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