Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Meteoric Rise of Online Communities

The Meteoric Rise of Online Communities
Historical Perspective Essay
Liz Foster

In the beginning
From the moment people started connecting computers together, humans have been using them to talk to each other. The genesis of online communities, defined as a group of people who interact in a virtual environment, predates the internet. The first online communities developed among the scientists who invented them, for sharing knowledge within a single virtual space. Pioneers of online communities knew that the old practice of publishing findings across many different books and journals was hampering scientific research. As we know from our readings, as early as 1945 Vannevar Bush dreamed of a device that could read an entire research library and use links and notes created by researchers to build links and associations between documents.

The internet was invented in 1969 (ARPANET), but email was invented four years earlier in 1965. By 1971, email was in use on networks, and in no time, email was the main task that people used networks for. Electronic mailing lists for sending messages to large groups of subscribers appeared in 1975, the first time users were able to complete one-to-many postings. Soon after came Ward Christenson’s Computer Bulletin Board System (CBBS), dreamed up when Mr. Christenson was snowed in during a storm in 1978. Computer bulletin boards worked in a manner very similar to their physical inspiration. Just as in the cork and wood variety, bulletin board users posted messages to the board, but the electronic version had the added ability to associate subsequent message on the same topic with the each other (called threading). By 1979 we had Usenet, the precursor to all those threaded message boards we still see today. Like CBBS, Usenet used a bulletin board model, but unlike CBBS, participants were not limited to one server. Usenet had thousands of topics, organized in a hierarchy of newsgroups, covering all kinds of interests, including “” for discussions about cars, “net.bugs” for discussions about Unix bug reports, and so on. Newsgroups still exist – our “comm6480” Google Group is living proof.

Things get personal
1979 also saw the arrival on the scene of multiuser dungeons (MUDs), which combined role playing and chat to allow a large number of players to compete against and cooperate with each other in a virtual world. Some claim chat started much earlier, with 1973's Talkomatic for the PLATO time-sharing system. The origins may not be certain, but what is for sure is that in no time users had discovered that if chat was good for business or scientific communication, it was even better for flirting with or insulting people you’ve never met before, and doing it anonymously if you so choose. Perhaps most significantly for the online community, 1979 also saw the arrival of the first emoticon, “-)”, meant to represent “tongue in cheek”.

In 1990, Tim Berners-Lees and Robert Cailliau launched the World Wide Web while working for CERN (The European Organization for Nuclear Research). Commercial online services for consumers like CompuServe, Prodigy, and America Online soon followed, lowering technical barriers and enabling thousands upon thousands of ordinary folk to connect to each other and the entire world. Online communities moved from their geeky beginnings to the mainstream, and with this broader access, fears about the quality and nature of web participation grew. The resulting webmania began what was labeled the “Eternal September”, an expression coined in 1993 that refers to the annual September influx of university students to Usenet, and their ignorance of any sense of netiquette. Some “old-time” Usenet users believed that these new users degraded the standards of discourse and behavior on the wider internet.

The internet became even more personal with the advent of online diaries, or blogs (a contraction of web log), where people would keep a running account of their personal lives. Swarthmore student Justin Hall is generally credited with creating the first blog ever,, in 1994.

Social networks
In the late 1990’s, a new branch of online communication grew out of the old Web-based communities – social networks. If online communities used to be exclusively for the purpose of sharing ideas, thanks to social networks they were now used for sharing your personal life.
Some early internet social networks, such as 1997's and 2002's Friendster, fell by the wayside, but they inspired the rash of social networking sites we see now, like Facebook, and LinkedIn, and the hundreds, if not thousands of hopefuls that exist today. With products like Groupsite it is even possible to build your own social networking site and tailor it to your own preferences.

Almost all the pieces were in place to get the entire world connected online, and then something came along that truly tipped connectedness over the edge – the ability to connect via cell phones, making community participation truly mobile. The Internet can now be accessed from almost anywhere, and from numerous devices, as long that there is a wireless network supporting that device's technology. Social networking sites like Twitter tapped into this new mobility. Now the world had constant contact, anytime, all the time. There was nowhere left to hide.

