Building Catholic Communities, the Online Way

(photo: Shutterstock image)

In light of some of our discussions about the isolation that comes with modern life, especially for people outside the workforce, I thought it would be interesting to highlight some folks who are doing something about it.

One great example is that of the website Faith and Family Live!, the online arm of Faith & Family magazine. For those of you who aren’t already regular readers, it’s a website for Catholic women with the specific goal of building up a sense of community among the readers. Many sites offer helpful information, but Faith and Family Live! takes it step further by encouraging readers to get to know both the authors and one another on a personal level. I’ve been in the web development business for over 10 years and have rarely seen a site that does as good of a job of creating a virtual community, so I wanted to take a closer look at what they’re doing right:

Good design: Poor design can be a roadblock to gaining traction on the internet, especially if your goal is to get readers to interact. A few things that FFL does well in this department are:

  • Threaded comments: This design component allows commenters to interact with one another, making it clear through levels of indentation when one person is replying to another.
  • No roadblocks to commenting: Requiring special registration drastically reduces the level of user interactivity on a site; FFL requires only name and email address to leave a comment.
  • Pictures of authors: Readers feel more bought in to a site when they can put faces to the names of the people producing its content, so prominently-placed author photos are important.

The right tone: Editorial Director Danielle Bean says that her goal is for the site to be “a healthy balance between practical and spiritual topics—everything that runs through a Catholic woman’s head in the course of her day is fair game.” It’s important for a site that wants to build a sense of community to consider this kind of thing carefully: Content that’s too stiff and formal could make it seem inaccessible to readers, whereas a tone that’s too casual could make it seem unprofessional and not worth the time to read. Faith and Family Live! strikes the right balance between having quality content that’s still informal enough to be accessible and inviting.

User-generated content: One of the most popular features at FFL is their daily Coffee Talk post. The editors choose a general subject (e.g. Education, Parenting, Natural Family Planning, etc.), and then readers are invited to talk about whatever is on their minds in that department. These posts often lead to lively discussions in which the site’s editors, authors, and readers all get to know one another better.

Interactive podcasts: FFL also produces a weekly podcast. Like the rest of their content, it strikes the right balance of being professional yet informal, and—most important in terms of building a sense of community—they feature a phone number that anyone can call throughout the week to share their thoughts to be aired in that week’s episode.

In-person events: Earlier this year, FFL put together an event in the Boston area that all their readers were invited to attend. I was there, and it was wonderful. There was an instant sense of connection among the attendees, since we’d all been coming together in the virtual world for years. It was hard for the organizers to move from one event to the next because so many lively conversations were going on, with women exchanging phone numbers and email addresses to keep in touch with one another. People who weren’t able to make it were invited to join in through live video feeds and real-time social media updates. The event was an excellent way to take FFL’s already strong sense of community to the next level.

Obviously the online world will never be a perfect substitute for real-life communities, but it can go a long way toward decreasing people’s sense of isolation. I encourage other Catholic organizations to study the Faith and Family Live! model as an example of uniting the body of Christ through new technology. And I encourage everyone, especially women, to keep the site bookmarked as a source of daily encouragement and inspiration. In the words of Danielle Bean: “We invite you to pray, laugh, cry, and share the good and the bad right along with us. We hope that you will join us as we work toward building a Christ-centered community where we can encourage and support one another in the joyful, challenging, important work of Catholic living.”