Value in the Virtual
Virtual communities have grown like wildfire since the infant days of the internet. From chat rooms and video games to online courses and virtual covens, there are special interest groups for just about everything these days. Despite this popularity, there are still a lot of people who look down on such interactions, implying they are less meaningful or real than their face-to-face counterparts. In this article, I’d like to look at some of the pros and cons to such groups, from my own personal experience.
Finding like-minded souls can be a true challenge. From large cities, where it can feel like you are drowning in isolation despite the torrential tide of humanity surging around you, to rural communities where your every move becomes almost instantly public knowledge, discovering real connection and acceptance is a quest nearly all of us long to successfully complete.
Enter the internet. From its earliest beginnings, it presented an alternative method to finding that connection so many of us craved. Chat rooms suddenly enabled people thousands of miles apart to converse as though sitting right next to each other. The world, which had seemed so large and unknown, opened itself up to us and information was shared like never before. Online gaming presented a new type of recreation that could be enjoyed with people from all different cities, states, and countries, at any time, day or night, and in virtually any location of your choosing.
Gaming is where I really found my feet in the realm of the world wide web. My husband introduced me to online roleplaying games not long after the birth of our daughter. For an isolated new mother dealing with severe postpartum depression, this was a godsend. I made new friends, formed supportive social circles, and found acceptance like I had never experienced before. My husband and I have both formed lasting friendships and hobbies from these experiences. I met my soul sister and best friend in such a game, and we are still just as close to this day, nearly ten years later. I learned about teamwork, commitment, leadership, and compassion from the people I’d met online.
There are millions of people with stories similar to mine. People who have found hope and acceptance in forums and Facebook groups. Mental health support, LGBTQ+ communities, students, hobby groups, pagan circles, and families staying in touch across thousands of miles all benefit from the amazing technological advances and virtual spaces humanity has built. Encouraging words and listening ears can be found at any hour of any day from all across the world.
For witches and pagans, many of whom still remain “in the broom closet” due to societal pressures and lack of acceptance, virtual covens and learning circles provide an invaluable connection to a spiritual community, teachers, and resources. Sabbats can be celebrated, spell ideas exchanged, and components traded, all without risking reprisal from employers or family members. I have personally experienced online ritual circles via video calls that were more profound than any I had attended in person. Spaces like these are a crucial safe haven for witches who walk a path that can be, by its very nature, incredibly lonely. Solitary and sovereign we may be, but that doesn’t mean we always want to be alone.
Interacting with people online provides a certain level of anonymity. While on the one hand, this allows many to be more outgoing and social than they would otherwise be, it cannot be denied that it also allows others to be cruel, crude, and aggressive without the same consequences that would occur from face-to-face communication. Hiding behind keyboards and screens, some people feel the freedom to dish out insults with impunity and try to tear apart the very communities that bring people together. Racism, sexism, and other prejudice lurks in the sidelines.
Safety has also been a recurring concern as we become increasingly open online. It is easy to forget how seemingly innocent interactions can inadvertently divulge our location, routines, and other information that can make someone a target.
Still, the more the world blooms and opens around us, the more we see that despite the distance, time zones, environments, and cultures, we are all human. For every effort made to drive us apart, the good in us pulls us together, striving for common ground. New technology allows us to view parts of the world that would otherwise be physically unavailable. Health issues that would normally keep someone isolated and unable to interact socially become much less of an obstacle with access to online groups and video calls.
I am so grateful for my virtual spaces that became such a lifeline for me. Now, more than ever, we need to build upon these kinds of connections and recognize that friendships and relationships made here have just as much value as those made in person. Utilizing these virtual spaces to foster understanding, cooperation, acceptance, and problem solving will be vital in creating the kind of world we can all be proud to be part of.