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How To Foster IRL Community In The Digital Age

February 21st, 2024 | 5 min. read

By Ian Harber

how-to-foster-irl-community-in-the-digital-age

One of the best things I’ve done over the last year is create a Discord server. Let me explain.

There are two realities that I’ve been thinking about a lot in the past few years. The first is our increasingly analog-digital hybrid lives. Nearly everyone I know spends eight or more hours working behind a computer all day, and everyone I know has their smartphone on them all the time. But not everyone has retreated from the real world entirely. My friends and I see each other at church, many people are in some sort of small group, and we’ll have each other over for dinner or find other ways to hang out with each other.

But that hybrid of analog and digital is the point. We still have our phones on us after we leave each other’s presence. Obviously. This is nothing groundbreaking. We text our friends and family all the time. Tell me something I don’t know, Harber.

Okay, hang with me.

The second reality I’ve been thinking about is the male loneliness epidemic. It’s sort of an open secret that men, in general, aren’t doing great right now. According to one study, in 2021, 15 percent of men said that they don’t have a single close friend. In 1990, that was only 3 percent. Men’s friendships are in steep decline. There are several reasons for that, one of which is the rise of remote work, which means office friendships are much more difficult to cultivate.

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Remote work is great. I benefit from it myself. But it’s far too easy to become entirely isolated when you work remotely if you don’t go out of your way to cultivate relationships outside of work. But when work takes up 40 or more hours per week, and then you add family responsibilities on top of that, it becomes incredibly difficult for men to form meaningful relationships that are essential for their health—mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

The early promise of social media was to connect us to each other on the internet. But social media’s public nature and the profit motive for the companies incentivized us all to become either lurkers or performers. Social media has detracted from our IRL relationships and made them worse, not better.

So, my thought was this: What if it was possible to utilize the digital side of our hybrid lives to enhance—not replace—the analog side of our relationships? Is it possible to foster meaningful relationships in a community—not just one-on-one friendships—using technology? After a little research, I decided I was going to make a Discord server and invite my friends to it. Not my online friendships that I’ve developed over the years (I love y’all too!), but my actual friends who I know, flesh-and-blood, and who live relatively close to me.

I downloaded the app, set it up, gave it a name, created an AI icon for it, and then sent invite links to about a dozen friends that I knew I wanted on there. I told them my vision for it and emphasized two things:

    1. This is not my server; this is our server. Take ownership. Make it your own. Talk to each other. You don’t need me. I made one of my friends an admin with me to make structural changes without my permission, and he made it so much better than what I had originally had in mind.
    2. You can invite other people into the server as long as you actually know them in person and they live in the area. Everyone doesn’t have to know everyone else, but there has to be only one degree of separation. In that way, it forms a true network. There is no algorithmic middleman. It creates an automatic vetting system that organically increases trust in the community. “I don’t know X, but if Y knows X, then they must be great because Y is great.”

After that, I went to work setting up the channels. And I made channels for almost everything. The idea wasn’t to contain conversations to any one channel but to give them containers where people could talk about different things simultaneously. If half the people were talking about movies and the other half were talking about finances, and it was all in the same feed, it’d be nearly impossible to keep up with and would disincentivize people from participating. But if every conversation could find its place somewhere, then multiple conversations could happen at once without creating interference. People could pick and choose what they wanted to be the most active in based on their interests. That way, virtually no one would feel left out.

Here are some of the channels in the Discord:

  • Introductions
  • The Fireside (general chat)

Life

  • Home
  • Family
  • Work
  • Finances
  • Faith
  • Funny
  • Health and Fitness

Media

  • Tech
  • Music
  • Books
  • TV
  • Movies
  • Podcasts

Fun

  • Hobbies
  • Food and Drink
  • Games
  • Sports

Local

  • Meet Up
  • Church (a private group for those of us who go to the same church)

Does all of this sound relatively simple? Yes, it does. Start a Discord server and invite some friends. Done. Yet it feels nearly impossible to overstate the sharp quality-of-life improvement it has fostered. The server has stayed incredibly active every day for nearly a full year now.

Guys who barely knew each other before have become great friends. Some guys who were separated by that one degree of separation have finally met and hit it off, realizing they really did have a new friend in each other. When we see each other, we have conversations to pick up right where we left off. We know what is happening in each other's lives. When something good happens to someone, we celebrate. When someone is struggling and needs prayer, we comfort each other. We chat about the games we’re playing, the movies we’re watching, and the books we’re reading. We chat about technology, real estate, and budgeting apps. We share pictures of our kids, ask for parenting help, and show off the newest home project. We’ve gone bowling to celebrate birthdays (I dominated — sorry, guys), helped one guy move into town, set up meal trains for new babies, and started book clubs. We’ve stepped on each other’s toes and texted each other that we’re sorry… and then just kept going, just like a real relationship.

I say all of this to say: we did it. I truly feel like we cracked some kind of code. For the first time ever, I feel like I’m using technology to genuinely enhance real-life community in a way that is noticeably and qualitatively better. No performances, no lurking, no follower counts or view counts, no fear of being canceled for saying the wrong thing or having the wrong opinion. Just a bunch of guys who actually know each other and care about each other in a glorified chat room who are actually (God help me, I’m going to say it) doing life together (ugh, I hate that phrase, but it actually fits here).

My hope in writing this is that you find this encouraging. That you are able to identify a handful of guys that you think, “I bet we’d be pretty good friends if we could just have more time to talk to each other,” and then set up a Discord and invite them in. Move it to the home screen of your phone. Enable notifications for the channels you care about and mute notifications for the ones you don’t. Make it about the group, not you. Get the conversation started, and then just see what happens.

What’s cool is that, almost a year later, guys are still being added. Word keeps getting around, person to person, and the community keeps growing. A guy will jump in, and I’ll think, “No way! He’s here? I’ve been wanting to get to know him. I’m so glad we can talk here.”

I’ve never felt more connected to my immediate community, and it’s in large part because of this Discord server and the actual IRL relationships that it’s fostered. In my mind, if it’s possible to redeem our digital Babylon, this is one of the most redeeming things you can do.

Ian Harber

Ian is a marketing manager at Endeavor and is a digital marketing practitioner with 10 years of experience. He has written about faith and technology, deconstruction and reconstruction for The Gospel Coalition and Mere Orthodoxy as well as appearing on podcasts such as Reconstructing Faith, The Alisa Childers Podcast, Love Thy Neighborhood, The Living Room Disciple, Everything Just Changed, and more. Additionally, Ian has contributed to the book, Before You Lose Your Faith: Deconstructing Doubt in the Church (TGC, 2021) and is the author of an upcoming a forthcoming book about deconstruction with InterVarsity Press (2024). Ian lives in Denton, Texas with his wife, Katie, and son, Ezra and is a member at The Village Church Denton.

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