Online LINK: Creating safe spaces online
Blog post written by Geraldine Montgomerie, Leeds Arts Health and Wellbeing Network
With the closures of theatres, museums and other venues during lockdown, spaces for experiencing arts and culture still exist online. With this in mind, LAHWN and 100% Digital Leeds ran a series of webinars exploring opportunities for and potential benefits of engaging with arts online. This blog post captures the Social Cohesion in Social Isolation reflective session that followed the webinars exploring online spaces as venues to meet and connect, and how we can make them safe and accessible, facilitated by LAHWN in March 2021 with Amy Hearn, Digital Inclusion Coordinator at 100% Digital Leeds.
Amy began by introducing her digital engagement work, where personal concerns about digital capacity have been identified as barriers to online activity. This takes many forms from generalised fears of the unknown, to unease with learning, and concerns about breaking devices. She described how arts and culture may allow people to explore and develop their skills closer to their comfort zones and how playful and experimental activities provide opportunities to engage with complex and critical issues, as spaces for possibility and challenge. These are useful considerations when building confidence and preparing to use technology to monitor health conditions or address concerns such as accessing advice or applying for work.
Our conversation explored how, through play, we form attachment to place and how, though culture, we infer meaning from the people around us based on the foods they eat and the clothes they wear. We then explored how key qualities of successful spaces (accessible; engaging, comfortable, sociable) - exist in online contexts, with a focus on virtual meeting spaces:
Whilst most people are familiar with screens for one-sided interactions, such as television, the expectations of a person going online can be immense. Having a trusted person to guide you through a step-by-step approach can be vital and, where appropriate, we can make technology more accessible by removing passwords.
Beyond technology, social rules may also impede interaction. Online spaces however also have the potential to circumvent existing hierarchies and power structures. One participant suggested this could be achieved by ensuring that everyone feels valued and that they have something to contribute. He shared this text, used when meeting elders from Indigenous communities online:
Assume everyone here is already impressed with what you have done in your life, and already likes you. No need to introduce yourself. Making connections and friends will gradually happen.
We also talked about the difference between choosing or being invited to enter digital spaces and being forced through our circumstances. Amy reflected on how job-searching has often motivated digital engagement but also noted that applying for jobs online can feel compulsory, increase feelings of vulnerability, and may be loaded with negative expectations, for example where mistakes on online forms can have high costs. This may be contrasted with playful and creative activities, with limited consequences if we get things wrong.
Online spaces provide more choices about our level of engagement than face-to-face meetings, including relative anonymity such as allowing attendees to leave their camera off. We considered approaches to making online meetings less demanding such as ‘silent Zoom meetings’ where people attend to work quietly on projects with only brief introductions at the start and opportunities to share progress at the end. A social prescriber shared that in her experience, going at your own pace and choosing when and how to interact made online groups less anxiety-provoking.
We discussed ways in which digital spaces allow for uncertainty and ‘mistakes’ and afford opportunities for people to take risks in how they are seen by others – for example when joining a digital choir everyone is on mute so you can experiment and find your voice. We also discussed creating a culture of encouraging questions when people come together – inviting lots of questions and then gradually focussing on advancing the learning of and connection within the group.
Our physical environment might not always feel comfortable or safe – such as when living alone, in poor housing or with difficult relationships - and if we feel uncomfortable we may not feel able to share ideas (or join choirs) online when others can hear us. However, if we can overcome these and other barriers to internet access we may experience respite. Benefits from arts and creativity include distraction from our current situation, contemplating where we are and building confidence and self-esteem. Online activities, from meeting others to creative activities, can be scheduled to promote healthy routines. We also have the potential to meet needs that cannot be addressed ‘in real life’ for example because of a niche interest.
We also explored principles of safe online spaces from around the world such as Qatar’s Safe Space, which highlights prevention, protection and empowerment as key principles. Creating breaks within sessions, opportunities for silence, opportunities to move around and planning different speakers or content can create a more welcoming space. We also remembered a previous session on how engaging the senses can help us feel more present and connected to others; that social relationships seem to develop more quickly the more we interact.
Being attentive to the number of people in a space, and limiting the size of groups so people remain visible to each-other on a screen - can ensure that people feel included.
A tension that we recognised during our discussion was that, efforts to reduce risks and create safer spaces – from adding passwords to removing ‘chat’ options in Zoom meetings – may also make online spaces less interactive and sociable. Truly successful spaces involve taking some positive risks; unless the online spaces for them are engaging we may lose the benefits of arts, creativity and play online.
Whilst online spaces remain inaccessible for some and cannot replicate interaction in the physical world, our discussion also highlighted benefits such as the potential to connect globally. We anticipate increased expectations online/offline hybrid working and meeting in the future.
Thanks so much to Geraldine writing this blog post. Find out more about the Social Cohesion in Social Isolation community here. And if you are interested in contributing to the blog, please get in touch!