This post is about the concept of social togetherness. For other uses, see Community (disambiguation).

I first dialed up a BBS in 1983. I’ve been a part of online communities of one sort of other ever since. I was into BBSes until I moved to Illinois, where there weren’t many to speak of. However, shortly afterwards I got onto the Internet and found Usenet. When the World Wide Web took over, there were various forums I hung out on, and eventually blogs and other sites. I now am active on Twitter and (to a lesser extent) Facebook.

I don’t know if it was Web 1.0 or Web 2.0 but somewhere in there came a great amount of attention focused on the social aspect of websites. That is, the readers should be an active part, and should be allowed to congregate, discuss the subjects at hand, and register their approval or disapproval of them. These days, the smallest website has the ability to add forums, chats, comments, and various other “social media” geegaws designed to build a community around it.

Naturally, I’ve really come to dislike this.

It’s not that I hate people, it’s that I have come to really dislike the communities that spring up as a result of these things. Maybe it’s the fact that, because of my interests, these communities always consist of nerds, who don’t really know how to interact well with others, or at least don’t do so in a way I’m comfortable with.

One of the first newsgroups I happened on was alt.folklore.urban, which is allegedly devoted to urban legends, a topic I’ve always been interested in. However, I quickly discovered that alt.folklore.urban was not about urban legends, it was about alt.folklore.urban. Specifically, it was about the “regulars” on alt.folklore.urban, who hung out there chatting amongst themselves and ignoring — if not outright dismissing — any of the non-anointed who made the mistake of trying to talk about, say, urban legends.

At the time I dismissed this as a strange island where a group of alphas had taken over the place for themselves. However, as I’ve gone on, I see this happening more and more, though admittedly not to such extreme lengths.

What I’ve noticed is that every online community I’ve seen that’s based around a thing (let’s say, a site devoted to movies, or to comics, or whatever) eventually devolves into simply being about itself. That is, a community may spring up on a site devoted to dogs, but eventually the community exists for its own sake. The topic of discussion is no longer dogs but the community. Playing, fighting, flirting, and joking with the other members. Instead of discussing dogs, the topics of discussion are the in-jokes of the community. Certain members will become the “leaders” of the group and have the power to welcome or shun others as they see fit.

It’s possible the management of the site will give this group their own forum, an “Anything Goes” or “Off Topic” place where they can just hang out and shoot the breeze. This actually makes things worse because it walls off the participants from the rest of the site and underlines the fact that dogs (or whatever the site is ostensibly about) are not to be discussed there. Many “regulars” on the Off-Topic forums may only visit those forums and actually contribute little to nothing to the rest of the site, meaning the administrators, wanting to run a site about dogs or whatever, are now additionally hosting a clubhouse for discussing in-jokes, funny pictures, and, inevitably, bacon. There’s always bacon.

There are other ways this phenomenon manifests. There are two sites I used to really enjoy: PostSecret and TVTropes. Both I thought were very interesting. But both have fallen prey to this degeneration. Hardly a week goes by in which the “secrets” posted on PostSecret don’t include ones that talk about PostSecret itself. Likewise, TVTropes, which began its life talking about cliched and recurrent motifs in TV shows and movies, now is largely about TVTropes itself. That is, “tropes” don’t seem to be put there because they add some value to the discussion at hand, but through more of a sense of “Oh, I got one!” The 101st example of a “trope” isn’t illuminating, but tenchibaby101 finally saw a place to add something and added it. (Apparently a trope isn’t fully catalogued until every Japanese cartoon ever produced is given a chance to say why it applies or doesn’t apply.)

I am at a point in my life where I have friends — both on-line and off — who I do enjoy socializing with, but when I go to, say, BoardGameGeek, it’s because I want to find out about boardgames. I’m not interested in being a part of a community of gamers and celebrating the Geek of the Week and seeing photos of everyone’s kids and seeing what boardgames Chuck Norris would play and bacon and memes and whatever. On MetaFilter I’d like to read comments on the topic at hand and not how this ties into some great comment flamewar from six months ago.

On most sites I don’t read comments at all because they don’t really add much of anything. I long ago found myself avoiding them on sites like Making Light, BoingBoing (which I don’t even read anymore), and J-Walk because it was just the same people saying the same things in their little clubhouses.

Maybe I’m just a curmudgeon, but I’m not looking to join any more cliques. I really don’t care about the intra-community excitement and drama. I don’t need to be a part of something on the Internet, I just want to look at stuff.

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6 Responses to Community

  1. MichaelD says:

    Quite agree. I don’t generally read comments either, and when I do it usually makes me hate people.

  2. Maxo says:

    Thank you for putting your finger on something that’s been bugging me for a while.

  3. Cathy says:

    I can see it in TVTropes when I find comments like “If this troper remembers right, Show X also took place in City Y”. You can’t take the time to look it up and confirm it? I like TVTropes when it’s treated as a reference resource, not as a pop culture chat forum.

  4. BillJ says:

    I thought I had seen this codified into a standard life-cycle and did some digging. Found it here:

  5. SKleefeld says:

    That’s actually kind of the point of those message boards and online groups, though: to develop a small, like-minded community. Using comics or urban folklore or whatever is essentially just a means to open the door to get to know other people. I did fair amount of research on this for my book on comic book fans, and I found that the subject people center around is pretty superficial to the group itself. You can actually do research on all sorts of fandom (from as broad as “science fiction” to as narrow as “John Barrowman’s portrayal of Jack Harkness on Torchwood”) and they all follow the same patterns. My father, after reading my book, noted how closely comic book fandom paralleled the magic community.

    But, ultimately, it’s NOT about the subject du jour, it’s about connecting with other people. Towards the end of my book, I summarized it like this: “That’s really the key to fandom: to find those people who enjoy the same types of things in comics you do and enjoy the time you can spend with them. Share your passion, your joy, with others and they’ll share theirs with you.”

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