The Internet has changed the concept of community beyond all recognition. But is that a bad thing?
I’m writing from self-isolation in Hastings, where I’m virtually coworking with a fellow writer that I met in Bali a couple of years ago over Zoom. Yesterday, I spent two hours on the now-ubiquitous video conferencing program with ten women spread all over the world, a standing weekly coworking session that’s organised through an online community called Digital Nomad Girls. Later, I’ll have a Netflix party with a friend in Laos, who’s possibly the only person in the world as obsessed with South Korean dramas as I am.
Honestly, not much has changed. I’ve been working remotely for the past eight years and travelling the world as a digital nomad – someone who can work from anywhere and has no fixed address - for the last two. Over that time, my idea of community has been completely turned on its head.
In 2019, I spent no longer than two months in any one place, starting the year at ‘home’ in the UK before heading to Sri Lanka for six weeks. The rest of the year was spent between Koh Phangan, Chiang Mai, Bali, a paradisiacal Indonesian island called Gili Air, Laos, Australia and New Zealand. Where people used to find their sense of community through local church, synagogue or mosque groups or, more recently, the office, that’s simply not possible when you’re on the road.
And, more and more of us are. A 2019 report by MBO Partners found that 7.3 million Americans currently describe themselves as digital nomads, a rise of 2.5 million from the year before. In the UK, the ONS reports that 2.6 million people work from different places with their home as a base. And digital nomads are only a tiny proportion of the people who work remotely. Even before the COVID-19 crisis, 73% of all teams were predicted to have remote workers by 2028. It seems that figure could now grow much more rapidly as the global directive to stay home has shown companies and individuals just how many meetings could have been emails, and the power of remote collaboration tools.
While the upsides of the digital nomad lifestyle are frequently documented – and even more frequently exaggerated – the challenges that come with the freedom to change your location, home and office at a moment’s notice, don’t get so much airtime. As with any lifestyle choice, though, they do exist.
I’ve interviewed dozens of digital nomads and remote workers over the last year and chatted informally to many more. Without fail, they report that the hardest part of living and working from anywhere is the loneliness, at least initially.
Hannah Dixon runs Digital Nomad Kit, which helps would-be digital nomads forge a location-independent career as virtual assistants. “Initially as a digital nomad, I struggled with feeling connected to a community, but I soon learned that I had to go out of my way, especially as an introvert, to create this myself. It was no longer a given,” she says.
Her first Facebook group was created in an attempt to meet like-minded people in the digital nomad space - women, queers, and nerds - before morphing into an income-producing project.
She says that while she’s sometimes nostalgic about the kind of ‘in-built’ family and friend connections that come from a more stationary lifestyle, especially in terms of reliability in times of crisis, she doesn’t feel like she misses out by being on the road. In fact, quite the opposite.
“The connections I have made as a digital nomad have been much more meaningful. I think this is due to the fact that when you’re only in a place temporarily, you need to make faster decisions about whether or not you want someone in your life. This often leads to deep conversations early on, and in turn, deeper connections overall. Over the years, I have created my own ‘chosen family’ and there is a mutual commitment to one another’s well-being despite the miles between us or the frequency of physical interaction.”
Like me, much of her social life as a digital nomad, even before lockdown, was online. “Video calls and wine. Video calls and dancing. Video calls and video games, and so on,” she laughs. “Video calls can sometimes feel way less personal compared to real life connecting, so I always make sure I incorporate fun and innovative questions and activities that can help bring people closer, especially in the communities I have built.”
Dixon isn’t the only person that’s adapted and built a new sort of community to help support what’s fast becoming a more mainstream way of life. Some of these are physical environments like coworking and coliving spaces. Others are online groups like Digital Nomad Girls, which founder Jenny Lachs initially started as a way to meet some girlfriends back in 2015 and has since grown to a community of more than 20,000 members located in all corners of the globe.
I regularly log into the virtual coworking sessions the group offers, which now take place on an almost daily basis. Pre-pandemic, I’d sometimes pop a message in the DNG Facebook group when I landed in a new country to see if anyone was around and fancied a latte – or to be my friend. It’s been a game-changer in terms of making me feel part of a bigger movement and my sentiments are echoed by every DNG I’ve spoken to, even those who have slowed down their travel habits, like communications specialist Sophia Cheng who’s now based in Bristol.
“As I slow down and try to change my lifestyle to adapt to the climate crisis, I still yearn for and love travel and exploration,” she says. “For me, knowing I’m speaking to people in Romania, Sweden, Shanghai and Indonesia keeps that spirit and that mindset of nomadism alive.”
