by Helen Lee
Online communities have been part of online culture as long as “online” has existed. It’s become popular to complain about how much time we’re spending on our phones, not paying attention to the people we’re with, but the truth is, usually we’re still talking to people – just virtually.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF ONLINE COMMUNITIES
Online communities originated in the 1980s, with virtual spaces such as Usenet and LambdaMoo, which was founded in 1990. Casey Fiesler, an assistant professor of Information Science at University of Colorado – Boulder, says, “This was really one of the very first virtual communities. It was all command prompt-style text-based, and it was just the opening up of the world to people who realized they could interact with people all over the world from their computer and their couch. It was huge.”
Usenet was also one of the first ways people could gather online, at places like alt.startrek and alt.xfiles.creative because some of the first communities were built around fandoms, as well as professions and other topics. Initially, many people got online at places Fiesler calls “walled gardens.” These were companies like America Online, which provided a portal to the Internet before web browsers were made widely available. Before this, most people in online communities were fairly tech-savvy, because skill was needed to understand how to access the internet at all. But as technology improved, so did access to online communities.
Fiesler explains, “What the internet did was, it provided a way for people to organize around things they like instead of just location. The internet became a place for affinity spaces – I am in a group of people because we like Harry Potter as opposed to, I am in a group of people because we’re neighbors, or we work together.”
It’s not like people with something in common weren’t organizing before – some of the very first online communities were organizing around fandoms through photocopied fanzines, videos, in person (at conventions and other meetups), and snail mail. But Usenet provided a way of sharing fan fiction and news easily, for the first time. “It has definitely made it much easier for fans to connect,’ Fiesler said. “And in more recent years I think it’s helped the mainstreaming of fandom in some ways.”
Following these types of services, email lists became popular; Yahoo! Groups, one of the largest collections of discussion boards, debuted in 2001. The advent of social media came just a bit later, with Friendster in 2002. Friendster started as a social gaming site, like Facebook began in 2004 as a site solely for university students. It was years before either site gained traction, but Friendster had 115 million registered members in 2008. Facebook, however, has proven to be the more enduring site since it opened its doors to anyone over 13 with a valid email address.
Today, the Internet has become so accessible that most people have enough savvy to get find people who are like them. If you’ve been paying attention to social media, you may know that today there are at least 1.59 billion people with Facebook accounts. One billion of these people use Facebook’s version of the online community, Facebook Groups, every month. It was in 2011 that Facebook introduced the Groups structure that is in place now, allowing people to congregate in a flexible format that it continues to try to improve with periodic updates. In general, most individuals on Facebook belong to an average of about a dozen of these groups.
FACEBOOK GROUPS AS COMMUNITY CONNECTORS
Anecdotally, I can tell you that a good portion of my friends create, interact, and moderate Facebook Groups on a regular basis. I myself spend probably 80 percent of my online time inside these groups. So, in writing this article, I sought out some of the people inside the groups I belong to. It seemed a natural way to go about this – after all, Secret groups are only known to people inside them, and aren’t searchable, so there’s no way for me to know they exist unless I’m in them, or have heard of them on the Internet. And many of these have instituted secrecy rules to prevent members from being exposed to the public.
For example, I belong to a few private Facebook groups for women writers, including one which falls under the umbrella of the nonprofit organization Out of the Binders. This group has been helpful to me in my work, but the Binders groups have seen controversy itself over the course of its existence.
As an alumnae of Wellesley College, I also belong to more than a dozen groups within that online community, which range from the less serious (cute pet group!) to the intensely private (sex and relationships). These are the groups I get the most out of, because the groups are full of helpful, intelligent people who have all the answers I could ever need to any question. And when someone sends out a “bat signal,” people respond and tag others till help is located. One such situation made the news last year.
Nevertheless, the same problems that affect the real-life community at large (racism easily comes to mind ) also affect the various forums, many of which have experienced criticism of uneven moderation, lack or moderation, or unfair practices. Some Wellesley Facebook groups even sprung up specifically to combat certain threads and support those who spoke up on them.
In addition to my alumnae groups, I belong to professional groups, fan groups, political groups, and groups of my friends. I even admin a group myself – for members of the Association of Zoo and Aquarium Docents and Volunteers. This requires policing content and booting people whose memberships have expired, but because the publication guidelines for the group are pretty strict, it does require me to consult a co-admin. Between the two of us, we’re usually able to agree on what needs to be addressed, and we support one another.
I’ve made a number of real-life friends through these groups, and my personal network has grown stronger as a result. And I’m not the only one who sometimes finds greater connections online – according to an anecdotal survey I conducted in one of my secret groups, people belong to a great variety of Facebook communities. Expatriate groups. School groups. Mom groups, exercise groups, knitting groups, dog rescue groups, family groups, health condition-related groups, promotional groups. Raccoon lovers. Trump supporters. And every TV show that exists, seemingly. The truth is, fandom had a significant role to play in connecting people online, and still does today.
Each of groups I’m in has its own character, level of organization, and philosophy. Take the Space Hipsters, an open group of space exploration enthusiasts that includes both professionals in the industry as well as people like me. It’s a heavily-moderated group that has seen its share of growing pains in its five-year existence.
