At the very beginning of the “commercial internet” era, around 1995, the internet was all about communities. Mailing lists and Usenets were crucial tools which allowed people with similar interests (and similar problems!) to hang out together in what was considered a fantastic virtual square.
Then, shops started showing up in this square, and... well, its inhabitants got a little distracted.
They could go to the bookshop called Amazon and buy a book. Or, they could go to a travel agent and book an aeroplane ticket; or, they could enter the information office (Google) and ask anything they liked—and always get an answer.
The crowds rapidly changed. By the year 2000, a lot of people joined the virtual square just for its shops. The concept of “Agora” didn’t get completely lost; but the flashy lights of thousands of shops made it very easy to get distracted. Spam made Usenets and mailing lists barely usable—and, what was worse, they didn’t have the pretty interface that every other shop seemed to have.
By the year 2005, things had changed once more. Online communities became prominent again. After going through a lot of renovation work, and after clearing up text-version rubble, online communities’ shops looked as flashy as the expensive shops did. The internet was very different to what it used to be, but that didn’t necessarily mean worse.
Now, finally, the internet can claim once more that it’s all about communities.
I realised the importance of online communities when I joined two cancer support groups: one runs every Tuesday morning, and involves a short drive to Cottesloe beach. The other one is online, and it’s been as important as the “physical” one.
What is impressive, is that a lot of the dynamics in the two support groups are exactly the same: new members are especially looked after; long term members help new ones, and a small number of volunteers work constantly to make sure that the group runs smoothly, often sacrifying huge chunks of their spare time.
Free software has helped online communities immensely. Programs like PHPBB have helped make the transition I talked about, from mailing list/usenets to newbie-friendly web sites (and user-friendliness is crucial, because non-experts are prime users of such web sites).
All in all, in 2006 I am happy to see that, once again, the internet really is all about online communities and commerce, and that these two entities are not at odds with each other anymore—they live peacefully in the same space, using similar software (often free!).
A new balance seems to be in place. It’s up to us to make it last.