Online communities

The internet is full of strangers, generous strangers who want to help you for no reason at all. Strangers post poetry and discographies and advice and essays and photos and art and diatribes. None of them are known to you, in the old-fashioned sense. But they give the internet its life and meaning.

I first got online in the late 80s, when I was an eccentric teenager in suburban New Jersey, in a town mostly interested in sports, popularity and clothes. I was a reader, into Jorge Luis Borges, and I found, connected to and delighted in a group of Borges scholars from Aarhus, Denmark that I met online. It was early days, the days before COPA (now COPPA), chat rooms and a/s/l, when the level of discourse was high, and the number of scoundrels was low. The lonely “no one understands me” use case for online communities is one of the strongest ones. How many people, different from those around them, have finally found a home among strangers on the internet?

I learned most of what I knew about online communities on The Well, and it was a good place to learn. The group of people in Sausalito, Mill Valley and Bolinas who’d gotten the Whole Earth Catalog off the ground — a bunch of boomers, techies, hippies, intellectuals and nerds — established the “Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link”, and showed us what online communities were. They taught us how to create a civilized space, to speak in our own voices, use our real names, fan the flames of friendliness, to boot and ban trolls. They showed us how to mediate flame wars, start and end conversations, tease out contributions from the shy and lurking, engage in healthy debate. The mantra of the place was “You Own Your Own Words”, a phrase coined by Stewart Brand, one of the Well’s founders, meaning you not only have the right to say your piece, but also that you have to take responsibility for the consequences of those words.

Maybe I just found all the great places to hang out online, but the communities I found were most often characterized by their incredible generosity. On Metafilter, a group of strangers worked together to rescue two women from villains who appeared to be sex traffickers. The nephew of a man with Downs Syndrome who was suffering from cancer posted that his uncle loved to receive mail, and received hundreds of letters from complete strangers. Amit Gupta announced that he had been diagnosed with leukemia and needed to find a matching bone marrow transplant, but it was difficult to find matches for Southeast Asians, who are underrepresented in donor databases. Countless conversations, tweets and blog posts conspired to help him — and subsequently other underrepresented groups — find a donor. The outbursts of care and kindness happen every day to my continual astonishment.

And then came the sunset of the Golden Age. The Dot Com era began, and things got serious. Online community became the hyped new thing that every new web site had to have. While motor oil, laundry detergent and pantyhose don’t seem like natural foci for gathering and sociality, attempts were made — repeatedly and laughably — to form communities around such products.  And forums and chat spaces, which I’d seen as a merry places for interesting people, became, often enough, shady places for iffy people. Because for every gay teenager living in a remote, conservative, homophobic town who finally connected with his people, a white supremacist found another. A cannibal found someone who was interested in being eaten. Trolling, hating and spamming became a surge, then a flood.

“Communities are defined by what they tolerate,” says Heather Champ, who worked with me at Flickr guiding and cultivating the community there. Flickr’s community was something we cultivated in a hands-on, very engaged way, greeting, welcoming and befriending the first 20,000 users. And, famously, in the Flickr community list of dos and don’ts, Heather wrote this beautiful, concise guideline :

Don’t be creepy.

You know the guy. Don’t be that guy.

Community management is an art, not a science. It requires an iron fist in a velvet glove, and Heather is a mandarin. She’ll endlessly fight for the disenfranchised to have their space, for artists to practice their art, for peaceful coexistence and tolerance, for people’s right to privacy — while ruthlessly squashing trolls and silencing the hate.

Now we are building a new community built around places, with a team that includes Heather. A lot of things have changed since the days of Flickr. Facebook has concentrated the sociality of the internet within its blue borders, like a Walmart siphoning off the mom-and-pop shops that formerly comprised the internet’s gathering places. Communication, in the age of mobile dominance, has become, of necessity, shorter and snack-sized. Gone are the long debates on The Well. Gone are the Olden Dayes of the Independent Web. But never gone is the miraculousness of connecting with people remote from our houses, but close to our hearts.

