A couple months ago, I enjoyed a lovely Saturday morning cruising the stores in downtown Seattle with “my fashion friends” – at least that’s what I call the diverse group of women that get together for YLF meet-ups every few months. Even though there is a rotating mix of women who come to these events (and always at least a couple of new faces) and even though I don’t even see the “regulars” more than twice a year, I feel a connection that goes beyond a mere shared interest in fashion and that truly feels like friendship.
I’ve talked to a couple of other “YLF oldies” (nothing to do with age – just referring to women who’ve followed Angie’s blog and who have participated in real-world events for a couple years or more), and it seems like I’m not alone with this sentiment. When I asked Amy, a regular Forum contributor, what she expected from her very first YLF brunch & shop, she said “I expected to have a nice time hanging out with friends and that’s what it truly is.”
This is powerful! From having done some professional research into online groups I knew that a key factor strengthening a virtual (online) community is a cross-over into the real (offline) world. Meeting some of the people hidden behind creative screen names or avatars at real-world events tied to the virtual community (for example, a meet-up of cycling enthusiasts who share biking stores online, or an in-person poker tournament for online Texas Hold’em fans) strengthens the attachment to and engagement with the virtual community.
It has been truly eye-opening and rewarding to experience this effect in person: I was part of the very first YLF get-together, an afternoon gathering at a Seattle tea house in 2008, and it was marvelous to see how quickly we all started chatting and bonding. And my hunch is that the report and the photos we posted on the blog later contributed to the sense of community that makes YLF a very special place on the web. Even readers and contributors who do not participate in real-life events can relate more to Angie and fellow YLF members when they see pictures and read about meet-ups and shopping adventures. The offline connections of a few thus help to “make it real” even for those online.
I continue to be amazed and awed by the strength of the ties YLF members have formed, and the trust they share. From activities like “Secret Santa” where women send a little fashion gift to a randomly selected YLF member, to making a detour during a trip to meet new fashion friends in other cities, there is a degree of involvement and care that I’ve rarely seen or heard about, especially given that YLF is not a small niche site but has a huge readership all over the world.
And it’s not all about fashion and style, either. YLF members rally and support each other during life events, including career changes, caring for elderly parents, and even grieving for a spouse – all without ever having met each other in person. Kari, a YLF veteran and regular contributor to the Discussion Forum, expressed it very well: “I’ve made a bunch of connections with women who are becoming friends. I’ve been through some ups and downs, and seeing how women responded to me and others on the forum has given me a sense of strong connection. These are not just random people who give me feedback. This is my online family. I feel we are a very intimate group even if we don’t spend a lot of time together in person.”
This level of connection can’t be manufactured; it grows organically and thrives on TLC. Angie has created a very special place where women inspire and encourage each other, and everyone who comments and posts and shares their perspective in a constructive way helps YLF to transcend a fashion and style blog and forum to become a true community.