From witless contestants on The Bachelor to PhD-wielding social scientists and likes-driven social media gurus, much is made nowadays of the nebulous concept of “connection”. If the word immediately makes you think about the nearest WiFi hotspot, you’re not alone. Connection and the internet have always gone hand in hand. Indeed, the internet was created in the first place as a way for like-minded people to connect with one another. Even one of its precursors, the dial-up bulletin board system (BBS), was conceived when two Chicago techies, housebound by a 1978 blizzard, were inspired to find a way to ‘meet up’ with their computer club without braving the elements. Cumbersome hardware, clunky technology and awkward protocols be damned – connect they did.
What started as one-to-one messaging capability via the earliest email programs and primitive message boards has evolved into a complex technological ecosystem that makes online connection instantaneous and virtually (if you’ll excuse the pun) seamless. But connection is easy come, easy go – as anyone with even a passing knowledge of reality dating shows can tell you – the real modern feat is building relationships that last.
Since the 1970s, many online dalliances have come and gone. We bid adieu to once-beloved platforms like Usenet (mostly), GeoCities, Friendster and even Google+. As for MySpace, well, we still see you around – but we only call you late at night when we’re really lonely.
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If we’re all so intent on connection, why all the one-night-stands?
Social networks and online communities (lumped erroneously together as they too frequently are) are often described as the “town squares” of the internet. It’s an apt comparison so far as their shared function as gathering places—but a meeting space doesn’t necessarily translate into a meeting of the minds (or hearts). Because the thing about the town square is: you don’t always like everybody who hangs out there. Or perhaps you like them well enough, but you’re not alike. The human condition being what it is, every town has its fair share of fools, blowhards, busybodies, troublemakers and garden-variety jerks. Plus, a whole schwack of perfectly decent folks who are just into different things than you are—no harm, no foul. But also nothing to bond over.
This is where the distinction between social networks and online communities I alluded to earlier comes into play. While both facilitate connections, it’s the depth and quality of the connections that differ. Most social networking sites connect people who are acquainted with each other offline in one way or another. Your “connections” are your family, friends, neighbours, coworkers, classmates and so on. Some of whom you currently have things in common with, some of whom you once did and some of whom you never really did, other than breathing the same air for a while (guy I worked with for 3 months circa 2005, I’m looking at you).
Online communities, on the other hand, consist of people with no pre-existing relationship, linked together instead by a common interest, goal or purpose. Reddit’s vice president of brand partnerships, Zubair Janali, once summed this up brilliantly by saying, “If Facebook is people you know talking about things you don’t care about, then Reddit is people you don’t know talking about things you do care about.”
Caring is important because when you don’t care, you don’t engage. And a lack of engagement over a period of time is the kiss of death for any online platform.
Today’s (and presumably tomorrow’s) thriving online communities are places where people go to spend time instead of killing it. Social networks who claim millions of users may have little meaningful engagement to show for it. They’re like the big box stores of the internet. You might go there pretty regularly to satisfy your generic needs, but it’s never going to be like the hidden gem of a comic book store or carefully curated boutique that makes you swoon.
Today’s (and presumably tomorrow’s) thriving online communities are places where people go to spend time instead of killing it.
When I’m bored, I mindlessly scroll Facebook with barely a pause to absorb, let alone contribute. It’s the digital equivalent of staring blankly out the window. When I’m looking for my next great read or want to recommend one to others, I head over to Goodreads to engage with my fellow bibliophiles by adding books to my shelves, rating books I’ve read, and reading and responding to reviews. I’m there with a purpose and there is a meaningful ‘serve and return’ nature to the interaction.
Now, you may not be a book nerd, but everyone geeks out over something. If you’re into model trains, LEGO, restoring muscle cars, DIY home projects or knitting for your cats – trust that there is an active online community that will make your heart go pitter-patter.
Niche communities are highly engaging – and often highly successful because they provide an outlet for a specific area of passion in your life. The things you can lose yourself in for hours are the things that keep you coming back for more. And that kind of loyalty and invested participation speaks directly to the current relevance and future livelihood of any online platform.
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Discord is a real-time chat platform founded in 2015 as a way to connect gamers with one another. It has since evolved into a destination for not just gamers but also influencers, YouTubers, Instagrammers and podcasters to connect with their community. And perhaps more importantly – for their community to connect with one another. They currently boast 250 million registered users and 56 million monthly active users sending a mind-boggling 850 million messages a day in thousands of niche channels. Engaged? You can say that again.
My Favorite Murder (MFM) is a hit true-crime comedy podcast. Since its inception in early 2016, the show has broken download records and birthed an enthusiastic, interactive “Murderino” fan base who come out in droves for sold-out live shows worldwide. The Murderino community also engages heavily on Discord and other specialized online portals.
While true crime is the base topic, hosts Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark also talk openly about their own experiences with anxiety, depression, alcoholism and drug use, and reflect on issues like domestic violence and institutionalized racism. Their content and candor has sparked discussion, forged friendships, inspired fan art and helped launch maker-markets and grassroots businesses. Murderinos have also held events and fundraised for various charities and causes. One user on the MFM subreddit even surveyed the community to help inform their master’s thesis on “how hegemonic notions of femininity are resisted and negotiated in the community, and how the subjugation of women can be understood in relation to Murderinos’ community-building and passion for true crime”.
This compelling podcast has carved out a faithful community where interaction, reciprocity, empowerment and communal spirit has proven to be a potent mix for success. It’s fair to speculate that the next big thing on the internet will be the small things. The highly-verticalized and deeply personal places – not the whole town square, but the quirky gazebo within it where the “freaks and geeks” who are just like you congregate.
Right now, this might look like World of Warcraft players using forums to coordinate raid schedules, the TripAdvisor community helping a family-run restaurant fill tables, or beer lovers on Untappd helping others discover worthy new brews. These are all useful, enjoyable and engaging endeavours for those involved. Perhaps though, we can look to a future where the power of community is harnessed and mobilized to start addressing deep social issues, solving global problems and bridging gaps in equality, understanding and social capital. An internet that puts community first can help give a voice to marginalized groups and individuals who often lack the offline personal and professional networks, resources and opportunities to be heard.
With the right platforms in place, there’s no foreseeable limit to what passionate, committed and empowered online communities can accomplish. And that’s great news for World of Warcraft AND the real world we live in.