Social media succour

Digital communities have become the new families for a lot of users. But why would you go online for support?

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By Lekha Menon

Published: Sat 20 Aug 2022, 9:15 PM

A little over a year ago, Rachelle Matthew, 27, a sales professional was going through a rough patch in her relationship — she was also feeling a tad isolated after her friends left — and she decided to join a Facebook group and share her problems.

Her rationale: from among the 23,000-odd members, at least a handful of them would be going through or would have experienced something similar, making them empathise with her situation.

Rachelle was right. Her anonymous post seeking relationship advice evoked a huge response and the support she received from women she barely knew, left her overwhelmed. A few direct messages (DMs) even led to unlikely friendships. “The post helped me forge connections, put myself out there, prioritise self-care, start new hobbies and even seek therapy. Looking back, I never thought I’d be where I am today (had it not been for the FB group),” says Rachelle.

Turning to online communities for tips, advice and guidance is not new. Many moons ago, we had AOL chat rooms (remember them?) where users sought answers they could not find within their immediate friends’ circle. AOL may have paved the way towards FB groups, but the foundation remains the same: the need to find like-minded people and a non-judgmental space to express oneself.

What has changed, however, is the level of intimacy and candid conversations.

As a member of a few FB groups myself, I find the conversations they generate extremely invigorating. Occasionally, I post while, at times, I reply to that of others. Mostly, I am just a curious spectator, diligently reading what users write and respond to. Apart from giving a peek into varied mindsets, these discussions offer fascinating insights of changed social mores and perspectives.

Scrolling through comments and chats on these online communities has also made me deduce a few interesting, albeit completely unscientific, patterns. One, I have noticed that the most intimate groups are populated by women. And two, women, far more than men, are happy to bare their hearts on a platform’s news feed. So, from a cheating boyfriend to a bad boss, dating woes to sundry dilemmas, no topic is off-limit, and no question is too awkward to be asked.

Social media groups in the UAE

The UAE social media universe is filled with diverse groups, each boasting of thousands of members. Female Fusion (for entrepreneurial women with 21,000 members), StyleME Dubai (for fashion-savvy ladies with 13,000 members), Dubai Chicas (where dating dramas are revealed along with lists of ladies’ nights and product reviews – 28,000 followers), That Dubai Girl (over 23,000 members) are names that come to mind immediately. Their popularity is not surprising as they provide a great avenue for expats to meet and make new friends — always a challenge in transient cities like Dubai or Abu Dhabi. And that’s also what sets them apart from regular hobby or transactional groups (say, groups for pets, spirituality, art, or forums for selling and buying old furniture, making rental queries etc). The latter are all for business and are generic, the former ones are personal and intimate.

That Dubai Girl — the platform that gave Rachelle the courage to seek help — is a good example. The group is buzzing with women’s chats about any and everything — from seeking business guidance, posting job alerts and fashion tips to revealing secrets about work, toxic colleagues and pesky lovers.

On its website, That Dubai Girl is described as ‘Dubai’s ultimate girl gang’. But more precisely, it’s a network to help women navigate the city’s rollercoaster lifestyle, support small businesses and, as its founder, Kirsty Campbell says, “create a safe space for women”.

Kirsty, the owner of a public relations (PR), marketing and event management firm called That Dubai Agency, founded the group when she realised that despite wanting to be respected and supported, women often faced unfair criticism on social media. “I’d had enough and decided to do something about it. That Dubai Girl brand is about inclusivity, allowing women to be whatever they want to be, knowing they will be supported by other women,” she says.

Supporting women: The subcontinent story

This unconditional, non-judgmental support is also what defines Status Single, a unique India-based online community for single women that resulted as an offshoot of author-columnist-gender activist Sreemoyee Piu Kundu’s eponymous bestseller, which was published in 2018. “The success of the book, featuring 3,500 interviews of single women, set into motion a discourse that was much needed in India,” says Sreemoyee, who aims to normalise conversations about divorce, singlehood, widowhood, loneliness etc. through activities and dialogues initiated by the group. Initially, Status Single’s FB community only had women who were part of the book but later they were soon joined by thousands across the country. During the Covid-19 pandemic, it took off in a big way with Sreemoyee conducting video calls and connecting members to subject experts to promote intense discussions on single-women issues.

Now, Status Single is a thriving community, featured in international publications, and chapters established in Kolkata, Lucknow, Pune, and Bengaluru. It functions in a structured manner with chapter leads guiding members, organising events and offering support and guidance.

Plans are afoot to bring it to Dubai, the United Kingdom (UK) and SouthEast Asia as well.

“Our aim is to create an ecosystem,” says Sreemoyee. “The world is a difficult place for all people, not just women. With so much hatred, violence and crude materialism, communities can be the cornerstone for change, raising awareness about our intersectional ties,” she adds.

Sreemoyee’s ideals find a perfect echo in Soul Sisters, an online community launched in Pakistan by entrepreneur-activist-talk show host Kanwal Sandhu in 2013. Having seen up close the challenges that women — married and otherwise — faced and the lack of a space for them to connect, Kanwal started Soul Sisters on Facebook to channelise the power of storytelling, civil discourse and conversations.

Starting off with a few thousand members, Soul Sisters has over 3,03,000 followers from across the world and discussions here range from career problems, love dilemmas to domestic violence. The biggest indicator of how groups like hers fuel change is reflected in the openness in interactions, says Kanwal.  “When I dissect the responses of members over time, it’s evident how their mindsets (as well as my own!) have evolved. In a patriarchal society like Pakistan, years of conditioning and problematic thinking patterns can never change overnight. But over time, they can, especially through the power of storytelling,” she adds.

