If you’re not part of some kind of online heathen community whether that is a group on Facebook, or Twitter, or Discord, or wherever, you are the exception. It is far more common that heathens are all over internet groups, and usually several. The internet is rife with heathen groups, little cohorts of like-minded heathens who gather into these online groups. Many great memes circulate through them, many of those are from Auz. Up until recently I was part of several of these internet groups and even ran several. But then I came to some hard thoughts and stopped, I shuttered most of the ones I was running and left most of the ones I was merely a part of. I needed to reevaluate things.
Why? Why did I leave these little online communities and groups? My reasoning is fairly simple. I sat down and gave some thought to where they were going. Where would these groups be in the next year, two years, five years, ten years? Online heathenry has been around for decades now, heathen groups popping up online have been a thing back to geocities and yahoo groups. These groups on forum boards and AIM messenger were where many of us heathens who came to the faith in the late 90’s and early 2000’s found ourselves gravitating towards. And for a time they were a salve for us, allowing us the feeling of building something or of comradery. But this method of group building has been around for two decades or more; and what does this method have to show for it? Have they morphed into anything? What have we gained from 20 years of online heathenry?
I’d argue that we gained next to nothing from them, and certainly nothing tangible. The groups open, grow, decline, shutter and close. Another opens, grows, declines, shutters and closes. Some manage to stick around but none ever get far beyond the internet.
I’ll give an example from a group I’ve been a part of for years now. Wodgar, you may have heard me talk about him in the past because, well he made a rather fabulous facebook group, Fyrnsidu, after the name of the religion. It was ultimately intended to be a non-Theodish option for learning about Anglo-Saxon heathenry since the Theods were and are so unsavory and at that time had a perceived monopoly on Anglo-Saxon stuff. Not everyone jives with oathing themselves to a feudal structure. Thankfully now we’ve shown amply that there are options outside of Theodism for an Anglo-Saxon practitioner. Well that little Fyrnsidu group popped along for a few years and was fairly happening, hundreds of people were in the group. But it popped along due to the constant upkeep by Wodgar and Marc who ran it and the Larhus. As it turns out, these sites ride on the backs of the people keeping them running. There were about a thousand people in that group. How many posted? Maybe five or six people. How many commented? Maybe fifteen or twenty. How many emojiied? Maybe twenty. Out of a thousand people, the group was effectively only a small handful of people who were truly engaged in keeping conversations going. The numbers of the group belied the reality. When Wodgar left facebook and Marc left facebook, the group sat stagnant. People didn’t come, the algorithm didn’t promote the group, but most people didn’t go, it just sat there. Eventually I tried to revive it and was popping along posting content and boosted the numbers from the 700s to the 900s before it kind of struck me – why am I doing this? Why am I fretting over finding content for this group when most of them are non-participants? Where am I going with this and where is it even possible for it to go?
If I’m honest with myself, the group peaked out already. The peak of the group was that snapshot of time when the group was riding on the backs of Wodgar and Marc as they made the Larhus. If I’m truly honest with myself as a religious group or as a religious community, the Fyrnsidu Facebook group was never really a success and never would be because where could it even go? No, it is all it would ever be, an online group. And even keeping that going required constant input and never generated anything like a groundswell of energy from ordinary people. Yet, while it was not a community, nor would it ever be, it could inform. But is that enough?
When my friends and I put on an in-person ritual there are things to prepare, something is made in the physical world. We build an altar, and effigy, idols, something tangible. We yearn for dedicated physical space to gather, for more ritual acutrema, for horns and wash basins and godpoles and fires. But when we do these things online what do we do? It is a shadow of the things that get done. And worst of all it lulls us into thinking that we’re building something. We aren’t though because it is ephemeral.
Unfortunately this was somewhat of a problem even for our local group. We have had a bumpy road. We have been part of several local groups and every time we get something steady we hit a bump and get shaken back up again. A few years back a handful of us embarked on trying to make the Berkano Hearth Union. We had struck out on our own and were making a legitimate group, we had bylaws and a board and had begun the process of becoming a group recognized by the government. Fast forward a year and it fell apart. There are many many factors that led to the failure of the group, but one of the biggest stressors we encountered was that we were growing beyond our abilities. At our most well attended rituals we had a hundred people, at our least attended rituals we had no fewer than a dozen, and for regular attendance it stood somewhere between thirty and forty. And yet, our online community for our local org had about three hundred members. Further, many of us who were on the board felt the obligation to help run and moderate that internet community. Perhaps the worst aspect of that though for our mental health was the near constant contact with the other board members. It became very plain very early that not everyone agreed about the overall nature of the group much less the group purpose. So for more than a year we were in daily constant contact with one another on messaging apps trying to run an online group and an in-person group when we had fundamental disagreements about what the purposes of the group actually was. Of course we failed and fell apart! We overreached! We didn’t go into it with a core group with united vision. And every person we added in destabilized us further.
