Support Groups: Part II (Online Support Groups)
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Support Groups: Part III: Creating your own online group.

If you can't find a support group that meets your needs and in which you feel safe, you can create an online discussion group. You can create such a group with the tools provided online by a number of companies that provide online services. Companies such as Yahoo!, Typepad, Google (Blogger), Wordpress and others.

While blogs such as this public Typepad blog that you are reading now can be set up for one person to be the only author, they can be set up also as private password protected collaborative blogs with multiple authors. Typepad, Blogger, and Wordpress offer templates to choose from to design your blog. The charge to have a Typepad blog starts at $49.50 per year but it would be more to have the type of blog where multiple authors are allowed. Blogger and Wordpress are free. Setting up a Yahoo! Group is free.

Yahoo! Groups are easy to set up, and offer a very convenient freeflowing way to have an online conversation with a group of people. I find their Groups to have a more natural way to have an online conversation than most blogs offer. Occasionally Yahoo! has days where service is buggy and things don't work right but most of the time everything goes along without a hitch. Any of these internet providers can have days like that.

When you set a group up, don't choose a setting to have it included in searches or directories. If you choose to make it private, nothing that is in the posts should turn up in internet searches but still, to be extra private, don't choose the settings for it to be included in internet searches.

All of the internet companies mentioned above allow the upload and storage of images for photo albums or  custom headers or for insertion in blog posts. All offer the ability to have a collection of links that relate to the topic of discussion in a sidebar or other location. Membership to your discussion will be by invitation. You control who is invited. Members will need to choose and remember their user name and password and have a basic understanding of how to find the group, sign in, and write a post. Sometimes you will need to help those who don't know their way around the internet and how to do things.

You become the moderator and owner of the blog or group. Some decisions that you would need to make would be how large the group should be. Smaller is better because you will be able to know each other and remember each other's details better. Even with a small group, it can be a challenge to remember each other's story. Some stories may have similarities which makes it hard to keep the stories all separate.

Other decisions that you'll make relate to the design of the home page. What images, if any, do you want to be on the home page? Do you know how to add images to pages? You may choose the images that come with the templates offered or you may upload and use images that are more evocative of the subject matter to be discussed. If you choose the templates as they are offered without customization because you don't know how to create and add the images, there may be a future time when you learn how to add images. Nothing is cast in stone. You can change things later that you don't know how to change now.

Making a set of topic-related links is useful so that your members always have at hand a ready made online reference library which they can browse at their convenience. Having photo albums is a way for everyone to get acquainted, to put faces with names, and to personalize the discussion. These people aren't just names on the internet. These are people with faces and families and homes and memories. Having photos right there for everyone to see is a reminder of that.

All you need to add to your discussion group are people. How do you add these people? First you need to get out there on the internet and find them. You can find them by participating in other online groups, public and semi-private groups, and getting to know people. Read their posts. Respond. Share the parts of your own story that you feel safe sharing. Be careful with your personal information. Create a user name that does not identify who you are. Use an email address that does not identify you if possible. Although in some groups email addresses are not revealed and that isn't an issue.  Think of being out there on the internet as though you are walking down the street and you are in the midst of strangers, some of whom are fine and wonderful people and some who are pickpockets, thieves, cons, and your neighbor's twelve year old internet savvy brat. Be careful with your private information. Don't give it away to people who may have something other than your best interests in mind.

You may find that in some groups there are people with whom you have more in common, with whom you can empathize. Your gut may tell you what stories ring true as authentic and which are bogus, which people are being real and which are there looking for the limelight or entertainment. Avoid inviting those who appear to be interested only in talking about themselves and who see themselves as the only victims. You will become disenchanted with them in short order. You will not want to be the next person whom they accuse of having disappointed them when you want to remove them from your group. They may well hold you hostage to their sorry tale of woe. Which may be a sorry tale of woe but if they aren't ever interested in anyone else's story besides their own, you will still get tired of it.

In your search for people to invite to your group, keep in mind the risks associated with being online that I mentioned in my earlier post. It is impossible to know with 100% certainty if anyone is absolutely sane and trustworthy. There isn't a 100% way to know that someone doesn't have a very strange bee in their bonnet. So what do you do? You do the best that you can or you don't invite anyone to your group. This kind of risk is not confined to the internet.

Even in our offline lives we take risks when we confide in others including therapists and friends. Eventually we all take some risks, knowing that there is a risk. It is important to know that there is a risk, not go blindly forth in absolute trust that everyone is wonderful. Many people are truly wonderful but it is dangerous to assume that everyone is okay. If you invite people using your best judgment and while listening to what your gut tells you about them, your group will likely be a whole lot safer than the public groups where you found those whom you want to invite. The goal is to create as safe a group as possible, not to create an impenetrable fortress where absolutely nothing can go wrong. That kind of fortress is not possible unless you are the only member of the group and that wouldn't be any kind of a group.

Your goal is to create a group where you and everyone else can feel safe enough to let your hair down, say what you really feel and think, and even use your real name and let people know where you live. And they can tell you the same things and feel okay about it.

If someone that you have invited starts to sound surprisingly hostile to others in the group and it becomes clear that they aren't fitting in, then, for your own safety and that of everyone else in the group, remove them from the group. Unsubscribe them. As soon as possible. Before they even think about copying all of the posts and information on group members and using it to take their revenge on you and others there. Minimize your and everyone else's vulnerability by keeping it a safe place. If someone joins who doesn't fit in and who is hostile, keeping them in the group isn't going to help them or anyone else.

Among the unexpected things that can happen after people join your group is that some may accept your invitation, join, and not ever say another word. They may want to read only which can be okay but doesn't do anything to help the discussion get going.  Then you may have some who talk a LOT. And some people, when you get to know them better, you might wonder if you should have invited them. Like in the rest of life, people don't do what you expect them to do and everyone has an interesting unique personality. Be prepared for surprises.

You need to invite enough people so that a good discussion can get going but not so many that you will lose track of who is in your group. As for privacy, you will need to protect and respect your group members' privacy in the same way that you want your own privacy protected and respected. So you need to be careful when you add new members to the group that they will fit in, that they and the group may benefit from their membership, and that it is a safe place to be, as safe as you can make it. The group itself becomes something that you nurture and protect.

This may sound like a lot of work. It is a lot of work but it is rewarding when you create a group composed of people who become a support system for each other. Friendships develop. Pain is shared. Pain is eased through the sharing. People share their stories and the things that they have learned. Everyone has a common bond. Creating your own support group is a project that has the potential to pay you back with the reward of new friends, emotional support and sustenance that are hard to find elsewhere.

If you form a group and it doesn't work out, try, try again. Don't give up. The first one might not be the right mix of people through no fault of anyone's. One of the unfortunate things about the topic of family estrangement is that people often don't want to talk about it. Even if they accept an invitation to join a support group, they still might not want to talk about it. You can't force anyone to talk that doesn't want to talk and you can't change people if they turn out to be irritating or even a little crazy. So in the process of creating a support network that works for you, there might be some failures along the way. If there are, don't beat yourself or anyone else up for it. Pat yourself on the back for having tried and go forth and try it again. Eventually you might create a really great one that is tailor made for you and your new found friends.

Go forth and create!

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