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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

How to Build Your Online Support System

I’ve spent the past 15 years of my life traveling full-time or living outside of the US, and it can be pretty isolating. Whether you’re traveling full-time or feeling disconnected because of a global pandemic, you can find plenty of resources online to build a support system to sustain you professionally, personally, and financially.

With the abundance of potential resources out there, it can be overwhelming knowing where to start or who to trust. These are the guidelines I follow to find my people and my path in the online world.

Figure Out What You Want, First

Are you looking to connect with people who can help you with your career? Are you in need of an educational psychologist for your kid? Perhaps you want to find someone who understands your anxiety about leaving the house post-pandemic?

Once you identify your wants, you can start to parse the resources the internet provides. Sometimes a single source offering a specific service will best suit your needs. Other times, crowdsourcing strangers’ expertise is a better fit. Whatever online platform you choose, the trick is to first know what information will serve you best and how to use it when you get it.

Where and How to Find Resources

Whether you need a life coach or a therapist, or someone who can teach you to write a book, your first step is likely the person's or business’s website.

That’s fine, but you can’t rely solely on the information they offer to evaluate their services. Testimonials and highlighted customer reviews are designed to flatter, and even in some cases they straight-up lie to make themselves look good. I once found a testimonial from me on someone’s website. The testimonial was real, but it wasn’t for the service she offered, and I’d never given her permission to use my name.

Therapy and other mental health services, by contrast, are easier to find online since the pandemic, as many therapists have expanded to treat people via telemedicine. You can (and should) check with a professional licensing board to see their credentials and experience before setting up appointments or reaching out.

Use Google to fill in blanks if you have a lead on a person or service you’re interested in, but still have questions. Ask for and speak to references. If you can find a connection in common who can vouch for the resource, even better.

Social media is wonderful for finding opinions on businesses and communities around specific issues or needs you may have. Ask Twitter for a reading list and you may find a book club. Complain about your experiences on Upwork and you’ll get both praise and complaints about the service, along with suggestions to find what you need. If you’re looking for parenting advice, you’ll find a wealth of ideas to guide you (or other parents who’ll commiserate with you).

I found my writing group on Twitter. It started as general banter about ex-pat life and writing. Then one day, my Twitter connection Jess Evans mentioned her writing group of four was looking for a fifth. We’ve been meeting weekly via Zoom ever since.

Instagram and other platforms based on visual content make it easy to find people who share your interests, from mental health advocates to art and food feeds to level up your cooking game. You can find your people using hashtags, and then develop your relationships as you follow, comment, and interact with others who also follow your favorite Instagram accounts.

Instagram also lets people know who you are and the services you offer. I post photos of my life along with tips for writing. It’s connected me with other writers, keeps me in touch with my clients, and also brings new clients to the writing mentorship group I created.

Services like Reddit, Quora, Slack, and Discord offer semi-curated spaces covering a huge range of topics. You can ask questions or search through past posts to see what fits. The responses aren’t as immediate as real-time social media, but the answers you get will often be from professionals or amateurs with real-world experience.

Another benefit of message boards is that they can create spaces for marginalized communities bound by common interests. People post on Reddit’s Trans or Coming Out boards to share photos and funny stories or to ask for serious advice. The Nomadness Travel Tribe Facebook group represents the needs of travelers and influencers of color and “to show the world that travel has no racial, gender, religious, economic, or interest limitations.”

You won’t always know who is posting, though, as many people use burner accounts. As with everything else, do your research to make sure the information you find is valid, and if you feel someone is trolling you, step away.

Private messaging in smaller groups on Whatsapp, Facebook messenger, or Slack and Discord is an excellent way to deepen relationships with people you’ve met online and know you can trust.

I met Lola Akinmade and Lily Lebawit Girma through online traveler networks. When we realized we all wanted to write books, we created a Whatsapp group for daily accountability during National Novel Writing Month. Since that month ended, we’ve stayed in touch, and every November we reconnect to write new books, like this one.

Ask for Help and Be Generous

Yes, the online world can be a time suck. It’s also a wonderful place to share your experiences with others and learn from their experiences as well.

When you offer your own advice and ideas to others, you make connections. In addition to my writing group, I also found my first editing job and met my agent through a mutual love of Trevor Noah.

Not everyone cares what you have to say, though. That may feel crappy, but it’s actually a blessing. Those who resonate with you and support your interests are worth your energy. You can ignore everyone else. And remember, never ever fight with people online. It’s not worth the time or effort.

A series of studies at the University of Rochester suggest that familiarity builds connection. Connecting with people in a friendly and non-creepy way is an excellent way to get to know people before you approach them. So by the time your job application or request for advice lands in their mailbox, they already know your name. While it won’t seal the deal, it will make your email stand out.

Set Clear Boundaries

Boundaries are crucial online if you want to protect your time, your privacy, and your emotional energy.

Start by evaluating every interaction for how much value it adds to your life. The writing group I mentioned gave me feedback on a book proposal. Their input helped me create something that my agent loved enough to sign me on as her client. Our weekly meetings encourage me to try new things with my writing. The benefits of our group are obvious to me, and to the other members, but that doesn’t mean the way our group works would work for everyone.

For example, my experience in Facebook groups has been the opposite. Constant fighting between members left me frustrated after every visit to the groups I’m a member of. I still visit occasionally to find interesting links or resources, but I no longer interact.

You’ll also want to maintain a level of privacy. While it may not be possible to remain fully hidden, you can limit the information you post online. I like to share my writing and details of my creative life, but I rarely mention my kids, and I never share my specific location.

On social media, I only interact with people who have filled-out profiles, including a photo of themselves, and a more well-rounded digital footprint that includes websites, photos, and details about their lives. This isn’t foolproof, and it may mean I miss out on engaging with some otherwise interesting people, but the level of transparency a person shows online often reflects how much you can trust them.

Finally, be sure to balance your online interactions with face-to-face time in the real world, or at least time offline and away from the deluge of information on the internet.

If your online interactions lead to fruitful connections based on common interests, excellent. If not, setting limits protects you from getting distracted, from FOMO, and keeps you grounded in the things that are most important to you.

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