• Online networks can lack empathy which can negatively effect their potential for economic growth and bringing people together.
  • The speed and reach of online communities can also be used to deceive and destabilize communities.
  • To build communities that care online, business leaders must foster community in their organizations – in both analogue and digital ways.

The world is migrating online at a rate of one million people per day. Social networks boast a population of 3.5 billion; last year alone, 288 million people – about the same size as Indonesia – joined in.

Our attention is firmly fixed on the screen in front of us and we spend close to 7 hours per day online. That’s about 100 days per year for every internet user – far more time than many of us dedicate to caring for another, staying fit or household chores.

Networks have an obvious allure: no other medium enables us to connect and communicate with people from around the world so swiftly and seamlessly. They also enable organizations to scale and create value in incredibly efficient ways.

But when it comes to social systems, these networks are no substitute for the neighbourhoods in which we live. It’s not just the power of proximity that binds us together, it’s the sense of responsibility for each other. Put simply: who can you count on to cut your lawn, shovel your sidewalk or bring you chicken soup when you are sick? More often than not, it’s a neighbour from your community, not a connection on from your social accounts.

Empathy matters – it helps create the connections and sense of belonging we all need as humans. Economies cannot grow in sustainable ways without it either. Understanding we are part of something larger than ourselves helps shape a more inclusive, and in turn, prosperous society.

Time per day spent online
Time per day spent online

But the ability to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, listen and understand other perspectives, find common ground and move forward together can be hard to do online. That’s because virtual communities are designed around the interests of the end-user rather than the shared values of a group of people. Professor Henry Mintzberg at the Desautels Faculty of Management of McGill University succinctly summarizes the difference between the two: “Networks connect; communities care.”

This distinction is reinforced in other ways too. Global networks transcend geography, the locality of the end-users doesn’t matter much; the communities we live in transcend time and this requires us to think purposefully about where we have come from and where we are going. In a sense, that’s what citizenship is all about.

The speed and reach of online communities can also be used to deceive and destabilize communities. Lies travel faster than truths on global networks, according to a recent study from MIT, and they also reach more people. A community can fragment into multiple camps as a result and a splintering society is not a sustainable one.

Growth in social media users 2014-2019
Growth in social media users 2014-2019

To be sure, social media has the remarkable power to transmit ideas and images that help our communities prosper. A new generation of digital activists are using these platforms to engage and empower individuals and, in turn, create scale in ways no single community could. Greta Thunberg is using Twitter like my generation used posters and placards. At their very best, social networks embody the ideals of free, open and participatory societies.

Our collective challenge is to harness the power of networks to protect and preserve the spirit of community. In a sense, we need to invert Mintzberg’s observation so that we create caring networks through connected communities.

It’s especially critical now when we must come together with a common purpose to tackle global problems like climate change or seize new opportunities unlocked by the data revolution.

None of this is easy to do. But business leaders can help by fostering community in their organizations – in both analogue and digital ways.

This begins with tying their organization’s purpose to the broader community and dedicating resources and talent to solve society’s challenges. They can also inspire and incent their employees to volunteer, and then recognize and reward their community service.

Helping to prepare youth for the future of work is a central focus for us at the Royal Bank of Canada. Through research, we learned that the overwhelming majority of millennials view career development and training as their largest barrier. To help overcome the challenge, we partnered with an organization whose digital platform enables university students to connect with alumni across Canada for mentoring and networking purposes. The early results are promising: introductions online are now translating into productive relationships offline for thousands of students.

The online world is changing how we work and live, but it should not change the way we think about – or interact with – those around us. We can use the small screen in front of us to serve the community around us. By inserting a social fabric into social networks we will help to spread many of the values that bring us together rather than those that keep us apart – something the world needs a lot more of right now.