Emily Carney, a Florida-based woman who started the group in February 2011, said, “I formed the group because I wanted to share spaceflight memes I made with other space enthusiasts – that’s really where it started, silly memes….Of course, the group grew way beyond silly space memes.”
Space Hipsters has remained lighthearted, but developed a group of four moderators (and a graphic designer and some additional advisors) and began to focus on stories of space and space personalities. It branched out into merchandise, to help defray some of the costs. Today, the group boasts 7,000+ members. It holds giveaways and celebrates milestones, and once, a Space Hipster pin went aboard the International Space Station (“I nearly collapsed,” Carney said). Carney hopes to host meetups and events, start a website, maybe even put out a book focusing on member experiences.
Lois Honeycutt, a Missouri-based Hipster and moderator, said, “In five years, we’ve faced a lot of issues and bad behavior. Most of it is run-of-the-mill – people getting heated and aggressive about something they are passionate about, and we have to step in and ask them to tone it down or even delete a thread.” Spamming is an issue, and once, the group had a man harassing female members of the group in a way that become frightening.
But ultimately, Carney said, the community polices itself pretty well. “I think people just saw the group and it…became more popular by word of mouth,” she said. “I think we appeal to anyone – the newcomer and the hardcore enthusiast alike. I think people are attracted to the group because we try to keep it friendly, not threatening.”
Another group I belong to is Platform 9 3/4, a Harry Potter fan group. I’m not a superfan or anything, so I figured I wouldn’t spend a whole lot of time here, but I got sucked in. This Closed Group started out as a site for singles, back in September 2015. The founder had a disagreement with the leadership of a different Harry Potter group, so he began it. Within a week, it had many members of all ages and marital statuses. Ashley Giddens, who took over from him as Headmistress and a Hufflepuff from southern Georgia, thinks it grew so quickly because it was intended to be a safe space with drama. She identifies as a Hufflepuff, and is assisted by a volunteer staff that encompasses 30 or so others – professors, prefects, and more.
“Our basic philosophy has always been kindness,” she said. “You can see it in the basic rules of the group – the first rule is the original rule. As we grew, we wanted to expand with the members. We wanted to keep fresh and exciting things happening.”
That first rule, by the way, is “DO NOT disrespect your fellow Potterheads.” No bullying, no name calling, no body shaming, no swearing, no bashing of other Harry Potter groups. Why is this so important? Giddens said, “When people are kind to one another they feel a sense of openness and friendship that’s important in real life and online.”
Platform 9 ¾, of all the groups I belong to, has a unique structure. Most of the groups I’m in use “Files” for reference materials, and utilize pinned posts to make announcements from administrators – they’re fairly simple in scope and organization. Some have giveaways or sell merchandise, like Space Hipsters.
Wiith 8000+ members at press time, this Group is a huge entity with many structured activities, which are posted both on the main feed and in Photo Albums. Lessons take place every week. Giveaways, too. People can answer trivia questions or answer a daily challenge question that may or may not be Potterverse-related, but is generally personality-driven. All these activities gain members points a monthly points contest. People are encouraged to use Pottermore’s quiz (link here) to sort themselves into their houses, then connect with others using Facebook’s private chat function. Chats exist for each common room associated with a Hogwarts house – there’s an adult-oriented chat that allows saltier language, and a The Great Hall chat for people of different houses to congregate. You can even join a House Quidditch team. Membership in this group is basically what you make of it – you can limit your involvement to posting “feels” on the main page, or turn it into a time-consuming hobby.
Leadership of the group (30 admins, six prefects for each house – even house ghosts that act as prefects) has its own chat, to discuss issues that might crop up. Engagement in Platform 9 3/4 is high, and new things seem to be happening fairly consistently. There’s a Photo Album called the Goblet of Fire, in which members can submit their own ideas for activities. As with all groups, it has evolved – selfies and pet pictures used to be allowed, but became overwhelming, as they encouraged chain reactions, or “chain posts,” that just went on and on. Political and religious posts also had to be banned, and swearing has been a problem. The group contains underage members, and Giddens said she was receiving dozens of messages a week about language. She spent up to 16 hours a day on the group, depending on what’s going on.
“We try our best to remove anything that is against the rules before any major drama starts,” Giddens said. “With any group, some issues to happen, but we try our best to resolve them quickly and keep them from getting a lot of flashy attention on the feed, because that makes the admins look as bad as the trolls with the drama spoons stirring the pot.” She estimated that one of them has to step in and enforce the rules a few times a day. If a member repeatedly breaks the rules or acts abrasive, they may be removed.
But if the group takes up so much time and energy – why continue it? Giddens said, “The satisfaction of knowing that like-minded people who love Harry Potter have a safe space to gather and make friends, and discuss their own…feelings on the books and movies without having to worry about trolls on the Internet tearing at them and making them feel less of a person because of what they believe in or what they possibly don’t understand.”
