Online Communities and the Evolution of Relationships

This past May, I became a Community Manager for the GitHub Community Forum. This position is focused very heavily on the strategy of the community, shaping how it grows and evolves over time, so I’ve been thinking a lot about online communities in general and how they’ve shaped the relationships that I have with other people.

Growing up on AOL

My first exposure to online communities was AOL chat rooms and AOL Instant Messenger. When I was in middle school, my dad first got us access to the Internet via the blazing-fast speed of dial-up. I wasn’t allowed on the internet that much, but when I was, I spent a large part of my time talking in AOL chat rooms.

It was a really neat experience. For the first time in my life, I got to talk to all sorts of other people, living lives that were very different from mine but were unified by a collective boredom being alleviated through this shared experience. As someone growing up in rural Illinois, this was in large part the first way in which I was exposed to the concepts of diversity.

Chat rooms led to an interesting dynamic which was largely built into the platform. Conversations were synchronous, ephemeral, and largely anonymous. Each chat experience was a different, self-encapsulated experience that I could join or leave at any time.

These traits made the chat room experience very similar to the experience that you get when you go to a convention or a networking meet-up and get into small group discussions with people that you don’t really know. Some conversations are surface-level interest-based discussions but many conversations ended up being deeper and more intimate than one might expect as the relative anonymity gave a certain sense of protection and allowed people to open up.

Going instant

AOL chat rooms led me to AOL Instant Messenger where I was able to develop deeper relationships with interesting people that I met in the AOL chat rooms. I could move out of the ephemeral group chat and take conversations into an individual setting.

Doing this removed a lot of the anonymity that chat rooms had, but since I had built relationships with people in chat rooms before talking to them individually, I felt safer talking to them one-on-one. In addition to that, I was also protected by the ability to create an online identity. Instead of using names, AOL Instant Messenger used handles and it became second nature to think about people as their handles and not worry too much about their real life identity. After all, if I’m just chatting and not trying to take the relationship further in one way or another, it doesn’t really matter.

Towards the end of middle school, my friends at school also got AOL Instant Messenger and my dad switched out our dial-up modem for cable internet. This was a huge change as it meant that I could be online all the time and I was no longer constrained to hang out with my friends only in person or on the phone. This was the first steps towards really leveraging a digital medium for developing real relationships.

Instant messaging is such a powerful platform for communication. While the tools may change and overwhelm us with choice, it’s such an intuitive platform for communicating one’s thoughts that it’s no wonder the world has been taken over by different forms of instant messaging from Twitter, to texting, to all of the different active platforms available for traditional instant messaging. Heck, right now I’ve got active conversations going in Telegram, Google Hangouts, Facebook Messenger, and Slack.

Moving towards deeper relationships

As my friends and I moved into high school and started really developing our own personal identities, blogging became a huge craze. People started opening up blogs on Livejournal, Xanga, Blogger, and other platforms. Unlike messaging services, it didn’t require everyone you knew to be on the same platform (except for privacy controls), so it allowed people to gravitate to the service that they felt that they could best express themselves with.

Blogging had some great benefits. It was a medium that largely encouraged a deeper, more thoughtful examination of your thoughts and feelings than Twitter or Facebook does but also didn’t require it. You could choose how public or private you wanted your thoughts to be and the social norm was largely that these blogs were for your friends and people that you knew as opposed to the general public for promoting yourself.

Consuming blogs was also a significantly different dynamic for me than how I manage my social media consumption currently (and discussing that with my friend Tashi is a large reason that I started this blog again). Before Facebook was what it is today, if you wanted to know what someone was thinking or feeling, you’d read their blog or communicate with them directly. This means that you got to pick and choose who you wanted a deeper relationship with and if the feeling was mutual, you got access to a much deeper level of information than you generally get on social media today since people are creating most of their content for a semi-public audience.

Social media, to me, is like standing in Times Square, populated with whoever you want, all talking loudly to no one in particular. Sure, you can choose who you focus on, but with the ability to walk around and hear what everyone is saying, the temptation to not curate (or overly curate) is huge because you never know what you’re going to miss. And even if you did curate who you’re following, the platform is designed in such a way to have frequent, short interactions rather than longer, more meaningful interactions with content.

Social media and beyond

Obviously, I haven’t covered all of the different online communities that I’ve been a part of. While I wasn’t really around for the days of message boards and email lists, I did participate in a couple of online forums which had their own unique dynamics. However, I didn’t set out to write a book today – it just kind of accidentally developed and I’m going to nip it in the bud.

Currently, I feel overwhelmed with my digital life. I enjoy keeping up with people over one form of instant messenger or another but all of the social media platforms I’m on give me this feeling of responsibility and very little of the actual information and interactions that I want. The people that I care most about aren’t the people that I interact with most and I’m constantly bombarded with information that is at best distracting and at worst distressing. Even using ad-blocking software, I’m still bombarded by various forms of ads on social media in the form of promoted posts and on my mobile devices – ads which are extremely well-tailored to me and effective at getting me to spend money that I really don’t want to spend.

I’m not at the point that I’m ready to quit all of social media as there are people that I stay connected with there which I don’t have any connection to elsewhere. However, I am at the point where I want something different. I want to go back to engaging with people in smaller groups and have more meaningful conversations. Hence, this blog.

I can’t promise to write a lot, nor can I begin to describe what content I’ll keep on this blog. However, if you’re interested in knowing the most about what I’m thinking and feeling, I encourage you to follow along.

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