The role of the offline world in online communities

You are walking across campus and you hear that familiar ding on your phone. It is your friend asking if you want to get lunch together after class. You swipe the notification and reply. After class, you meet up with your friend for lunch and have a good catch up. During that time, you and your friend continuously glance at your phones to check if you have received any social media notifications. Whilst you are actively participating in the offline world, you are still passively participating in the online world due to your social media presence.

Image Source: Connecting the offline and the online

We have this preconceived notion that online communities only involve online interaction. However, there appears to be an increasing amount of overlap between our online and offline worlds which makes it difficult to separate them. The rise of social media has changed our concept of communities, whilst the overlaps between our online and offline worlds have transformed the ways in which we interact within these communities.

What is a community?

Before the internet, the concept of communities was geographically based. In essence, a community was a group of people who lived in the same location, and experienced similar social and cultural contexts (Wellman & Gulia, 1999). Imagine a small isolated town where everyone knew everything about everyone else. The introduction of the internet, and social networking sites, has created a new platform of social interaction with extended reach that is not limited by time or space (boyd, 2012; Hinton & Hjorth, 2013). It has transformed our concept of communities to include groups of people who share a common interest, rather than purely a common geographic location or cultural context (boyd, 2012; Hinton & Hjorth, 2013; Wellman & Gulia, 1999).

Virtual communities

Forums and Facebook pages discussing specific interests, like Cosplay, or goals, like weight loss goals and techniques, are examples of virtual communities. These are groups of people who interact on social media to form an online community of like-minded individuals (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013). These communities are formed online prior to face-to-face communication with community members, and members can be widely dispersed across time and space (Shen & Cage, 2015). The formation of virtual communities was first criticised, presenting a stereotypical image of a computer nerd isolating themselves from face-to-face interaction (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013; Wellman & Gulia, 1999). Through the introduction of social networking sites, and the continued evolution and acceptability of the internet, the depiction of virtual community members has transformed. Virtual communities are now more commonly viewed as a new platform for social interaction of shared interests that is readily available and accessible to members (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013).

Others… saw potential in these online environments to create new kinds of communities that could reinvigorate public discussion and debate.” (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013, p. 36)

As discussed in Michael Poh’s blog post, the use of the internet for communication among virtual communities should not be seen as a replacement of face-to-face communication. Rather, it should be seen as a complement to face-to-face communication to strengthen both the offline and online relationships members have with one another.

Virtual communities have seen an increasing trend to create offline meet ups among group members. This involves organising a pre-planned location and activity (Sessions, 2010; Shen & Cage, 2015). After these meet ups, attendees usually become more active within their virtual community, particularly with other members they met and interacted with face-to-face (Shen & Cage, 2015).

Image source: Supernatural episode where an online community participated in offline live action role-playing

Kayla Itsines (personal fitness trainer) for example, formed her own virtual community of young females who are interested in becoming physically active and achieving a bikini body.  This community communicates across various social media platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram, through comments and the use of hashtags such as #sweatwithkayla, #kaylasarmy and #thekaylamovement. The community is primarily focused with online interaction as members are dispersed throughout Australia and extend to international locations. However, bonds have been strengthened through offline meet ups which involve workout sessions run by Kayla. Community members are given the opportunity to meet each other, and Kayla, which appears to increase their involvement within the virtual community as they post about their experiences.

Image source: Kayla Itsines boot camp

Luciani (2015) discussed a similar concept in the physical activity intervention, Move U. Here, online engagement was seen to increase when offline interventions were also present.

Networked communities

Unlike virtual communities, networked communities are formed online after face-to-face interaction (Shen & Cage, 2010). These communities are usually geographically-based and use social media to continue and facilitate face-to-face interaction (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013; Luciani, 2015). Similarly to virtual communities, members participate and engage more in the online sphere when their offline connections and ties with community members are strong (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013; Sessions, 2010).

The interaction and overlap between the online and offline world strengthens the social capital of the relationships formed in online communities. As Shen and Cage (2015) suggest, social capital includes the benefits and resources one gains from their relationships with others. Social capital can be placed into two categories: bridging and bonding. Bridging social capital is seen as the initial connection and communication pathway, whilst bonding social capital is the strengthening of the relationship. As we can see, the offline world plays a significant role in strengthening the bond between members of virtual and networked communities in the online world (Hinton & Hjorth, 2013; Sessions, 2010; Shen & Cage, 2015). This challenges preconceived notions that on-line communities are limited to online interaction.

As Rechelle Balanzat (CEO and Founder of Juliette) explains in the video below, people want the convenience of technology in communication, but also the familiarity of face-to-face interaction. In this case – face-to-face customer service.

Online communities and Girls of the Hills

My campaign, Girls of the Hills, used social media to share knowledge and encourage young adult females of the Hills District area to increase their physical activity. It attempted to create a networked community of females based on their geographic location (the Hills District) and their pre-existing networks within this location. It also adopted the concept of offline meet ups that are now often conducted by virtual communities (Sessions, 2010; Shen & Cage, 2015). Whilst the campaign was fictional, posts were created which provided the time and location of weekend workout sessions throughout the Hills District. Photographs were also posted across the social media platforms with captions that motivated the community and thanked attendees.

