The Internet That Community Built

A headshot of Leisa Northcott

by Leisa Northcott

A colourful illustration of a campsite where modern people and cave man have gathered over a campfire.

Depending on how old you are yourself, it may sound shocking that I didn’t have internet at home until I was in my teens. A fact that – as I watch my 3-year-old deftly navigate between a toddler puzzle app and slime videos on YouTube – makes me feel particularly Flinstonian.

That sweet, if somewhat ear-splitting, AOL dial-up tone opened fascinating (and often undesirably NSFW) doors to teenaged me via chat rooms on burning topics of the day like: did Courtney kill Kurt? Lurking in these forums, I was dipping but a single toenail in what was – even at that time – an ocean of virtual communities built by people who were as invested in creating and sharing online content as I was in the Seattle grunge scene.

While I could date the era (and myself) even more by pointing out that the Spice Girls were recording their first album, the fact is that online communities actually got started back when The Village People were lighting up the charts.  

A colourful illustration of two cave men, one man standup behind the other with a spear as the other carves wood.

Starting in the 70s, private discussions via rudimentary email with one-to-one messaging capability were superseded by group discussions thanks to listservers with one-to-many functionality and crude Bulletin Board Systems, which gave rise to early internet forums that allowed individuals to post and comment on messages.

While it’s easy today to think of goliaths like Google and Facebook as holding the keys to the kingdom, it was actually a bunch of “davids” who were responsible for building the internet as we know it through community-based projects that sprung up, morphed and expanded organically.

Projects like the legendary Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (The WELL), a ground-breaking online discussion community known for its literate conversation and widespread influence that belied its small-by-today’s-standards user base. The WELL was founded as a dial-up bulletin board system in 1985 to facilitate a dialog between the writers and readers of counterculture publication The Whole Earth Review. To quote The WELL’s ‘about’ page, it’s “widely known as the primordial ooze where the online community movement was born.” It’s also where influential writer and thinker Howard Rheingold first coined the term “virtual community.”

The WELL attracted an active and engaged membership, many well known in the worlds of technology, music, and publishing. Impressive, considering that the early user experience was slow and cumbersome, and internet access so expensive, that members often went offline to write their missives (or, y’know, to take a phone call because: dial-up) and logged back on to post them. What could drive such perseverance and dedication among the earliest members of internet communities?

The need to belong starts early. Like, real early. Parent-child attachment is one of the most fundamental milestones of human development and is hardwired into our DNA. Beyond the bonds of biology, there is evidence that humans have been forming non-familial group connections for about 2.6 million years.

A colourful illustration of a fire in a stone-rimmed fire pit.

Today, we may not need to huddle for warmth or hunt and fend off predators together, but we definitely haven’t lost our primal urge to form meaningful connections with others. We now know that belonging is a matter of psychological survival and a basic human need. And a sense of belonging is the true linchpin of any community, online or otherwise. 

Simply put, humans need a tribe. Writer, blogger and all-around visionary Seth Godin has written much on the subject, and points out that, “A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.”

Enter online communities, offering people a way to come together over shared values, goals and interests – no matter how obscure – and irrespective of physical geography.

Which is the perfect segue to talk about GeoCities, one of the earliest web startups which was founded in 1994. GeoCities provided a platform for users to create their own web pages and then organized them into “neighbourhoods” based on their content, such as Nashville for country music, Yosemite for outdoor recreation and Napa Valley for wine. This approach gave the average newbie internet user a familiar frame of reference to understand the different communities and decide where they might want to hang out and contribute, regardless of their actual location. In other words, they made it easy to figure out where to belong.

Like many an ancient civilization, GeoCities eventually crumbled. As other blogging sites, hosting platforms and social media sites came online, droves of community members wandered off to new frontiers. Their purchase by Yahoo in 1999 put the nail in the coffin through a combination of neglect, a failure to adapt and monetize, and unwelcome changes to features and user agreements that riled the community. 

In 2009, when GeoCities was in its death throes, other communities were just taking off. Houzz started with one house – the Palo Alto, California home that husband-and-wife founders Adi Tatarko and Alon Cohen set out to remodel. They built Houzz as an online idea book—a place to compile photos and other snippets of inspiration for their own project. But also a place to find the right design and construction professionals and connect with others who were embarking on similar home projects of their own.

Over the last decade, Houzz has become a community of more than 40 million homeowners, home design enthusiasts and home improvement professionals around the world. Houzz has successfully monetized through three revenue streams: commission off of marketplace sales, Pro+ membership fees and ad sales. It is currently valued at US$4B and rumours of an impending IPO swirl.

A colourful illustration of an orange tent surrounded by big green trees.

While some communities focus on one general area of interest like Houzz does with home design, others have taken a more fragmented approach. Reddit with its thousands of “subreddits” is perhaps the best example. Here, some 500+ million active monthly users post, vote, and comment in communities organized around their interests.

Aesthetically, Reddit is nothing to write home about—it unapologetically favours substance over style. The content is entirely user-created and community members customize their own front page with whatever topics they are interested in. People know what they want, and a large part of Reddit’s success owes to simply getting out of the way and letting the magic happen. That said, they also empower the community and engage appropriately. They promote a code of behaviour or “reddiquette” and while Reddit only has 500 or so employees, tens of thousands of volunteer moderators help manage the community and keep it from descending into anarchy. Reddit has made purposeful changes and grown significantly, but its initial vision and guiding principles remain almost entirely intact.

Read More: How Social Media Differs from Social Community

The communities we’ve touched on here have all had different journeys. One has evolved profitably (Houzz), one has thrived without fundamentally changing much at all (Reddit), and one failed to change as needed, while also changing in ways that alienated its hardcore base and thus, failed to last (GeoCities).

Certainly, today’s online communities have no shortage of both success stories and cautionary tales from which to learn. The internet is now a noisier, flashier place than it was in the early days—which can trigger a misguided notion that it takes all kinds of bells and whistles to cut through the clutter. But since we know that people have been craving connection since the Stone Age, our efforts might be better spent on creating online spaces that feel more like a forever home than a fly-by-night disco. Sometimes the best way to move forward is to go back to the well.

A colourful illustration of a man playing guitar on a log while another man stands behind him with is hand on the guitarists' shoulder.

As I will, to offer one last anecdote on our internet ancestry. Thirty-four years later, The WELL marches on with a small user base and a self-sustaining, paid-membership model. After thirteen years under the ownership of Salon Media Group, The WELL found itself up for sale in 2012. Unwilling to see their community fall into hands that might not support their quirky ethos, a group of 11 investors and community members banded together and bought it for themselves. Now that’s community.

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