Online Community: What Can It Give?

What is an online community? I've hung out on the fringes of many and even been a proper part of a few, and I'm still baffled. Everywhere I've been was at least as much of a community as an offline one is -- including fights, people who are left out unintentionally, and people who are purposely excluded, alongside the deep friendships, romances, and support through tough times. It seems to me that online community's major difference from offline is merely that people are drawn together by something other than physical location.

My first online communities were on Usenet around 1994: alt.sexual.abuse.recovery and I posted occasionally to the former, but was more of an e-mailer sending private responses to people when I had something helpful to give. I was just an observer in the latter, but saw that there were surprising similarities between the two (and even a few people who posted to both). Both groups were there for support in a non-understanding world; whether it was the practices of your bedroom or the demons lodged in your soul, you came to a newsgroup to know you weren't alone in the situation. Both were places where items that would be dubbed "too much information" if you brought them up outside were the usual discussion. Both groups had to deal with clueless idiots stumbling in, giving us their pet recipe for becoming "normal" and being instantly "cured." And as the time passed, both groups received more and more spam sent to every group with "sex" in its name and appropriate to none. There were offline gatherings arranged, but I never had a chance to go to an ASAR picnic and wouldn't have had the guts to go to an ASB meet. Eventually spam drove both to new newsgroups with less obvious names, and also eventually I got past the point where I needed daily support in dealing with the abuse in my past or found much new in the BDSM posts. But I have the printouts of saved posts when I need them.

Then there was usf.misc. Unlike other online communities I've participated in, we did have a location in common, the various campuses of the University of South Florida. Half the people on the newsgroup were former residents of the same dorm who I knew before misc. We were friends and enemies both -- the political discussions raged and the fun fluff flew for a couple of years. There were periodic misc.lunches which I attended with as much glee as I sent my posts, and when a fraternity/sorority advocate came on the newsgroup to tell us that "even if your [sic] not in the Greek system you should at least get involved in something that interests you," I responded, "We have. We're .miscers." My friend Ben followed up to my remark with "I nominate this post for the usf.misc Hall of Fame and/orPost of the Year Award." However, this location-limited community had a few glory years and then a problem when many of its regulars graduated and lost access to it. USF didn't produce more people interested in Usenet to replace them. There's a mailing list that contains most of the people who used to frequent the newsgroup, but the gap in time and our time-consuming grown-up jobs sapped the spirit that used to exist. Even the mailing list isn't used much anymore. However, I still keep the group web page and lunch pictures on my website for the memories (and the ability to track down old friends through it).

That community was small enough that the loss of a few people brought it to a halt. Most of these others weren't. The next place I felt like a part of was the polyamory mailing list, another support group for people in non-mainstream situations. Responsible non-monogamy, like the abuse aftereffects on ASAR, could reach into all other aspects of a person's life, so there weren't many subjects that couldn't come up in conversation (and annoy people who felt that our discussion should be more focused). And as a mailing list, we didn't get much junk mail compared to a newsgroup (although there was once a bunch of ads for Russian women wanting to marry U.S. men). My printout stack accumulated as more and more worthwhile advice or just beautifully written stuff came through. There were Poly-Wanna-Potluck gatherings (which I didn't get to attend) and private e-mail exchanges; I struck up a correspondence with a student from India who needed help with the American English slang used on the list (which ended after some months when he refused to stop bugging me to go out with him; one problem with polyamory is that "I'm already in a relationship" can't be used as a polite refusal). But near-lurkers like me were out on the fringes and unlike the almost-automatic empathy of the sexual abuse support group, there seemed a lot of personal conflict in this forum. I guess that's not surprising; people who won't let society tell them how to arrange their emotional/sexual relationships aren't likely to buckle down on any other issue either. (Not that ASAR was conflict-free, of course, but there was an emphasis on keeping everyone feeling as safe as possible that actually drove some users to a different group where they could try to challenge their own limitations more.) Anyway, I rarely felt like I was more than an observer on the poly list, and didn't miss it for long when I had to unsubscribe because there was just too much e-mail coming in.

