Expat support groups: Forums

(Sorry if you’re receiving this by email for a second time.  I goofed and hit the Publish button before I was ready and then for some reason the post disappeared altogether on the blog.  That’ll teach me to talk to my husband and blog at the same time *sigh*)

If a measure of success is longevity, then the ExpatWoman forum has to high on the list of online support groups for expats. When I moved to the Dubai for the second time, Jane Drury had just launched her website http://www.expatwoman.com (not to be confused with Andrea Martin’s successful website http://www.expatwomen.com).

Jane was a trailing spouse who following her arrival in Dubai had collated a huge amount of information, for fellow corporate spouses and then realized this information was too valuable not to share with the wider world. She launched the website in 2001 and soon found herself overwhelmed with emailed questions about life in the rapidly growing Gulf state. A forum was added to the website and I was one of the early participants, soon answering as many questions as I asked.

In time the website and forum covered the whole Gulf region and these days there are almost 10,000 active members usually with 150-200 people online at any one time and posting every few seconds. Topics vary from the mundane – where to buy grocery items – to the poignant – how to deal with a failing marriage – and everything in between. Although the language of the forum is English, many nationalities are represented and it’s THE source for information for those planning a move to the region as well as those already living there.

Unlike many expat support groups, ExpatWoman is a commercial business. However it has the feel of a volunteer organization and definitely takes its service role seriously. It makes its money from advertising on the website and limited sponsorship of its real world events. As the business has grown so has its staff, predominantly women, and many of them working part-time. I started working for EW just 2 hours a week in 2005 and gradually worked my way up to a full-time position as Events Manager, but as with all small businesses I turned my hand to many tasks, including moderation of the forum.

So what has made this online forum so successful?

1. It’s complemented by a comprehensive website. Anyone looking to learn about life in Dubai (as opposed to tourism) will find their way to this website. Over time it has become an authoritative source of practical information.
2. It’s also complemented by real world events, although it’s important to note that many forum participants never attend events and many who attend the events don’t participate on the forum.
3. The real key to its success, in my opinion, has been a moderation policy which ensures a friendly and helpful tone. As someone who has worked behind the scenes I am well aware of the time this involves. For EW it’s a team effort as the online world runs 24/7. Posters on the west coast of the USA are just starting to post their questions as would-be expat Aussies are hitting the sack.
Maintaining the right tone involves much more than deleting rude comments and spam. It involves creating a safe place where there are no “stupid” questions. Many forum users are not just first time expats, they are also new to the online world, and tart responses, text-speak and “in” jokes can easily intimidate.

What particular benefits does a forum offer over other online communication?

1. Anonymity. The number and regularity of sensitive topics discussed shows that anonymity has its advantages. Posting questions about marital abuse, troubled teens, job loss or even just the embarrassment of loneliness are all good reasons not to want to use your real name.
2. A large volume of posting doesn’t present a problem.
3. Forums usually have a search facility and separate boards can be set up for popular topics to further clarify and define discussions.
4. Moderation can be done easily and precisely. Conversation threads can be precisely edited rather than entire discussions removed and all information lost.
5. A lot of website platforms have a forum option or if you’re willing to tolerate advertising there are many free stand-alone forums out there which require no hosting at all.

In the online world ten years is a lifetime and these days forums are generally considered “old hat.” However the fact that this one continues not just to prosper but to grow demonstrates that they still have much to offer.

Can you recommend any other expat forums?  I’m very slowly working on a project to upgrade the Resources section of the Families in Global Transition website and would love to add your links.

A double-edged sword: Expats and the Internet

“Great, let’s do it!” was my reaction when my husband phoned to tell me about a job he’d been offered in Azerbaijan. As soon as I’d hung up, I reached for the atlas to see where on earth I’d committed to go. I knew Azerbaijan was a former Soviet republic and had a vague idea about its location but that was all. My next step was a trip to the local library, where I found 2 books about Azerbaijan, both looking something like this. I didn’t expect they’d tell me much about my future life there as the spouse of a western expat, and I was right.

Please note, I’m talking about atlases, books and libraries. This was 1995, when the internet was still in its infancy. These days a Google search on Azerbaijan returns 298 MILLION results; Amazon over 2,300 results in books alone. I would have loved to have that information if it had been available at the time, all those blogs, websites and forums.

I’m planning to write a series of posts about successful online self-help communities for expats.  On my own admission I’m a computer/internet/social media junkie but before I begin, I want to issue a warning.

Firstly, there’s no doubt that the availability of online information has been a boon to the average expat family but it can be a double-edged sword. Too much information is a very real problem these days, as is over-thinking your decisions. At some point you must take a leap of faith combined with a positive attitude.

Secondly, spending too much time in the virtual world rather than the physical one can hinder your integration. I know, I’ve been there, having spent far too much time holed up at home with my laptop when I first repatriated.  Connecting online can help you make new friendships and foster old ones, but while it may facilitate, it can’t replace face-to-face, real world relationships.

I’ll leave you for now with this TED Talk by psychologist and sociologist Sherry Turkle, who expresses far better than I the positive and negative impact the internet has had upon our lives.