The success story of most of these online communities follow a familiar trajectory — short chats leading to longer posts, deep dialogues around a critical topic and finally offline meetups.

Status Single, Soul Sisters and That Dubai Girl are unanimous that in-person meetings, fuelled by shared online interests and views, have strengthened their bondings. “Members have become friends through posts on the group. Two persons converse in the comments section about agreeing on a perspective and the next thing you know; they’ll take it to DMs and be figuring out where to meet!” says Kanwal.

Status Single, similarly, has evolved to more personalised WhatsApp groups and regular offline meets, centred around specific themes. “No one is a stranger in these interconnected times. What resonates with us is our shared experiences and emotions, and social media communities work as a collective of shared experiences,” says Sreemoyee.

Role of algorithms

Stimulating conversations and meetings aside, there is another reason why such groups are becoming increasingly popular — algorithms! From the digital marketing perspective, social media groups, especially in the UAE, have high engagement.

Briar Prestidge, the founder of Prestidge Group, a personal branding and corporate PR agency, notes that compared to other countries, the UAE market is largely built on reputation and referrals. “This means that lots of people ask for recommendations in these groups, and when you reply and share advice, you make new relationships, build trust and brand awareness and, more significantly, your personal brand. People get curious about who you are and what you do,” she says.

Briar believes it can be useful to hear other people’s ideas around situations but cautions against using groups as a personal branding tool. “Engage, give back and share your opinion. When people see that you are someone who gives back, they will likely do the same for you,” she advises.

But why go online for help?

The more engagement a group gets, the more comfortable users find it to shed their inhibitions. The anonymous post option has also played a role in making people less coy about revealing their deepest vulnerabilities. And that leads us to some key questions: Why would you chat with unknown people on a social media group instead of seeking professional advice or approaching friends or family? To what extent would you reveal your problems? What details are you willing to share and what would you hide? And more importantly, are social media groups the new family?

The answers, according to Mary Grothe, Chief Executive Officer (CEO), House of Revenue and a mental health expert, lie in the hesitation that many people still experience when it comes to taking professional help. For such individuals, hiding behind the barrier of a profile or an avatar where they can be vulnerable yet remain anonymous, aids their self-expression. “It can get hard to be candid when sitting across from a stranger and knowing everything they say will be scrutinised. So, they seek advice and comfort in online groups that are willing to dispense advice,” she says.

The flip side is that the person giving advice does so from h/her own individual perspective. “So, while it may be somewhat helpful, it’s never tailored to the unique needs of the person needing help,” adds Mary.

A lot depends on the nature of the group and the comfort level it evokes, feels Natasha Hatherall-Shawe, Founder-CEO, TishTash PR and marketing agency, and an avid social media user. Natasha is part of 50 social media groups, primarily for business but on the personal front, she believes it is good to come clean and share a relatable experience with someone facing a dilemma. “Sometimes you do get great unbiased advice from strangers. I totally understand why people share and ask,” she says.

Natasha’s own experience in this regard has been largely positive. A firm believer in keeping it real and transparent on social media, she found great support with an in vitro fertilisation (IVF) community in the UAE when she had to navigate a tricky time in that realm. “Having a group of people on the same journey is helpful. It also saved me from calling my IVF doctor 18 times a day!” she says. “It’s better for someone to ask for support and advice than to suffer in silence or worse.”

Keeping it safe

However, it takes a lot of effort and careful moderation to ensure that these lofty ideals are met. Sreemoyee admits that there have been occasional spats and instances where members, who didn’t align with the inclusive values of her group, had to be left out. Often, chapter leads must guide users on what to post and what not.

Smita Maitra, a schoolteacher and head of the Kolkata chapter of Status Single, says guidelines are strictly implemented. “On our WhatsApp group, we advise women against over-sharing especially on matters that are sub-judice or too intimate or confidential,” she says.

Kanwal chips in to say that peace in Soul Sisters is maintained because discussions around contentious topics — religion or politics — are kept away.

The other big problem relates to predators and hackers as well as potential employers taking advantage of information shared by enthusiastic users. “My first tip would be to contact the person who is over-sharing and let him or her know your concerns,” advises Mary. “If sending a private message isn’t appropriate, contact the group moderator and express your concerns there.”

The male gaze

Interestingly, all these fears are expressed by women in women’s groups. When it comes to men, the thought process appears to be completely different. During my incessant scrolling, another inference was that men seldom make emotional relationship posts or seek advice on confidential matters — majority of them are happy dissecting TV shows, flaunting fitness tips or discussing aggressive politics.

While there might be communities that encourage them to voice their personal problems, the conversations are not usually as intimate as seen in women’s groups. Srini Kotamarthy, part of an admin team for an FB community on movies, has his own take on this discernible trend.

“I think men are largely interested in social or hobby groups and most find it awkward to seek personal advice on a social media page. I wonder why anyone would turn to an online community for advice,” he says.

“My male friends and I share relationship issues only after the resolution of the problem, not during or before. For example, I’d know about a commitment, break-up or a divorce from a male friend in person after a month of the event. Err… it’s not the same with my female friends,” he chuckles.

With women, it’s all about the kind words and support they receive. Rachelle sums it up succinctly: “At the end of the day, we all make our own choices. But showing kindness and practising empathy towards someone having a bad day never hurt anybody. Just for that I appreciate these groups for offering a sense of community.”

Sounds like a good enough reason to sign up!

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