Creating Safe Spaces within Your Online Community
The concept of creating safe spaces has existed in our society for over half a century and is even now an integral part of many college campuses.
At Panion, we believe that safe spaces also need to be created within our virtual worlds, but creating a feeling of safety online does need to be approached in a somewhat different manner.
We have put together this guide on creating a safe online space to help you figure out how you can create a nurturing and supportive environment inside your online community.
What are Safe Spaces, and Where did the Concept Originate?
The idea of “safe spaces” originated from the LGBTQ community in the middle of the 1960s. At this time, safe spaces were physical spaces, like a bar, where people could go without the fear of judgment.
Later on, many college campuses adopted the idea and began to build safe spaces for vulnerable students, usually from historically marginalized groups. These were designed to be open and accepting communities where students could speak their minds without fear of discrimination.
As we move forward into a more digitally forward society, safe spaces are more commonly found online, giving everyone with internet access a chance to find their place of comfort.
In the same respect that physical safe space should be a psychologically sound environment for all people involved, a safe space online should also foster a positive emotional environment underpinned by mutual respect, inclusivity, open-mindedness, and supportive attitudes.
Why is it Important to have Safe Spaces in Online Communities?
All safe spaces have the same purpose: to provide a space of comfort for those who often face discrimination in society, and this doesn’t change when we create them in the digital world. In fact, some argue that building safe spaces online provides even more accessibility to marginalized communities across the world.
Let’s take a look at just a few of the reasons why it’s important to create a safe space in your online community.
1. Safe spaces support vulnerable people
We, unfortunately, live in a world where not all people are accepting of different lifestyles, backgrounds, and experiences, and marginalized communities often face the brunt of this discrimination.
In everyday life, vulnerable members of society can face judgment within their own communities and find it difficult to find a space where they are free from unsolicited opinions and/or discrimination. This could include individuals from the LGBTQ community, various ethnic groups, or even those who face mental or physical limitations.
2. Safe spaces can improve mental health and promote self-care
Feeling unaccepted and without a place in society can take a huge toll on your mental and emotional health. Having a support group in place to reach out to, such as an online community of people that your trust, can be a huge help in creating a sense of safety.
When an individual’s mental health begins to decline it can lead to avoidance behaviors and social isolation. An online community offers a healthy alternative to this, giving members the chance to connect with others who may have had similar experiences, to realize that they are not alone in this, and to openly express their feelings.
3. Safe spaces help individuals build resilience and confidence
When individuals become part of a safe space and trust the members within, they begin to develop a sense of belonging and emotional security. Rather than completely shielding individuals from the adverse effects of society, safe spaces can help individuals build the strength and confidence needed to confront discrimination and isolation in a supportive environment and allow them the opportunity to engage as their authentic selves.
8 Ways to Create Safe Spaces in Your Online Community
To successfully build a safe space within your online community, you need to make sure members can trust your organization, the platform on which you’re hosting your community, and the members they will be engaging with.
Here are a few tips for creating safe spaces online that actually work:
1. Ask your community what they need
Communities are built for their members, so it’s always necessary to gather feedback to guide your strategy. If you’re considering creating a safe space within an established community, ask your members where their challenges are, what they’d like to see differently, and what features they think would contribute to creating a more trustworthy environment.
2. Make sure you respect your members’ privacy
One of the most critical first steps of creating a safe space is ensuring you’re inviting members to a community hosted on a trustworthy platform, one that respects your members’ privacy and their data.
We’ve recently explored some of the reasons to look at alternatives to Facebook and WhatsApp for your online community and have looked at the repercussions of engaging on platforms that sell user data and promote advertising.
3. Create small groups within large online communities
Intimate groups are much more effective at creating a safe environment compared to one large online community. By creating smaller groups within your larger community, you can create a more intimate and/or localized environment, which can be a much easier space for members to express their views openly and build up trust with others.
4. Write clear community guidelines and regularly enforce them
While you may already have clear guidelines for your community, it’s worth reinforcing these rules on a regular basis. By clearly explaining the expected behavior of a safe space, and enforcing it, you can recognize those who do not contribute to the safety of your space, thereby ensuring you can moderate appropriately.
Community Managers may choose to outline the type of language that should be used, demonstrate the tone of voice, and even provide a quick tutorial on how body language can help convey a space of open communication.
5. Welcome opinions and embrace inclusivity
Openness and acceptance are two key pillars when it comes to creating a safe space online. Leading by example is the perfect way to ensure that members of your safe space remain respectful and accepting of others’ opinions and differences.
Check out this interview with Justin Thomas about inspiring diverse and inclusive communities. It all starts with fostering a positive environment that is mutually respectful and positively encouraging.
However, true inclusivity goes beyond simple acceptance. For example, when sharing certain types of content, it may be important to provide trigger warnings or avoid making assumptions about the gender or identity of someone in a photograph.
Another way to promote openness within your community is to communicate the purpose of the community to your members regularly. Remind them of the reasons why the community was created and why it’s important to have a safe space of this kind within your online community.
6. Make your safe space accessible
We all take in information in different ways. Some of us prefer reading text, while others connect more easily with a video. In this way, it’s important to make the content in your safe space accessible to all types of learners and viewers so as to not unintentionally leave somebody out.
It’s also important to ensure your content is accessible to those with disabilities by using subtitles on videos, or considering text size, contrast, or length of texts, by incorporating useful graphics.
7. Build trust amongst your members
Communities are organic beings and difficult to run as a solo community manager. People often feel safe in spaces where they feel they are surrounded by people they trust and when simultaneously they feel trusted by others.
Give your members the possibility to take leadership inside your community, let them experiment, let them know it’s safe to try and fail. When you assign additional responsibilities to those who show commitment to maintaining a safe communal space, it signals to your members that loyalty and trust are valued, and it encourages everyone to nurture the community and its members in their own way.
8. Stay open to change and be ready to adapt
Creating a safe space isn’t always an easy task. It takes time, sensitivity, and an open mind to create a space where members truly feel like they can be themselves.As well as being open and inclusive towards members, it’s critical to welcome feedback and implement ideas that could make your community even safer. It’s important to continuously monitor your community and reevaluate how it feels for your members on a regular basis.
Our Final Thoughts on Safe Spaces in Online Communities
Safe spaces online provide an outlet for those who feel isolated or unheard, which can positively impact a person’s mental health and overall well-being. As we continue to move into the digital era, yet away from mainstream social media platforms, more of us are turning to online communities to build valuable connections that bring meaning to our lives.
By creating more supportive and safe online networks, we can create more mentally healthy, inclusive, and accepting societies. Panion’s empathy-driven community management platform includes features that facilitate the creation of safe and inclusive online spaces, like creating intimate groups within a larger global community, giving Community Managers 100% ownership over their community data, and forever remaining ad-free, privacy-first space that prioritizes its members.