Each online community decides what it is going to be, and in the end, reflects the people that participate in it. The internet is made of people. Like Anne Frank, I believe that, despite all evidence to the contrary, people are good at heart. And always, on the internet, I am astounded by people’s insistence on being generous, compassionate and kind.


A version of this post appeared in Wired last year

Author: Caterina Fake

Literature, Art, Poetry, Homeschooling Mother. Founder & CEO, Findery. Co-founder, Flickr & Hunch.

12 thoughts on “Online communities”

  1. Online communities definitely have their own internal logic and systems of norms apart from analogue “physical” communities. I see many people make the false assumption that you can simply apply understandings about physical social interactions to online discourse communities. There’s a different interpersonal dynamic operating when you go online, even if it’s rooted in our daily interactions.

    Unfortunately, I “missed the boat” on the era by virtue of a late 80s birthday, so it’s interesting to read about how online communities operated before getting commodified by large, walled-garden type social networks. I also imagine that the early internet networks established through universities had a much different vibe than the networks of today. As for online generosity, I think we’re seeing a shift toward crowdsourced/funded efforts, although many of these are concentrated on platforms like Kickstarter instead of small, forum-based efforts (which still happen, I’m sure).

    In any case, you’ve really pinpointed a shift in how we think about social activity in the online space and it’s an area that requires constant study and reflection.


    1. Whenever I discover “wild” examples of generosity, I find it very gratifying, and look for it everywhere…please let me know if you find examples out there. Crowdsourcing is a structured way of giving to others — like donating the Red Cross campaigns for disaster relief.

      I visited your blog — you’ve got a lot about the history of the internet on there. Good stuff!


      1. Everyone is a little creepy. We grow up; we get schooled in what is socially acceptable. And the worst creeps are the ones who survive that process bc they are still Really Creepy on the inside.
        And that is what civilization is about : learning to edit your posts so that when you feel you have to say something creepy it doesn’t sound so creepy as it might.


  2. “Don’t be creepy. You know the guy. Don’t be that guy.”

    Yeah, because you know, only men can be creepy. As a man, I totally don’t find that sexist and alienating. Great example of how to manage a community!


  3. This is a great post Caterina, thanks for writing it.

    As a very early flickr member I remember what it was like in the early days. While I started and was a member of many online communities before flickr, flickr was and is a great one because, unlike Facebook it’s not all about “social” it’s primarily about images with the social tagging along for the ride. This, I think, gives it some structure and built-in edges. I’m hoping/praying Yahoo/Mayer gets this, I’m not convinced yet.

    Salon also had a thriving online community and after they bought the WELL it grew and many from the WELL attempted to keep things civil but alas, Salon didn’t really get it and things got out of hand regularly.

    Well written weblogs that have comments turned on and are well moderated are also great places to find smaller communities. And, tracking these with an newsreader of some sort allows one to keep up with lots of different conversations in lots of different places. I prefer building my own rag-tag collection of different feeds to a service like Facebook: diversification feels somehow better to me. While I’m no fan of the DIQUS technology, their service is actually working to make these smaller communities viable and trackable.


    1. In the early days of Flickr, we often talked about how socializing was easier if there were a focus for the interaction, such as a Friday night game of bridge, movie nights, and the like. Photos in Flickr were the “social object” around which social interactions took place.


      1. Yes, it was obvious that you and the other founders knew this. And, for me, this is what rings so false about Facebook: It lacks boundaries. Yes, for many who weren’t involved with blogs, commenting, and other early online communities Facebook is their first and for many, only experience of this but I think it’s a poor one and I only wish some of those people could jump out of their Facebook world and experience some of the different kinds of social networks that in fact have narrower focuses. Yes, Facebook has groups, etc but it’s all within the context of Facebook. Give me diversity!


  4. I made my best friend in the newsgroups, he lived in Norway, I lived in Mexico. I know exactly what you mean. I guess those of us who knew the internet pre-dotcom era and after are starting to get nostalgic but in a good way…


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