Internet communities strike back

Internet communities strike back

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.



magallon's picture
Submitted by magallon on

But it's also true that S/N in those communities is awfully low. It's all singing and dancing icons, together with me toos and I rulez. Today it's very hard to find communities with strong signal.

Or perhaps it's just that the people who where using the Internet before Al Gore invented it long for the days of yore when the net was the place to find accurate technical information that can't get used to the new net. For those of us who have to deal with the equivalent of a few hundreds of emails per day PHPBB is hell: no threading, no decent editor, no easy way to track replies, ...

Yes, the communities are there, but the information flow has reduced, too.

Mitch Meyran's picture

Sure, compared with a time when Mosaic reigned supreme and the only use you could get off the Internet were IRC, ftp and mailing lists, today's Web looks like a Dali painting reviewed and corrected by a bunch of retarded monkeys on sugar high.
Still, this pixel- and table-based delirium tremens lookalike has provided us with tools such as Google, SPIP and Wikipedia.
A computer is like air conditioning: it becomes useless when you open windows.

Terry Hancock's picture

Flat threading, as used in PHP BB, is terrific for preserving a "sense of conversation" that deep threading tends to destroy. Because it preserves the temporal nature of the conversation it keeps a more global context available in terms of subject-matter, and allows the conversation to be deeper and more personally meaningful to participants.

But of course, that only works if the participants have a fairly high investment in the conversation. This, and other aspects of common web forums like PHP BB are optimized to maintain the social aspects of conversation.

Deep threading, on the other hand, creates a dry, crisp, even hostile environment to social interaction. Jokes, affirmation, smilies, etc are dismissed as "off topic" or "noise" (as 'magallon' did above). The temporal nature of the conversation, the totality of participants, and essentially all of the social aspects are stripped, leaving only the meaning.

People use deep threading environments to: find out information, develop or promote their own reputation by helping others to find information, or do so because they are required to do so by work-related concerns.

In short, deep-threading is meant to be utilitarian, whereas flat-threading is meant to be fun.

If you think a community is all about people using each other for the attainment of mutual goals, then deep-threading works well. But if you think a community is all about sharing your feelings and thoughts with like-minded people, in a mutually affirming environment, then flat-threading is for you.

Very high-volume groups with many participants will, in a flat-threading environment, tend to break up into smaller discussion groups or "tribes" of "buddies" who like to talk to each other. "Topics" within a flat-threaded community tend not to be actual discussion topics, but rather interest groups of people interested in those topics (but who may be currently discussing something else entirely).

A deep-threading environment tends to erase these interpersonal bonds, while establishing tighter and tighter topic-based organization -- one loses track of who one is talking to, in order to restrict more finely what one is talking about. One feels that one is vaguely addressing "the list", and not a particular group of people. One is not interested much in who replies, but only in whether they get the information they wanted.

So, if you're choosing one or the other, you need to think about why people are going to come to your forum. What do they want out of the experience?

So it's not just about "newbie" versus "pro" -- it's also about "social" versus "utilitarian" communities.

Scott Carpenter's picture

Interesting comments, Terry.

Joel Spolsky had some similar things to say about this topic in Building Communities with Software.

For example:

"On Usenet, threads last for months and months and go off onto so many tangents that you never know where they've been. Whenever a newbie stumbles by and asks a germane question, the old timers shout him down and tell him to read the FAQ. Quoting, with the ">" symbol, is a disease that makes it impossible to read any single thread without boring yourself to death by re-reading the whole history of a chain of argument which you just read in the original, seconds ago, again and again and again."


"Branching is very logical to a programmer's mind but it doesn't correspond to the way conversations take place in the real world. Branched discussions are disjointed to follow and distracting. [...] Branching makes discussions get off track, and reading a thread that is branched is discombobulating and unnatural. Better to force people to start a new topic if they want to get off topic."

(There's lots more food for thought there also -- read the whole thing!)

I had used the Agent newsreader for Usenet enough that I frowned at what I thought were dumbed down web discussion forums, but I thought Joel made a lot of good points and I began to appreciate "flat" discussions more.

Occasionally I'll find a long discussion where I want to reply to someone but their comment is so much earlier in the conversation that I feel like the time to reply is past. Maybe that's a good feature. Real life conversations can become tiresome if people keep returning to earlier points and the same can apply to online discussions. Although not always, I'd argue. It can be challenging on a site like Bruce Schneier's, for example, where there are interesting discussions but so many posts that the conversation can be kind of chaotic.

The "watch" feature in newsreaders was helpful for keeping up on conversations. It's difficult to hold up your end of the conversation with so many forums out there. I like how Wordpress makes it easy to add a feed for comments to a specific post -- I'll usually use that when available so I can track the discussion for a while.


Terry Hancock's picture

Another interesting thing -- if you read Eric Raymond's "Cathedral and the Bazaar" series, and other essays on why people choose to develop free software, described by people who actually do it, you'll see a number of reasons given: "bettering the world", "seeking reputation", "to scratch an itch".

Yet, it seems to me that one of the biggest reasons is "to spend time with people who have similar interests and values as me". Yet it curiously doesn't get mentioned much. Writing software in Python, for example, is an excuse to be a regular poster on comp.lang.python, and it gives you something to talk about. Writing interesting, ground-breaking, or at least original code makes the conversation more interesting.

And that motivates others to keep talking to you, preserving the social network. I think that is a major motivation for a lot of free software projects.

It's very explicit with a big organization like Debian.

I don't personally do much mechanical work, but I have fond childhood memories of hanging out with my Dad and his buddies, typically rebuilding an engine on a car, motorcycle, boat, or airplane -- or some such thing. I think it's pretty much for the same reason that people in my generation hang out together online, building software packages.

BitShifter's picture
Submitted by BitShifter on

True. Online communities are indeed making a comeback. Improved in every way than its predecessors,online communities are as effective as their physical counterparts. I am a member of several online communities and they do help a lot. From moral support to useful information. It's great for these communities to make a comeback.

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Tony Mobily's picture


Tony is the founder and the Editor In Chief of Free Software Magazine