WVU doctoral student discusses community building in digital spaces

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Digital spaces, like social media platforms, can be a critical means for some to find a sense of community and belonging.

This has been especially true since the COVID-19 pandemic hit, forcing many to turn to digital spaces as a means of communicating and networking. However, for Sara Loftus, a West Virginia University geography doctoral student, that is nothing new. For 20 years, Loftus has been the primary caregiver for her son who has life-threatening and technology-dependent medical conditions, meaning he has not had a chance to interact in physical spaces all that much.

Sara Loftus

His disease is very rare there weren’t any other kids that I knew of in my community, like physical community, that had his disease. I needed a lot of help understanding how to care for him. I started, back when he was little, going to online spaces looking for support and information and companionship and friendship of other mothers who might be caring for children with the same issues that I was. That’s how I initially got involved in these digital communities.

Sara Loftus – West Virginia University geography doctoral student

When her son was younger, she was working on her dissertation at WVU, but Loftus had to stop doing so in order to take better care of her son and other children. Now that he and her other children are older, Loftus can return to school to finish her PhD.

She is now using her experience to help her study how to build an online community. She said she wants to understand the nature of digital spaces and how they become spaces that caregivers use every day to help build a sense of community, similar to how she used them.

“Part of what I’m trying to understand or have other people understand is that these digital spaces are real to a lot of people,” Loftus said. “They aren’t just kind of someplace you go because you’re bored and want to browse the internet or something. There are meaningful relationships and interactions that can happen in digital spaces and so I’m trying to understand more about those relationships and connections that people make in these spaces and how that can helps them in their daily lives.”

Loftus said interested caregivers who want to learn more about how digital spaces can help create a community, can reach out to her regional nonprofit the Center for Supported Learning, which she founded in 2016. Or, she said, they can reach her at the WVU Geology and Geography Department.

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