The Lost Islands of Online Communities

My very first online community was a dial-in BBS message board hosted by the school district. My friends and I would log in and leave messages there in the guise of our RPG characters. We were young and full of imagination. The thing is, among all the very serious conversations, no one cared what we were doing. I even had one person offer up the floor plans to the White House to help with a story I was planning. This was all done over 300 baud modem. If you don’t understand the word ‘baud’ don’t worry about it. Think ‘telegraph’ or ‘smoke signals’ and you’ll get the idea. This was not the way to transmit video, pictures (who had a scanner?!), or music. Just text all the time.

When the BBS upgraded to a 128 baud modem and banned 300 baud modems (they took too long, tying up the few lines available), I was cut off from that community. I could ask my parents to buy me books, but tech stuff was just too expensive.

I’ve been a part of many online communities which have come and gone. My interactions on the current versions have been lackluster which has made me wistful for those communities of the yesteryear.

In college I was still rocking my C64 and the computer labs weren’t that accessible, so the newly fledged networking was foreign to me. While other people were connecting via ISCA, I was begging my friend to let me play one more game of Mechwarrior on his Amiga. Even after college, owning a computer and connecting with people was just out of reach for my pizza parlor/book store earnings.

Finally when a friend sold me his old IBM clone, I had something to work with. I was working at Northwestern University at the time and was able to pick the brains of our IT people and with the help of my 56K Modem, dial-in software to AOL, have access to online communities again.

The AOL world never interested me. I wanted the wide open web, but in those early days, AOL had it locked down with their crappy browser. I played in the chatrooms, made many friends, but the drama was too much. I wanted BBS community again. Bulletin boards were my bread and butter and found several big ones where other people advertised their smaller ones. I never got too deep into that world because it was mostly warez (pirated software) and porn. Hey, porn is great, but it lacked the connection I was seeking. I wanted the heated debates.

Time passed and I started hanging out a lot on the White Wolf chatrooms. White Wolf was a role playing game publisher behind Vampire: The Masquerade. For several months of my time, that was my life. It was great and awful. Ruined by drama. A common theme. Due to those chatrooms though, I learned a lot about web design, creating website after website on Tripod for the stories we were telling in the chatrooms.

I can go on… there was a small community built by a friend of a friend that became the shiniest point on the Internet for me – Boufdot… it was a small site running the same backend as Slashdot. It was a great connection of minds and creativity.

After Boufdot, came Livejournal. That was also a great moment in time and was focused on connecting via writing.

Livejournal faded and I walked away from it because it was taking too much time. That’s the problem with great communities, they take time. And to get something from them, whether it is an MMORPG group or a book club, you need to put energy into it.

I look at Facebook, and I think this should be everything I need. And when I visit Facebook, I see pictures with text on them. I see pictures of wounded people and attempts to guilt me into ‘Liking’ the post for some reason. I see inane efforts ‘to prove how far across the Internet a picture will go’ — again! I struggle to find the real moments as they are buried because Facebook’s algorithm is going to tell me what I really want to see. Which, I guess, is a half a dozen pictures of Minions saying they hate Mondays.

What are our online communities now? I know they exist, and they probably exist within Facebook – monetizing our desire to strengthen and deepen friendships. That is a cynical sentiment which undervalues what Facebook actually provides. In a way we are so attainable to each other, it doesn’t feel special to see a post from a friend.

Logging into a BBS to see if anyone responded to my treatise on flat taxes or my nostalgic rant about the War of the Worlds TV series was exciting. The moment when you found another person as equally interested in something obscure was electric. “I am not alone!”

“You’ve got mail” – “You are not alone!”

Finding a community to fit into is always a challenge, but when you find one, you feel good. My communities are now so transitory, persistent but like gossamer. On Twitter it is an exchange of quick ideas. On Facebook it is an exchange of memes and maybe an argument where someone you don’t even know pops in to say people like you harm the country. Or something far worse.

The one thing I have found consistent with all my communities is eventually, they all fade – but in each one there seems to be one or two people who carry over into the next one. I guess that is the real lesson from any community. It isn’t the whole, it is the parts. Find the parts you like, hold onto them, and make those people your community so you are never without one.

Published by Sean D. Francis

Sean D. Francis is a technologist, writer, and geek. He podcasts, makes video, and dabbles in all the geeky genres including horror, sci-fi, and fantasy.