Offline engagement Facebook post
Offline engagement Instagram post

Previous physical activity interventions and campaigns using social media have found that participants feel an increased sense of encouragement and social support, which is a known determinant for physical activity (Cavello et al., 2012; Luciani, 2015; Wójcicki, 2013). Whilst there are benefits in using social media to create online communities in physical activity interventions, Wójcicki (2013) highlights the continued importance of face-to-face interventions. As previously discussed, the use of online and offline components in physical activity interventions and campaigns can increase engagement in online communities (Luciani, 2015).

Girls of the Hills contributes to the understanding and importance of using offline and online forms of communication in virtual and networked communities. Whilst a shared interest, culture, or social phenomenon can bring an online community together, members may abandon the community when they become bored or disengaged with the content or other members (Sessions, 2010). As Sessions (2010) explains, the use of multiple mediums of communication within online communities strengthens members’ ties to the community, and their engagement. It also reduces the likelihood that they will abandon the community. Offline meet ups are viewed as one medium which can strengthen online communities and their connection to members (Sessions, 2010). Meeting other members face-to-face can strengthen ties through body language, which online is presented with emojis (Poh, 2013).

The campaign also contributes to the development of online interventions and campaigns that aim to promote physical activity in young females, which is a developing area in the health field. Social Cognitive Theory focuses on learning that develops in one’s social context, which can be a significant motivator for physical activity (Bandura, 2001). Hence, establishing a networked community draws on this concept of Social Cognitive Theory in order to create a campaign that the audience can actively engage in within their online and offline world.


Bandura, A. (2001). Social cognitive theory: An agentic perspective. Annual Review of Psychology, 1, 1-3. Retrieved from: http://go.galegroup.com.ezproxy1.library.usyd.edu.au/ps/pdfGenerator?actionCmd=DO_DOWNLOAD_DOCUMENT&inPS=true&prodId=EAIM&userGroupName=usyd&tabID=&docId=GALE|A73232700

boyd, d. (2012). Participating in the always-on lifestyle. In M. Mandiberg (Ed.), The Social Media Reader (pp. 71-76). New York: New York University Press.

Cavello, D.N., Tate, D.F., Ries, A.V., Brown, J.D., DeVellis, R.F., & Ammerman, A.S. (2012). A social-media-based physical activity intervention: A randomised control trial. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 43(5), 527-532. Doi: 10.1016/j.amepre.2012.07.019.

Hinton, S., & Hjorth, L. (2013). Understanding social media(1st ed.). London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Luciani, A.M.T. (2015). The use of social media in a physical activity campaign: Move U (Masters thesis. University of Toronto, Canada). Retrieved from: http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy1.library.usyd.edu.au/docview/1728159054?pq-origsite=summon

Poh, M. (2013, March 14). Social lives online versus offline: Finding the right balance [Web blog post]. Retrieved from: http://www.hongkiat.com/blog/online-vs-offline-social-life/#comment-828041837

Sessions, L.F. (2010). How offline gatherings affect online communities. Information, Communication & Society, 13(3), 375-395. Doi: 10.1080/13691180903468954.

Shen, C., & Cage, C. (2015). Exodus to the real world? Assessing the impact of offline meetups on community participation and social capital. New Media & Society, 17(3), 394-414. Doi: 10.1177/1461444813504275.

Wellman, B., & Gulia, M. (1999). Virtual communities as communities: Net surfers don’t ride alone. In M. Smith, & P. Kollock (eds), Community in cyberspace (pp. 167-194). London: Routledge.

Wójcicki, T.R. (2013). A social cognitive approach to influencing adolescent physical activity behaviour via social media (Doctoral dissertation. University of Illinois, United States of America). Retrieved from: http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy1.library.usyd.edu.au/docview/1518142137?pq-origsite=summon

By Courtney West



One thought on “The role of the offline world in online communities

  1. The author used a vivid scene of individuals’ normal life as the beginning to present how does the emergence of online world changed the previous concept of community, then introduced the conceptions of virtual communities and networked communities. The difference between the two communities is that virtual communities are initiated online then developed to offline interactions, while networked communities are in the opposite order. The author suggested that the new forms of virtual communities & networked communities can enlarge range of individuals’ social activities, it made interpersonal communication unconstrained by territory. However, the author emphasized that online interaction cannot be a substitution of offline communication, but should be a tool to enhance the connection between online & offline relationships. The author used images of two offline activities which are organized online, to show the connection between them.
    The author claimed that her campaign has used both conceptions of virtual communities and networked communities. She used images of her social platforms to show how the conceptions worked in real activities. Also, she detailed explain the benefits of using social platforms to generalize audience as well as how the campaign has contributed to these conceptions.
    It is a very useful article, throughout both theories and convinced evidence, I have leant more about SNS and its valuable impact in contemporary world.


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