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 tmn.com, 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.
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.”