The good, the bad and the ugly
Participation in online communities has risen exponentially. Facebook trebled its membership in the last year, and just last week reached the 300,000,000 member milestone, a number that approaches the entire population of the United States. And that’s just one site.

It is clear that years ago online communities spread beyond the realm of tight-knit, self-regulating professional communication to the world at large. And while so much good has come out of this tsunami of connectedness, our current state encompasses far more than the mutually beneficial sharing of ideas the mediums’ forefathers envisioned. These communities have gone beyond the shiny, brightly lit hallways of universities and laboratories, and allowed all of us to see into the dark, musty, cobweb-streaked corners of society. Control has moved from the hands of “professionals” to, well, everybody, and the results have been unpredictable. As the ability to access these communities spread to people of all ages and citizens of every country, news reports warned of potential dangers to unsuspecting or under-informed participants on a daily basis. Along with the sharing of knowledge hoped for in the utopian dream of these early innovators, we also have online stalkers, predators, and cyber-terrorists.

Less dramatically, there is the fear that the Internet, and online communities in particular, have compromised our privacy. Young people in particular don’t understand the incredible reach of their online lives, and its permanence. Photos and remarks posted online can be more than just a temporary embarrassment; they can lead to devastating personal and professional consequences. In a survey commissioned by, the research firm Harris Interactive found that of 2,667 HR professionals polled, 45% of them use social networking sites to research job candidates, with an additional 11% planning to implement social media screening in the very near future. In this poll, it was revealed that 35% of hiring companies passed on an applicant because of some content in their social networking sites: provocative photos (53%), drug or alcohol related content (44%), or negative comments about previous employers, co-workers or clients (35%) were all sited as reasons for not choosing an applicant. Interestingly, more than 10% passed on an applicant because they used emoticons, or text message lingo – “lol”, “omg” and the like. It seems that President Obama was right on the money when he warned students at Wakefield High School (before his National Address to America’s Schoolchildren on September 8, 2009), “Be careful what you post on Facebook. Whatever you do, it will be pulled up again later somewhere in your life.”

But it can’t be denied that there is tremendous potential for good in online communities. They can connect people to good causes, and provide quick answers to simple questions. Communities are unbeatable at organizing large groups of people quickly. They tear down geographical barriers, making us aware of the struggles and achievements of people from around the world. Online communities may have untapped potential for fostering tolerance. Ignoring for the moment community members who attach their own photos to their online identities, or donkeys or elephants or flags or objects that could be considered inflammatory or divisive, if you can’t see the person you’re talking to, you may be more open to their ideas.

Some would say the opposite is true, that online communities are by design a barrier to tolerance – because you blog on this site, or belong to this social group, you must think this way. In an article in “Ethics and Information Technology (Parsell, 2008) it was suggested that virtual communities can lead to attitude polarization. Users tend to gravitate toward communities that are composed of people who share our interests, opinions, personalities and yes, even our prejudices, thus providing confirmation and validation for our basest natures.

In “The Computer as a Communication Device”, Licklider and Taylor anticipate a world where “life will be happier for the on-line individual because the people with whom one interacts most strongly will be selected more by commonality of interests and goals than by accidents of proximity…communication will be more effective and productive, and therefore more enjoyable.” I suppose in the age of online communities, we’ve just hit puberty. Maybe if we can get past this stage of over-sharing and narcissism, bickering and gossip-mongering, we can achieve that dream. Or is it true that, as Craig Kinsley, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Richmond asserts, humans crave contact and human interaction, but interaction over the Internet is without substance.

Lake, M., (July 15, 2009) “Timeline: The evolution of online communities”, Computerworld, (

Preece, J., Maloney-Krichmar, D. and Abras, C. (2003 in press) History of Emergence of Online Communities. In B. Wellman (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Community. Berkshire Publishing Group, Sage.

Parsell, M. (2008) Pernicious virtual communities: Identity, polarisation and the Web 2.0. Ethics and Information Technology. Volume 10, Number 1: 41-56.

Hauben, Michael and Hauben, (1996) Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet (

Licklider, J. C. R., & Taylor, R. W. (1968, April). The computer as a communication device. Science and Technology.

(Aug. 19, 2009) “Forty-five Percent of Employers Use Social Networking Sites to Research Job Candidates, CareerBuilder Survey Finds” (

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