Online conversations about Paganism and various paths have great things to offer, but they can sometimes also be frustrating or baffling. To get the most out of your online experience, think about the following questions to help you find the best online spaces.
Is online right for you?
Some people (me!) do great online. Others find it frustrating and painful. You can learn a lot in online discussions (as opposed to web searches, etc.) if you are willing to:
Spend regular time online.
If you’re on for 20 minutes once a week, you’ll probably find it frustrating to try and keep up with conversations on a busy list or forum. A little bit most days is common, but other options work as well.
It’s fine to ask questions – but listen, as well. Look at how people answer questions, and read the answers to other people’s questions. You can often learn a great deal without posting yourself.
Read and follow the rules.
Rules in healthy communities are practical, and are designed to help people participate easily and avoid previous problems. Different forums have different guidelines for quoting, for responding to multiple posts in a thread, or for using non-netspeak language.
Learn about a new community.
Every email list, forum, group, and discussion site has its own culture. Be ready to learn about it, and what makes it special. Not every community will be the right (or most useful) place for you.
A lot of online conversation is asynchronous: you post something, and other people respond when they get a chance. That might be a day or longer. Consider all the responses you get to a question, not just the first ones.
You need to be willing and able to look at what you’re reading, and decide if it’s important and accurate. (Information you don’t like may still be right!)
Your beliefs and thoughts will sometimes be challenged by other people. Online discussion may not be a good fit for you if you have trouble when people disagree with you in writing.
Do you use a mobile device for most of your online time?
You may also find that some sites are harder to use that way. For example, some sites tend towards longer posts, which may be hard to read or reply to from a phone or mobile tool. Others may have a layout that’s hard to work with.
Be aware of the limits of the tool.
Different online tools encourage different kinds of conversations. Facebook or Twitter can be great for quick bites of information, but the limits of the way they’re designed make it harder to have (or come back to) in depth conversations over a period of time – or to find that great comment you remember seeing a month ago, but it’s more relevant to you now.
Email groups and web-based forums are older technology (and not always as mobile friendly) but they often have advantages for long-term conversation and learning, just because you can more easily bookmark or save information, return to it multiple times, or the responses can be longer or more involved.
What to look for
Look for a forum with at least 10-15 content-filled posts (i.e. not just social chit-chat) most days. This is enough to keep discussion going. If you have limited time, look for forums with a manageable number of posts in the time you have.
Range of members:
Look for somewhere that is friendly and open to new folks, but that has a solid core of people with more experience and knowledge. A forum that’s only new folks can have poor information. You’ll also learn a lot over time if you read what people at different stages of a path focus on.
Consider subscribing to multiple groups that talk about the path you’re interested in. You’ll get different perspectives and ideas.
Sounds weird, but successful online communities have expectations and guidelines for the people there that help encourage discussion. You may find some places more comfortable for you than others.
What’s good about online conversations?
There are a lot of fantastic benefits to online conversations. You can learn from people all over the country and world, make ongoing connections, and find a lot of information that isn’t available in books.
You can participate when you have time. They’re great if you have a busy schedule or lots of family commitments.
You have time to think about what you want to say, and time to think about other people’s comments. Use this to your advantage.
I really benefit from seeing both how other people approach things – and how they talk about the process.
Decide your own focus:
You can read about what interests you, and ignore the rest or come back to it later. (Handy when you’re busy, or still learning.)
You can get a sense of regularly seen practices and approaches. This can help you avoid problems (or situations like abusive groups or teachers) and it helps you get an idea of what to expect if you look for a group that meets in person.
Bad points about online interaction
Online interaction isn’t for everyone. And even if some online settings work well for you, others may be frustrating or upsetting.
Who knows what they’re talking about?
It can be hard to tell which lists will be helpful to you. This is especially true if you don’t know how to sort out reliable information from poor information.
Sitting in front of the screen:
If you don’t like spending time online, or read more slowly, it can be hard to keep up with more active lists. This can get frustrating.
Ouch, that hurts!
Lists have different styles. Some lists that are fantastic resources can require a thick skin because they’re focused on providing excellent material. (So, if you say something that’s poorly thought through, someone will tell you. )
Not my style:
You may just not be a good fit for the style of some lists. I write long posts: I have a really hard time in places where 2-4 sentence replies are normal.
People aren’t born knowing how to communicate clearly online. Accept that there may be some rough spots as you learn or enter new spaces.
It can be hard to learn to step away from the computer. Some people invest vast amounts of their free time and life in their online communities, hurting their real life relationships. That’s not good. Find a comfortable medium for you.
We’re not mind readers:
People online have only what you say to go by. Don’t expect them to read your mind. If something upset you, or you get a very different kind of response than you were expecting, ask questions. Did they mean that? If you’re confused, no one will know if you don’t speak up.
Basic courtesy goes a long way. You don’t need to be over the top, but a “Thank you” for helpful information always makes my day.
If something online upsets you, wait. Don’t reply. Go do something else for a bit. Have a cup of tea, take a walk, pet your dog or cat, listen to some music. Even sleep on it.
If you find something confusing or upsetting, ask questions about it. Did the person mean this sentence that way? Often, they didn’t. (Some people want to try and upset you, but chances are, on most Pagan forums, most people really didn’t mean to.)
Remember that anything you put online may be read by others. Many people in the Pagan community use an online name and email address that’s different from their legal name. This helps make sure that co-workers, family who don’t know, etc. won’t stumble across your religious beliefs accidentally. Be sure you also avoid posting things like your street address or other identifying information.
There’s lots of information available about online privacy: you may want to check your local library for help if you don’t know much about this topic.
There are some things you should be cautious of.
Some forums forbid sharing links in discussion. There are sometimes good reasons for this, but in most Pagan discussions, it will likely limit ways you can learn and check on information.
Places focused on a single tradition:
These are great resources, but when you’re first learning, it’s often good to get a broader perspective. Spend time in some more general forums, as well.
There are many excellent free discussion forums and lists. While you may decide that it’s worth paying (such as online schools), you have lots of other options. Check out any place that wants you to pay in other sources: what do they provide that’s special, unusual, or especially helpful to you?
You don’t need to figure this all out at once: it’s fine to stick a toe in, try things out, and take your time. Don’t panic, and remember that you can decide when and how you interact.
If you get frustrated, look for knowledgeable people who seem open to helping out and ask if they can explain something to you. Many people (especially on beginner friendly spaces) find this enjoyable, and are glad to help.
[last edited December 23, 2016]