Ever since I was old enough to use the Internet without parental help, I have been a member of various different online forums. I’ve been on forums dedicated to music, books, roleplaying and gaming. Each one of those forums had a very different fan base, but interactions between communities were often very similar
For example, the Roleplaying site which I was a member of when I was fourteen or so, which was dedicated to the setting of a series of fantasy books. There were other forums dedicated to the same setting, and many users would be members of several, using the same character or characters. Over time, these interlinked sites became a sort of world in their own right, where one site would be referred to on another site as were another place within the same virtual world, which of course in a sense they were. Various ‘factions’ of characters would also have their own forums, which I’ve referred to on the picture above as ‘special interest groups.’
Through these sites, people will typically carry the same or similar username, avatar and post signature through the different sites, so that they can easily connect with friends and form a more complete online identity, even if it is a completely anonymous, online only one. Some people might choose to reveal more of their ‘real’ self, but this often depends on the community as a whole and whether it’s considered normal to do this.
The most interesting sites come from those dedicated to micro celebrities since part of their popularity is in connecting closely with fans. Often those fans are engaged in the same kind of activities that they are (music, vlogging etc.) or have been inspired to do so, and may go on to find their own fame and fanbase by posting their work on the main site. Many would then go on to found the ‘splinter communities’ which would take on their own identity and have their own core group of users but keep close ties to the main site/forum. Forums for YouTube stars etc. usually also have ‘special interest groups’ too, for activities such as fan art and fan fiction. In many cases, these groups don’t have sites of their own, but instead might use tumblr groups, Deviantart groups or software such as Skype, Vent, or even game servers to keep in touch.
Over time, I have found that these interconnected sites work best when they are created and run by the fans, rather than by an official agency. I have also been an active member of forums devoted to bands. Most larger band websites have a community aspect with a built in forum, and these can be thriving sites but I often found them to be isolated communities, with no outlet to engage with other forums.
I find myself viewing communities like this as if they are real places, towns and villages which people can ‘live in’ and ‘travel between.’ Most users tend to have a main forum which they identify with, but choose to use others, and may move from one site to another over time. The ‘services’ such as Voice Chat and IRCs are public meeting places within those towns where one might go to meet new people or hang out with friends.
Please note, with all of these sites I would love to provide examples, but that would not be terribly fair on the people involved, who are just enjoying themselves online and didn’t ask or expect to be studied in this way. In fact, one of the sites which inspired this post, a ‘slashfic’ site (a type of fanfiction which is usually pornographic or explicit in some way) have a notice specifically asking that visitors don’t draw attention to them in any way, since none of them wish to be accidentally publicly identified.