Did you ever have the experience of discovering something you enjoy. Maybe you shared it with some friends. In that space there’s a small community gathering around something they value and enjoy. It might just be among friends, but then it ends up being contagious. More people become interested in the thing. It spreads like fire. The community surrounding that thing grows and until it has life of its own. Sometimes the thing itself gets changed by this. Then suddenly, it is just is not the same. The community isn’t the supportive group it used to be. It has grown so big that everyone is essentially anonymous unless they’re particularly loud. There’s no true connection between you, thing, and the others.
Maybe this does not apply for every case of this, but I don’t think it really clicked for me until recently on what made it “cool” for people who said things like “I liked it when it was less popular”. Sometimes it was just about having that “I found something special” feeling. Then there’s this excitement that can happen when the community grows in a healthy way. Just a lot of friends enjoying a thing. You make more friends to talk to about Thing. It’s fun, until something shifts and the chaos begins. The respectful insightful conversations decrease. People have to worry about getting harassed by other members of the group. Sometimes the community has a whole chooses to harass people they don’t like because they said something bad about X. Internet fandoms, link aggregators, and social medias all struggle with this. They hit a critical mass and cannot clean the infection. It’s possible to establish sub-communities that help creating nice spaces in the chaos, but it (pessimistically) lasts only a moment. That said… I don’t think we should stop trying to establish that good small community.
There are examples of healthier digital neighborhoods that connect each other. Webrings, blogrolls, tilde-verse, web forums, irc, etc can handle this a bit better. This is my impression anyways… Maybe it’s a bias. I do not want to retro-fetishize these technologies. But I keep trying out new social medias or apps only to get disappointed by greed, lack of cultivating community, the toxicity, unhealthy relationship with the technology. The Ye Olde Way didn’t have the same severity of these problems. Unfortunately, many of these have huge technical hurdles to participate or even find out about it in the first place! This leads to the communities being limited to a certain types of people. The internet as a whole is getting better at lowering the barrier, but we’re still not quite good enough at cultivating our own local communities. The more accessible communities are much more prone to hitting critical mass and becoming unmanageable. For social medias, the community isn’t the goal, just a byproduct of a way to make money. More users means more ad revenue so there’s a monetary gain for having it as easy as possible for more people to join. Having that addictive content firehose to blast in your face as well is a huge hook.
Moderation is impossible at when you get big, but community based moderation or trust nets could help improve the space for communities. None of the big players properly moderate. Money (and not the community) is often the driver for moderation. It’s common for a complete lack of moderation resources for communities with a bad cost/benefit. This led to certain countries not getting any misinformation/hate speech moderation on certain platforms. This is something that I don’t think any big company has the resources to do properly at the global scale. But a small community (in theory) is nimble enough to adapt and handle cases like hate speech and squash it out. Or at least, the community is connected enough that they believe the other members are acting in good faith. Perhaps a member did say something hateful as a passing thought, but having a community member say “hey, that’s really hurtful, did you really mean that?” And a conversation can happen. If a similar thing happens in current social medias, people are much more aggressive with their… values. That aggression leads to the person who could’ve learned from the experience to becoming less receptive to the (maybe completely valid) criticism. It’s completely possible that echo chambers can begin in this. But smaller communities –that believe their members are acting in good faith– allow for discussions where individuals can grow. And I –maybe naively– believe that people will gradually improve if they are challenging their own beliefs.
How do we find smaller communities? I don’t really know the answer to this. The ones that I’ve become involved in the most are ones that I sort of stumbled into years ago. Most evolved from irc chat rooms or forums where we talked about games or working on creative things. The ones that stick are the ones that I feel philosophically connected to more than something more specific like a game group. I’ve had both. I’ve put hundreds of hours into games because I enjoyed the group of friends that came together and played it. But the game groups tend to fizzle out, and those are hard to scale into a proper community beyond a core group. It’s too limited in its ability to scale.
My current ideal situation would be that everyone and their mothers would have these two options on the internet:
- Able to establish a small online community of their own and other people can join it.
- Able to find and join an existing online community.
The goal would be that barriers to at least one of these is very low. I don’t think I have the expectation that every person has both of these options. My grandmother is probably not going to set up a VM to host a Pixelfed instance, but there should not be a barrier to finding and joining an instance where she would feel welcome.
I do not know what the solution to this is. Over the years it’s been the small communities that brought me the most joy on the internet. I just hope people can find their people, and maybe then those things that we find exciting and new don’t lose their spark when we share it with each other.
If you’re working on things for “small internet communities” reach out. I want to hear more about them.