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online communities are the best thing about the internet

Recently, what I hear about online communities on the radio, the Internet, and TV is how they are either: 1) exclusive bubbles in which all the denizens are echo chamber zombies or 2) traps for naïfs and nerds who are one kind word away from being radicalized into violent extremism. But these exaggerations can’t be farther from the truth!

To me, communities like ArtsWire, The Meta Network, Brainstorms, MemeSpace, parts of Facebook, and even No Agenda Social, had been safe spaces where I can be myself, explore controversial topics without feeling muzzled, and reveal the most personal things knowing I won’t be judged.

But now, I don’t have any place like that anymore. And that’s my fault. It started when I cared about building my brand. In order to do that, I need to keep all my conversation public. That has a downside and I need to make a change to that.

The Meta Network

I did have such a safe place back in 1993 when I first joined the Metasystems Design Group (MDG), otherwise known as The Meta Network (TMN), as an ISP. I quickly realized that there was a very passionate online community within those Unix servers as well.

On, I had a space called Fire. It was a men-only conference that was invitation-only and run by my mentor for many years, Frank L. Burns, who was also not only part of  Task Force Delta featured in The Men Who Stare at Goats but also created the military recruitment slogan “Be All That You Can Be” in 1980.

Try to Set the Night on Fire

I went to Fire when I needed advice on everything, from personal to professional matters. When my dad passed in 1995 when I was only 25, I think I saved my entire breakdown for the men in the Fire conference. It was as real and as human and as inviting and supportive as anything I have ever experienced in my life.  The Meta Network in general and the Fire Conference, in particular, helped me through my 20s.

This just enough before Mosaic and the other seminal web browsers could support the same complex UI interaction that FTP, Usenet, Gopher, talk, Pico, Pine, etc., could offer so back then, all my interactions with both my email and both the ArtsWire and Metanet community were via command line: first via telnet, then via secure shell (SSH). I was a member of the WELL and ArtsWire and The Meta Network, all via TELNET, and it was richly expressive and passionate even without attachments or inline images or illustrations or colors.

An Online Talking Stick Circle

If I hadn’t found those online communities as a young man, I don’t know where I would be now. Being able to find your people is even more important for those of us who don’t feel safe letting their freak flag fly among their neighbors. As recently as twenty-years-ago (and even now) people packed up all their belongings in order to drive, take the bus or train, or even fly to resettle in new cities where their unconventionality or weird can be accepted, or even tolerated.

Virtual online communities, connected via the internet, are one of the most important gifts that the flawed internet has ever given us. We’ve come from early bulletin boards and USENET all the way to decades-old message boards, forums, and even social networking services, including Facebook.

Once Lost, Now Found

There are two kinds of communities: inherited and found. Your family and all the kids you met in school were inherited. Historically, university is the time where exceptional boy and girls would pack up and find people just like them. According to Wikipedia, if you move somewhere to attend college or join a company it’s called an intentional community because “members choose to live near each other [out] of one or more common interests.” If you move somewhere just because you know that there are people there who share the same principles and priorities, it’s called a community of place. These were the only choices to find your own special birds of a feather pre-Internet and pre-online community.

Olly Olly Oxen Free

Still, not everyone can drop everything and move. Maybe they have family obligations from which they’re unwilling to unshackle; maybe they have a physical ailment, a developmental disorder, a deeply debilitating anxiety, or agoraphobia or some other fear or insecurity that makes dropping everything and heading out impossible.

Communities of interest and communities of practice map perfectly onto the internet. Virtual online communities using the internet have allowed men and women to come together. Personally, online communities have actually made moving easier than ever: no matter where I go, Reddit, Adventure Rider, Facebook (and even Messenger), Instagram, and SMS, are still where I left them.

Screw Tolerance!

For me, I don’t want to be somewhere where I’m tolerated; I want to be somewhere where I am respected, loved, appreciated, enjoyed, and embraced. Above all else, I have learned and proudly uphold the heart of the online community ethos as defined by Howard Rheingold: “assume good intent.”

