The Impending Death of open online communities.
I’m a big believer of what I like to call The Pendulum Dynamic. Simply put, many things around us can be explained by the simple movement of a pendulum that swings back and forth. Being an optimist, I believe the pendulum swings back a little harder in the progressive direction every time it recovers from the last swing. Regardless, I believe it keeps swinging back and forth, whether we like it or not.
Today, I want to look at how the pendulum swings back and forth between large open online communities (Facebook and Twitter) and small, private online communities (which can even exist within these large platforms). But first, I want to point out that I’m not an expert in this field. This article is more of a personal observation based on conversations I had with friends and recent reading that encouraged me to think about it.
The Grand Social Experiment that is the internet has changed rapidly over the years. In its early years there was nothing even remotely similar to the massive open social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube that would eventually take over. While the Internet has always been about open access to information and knowledge, at the time it mainly consisted of gated and anonymous communities in its very beginning.
I still remember the time of IRC (Internet Relay Chat) and the vast amount of bulletin boards (online forums). What the majority of these online communities had in common was that they were mostly anonymous and invite only. Most IRC channels you wanted to be a part of were only accessible if you knew someone in it and received an invite. The same applied to the majority of bulletin boards which had an open registration but still manually approved your membership, meaning you just couldn’t jump in everywhere and join the conversation. It was hard to get into these gated online communities and I certainly wasn’t a fan of it at the time.
The anonymity had its pros and cons. The positive part was that discrimination based on pre-existing biases just wasn’t there, at least to a certain degree. All people could judge you on was your profile picture and your online handle, both of which you could control yourself.
“The anonymity gave members reason to be their best, most honest version of themselves — or be their worst (trolls).”
If your forum handle was “Eagle10” (fairly generic) and you contributed with smartly written articles on the forum, no one gave a shit about how old you were, where you came from or what your religion was. People in these communities were simply judged based on contributions such as their writing and their ability to have a civil conversation. If you broke the rules, forum moderators would be quick to give you a temporary ban or remove you entirely from the forum (I’m not a big fan of that kind of moderating). Each forum had its own rules, some more casual than others.
The anonymity in these online communities gave members reason to be their best, most honest version of themselves — or be their worst (trolls). Conflict and the sharing of controversial viewpoints was highly encouraged as long as people did not resort to mindless trolling or breaking the basic rules. I’ve seen many heated discussions in these IRC chats or bulletin boards, yet none of them escalated to what you see on Twitter or Facebook today. At that time it all felt kind of unreal, like a game. It was cyberspace, the wild west of the World Wide Web.
One of the many negatives of anonymity was the fact that you had zero credentials before joining a new community. Since your real identity and all your real life accomplishments were not part of your anonymous online persona, it was kind of like starting over, collecting new status points in a new online currency. No one would believe you if you said you were a doctor, until you shared your opinion and slowly built trust in your online persona. But the saddest part of anonymity online is the fact that nobody can hold anyone else accountable. It brings out the worst in people because there is no consequence for our words or actions.
What I’ve described was the time when the pendulum was swinging very far in one direction. The anonymity of the Internet, and specifically of online communities, around the early 2000’s was too extreme.
All of this changed when the masses could finally access the Internet and Facebook came long. Facebook was one of the first social networks that required you to use your real name and strongly recommended using a real picture of yourself. Gone were the days of anonymity. Enter the time of real accountability and human connections.
While Facebook started off as a gated community (invite only) it soon opened its gates and so did many other networks. Online communities significantly changed as the majority of large social networks became accessible to everyone. Millions joined with a fresh internet connection every year, creating billions of profiles on Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and so on. Slowly but surely, the pendulum started swinging in the other direction. Online handles faded away. Real profile pictures and real names became a common sight. These were true open social networks and transparent identities.
“The internet isn’t a parallel world anymore, it’s an extension of our real life.”
Most online communities now require you to use your real name. Now, it seems that only trolls use a fake name and fake profile picture; what seemed pretty normal before has become something sketchy today. The internet isn’t a parallel world anymore, it’s an extension of our real life. It has become one of the primary places we do business today, and nothing is more important than trust when doing business with each other. Trust requires us to show the real person behind the avatar.
Our online persona slowly merged with our real self. We became the same person online as we were in real life, or at least we liked to think so. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat taught us to share like we’d never done before. We shared the same thoughts, information and feelings that we previously only shared in closed communities — plus a whole lot more. The Internet became our primary medium for discussing politics, current events and even deeply personal information. We felt as if nothing could happen to us; being vulnerable and showing our true self online was the right thing to do. At least until now.
Now, I believe we’re at the breaking point. The pendulum is swinging back. People are slowly retreating into gated and more private communities. Folks are putting their Twitter profile and Instagram profiles on private. They are joining invite-only Slack communities and only engaging in conversations on Facebook if they’re in a private group. We want safe, meaningful and respectful dialogue that replicates our highly curated offline conversations. Yet even then, we’re careful about sharing any controversial opinions, because our real names are now attached to them. The open dialogue that used to define social networks is dead. Welcome to the age of self censorship.
In a way, we failed at managing our own expectations. With the loss of anonymity we were promised an extension of our much valued democracy, where people can safely share their opinion and where public dialogue is encouraged. To our surprise, we found the opposite to be true. We take everything personally and we’re easily offended if someone (most likely a stranger) expresses an opinion contrary to ours. We are overly fragile and see conflict and friction as evil. We aim to be fair and democratic, deferential and agreeable at the same time but we fail horribly at it. We’re afraid of saying something that could possibly offend someone around us, so we keep our honest opinion to ourselves. And if we do venture to express our opinion online, we do so in a nicely packaged passive aggressive fashion, which helps no one.
While it seems like it’s people who have changed drastically, I believe people have always been the same. It’s our environment that has changed. The reason we felt less offended back then was because the internet was anonymous and we could hide behind our avatars. We didn’t take words online personally because no one was attacking us personally, but rather our ideas. And even if we felt a strong attachment to our expressed ideas, we were still slightly detached from our online characters. The real us and our online selves were not the same person. Today, they are.
Now we seek safe spaces that mimic our offline, highly curated friendship bubbles. We wish for a respectful place to share our opinion without the backlash of someone attacking us on a personal level. Private and curated communities work so well because they’re usually made up of the same people as you, sharing roughly the same opinion. Everyone is agreeable by default.
It’s a nice temporary fix, but I don’t know that it’s a good one. One of the reasons your Facebook comment sections are fairly civil is because Facebook does a great job at creating artificial, private communities within your friend groups. Friends that are all agreeable because they share interests and political views. Facebook knows that if they’d open it up it would be a shit show — similar to what Twitter is right now, a shit show.
This is our defense mechanism, we take a step back and hang more with like minded people. Sadly, it’s also a step back for diversity of thought or any open dialogue that involves different viewpoints. When the pendulum swings too much in one direction, it is bound to swing the other way. The question is how far back it will swing, or whether we can find a good spot in between.
Thank you for reading,
PS: I usually send out these articles via my personal email list before they appear in a more organized format on here. Thank you to all my readers for their input & feedback which ultimately shapes the final form these articles. 🤘🏼
Want to learn more about me? I’m Tobias is a Designer & Maker + Co-Founder of Semplice, a portfolio platform for designers. Also host of the show NTMY — Previously Art Director & Design Lead at Spotify.