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Blogs: Challenging Assumptions around Communities

I’ve been doing some volunteer work with SOBS, Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide. In addition to providing face-to-face support groups across the UK they run a private online community for people to come together and talk – this extends their face-to-face support and helps them reach those who cannot physically attend a support group.

One of my colleagues at Sift approached me to work on this with her, having no idea that I have personally experienced bereavement by suicide. In two days it will be the 8 year anniversary of my father’s death. And so this opportunity to volunteer with an online support service to help people like me has touched me in a very deep way. When my dad passed it never really crossed my mind to look for support online. I wish I had thought to do so at the time - I think these days I would definitely look around online so perhaps this is just a difference between 2004 and 2012.

SOBS is currently providing one of the safest and most private communities I’ve ever seen. Each potential member of the community is interviewed briefly by phone, completely removing the potential for trolling and other types of negative behavior. True, this may be a barrier for those who solely wish to remain anonymous, but given assurances that the purpose of this phone call is at the heart of providing a safe space to interact it really isn’t seen as a huge issue. But because the forum is so private, it’s difficult for people to find it at all - this is a challenge.

My volunteer work in this community is primarily to see it with fresh eyes - to walk through each step of the process of joining and engaging in this space and spot ways to improve the experience. I am also looking at new platforms and tools they can use to extend interactive functionality, including (eventually) live chat.

The most important thing I’ve learned so far in this work has to do with ‘lurkers’. In most communities I’ve been involved with, I’ve always been really focused on turning some of my lurkers (readers) into active community members. For SOBS this just isn’t a concern at all, and could even be detrimental. SOBS recognizes that some people may never wish to say anything at all and will find huge comfort and relief in reading the experiences and feelings of others.

I am living proof of this. …My sister devoured this website from top to bottom and although she didn’t engage in the discussion forum (it’s UK-based, and she is in Texas), she was really eager to do so. As for me, I made my way around the website and forum with one eye closed…I wanted to read a bit, and what I read was very helpful, but I found it painful to read too much, and I don’t believe I could ever really talk in this community. What I read was immensely powerful though, and has provided great comfort and insight to me even 8 years later. I silently thank those who were brave enough to share.

Photo taken in Big Bend, Texas, 2010

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