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Chris Abraham

About Chris Abraham

A pioneer in online social networks and publishing, with a natural facility for anticipating the next big thing, Chris is an Internet analyst, web strategy consultant and advisor to the industries' leading firms. He specializes in Web 2.0 technologies, including content syndication; organize search engine optimization (SEO), online reputation management (ORM), content marketing, online collaboration, blogging, and consumer generated media.

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4 replies to this post
  1. What a great remembrance! Because they saw Mom on Usenet, then email lists, and Brainstorms, my nerdy kids, growing up in rural illinois, understood that they, too might be able to reach out using the computer to find like minds. They are in their 20’s and 30’s now, with a more sophisticated understanding of how deep connection can be formed over decades than many of their peers, who first got online with MySpace and Facebook

    • I never thought that the kind of noble and ethical and loving interaction that can happen in a supportive and loving safe and accountable online community can be passed on to children. I am so happy for that. Make sure those kids don’t end up being cynical. Thanks for commenting. Nobody comments on my posts anymore!

  2. “If I hadn’t found those online communities as a young man, I don’t know where I would be now.”

    Similar story here. I found a group of friendly OS devs back when I was young, about 15 years ago now. Purely by chance. I’m still working with them and learning from them today. Because I’ve had to move around for work, they’re among my oldest friends now too.

    It also meant in an era when MySpace was coming offline and Facebook coming online, my first real social experiences were on a phpBB forum and IRC. I think it’s a bit of a thing, as Valerie said, that these communities are more valuable than Facebook’s? Or they’re just too small to cover negatively in the news, and a little proud as well. 🙂 I do think the anonymity they provide gives a remarkable equality of opportunity, fwiw. The only barrier to entry is a will and the ability to read the lingua franca… and that leads to a greater diversity of participants, which is good I’ll bet. 🤔 Especially wrt age.

    • “My first real social experiences were on a phpBB forum and IRC”

      I love message boards and forums, though I’ve only socially been on them Real Name or Behind Walls and never anonymous–until I started learning about guns and motorcycles. So, I have had your experience late in life. Ha! 2012. Where all the matters is persistence, smartness, coolness (basically what you write) as well as your post count and your willingness to really engage the other posters. In other words, being a real social maven and leader. Yes, depending on how much you reveal about yourself, nobody knows you’re a dog on message boards without a real name policy. Brainstorms, Facebook, and TMN are/were real name environments and the WELL, TMN, and Brainstorms are walled gardens. I wrote this and think you might really like it (and I would love your comments there, too).

      “They’re just too small to cover negatively in the news, and a little proud as well”

      The thing about forums is that they feed reddit and reddit feeds blogs and social media so message boards and forums are super-influential. But you’re right, if you can’t crock them and sort out how to become a homey with the people there — if you don’t fit into their qlique — you will be trolled, shamed, ignored, and rebuffed. The worst, I guess, is being ignored… Message boards is mean girls for nerds and geeks like us!

      “I do think the anonymity they provide gives a remarkable equality of opportunity”

      I don’t address this enough. Some message boards are like a full time AA/NA Anonymous recovery platform, allowing you to shine and be understood in a non-judgemental environment (they don’t know your race, gender, sex, age, able-bodiness, disease, impediment, ugliness, beauty, etc)–as long as you’re not illiterate because the inability to communicate can be a disability. Maybe not. Anymore. Back in USENET days, your ability to write well was way more important than your wit or knowledge.

      “The only barrier to entry is a will”

      Yeah, you need to get on board and keep coming back…. it is a lot like NA or AA! But any IRL community is like that… “who you?”

      “The ability to read the lingua franca”

      Yeah, know your audience. Work hard to code switch, to assimilate.

      “That leads to a greater diversity of participants, which is good I’ll bet.”

      It should but it often just results in one type of person. I don’t think there was a lot of diversity in my gun forums.

      Oh, and you might like this post as well — and I would always love your smart commentary!

      Thanks for the comment!

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