Another thing that sealed our doom was the online disinhibition effect. Essentially if you’re online you act different online than you do in person. You are less inhibited online. Maybe that means you share more, maybe that means you troll or argue or fuss or complain more. Effectively the internet makes us less inhibited and that’s not conducive for communities trying to keep themselves held together. For us, and it is not an uncommon experience at all, every small thing would be an argument or a debate, every molehill turned into a mountain. So that meant that the more people conversed on our group page the more of my everyday was spent moderating online and conversing with the other board members in a never-ending chat about the goings on of the group. And for those of us who met up even regularly once a month, as time went on online the time we spent online outweighed by far the contact we had in person. Effectively, the only contact we would have for any meaningful time would be online. We ceased being real people and became internet people, some vague memory of a real person but who you now knew as this online faceless entity. People who I loved and respected in person became people I dreaded having any contact with because they made everything more difficult online. If everything becomes a fight, it is no longer enjoyable.
We fell apart and the group split practically down the middle. But I fully and truly believe we’d still be meeting up regularly and hanging out in person and even enjoying each other’s company if we’d never made the missteps in creating an online community and in effect prioritizing it over our in-person community by devoting more of our time there than to the in-person group. Because really, that’s what we did. We spent more time, poured more energy into the online than the in-person.
In effect, online heathenry is never going to work if the goal is to build a community, it is broken by the nature of the system. It is broken by the nature of our human psychology, how we are wired.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that all aspects of online heathenry are doomed, it just means we shouldn’t count on them to be our religious community, we should temper our expectations.
So what is a viable path forward? Instead of thinking of these online things as a community, think of them like a newspaper or an academic journal, a periodical. The Heathen Underground is an example of how this non-community can be fairly viable because it is effectively a Heathen newspaper. New posts daily, something to read, comments sections to browse for juicy gossip and drama if you’re into that, but no real community in sight. Mind you, they do have one that they’re trying to make on the side for more in-depth discussions but it’s another internet group and will have the same issues – it’s online. Also if the Heathen underground shutters it will be due to the burnout from the extreme amount of effort moderating such an endeavor requires. Overall, they are so large that the organizers must spend an incredible amount of their time and effort moderating it all. That means that it is riding on their back. We should treat these things like what they are though, periodicals not religious communities. And we should try our best to resist our urges to either take them too seriously or to invest ourselves in them as our primary religious community.
So what should we do for that religious community? Make a local in-person community if you want one. I’m in the Bible Belt in the south and still every time you turn over a rock you find pagans. There are several hundred heathens in Georgia that I’m aware of and I stopped looking a few years back now. I have a few dozen who can still stand to be around me these days. That’s my religious community. If you don’t want to build a community or if there really is no one out there where you are, then be a solitary practitioner, that is alright. Everything else? Well it’s just informative, a periodical, a newspaper. But certainly it shouldn’t be held as our primary form of religious expression.
The biggest successes for online heathenry will be in the sites that behave in a way that is most conducive for this medium. Blogs are internet heathenry success stories because they inform. No imaginary community in sight and no need to get caught up on the comment sections. Youtube channels and podcasts are internet heathenry success stories for the same reason, they’re intended to be informative not to be a substitute for community. Less serious, laid back groups that aren’t trying to pretend to be more than they are will also be more successful. A group of long distance friends keeping up with each other will succeed as long as it isn’t trying to pretend to be more than it is, as long as it doesn’t bloat to unmanageable size, and as long as it doesn’t solely ride on the back of one or two folks.
The litmus test for all of this should be this – where do you want to see yourself religiously in a year, five years, ten years? If online groups can’t get you there, don’t invest yourself into them, invest yourself elsewhere. Build the Heathenry you want to see in the world.