Online Communities and Human Feelings

Recently, I read this really interesting article on abandoned online communities:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/07/what-happens-when-digital-cities-are-abandoned/373941/

Apart from really appreciating an article on a major website with a positive view of online communities and roleplaying (still relatively rare even in this day and age) the comments on community here was something that really got to me. From my early teens onwards, well from the day that my parents first got a broadband connection, I have been on-and-off a member of different online communities.

For a while, I was part of a community forum for fans of a certain YouTube gaming channel. Although it was a semi-official site, it had it’s own community, behaviour and culture that wasn’t really influenced by the YouTubers it was based on, at least at first. However, once the forums were integrated into the official sites, said YouTubers felt that it needed to be more heavily moderated to suit the PG-13 audience they were aiming for – so no controversial topics etc. This might have seemed like a good idea since it probably made the forums into a better, safer place for young teenagers and even pre-teens who might be only just getting into online spaces, but it did harm the long built-up culture of the site, which had been cherished by it’s long-term members. The attachment people can have to an online community sometimes seems to be overlooked though it is discussed in some academic texts. In Virtual Culture: Identity and Communication in Cybersociety Nessim Watson quotes Rheingold:

Human feelings are what makes a community, so when those feelings were hurt, some sections of the community fell apart very quickly.

A number of new unofficial forums were created, so I ‘migrated’ over to one of them. It was a very different place. The previous forum had been strictly moderated, whereas here, anarchy reigned. Controversial arguments, trolling, offensive material… all were permitted and even encouraged by the site owners. As a small close-knit group of people who had mostly known each other online for a while, there were few problems at first.

However, the community began to splinter again as it grew. One of the main problems was perhaps a lack of focus, unlike the YouTuber site we had come from, or other forums I had been a part of, from role-playing to rock music, we had no reason to come together apart from negative opinions. In addition, the lack of rules that had made the forum so fun to start with now worked against the community. Bullying was becoming rife, but worse backlashes occurred when the admins did try to impose order. The site owner did attempt to give us focus, joining forces with game server hosts and competitive gaming teamspeaks to try to give us a reason to exist. Eventually he made the decision to close the forum down. Positive feelings can grow an online community, but it seems that negative ones can quickly damage it.

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