Dynamite Circle and 7in7 are communities for experienced digital nomads centred around one big annual event. I attended the latter’s fourth conference in Wellington, New Zealand, last October and left feeling like part of a family. As we’d all been drawn to the community because we share certain values – rather than simply being in each other’s vicinity – we could skip the small talk and get right to the deep and meaningful stuff. I now have standing Zoom dates with several of the people I met there and we’re planning to rent a house together in Mexico or perhaps Greece next year, depending on when travel restrictions lift.
7in7 attendee Audrey Julienne, who owns a marketing agency, says these ‘nomad houses’ are the highlight of her year. “It’s a great way to mix being somewhere different and at the same time not feeling lonely. I’ve done nomad houses in Tenerife and Hamburg and it’s generally six to eight of us, ten max,” she explains. “Some come for a week, some two weeks, some a month. We have one room that’s a dedicated work area and we also explore and go out and do plenty of things. We’re alone and together at the same time.”
Kit Whelan co-founded 7in7 four years ago to encourage just such initiatives. “Nomads are great at creating a global community,” she says. “A lot of people say we’re great at online community, but I think a key factor is that it’s not only online. You take online friendships and make them offline, or you take offline friendships and you make them online.
“Some people might think it’s not a real community because you’re not around them all the time but I’ve visited these people, their kids call me aunty, we’ve been on the phone when someone’s had a miscarriage and I’ve attended their weddings. It’s all the normal things that people lean on their community for – when something bad or good happens, who do you want to call or text first? The big benefit of being a nomad is that someone’s going to be awake no matter what time it is so celebrate with you or help you through a tough time!”
David Abraham is the co-founder of Outpost, a network of coworking and coliving spaces in Bali and Cambodia. Even while he makes his living from creating community, he looks longingly at the days when he made friends with kids who lived down the street from him - not out of a shared love of kayaking or Atari, but because they were physically close and kept running into each other.
“Community was something you couldn’t opt out of,” he says. “Now, community is a place you can opt in or opt out of and because of that you don’t have a responsibility to anyone. My fear in the nomad community is that when you can pop into a place and reinvent yourself, it’s a wonderful opportunity, but if you don’t put in the responsibility and don’t have a commitment to each other, then you’re not really part of that community.”
On the other hand, he believes the nomadic lifestyle – just like our late teens and early 20s, for those of us who were fortunate enough to go to university – creates the ideal conditions to connect in a meaningful way. “You’re learning new things at new times and everything’s different, so you have the opportunity to create really strong bonds,” he says. “The way I look at it is that Outpost helps foster those bonds so they can last a while.”
Other downsides to creating such intentional communities is the lack of variety. Meanwhile, serendipity is all but removed from the equation when you communicate virtually. But, as Dixon explains, that’s why it’s so important for digital nomads to connect in person with local communities too, particularly when you’re based somewhere for a longer period. “This allows me to acknowledge the brilliant diversity outside of my nomad bubble and to have cultural exchanges and experiences that are uniquely available to me due to my lifestyle,” she says.
Right now, that side of digital nomad life is off limits. Yet, although this may sound counter-intuitive, nomads are perhaps more prepared for life on lockdown than anyone else. “We’re very used to having our freedom, but we’ve also been training for this for years,” says Whelan, who’s on her fifth Zoom call of the day. “We’re great at adapting and rolling with the punches and we’re used to staying at home for three-day periods without wearing real pants and just working.
“In the past, people used to have a church or a synagogue or a mosque and they saw the same people every week at the grocer but that village atmosphere is something that’s been missing from modern life for a lot of people before [COVID-19]. Now they’re seeing gaps that maybe they were too busy to notice before – they’re talking to their aunt and their cousin and their brother-in-law online. They’re doing game nights. Even Grandma knows how to use Zoom.
“The challenge with the current era is that you can’t come together physically, but people are being so creative with the ways they’re coming together digitally and I think nomads have an important role here because we’ve been doing it already for years – hosting game nights and movie nights and happy hours and coworking sessions. Now we’re the ones who are teaching our coworkers and our grandmothers how to do it. That’s our role in society right now and it’s a useful one.”
Elly Earls is a freelance journalist specialising in digital nomadism and remote work, and is about to launch a podcast about remote dating called Dating A Broad. Elly is @runaway_writer and @dating_a_broad on Instagram, and her website features more of her work.