Thursday, June 5, 2014

Communities on the Internet, Then and Now

Almost Disconnected

It was late 80'ies when I first got my first Internet experiences. It was not much by today's standards but it was mind blowing to me that you could connect to other computers across the world. Before this, you'd typically call to modem pools to get access to some fixed computer setup over the telephone network. You could leave a message on some bulletin board, much like Internet forum today. It would be just a pain in the ass to go and read the updates and check things again. Later you could do something similar over the Internet but you still had to call some modem pool to get there. And holy cow, you still had to know IP-addresses to find stuff. It was somewhat of a person-to-person inside knowledge thing to get around. No real sense of community here because the interval between exchanges was always too long.

The Golden Age

Well, that was the old way and not very inclusive to people at large. But, before we get to the WWW, there was an interesting period of time that has gone missing in away. It is still alive but people do not necessarily engage that way anymore. It was the world of Internet Relay Chat (IRC), and interactive text games, and chat rooms. It was the time of inclusive communities. Think of these as islands where people would meet and communicate. The sense of it was more private and somehow more meaningful in some sense because you were not exposed to millions and millions of people through some flood gate. The second thing about this was that the mode of communication was often immediate and then forgotten. You could choose to leave your communications on a bulletin board, but you could just as easily choose to talk to someone and have the bits lost for an eternity once it was all done. These communities would also have loose gate keeping policies and some behavioral controls so that nobody would ruin the experience. I so miss the safety and convenience, inclusiveness of these kinds of communities. You could just pop in and have a chat with your friends in real time, and there would always be someone you know, at any time.

For me, this was the way I learned to love Internet in real terms. I had the choice where to go, who to include, what to record and leave behind, and what not to. That was real freedom, and it fostered trust and real sense of community. These are very strong bonds that span decades between people from all over the world.

The Curse of WWW

WWW changed all that. Even then, Facebook and Twitters of the world are rather recent inventions. What strikes me about this was that it took a really long time for me to even get into Facebook or Twitter. The mode of communication had totally changed. The cozy feel of a protected community was somehow lost in it all.

Even Facebook, while inclusive to 'friends', is a very watered down model of the kind of freedom that used to be available to you. Your circle of friends does not foster trust the same way if you have 100 of them. Further, Facebook is a leaky boat with all of its privacy rules. The stuff that you say, does not stay in there, but leaks everywhere through your 'friends'.

I suppose the Facebook groups sort of give you this, but the freedom of joining is sort of tainted with all the spam bots and the like. Regardless, even these communities are not protected due to the leaky privacy rules. The very least the privacy defaults are not sane. You will soon find that your friends who are not part of the community start commenting on your timeline about your comments in the closed community you posted to. It's so badly broken.

There are other things, like Twitter. Twitter is a blast horn built for people who collect groupies. The interaction can be more immediate here but the relative anonymity of the 'follow' function sort of soils the safety aspect of any kind of 'tribalism' that is so natural to people. The groupie thing is really not so exclusive to Twitter as you can mimic the same behavior with Facebook by having those 100 "friends". To be fair, Twitter was never built to be a community driver but it is quite representative of the fact that we are forgetting this side of communication.

People Should Forget and so Should Internet

What still feels wrong is the permanent nature of your communications. Unfortunately for us, we suck, so we put out garbage that leaks out of our heads on the Internet. If you are engaged at all, you WILL make mistakes. Except now, everyone sees and remembers your crap forever. Not only that but you have this shadow crew of haters that jump out of thin air because of the leaky boat that knows no bounds. You are in effect always afraid and feel insecure, and this results to not really speaking your mind and being who you are. Who's watching? You freaking never know, which is unsettling to anyone. I do not really want to worry about that a whole lot but you can't break free and feel safe in your interactions. Safety is paramount to trust and forming friendships, for example. That would be the core of any community.

True Community Dialogue Lost?

The true tragedy of this all is that true dialogue between people has been lost in some ways. It feels cold, and impersonal. When your communication is reduced to one liners that never go anywhere, even in the comment section, other than having a bunch of silly remarks where people are trying one-up each other. Another way that things have gone funny is that there is no easy flow in and out of interpersonal communication that you can mix and match. It may be paradoxical but due to all the noise and blast horn style garbage, communication is not better, or easier. For one, you are always semi paranoid, so you are deterred.

The nature of connections between people has permanently changed. They are casual and impersonal, never quite leaving a lasting impact or feel of engagement. So, I sometimes wonder if all the commercialization of communication has done us a disservice. I can see the value in all the information and entertainment but somehow the human aspect is diminished, and we are fed with artificial food.

I guess I just miss the whole meaning of 'community'. To me it is like a lake, with streams coming in, and streams leaving, freely, but with people who form the core, who can have meaningful conversations reliably, at any time. All those immediate communications should be forgotten and thrown away and let people exclusively record things when they want to, for others to see when you are not there right now.

I am unsure if I really fit in the world of Facebook and all the rest all that well. I suppose it gives some people a sugar high but I demand more than "Hello Kitty" and "Achievement Stickers".