That feeling is shared by Patricia-Joy Ojeda from southeastern Michigan, who took over from Giddens this summer when Giddens stepped down due to the demands of a new job. “I love how we are a safe haven for our fellow Potterheads,” she said, unconsciously mimicking Giddens’ words. The transition has shown that the group has quickly become an entity with a life of its own, not subject to the word of a single leader whose “Muggle” priorities got in the way. Ojeda says that although she now spends several hours a night on Platform 9 ¾, her new position “is actually not as difficult most people think. I have a very strong admin team, that even while I’m at work, keeps everything running like a well-oiled machine,” she said.
And how long does she intend to say? Ojeda said, “As long as this page (and its admins) are active, that’s how long I’ll be here.”
“A LITTLE CORNER OF THE INTERNET”
All these groups I’ve listed so far are ones that have thousands of members, and they all have something in common. But not all Facebook groups are big. Some are tiny. I’ve heard of one that consists solely of a mom and daughter, trading news and pictures. I’m in one that’s reserved specifically for members of my book club, which has about six people in it, that includes meeting times and occasional articles related to something we recently read. I’m also in one that includes my three or four closest friends, and we share political memes we like and personal information that in yesteryear we would have gabbed about on the telephone. It’s more efficient to talk to each other that way and get perspectives, rather than calling everyone separately. My extended family has one too, and mostly they post baby pictures. I’m pretty sure we’re not the only family that does this.
My friend Lisa Franklin Morgan, who started many of the small-sized secret groups that I’m in actually comes in at under the average in terms of groups she belongs to. But she recognizes Facebook Groups as a tool that simplifies her life – they help her organize events, keep track of who’s coming, and get messages out to people. And this makes Facebook worth it, for her. “I waste more time being on it, but I think overall it’s been positive, which is why I still go on it and still keep it,” she said. “It helps me keep in touch with people – even our group. I would not talk to you guys as much if we didn’t have that group.”
On social media, she posits, people do tend to put their best faces forward. But, in Secret Groups, they can reveal more of themselves without fear of negative feedback. In fact, this is something that Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg addressed in a press release in 2011. He said, “When I built the first version of Facebook, almost nobody I knew wanted a public page on the internet. That seemed scary. But as long as they could make their page private, they felt safe sharing with their friends online. Control was key. With Facebook, for the first time, people had the tools they needed to do this. That’s how Facebook became the world’s biggest community online. We made it easy for people to feel comfortable sharing things about their real lives.” He admits that the company has made mistakes, but commits to doing better.
This is a good thing, actually. As more people use the internet and everyone is online, they start to encounter something Casey calls “context collapse.” As more people get online, and as Facebook and other social media outlets become more ubiquitous, people you aren’t used to seeing together all start to inhabit the same space in your life. Fiesler explains, “In real life, you almost never are taking to your grandma, and your boss, and your fan fiction friends in the same place. When would they ever be in the same room together, right?….One of the problems that can cause is that people don’t know what to say to all of these people at the same time. One thing that can happen is that people don’t share so much, or they don’t use that space where everyone is all together and instead they go interact with their fandom friends in (one place) and their family in this place.”
Facebook Groups were created in part to deal with this context collapse, Fiesler said, but there’s more to it than that. “They basically allowed the creation of mini-communities inside Facebook in a way that wasn’t possible before. It’s basically the same as the message boards that were really popular for a long time. One interesting things that FB Groups has made possible for people to create their own little corner of Facebook to do everything. There are some people I know who literally don’t use Facebook at all outside of a single group…It kind of makes Facebook much smaller.”
NEW WAYS OF CONNECTING: HERE TO STAY
All this is great, but what does it mean, exactly?
Fiesler says that context collapse has actually led to the resurgence of one-on-one communication. Kids are using Snapchat to talk to one another instead of Facebook, or they’re getting together in small groups with their friends. Yet among the older population, you still hear complaints that people no longer talk to each other. Cartoons show couples in the same space, both texting others. Memes explain a good way to eat out with friends – put everyone’s cell phones into a pile, and the first one to look at her texts has to pay for the meal.
There’s an assumption out there that once we get online, we’re degrading the quality of our relationships because what you experience online isn’t as real or as affirming as what you get from your real-life networks. But there’s also evidence in the other direction. This Psychology Today piece says that research shows social media has enhanced relationships, especially for those who are introverted. “Social media can connect us to people and opportunities that would now have been possible without it,” says author Pamela B. Rutledge, Director of the Media Psychology Research Center at Fielding Graduate University. She noted that relationships online can take longer to achieve intimacy, but they can also feel safer and be based more on substance than looks.
Fiesler agrees. She said, “Online communities have also hugely positive things, just being able to connect people, being able to open people up to new points of view, letting people who might have trouble interacting in in-person contexts to interact more easily online, really just the ability to connect to people who like the same things you like, I think, has been pretty revolutionary. And it’s been happening since the ‘80s, but it just gets bigger and bigger and bigger.…These days, when people are checked into their technology, it’s usually because they’re connecting to other people through technology.”
And it’s fairly clear that while online communities grow and change, they won’t go away anytime soon. Humans have a need to connect to one another, and they’ll find ways of doing it, no matter what the medium.