically make this group a friendly team. Many of us have probably been in the situation where your questions or suggestions are simply ignored in the chat with a lot of participants. Not a pleasant experience. So, what I especially like about the YEAs Network is the non-formal environment in online groups, where everyone can feel respected and appreciated, so discussion goes smoothly and everything works properly.

Let me tell you about lovely traditions among the Ukrainian YEAs that make us feel like a real family! First, the happy birthday greetings! When someone among our team celebrates this special day, they’ll definitely see their photo with heartwarming words of love and support in the chat. So lovely! Also, during online meetings we are free to use different digital effects and backgrounds, which is a lot of fun! Moreover, at the end of every online conference we always take a “family photo”. Someone has a complete mess in the background, another one is sitting in the yard or joining the meeting while going home on the bus – these differences unite and help so much to create a warm and comfortable atmosphere. As you can see, the YEAs community is more than a network – it is a supportive family with lovely customs and traditions!

Of course, it won’t be possible to build strong connections via the Internet without proper digital skills. How to share a screen, how to divide people into groups during online meetings, how to use a camera, how to use a microphone… Digital competence is now a keystone for life-long learning. As the European Commission says: “Digital competence involves the confident, critical and responsible use of, and engagement with, digital technologies for learning, at work, and for participating in society”, and networking online gives you a great motivation to develop those skills and knowledge. So, Internet communication is actually an investment into self-development!

Online communities, as well as real life, consist of people with different worldviews and backgrounds. So, being tolerant is a must-have to create strong connections. Rumours, violent messages or discriminating claims can make others anxious, stressed and unmotivated which is of course unacceptable.  There should be no place for harassment in the online world as well as in real life, so let’s be supportive and respectful to each other.

Of course, communication via the Internet cannot fulfil people’s social needs. I remember myself in a situation when all my friends and a lot of relatives were spread all over the planet, again, due to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Despite the fact that we had constant phone calls and were chatting a lot, we missed each other very much and were dreaming about a moment of reunion. People still want to see each other face to face, which is the right thing to do. However, sometimes a heart, sent in pixels, can mean a lot more than a hug in real life. The Internet is a big space that connects people from all over the world, including YEAs, and gives a lot of opportunities to find friends and build strong resilient communities. Our task is not to miss the chance and to work together on shaping connections!

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