A nostalgia of early online communities

I created my first online community when I was 14. It coincided with the first time in my life I had my own computer, in my bedroom, connected to the Internet. When I was still living at my parents, we had one communal computer (as was common at the time), which was in my dad's office. If you wanted to use it, you had to ask, state what you would be doing, and my dad would put a timer on the kitchen's oven. Our Internet subscription only allowed for 50 hours a month, so you had to be strategic with this precious online time. Even after we had our first unlimited subscription, my dad tried for a while to enforce the intentional use of the Internet he thought was best for us.

When I moved to Clermont Ferrand into my foster care family (I'm not sure if there's a better, less emotionally charged word for this, maybe my host family? but it was more than that)—also, I really need to call Lizou—they didn't bother to move the computer out of the bedroom they gave me. They did arrange the bedroom with lots of care and welcomed me with incredible love—the reason they didn't bother is because they didn't think of the computer as something someone would want to use. To them, the computer was this big, cumbersome box they had to use from time to time to access an invoice or read an email. So they didn't think much of it and left it in my bedroom.

These three years in Clermont Ferrand have been when I got my Internet education. Every weekend—during the week I was in boarding school—I would spend most of the day and most of the night on this computer. I had already created a blog (first at anthilemoon.free.fr which was the free hosting we got with our hosting provider back at my parents' house, then at anthilemoon.net), but I started really investing my time and energy into growing it. It was my online home, with a close circle of online friends—some I'm still in touch with today.

We each had a blog, a blogroll (a list of our online friends' blogs), a chat box (for people to leave nice messages and let us know when they had posted something new on their blog). We all spent lots of time carefully designing and coding these websites. They had quite unique styles compared to the bland, undifferentiated interfaces you see today. Arriving for the first time on one of these blogs often meant spending a couple of minutes literally figuring out your way around—where's the menu, where's the chat box? In addition to diary entries, most people offered other goodies such as website templates, JavaScript widgets, Photoshop brushes, wallpapers, and so on. The bigger websites often had a phpBB forum board.

I joined my first phpBB forum board when I moved to Clermont Ferrand. It was a role playing game. I genuinely can't remember the intricacies of the world and the back story, but it was a fairly large board with some sort of fantasy or superpowers aspect to it. My character—as with all of my subsequent characters in all other RPGs I signed up to—was a suicidal, tortured woman. I—I'm saying I, because the connection between myself and my character was so transparent it would be ridiculous to ignore—often ended up having complex, destructive relationships with characters played by other people. The ones I loved playing were also probably projecting themselves onto their characters, putting lots of care into writing answers that reflected their thoughts and feelings.

To date, this is the most interesting form of community I have ever been a part of. First, it was completely anonymous. There was no way of knowing who was behind a character. I imagine it must have been a haven of safety for LGBTQ kids. Second, the communication style was long-form written answers. You would write an answer—not uncommon for an answer to be a couple of thousand words long—then wait for the other person to take the story further. The answers were written in the third person, and were supposed to read like a novel when read in order. I don't think there are many places online today where people are being this thoughtful when interacting together. (one exception is a website I recently stumbled upon where people write online letters to each other, like a public penpal conversation)

Because the format lended itself to slow conversations, most people had several characters on the same board and were often members of several boards, so they could cycle through storylines. Usually, by the time you were done replying to someone for a specific storyline, another storyline had moved forward. You could spend hours just writing non-stop, immersed in a parallel universe.

I soon created my own phpBB forum. It wasn't an RPG, it was a place for me to connect with all the friends I had made across various boards. I think the maximum number of members it reached was 100 people. (we had a virtual party to celebrate) I became really good friends with several members, chatting for hours on MSN Messenger. One of them I even considered flying to Canada to meet in person. Fifteen years later, we still write to each other from time to time.

What would these kind of meaningful online communities look like today? Most communities I run today are chat-based, and hence lead to fast, utilitarian, transactional conversations. Perhaps online salons as my friend Anna organises with the ~InterIntellect are part of the solution, but they lack the wonderful flexibility of creating an avatar for yourself. I also think that most solutions in the communication space focus on speed—how fast can we share information with other people? It may be shallow nostalgia on my part, but we have lost everything talking online brings versus talking in person: the potential for anonymity (which brings the potential for multiple identities), and the potential for slow, asynchronous conversations. Today, online communities require you to align your IRL identity with your online identity, and to talk fast.

Another aspect of talking with people which only online conversations can bring about in a more structured way is threaded conversations. When talking IRL, we usually tend to explore many related topics, and sometimes make a conscious effort to keep the main, original topic of conversation in our working memory so we can come back to it. "What was I saying?" or "What were we talking about already?" are common utterances in an IRL conversation. Online, you could easily imagine conversations with infinite nesting. I would actually love to explore such a repository of nested long-form conversations people would have on various topics.

But as with all tools, and especially in the case of community tools, there is no use if people don't engage with them. Part of me thinks most people today wouldn't be interested in such slow, long-form, nested conversations. Another part—the optimistic one—thinks there may be a tiny group of nerds who may enjoy building a giant idea playground by talking to others online. Surely I'm not the only one with a nostalgia of early online communities.