Being part of a community is crucial to the human experience. Finding and connecting with people who help you feel safe, contribute to your personal growth, and support you as you move through challenges and triumphs is paramount to our mental well being and sometimes too physical well being. This has been important throughout history; but, this particular point in time is unique due to the unprecedented access to the internet and all that comes with it, AI driven social media, and the pace of the 24 hour news cycle. Most of us are trying to find ‘our people’; not merely those who agree with us on all points but humans with whom we share the commonality of our hobbies, our identities, our values. That can look a myriad of ways but what if you want to be the one to create the community? When I started Disturbing the Fleece, I wasn’t focused so much on what it would be but rather, what it wouldn’t be. Let me explain.
One of the driving factors of my moniker and brand name, Disturbing the Fleece, was acknowledging that I stood out in fiber spaces. My look was unique, I was younger than the audiences the industry was catering to, and the most obvious feature? I’m a black woman. Early on, I made the conscious choice for my online presence not to be a tightly curated space, but rather a representation of me as a whole person: sometimes smiling and sometimes not, crushing it at knitting and sometimes not, sometimes girly and, you guessed it, sometimes not, and always a black woman. Studies have shown that for small businesses, using a black model, even just their hands, reduces the dollar amount that auctioned items bring in as well as reducing the frequency of sales. Let’s save that particular conversation for another day. Despite that, when I began my Instagram page, I wanted to make sure that people saw me. It was important to me to show my face so that other folks who shared some of my identities could see themselves and we could build a bridge. I figured it would help people to connect with me and want to consume my art. Well, that part did happen but something else exciting happened: my audience decided that they wanted to help construct the bridge by sharing themselves with me too! As I posted about hard days, people wanted to share their setbacks and words of encouragement too. As I added photos of myself smiling in the sun, people told me that they were living vicariously through me. And, as I honed in on my personal style, people used it as inspiration and as permission to show more of themselves out in the world. It was exciting and miraculous. But as Gwendolyn Brooks wrote, “Do not desire to fit in. Desire to oblige yourselves to lead.”
Let me backup a bit, how did I even get to the point that my social media pages became an actual community? Well, it started simple enough. In my artist bios and ‘About Me’ areas, I explicitly stated that I wanted my patterns created and worn by everyone rather than saying they were for ‘men and women’ which felt pretty limited and not quite right. Eventually the wording evolved to say ‘worn by all genders’ once I became aware of the language to do so. My pronouns are readily found, she/her/hers. And I worked hard to learn and use a person’s correct pronouns and encourage (read: insist) others do too. My own sexuality is a topic which I cover when it feels relevant. When ‘meeting’ new followers, my values are explicitly stated in concert with my design philosophy and favorite color. No one has to go digging to know what I’m about. The audience doesn’t hear this from me solely after something traumatic or violent has happened to a marginalized identity but frequently. I’ll go ahead and take this opportunity to say, trans women are women and that Black lives matter. Now, where were we? When I shared about my family, I spoke proudly about my sons’ love of color, of adornment, of their joy. When feedback was shared, from the audience, that ‘missed the mark’ whether it was inadvertently unkind or ill thought out, I addressed it respectfully and firmly. When I received feedback that it was me who hadn’t met expectations, I listened for understanding and acknowledged my error openly. When choosing how to show up, the goal wasn’t to show that I’m doing it ‘right’. I didn’t set out to teach others what to do or how to be but more, I set out to do *my* best and be an authentic version of myself. With that, showing respect to others and inviting them to be fully seen. To me, it’s on all of us to make a conscious decision to keep learning, to lean into the occasional discomfort of *respectful* discourse and use that as a branch to create connections with other people.
So we arrive at today! And the part about ‘responsibility’. When you invite someone to your home, there is more to it than preparing a tasty meal for them. You have to also be sure that you are making them feel welcome: respecting their food needs, extending the invite to their significant others, perhaps leaving the cat upstairs because your guest is afraid. And they in turn should be open to following the rules of your home: no shoes inside the house, feet allowed on the coffee table (or not), guests don’t do the dishes. It’s a social contract that gives you all the tools of a wonderful dinner party, right? Well, some of those ideas can translate to molding the online community that we want to see and be a part of; we are the hosts and the guests.
- What do you need from your online community? And do they know what to expect from you? Finding those answers requires building trust and being consistent. If you are transparent in your values, up front, it allows others to choose if they actually want to be in your ‘house’. In the comment section, you engage and monitor for respectful interactions and address any harmful activity swiftly and firmly.
- When inviting the community to engage, who are you including and by extension who are you excluding? If the intention is to hear from all members does the question allow for that? For example, if you pose a question and name ‘knitters’ then the question itself excludes crocheters. This is true for most types of identities.
- Are there realistic expectations? By design, not all communities are for *everyone*. There’s room for all of us but it may not be in the same space and that’s okay. An effort to cater to all will lead away from authenticity.
- What happens when you mess up? When the inevitable misstep is taken, it should be addressed. Part of why you’ve taken the time to build trust is so that you can be extended the benefit of good intentions. As with the other interactions, honesty is best. If you’re sorry, say that. There’s plenty of instruction on how to make a good apology and it’s worth it to do so.
So there you have it. Like any relationship, creating the online community you want to see in the world takes work. It can be fun and exciting and scary and still be plenty of work. The goal isn’t to surround ourselves with people who are exactly like us. But instead, to surround ourselves with people who enrich us, who add value to our lives, and who ‘see’ us. My hope is that everyone can find that space and if not, make it for themselves and find a few others to join. See you all out in these Instagram streets.