So one day in 1998, my boyfriend showed me this website that was a side project of Slashdot, called "Everything." It was sort of like an encyclopedia written by Internet users. It was a hell of a lot of fun to write your own little blurb for not only "Ringo Starr" or "personal computer" but "polyamory" or "Mother Love Bone" or "fresh loin air" or "Mr. T. ate my balls" or whatever you felt like. In this first version of the site, there was no real communication between users unless they were nice enough to provide an e-mail address in their home node information about themselves. But you got a feeling for the personality of the person behind the user name such as "Pseudo_Intellectual" or "Juliet" by reading their writeups. There were times when another user disagreeing with me on the other side of the page in "living together instead of marriage" made me angry enough to consider creating a separate node for "I USED to think Pingouin was a cool guy." Luckily I slept on it, and in the morning both he and I rewrote our original comments to be less inflammatory, so we ended up basically agreeing to disagree. Everything was a fun occupation -- to the point of addiction, perhaps. It gained many regular users and continued to interest its creators as a code experiment, so in November 1999, "Everything 2" was launched.

Here, users could get to know one another in other ways through the "chatterbox," basically a chat room built into the web site, and the ability to send private messages from user to user. This allowed you, if you chose, to comment on other people's writeups, notify them of their typos or fact errors, or just to talk. By mid-2000, noders were having get-togethers offline; I think London had one of the first ones, but I know the small "Florida Everythingians" gatherings I attended were relatively early in the nodermeet chronology.

There was also an Everything Mailing Address Registry, and I sent out cards and postcards to everyone on it. However, I'm not as good at off-the-cuff chatter as I am when I have time to think about it; I didn't and still don't participate much in the public chatterbox, much less Everything's associated IRC channel (which I had never even visited until February 2002). In fact, I spent a lot of late 2000/early 2001 with the chatterbox turned off. Focusing on adding content and voting on other people's writing were my things, and I let everyone else do their own social stuff online.

Despite that, when the opportunity arose to attend a four-day Everything gathering in Florida for New Year's Eve 2001 with more than thirty people I had never met, I took it. I was quite thankful that I had sent out all those postcards, so that at least some people knew who I was. It took at least the first day for me to even feel comfortable walking up to a group and listening in, much less joining the conversation, but I enjoyed being there a lot. I was completely hooked on the face-to-face meetings. Later, I went to other gatherings, just one-evening meetings, which were a hell of a lot of fun and acquainted me with a few new people, but there wasn't really time to get a real impression of most of them.

But now I feel a bit left out of the social parts of the site because so many people have their firm friendships, with that head start they got. I feel like Everythingians are my buddies, certainly; they're nearly all people I could get together with for an evening out whenever we're in the same location. But there's no one there I would feel like I could confide problems in, except for the people I already knew offline.

It hasn't been a bed of roses for the noders who are close. There have been romances, so of course there have been breakups and their associated animosity; conflicts over appropriate content for the site; even simple personality clashes in the IRC channel. The suicide of a noder last September caused a lot of pain for people who would never have even met him if it weren't for E2. Oddly enough, he was the one who first made a writeup for "Everything is a community." A month after his death, a different person said that "Everything is a family." Perhaps it is, but an extended family can leave people out; I've been at real-life family reunions where I didn't know how to talk to people just because they shared my ancestors' blood. The same can happen on a web site.

Another user said, "I never managed to fit into the community that I visited religiously and I realized that that made me sad. I read nodes all the time when not noding myself. I came to feel as if I knew a lot of you. I read about the gatherings, and how you'd get together and have a lot of fun. I saw friendships build up and followed the growth through homenodes." I know the feeling, though I was a bit consoled to see I wasn't the only one who might feel on the fringes.

I have no plans to stop using E2, despite witnessing frequent conflicts on what material is appropriate to add to the site as well as occasional rudeness on the part of people with editorial or administrative powers. I want to take the time to become a more firm part of the family for its own sake, and my own desire for simply as many friends as I can find good people to be friends with. To have a friend, you have to be a friend -- more postcards to send, gatherings to attend, and sometimes even the guts to say something in the chatterbox.

I also want to stand up for my views in the conflicts; being known as a longtime creator/researcher of good content gives me a small amount of power to support others. This online community gives both the good and the bad of an offline one, and it has kept my attention and my energy for longer than any other place online, rivaling many real-world communities in my life so far. This is my world, offline and on, and I plan to keep contributing to this community. But I sometimes miss ASAR and other places where you could pour our your deepest problems publicly without someone adding a link to "Would you like some cheese with that whine?"

Resources I maintain for E2 users:

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