Posted on 1/9/2020 to jenngineering

your first communities, a follow-up

back in mid-november i asked you what your first communities were, and dozens of you responded via email, the devil’s chat room. this post is a round-up of your generous replies and my thoughts – long overdue because of a 5-week long lower respiratory infection. yes, i blog with my lungs.

irl (in real life) communities

using “irl” as the antonym of “digital” probably isn’t fair, but it gets the job done. myself, and a lot of you in my devil’s chat room experienced community outside of (and often before) the world wide web brought us all together – in the devil’s chat room.

most of our first irl communities were school (like kindergarten class!) or church. these are communities we were introduced to at a very young age (whether we liked it or not) and where we felt safe. casey kolderup’s dad worked at a church, and it was basically an extended family for them.

“we had lots of meals together…we took care of people and people took care of us" - casey kolderup, on his church

an important characteristic of good communities, besides the comfort of breaking bread and being vulnerable enough to both give and receive help, is that their values are consistently aligned with their members. a pattern i saw in your replies was that irl groups that survived were ones that didn’t gatekeep; they used their resources to help others locally. casey’s church was no exception: “we were very hooked into local charities so we could volunteer with charities, ecological efforts, and so forth.”

a couple of folks told me that their first irl communities were school groups/activities. for clare, high school band was the first place she felt like she belonged. high school is where we strive to find our people, which is a hard task during an angsty time where it’s very hard to find permission to be ourselves. for clare’s high school band, everyone had “no chill about loving generally uncool things.” communities should have a shared interest, but that shared interest doesn’t have to be super niche and it doesn’t have to mean other interests are not welcome. for kris’s future problem solving class, “everyone was weird and didn’t have dads.”

digital communities

it came as no surprise to me that the majority of responses and feelings from you all were about digital communities - many of us were internet teens! many of you (and i) got started in community participation via online forums, chat rooms, and networked blogs like livejournal. a lot of those networks were created around, like irl communities, shared interests.

jackie luo’s first online community was of poets. while twitter (where i first interacted with jackie before we became friends irl) can sometimes feel like a community of a certain genre of poetry, the world online today definitely has a different energy than it did back in the day.

“i loved it because it was so so so wholesome. people put themselves out there in a way that i haven’t quite experienced in a while now. writing and sharing your own bad poetry is a pretty embarrassing act by today’s internet standards (even then, it was embarrassing, but now? in these irony-poisoned times?), but people were super willing to be vulnerable and support each other in that pursuit, and even though i was too young to fully understand how rare and valuable that is, i liked it a lot. it was a really nice way to enter the world of Online™.” - jackie, on her first online community of poets

besides shared experiences and wholesomeness, many folks turn to online communities as a venue for creative expression and a vehicle to future careers. it was not uncommon for web surfers to spend their time creating avatars, styling blogs and social media profiles, and collaborating with peers to make awesome stuff. that practice and learning could lead to careers in design and/or development, as was the case for a lot of those who reached out to me! for clare, xanga was the venue and vehicle that “led to my education in graphic design and ultimately my career as a software engineer.” for julius tarng smashboards “was where I really first experienced the joy of making things for people in your community. It's a feeling I constantly chase, and is not always possible to find.”

“Personally it led me into design and art in ways that public school couldn't, and set me on the path of product design for today. Couldn't imagine where I would be if I never found it.” - luke patton, about GFXFreaks

there’s no doubt that i would not be involved in art, community and the web were it not for my early days on geocities and deadjournal (goth isn’t a phase, dad!)

another thing that we turn to online communities for, and what keeps us there, is the freedom to feel cool! in the past i had mentioned my getting started online in the weezer forums, which a few of you said was the same for you. one of you said “it was probably the first time in my life people seemed excited to get to know me and that my curiosity wasn't a burden or something I felt I had to reign in, but that also went beyond just our interests in weezer.” i think outside of the forums, i was too afraid to talk about the things i was passionate about or else my irl friends would call me a dork or dismiss something sacred to me - the music i used to escape.

“I was used to caring too much about things other people (even my close friends) didn't give a shit about, and to be suddenly surrounded by people who cared A LOT meant a lot to me.” - evangeline garreau, about the terry pratchett message boards

david schmudde told me about the mashup of irl and online communities, bbs (bulletin board systems): “I was too shy to be an insider with the outsiders but it felt more okay to be an outsider of outsiders. They understood…bbses are gone but the punk scene stuck around.”

what killed the communities

i think the least surprising to me of your responses were why you were no longer a part of the communities: some sites shut down when owners lost interest or money, toxicity ensued from lack of moderation, and transfer of ownership changed the social dynamics and rules. sadly, a few of you were underage and targeted by predators, which led to fear of connecting with anyone online for awhile. i would be lying if i said that i’m never kept awake at night at the thought of the pressure i feel to prevent the same things happening to glitch, but i think that a good start is being aware of the risks, trying not to followe failure patterns, and working with people throughout the product process to make sure risks are known and mitigated.

another thing that came up in some of your responses was that it wasn’t just communities that had died, but the ability to feel like part of one, likely because the internet got bigger as we go older.

“The internet in the 00s felt like it was mostly teenagers online… but now it’s like… my boss follows me on twitter.” - kris

not all is lost, though, if your community goes away or you go away from it. many of you are still close to people you met online, some have created new forums and discord servers - some of you have gone to each other’s weddings!

some lessons and thanks

i think the biggest reminder to me while reading your responses is that a common blind spot of mine and my fellow community leaders is conflating the power of nostalgia (something that can be felt by all generations) with the power of a specific time period that makes us personally feel nostalgic. at glitch, we often talk about geocities and livejournal, but they are not (and should not) be required experiences to understand our mission of helping everyone build the web. one thing i’ll be working on personally is being more thoughtful and clear about why i want the web to be like those old communities by stating not just their names but their qualities. i'll also do more exploration of what exists today so i can help us all speak more hopefully about online communities versus telling younger folks that they missed the peak of the web. i don’t think they did!

and finally, i don't want those of us with a longer cv of online community usage to feel alone or hopeless when it comes to knowing the web today is bigger than it was when we joined; i want us to better articulate what we're looking for versus saying "i want it how it used to be." that's not helpful to those of us building communities i've recently come to find. but i think that julius tarng, one of many great design engineers i know who got started making graphics for their friends on forums, articulates well the magic many of us are looking for.

“I started making signature banners for folks, and it was where I really first experienced the joy of making things for people in your community. It's a feeling I constantly chase, and is not always possible to find.”, julius tarng on his first online community, smashboards

thanks to all of you for sharing your stories, especially the several of you who allowed me to quote you! i went into the new year inspired because of them, and i’m hoping that those of you leave this post inspired too :) see u on glitch.com