Growing online communities

ABBIE NAPIER
Last updated 05:00 02/10/2012
Ekant Veer
Fairfax NZ
HEADING ONLINE: Canterbury University senior marketing lecturer Ekant Veer says in the months after the earthquakes many Cantabrians found solace online.

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Life in Christchurch now is a bit harder than it was before the earthquakes and many have turned to the virtual world for solace, advice and support.

Canterbury University senior marketing lecturer Dr Ekant Veer says the virtual world became a source of great support for the real-world community.

In the immediate aftermath, particularly of the February earthquake, there were pressing problems for Cantabrians - finding drinking water, deliveries of port-a-loos, checking on family.

In the following weeks and months, the urgency of the disaster wore off, the panic began to fade and people started to get worn down.

Endless roadworks, longer commutes and increasing numbers of demolitions began to take their toll.

Veer says while people turned to each other for support, they did not turn to their neighbour or their church. As products of the 21st century's reliance on technology, they went online.

"People used to congregate as a community," he says. "But after the earthquake, they were too scared to go out and the buildings they would usually congregate in [town halls, churches etc] were damaged or destroyed."

People stayed in their homes but still wanted current information, conversations with others, and a feeling of belonging despite physical separation.

"What social media is replacing is the idea of pastoral care - the church cannot do that 24-7," he says. "In the later weeks and months post-quake, people turned online to find people who related to them, who they could talk to."

Up sprang a range of community Facebook pages offering support, information, identity and community. Trapped in their own suburbs, afraid to go out, or embarrassed to ask for help, people developed and grew the online communities.

For those feeling isolated, the anonymity of social media allowed them to ask groups like the Student Volunteer Army to help them clear liquefaction from their driveway - a support function previously performed by neighbours or church groups.

Facebook page Sumner Area EQ Info has gathered 990 likes in the last year and posts include everything from traffic reports to community meeting notices.

As time went on, the Sumner real-world community used the page to offer places for rent and advertise struggling local businesses.

The Student Volunteer Army has grown quickly since the media made it globally famous - it now has 27,000 members.

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Despite much of the cleanup being done in the weeks following the quake, its Facebook page still attracts members from around the world and is now being used to promote volunteer work and events like The Concert.

Veer says people going online rather than to a church were not necessarily seeking a spiritual connection. For some, a church provided social contact and a feeling of community far beyond a shared religious belief.

"People wanted to share their stories, and for some they felt more comfortable doing that online with strangers. Of course some people would have shared with close family or friends first, but as time goes on they might turn to others in Christchurch who have the same problems."

As time went on, the problems faced by Cantabrians might have seemed insignificant to the rest of the country. People needed to talk to people who understood what they were going through, Veer says.

Seemingly insignificant problems could be the final straw for someone facing a rates increase or a high power bill.

Online communities were also used to motivate people and mobilise large groups. After the quake it was used to gather an army of silt-movers.

Now, it is being used to kick start real-life protests against zoning decisions and government intervention in the rebuild.

Earlier this month TC3-zoned residents braved extreme weather to make their views known and much of the support generated came from online forums and social media.

Facebook has been particularly popular for businesses to inform the city of their re-opening/relocation/closure. Outdated phone books proved worthless when finding an undamaged chinese takeaway nearby.

The Trade Me community message boards have taken off. A special forum was started after the earthquake for people to share urgent information and that forum is still very active 18 months later.

It began with people wanting drinking water or blankets.

People now ask for help finding relocated shops and ask for advice on legal problems or emergency flood repairs.

However, Veer says for some people, the online communities could be replacing their real interactions.

Increasingly, people rely more on the social media in their lives than their friends and family.

"Some people get to the point where they can't operate without their online identity," he says. "Like going to church, some people can struggle when that central point in their lives is removed."

For most, however, social media will continue to play a supportive role without jeopardising the real world.

- The Press

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