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Accelerated Evolution

The Mystery of the Online Community

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Though there are a lot of social networks, newsgroups, forums, and club-like Web sites on the Internet and Web, these entities are not true communities, although many purport to be. Worse, they are often peopled with phonies and posers who see the whole thing as an elaborate video game.

At best, what you have are loose associations that are tenuous, fickle, and probably self-destructive. These sorts of artificial communities are houses of cards in most instances. They are fake.

I've always been concerned about these fake communities ever since watching one fall apart back in the early 1980s, when the online system called The Source was still in business. Within The Source, there was an early online community experiment called Participate, which was shortened to Parti. It was a classic online community that looked and functioned just like a real community, only everyone who participated was online. Because it was online, numerous people fictionalized themselves because they could do it so easily.

As in today's online communities, people may or may not fictionalize themselves. I like the term self-fictionalization, because it is derived from self-realization, a New Age quasi-religious construct. If you think about it, a self-realized person (assuming we kind of know what that means: self-aware, honest with oneself) could be the person who would fictionalize oneself. After all, you know who you are, so be whom you want to be!

So within any online community, a certain percentage of the participants are out-and-out fakes. I would argue that within some communities the number is higher than 50 percent. The interpersonal dishonesty and fantasizing do not make for any sort of real community. Most of the destructive force within any online community comes from this large group of fakes who see the community as something of a video-arcade adventure game where the user can go in and stir up trouble, then leave.

Because of this, you have to rethink online communities if you actually want them to be maintained and grow over time. How do you do this?

First, you can take a look at some successful initiatives and see what makes them work. In this situation, you want to find a mechanism that is aging well. Thus I must exclude recent phenomena such as Digg, YouTube, Stickam, and perhaps even Facebook as too new to be fully understandable.

Let's instead look at five distinctly different quasi-community sites and what has made them succeed over the long term. I'll try to pick very different concepts. The five successes worth deconstructing are MetaFilter, Slashdot, LinkedIn, Flickr, and AVforums.com.

I've picked communities where there is no "real" community attached. By that, I mean that unlike systems such as Friendster and other socialization networks, there are no "mixers" or real face-to-face meet-ups to glue the community together. These folks are kept together by the mechanisms and usefulness of the communities themselves.

So what do they have in common? First, they are self-selecting and not necessarily democratic, with the possible exception of AV Forums, which is driven by technical information, and where destructive forces have no effect because the community is information-driven.

Other systems such as Metafilter are also information-driven, but users generally need to be paid members in order to post. This is an excellent filtering mechanism, to say the least, but generally impractical. LinkedIn is an invite-only business networking system that is also information-centric and self-selecting. Slashdot is also information-driven and uses a ranking methodology to filter out the vandals. Finally, Flickr is a specialty site that minimizes community while promoting sharing. It's driven by user convenience. I don't think many people actually care about the community aspect of Flickr at all.

Though it can be argued that the practical nature of these systems makes them immune to vandalism, is it possible that the various self-selecting mechanisms within these systems can be applied to any online group situation? Surely getting people to pay to post would minimize a lot of the problems in many communities.

Having a moderator also helps, but it's a tedious job, and too much time is spent cleaning up spam. Invite-only mechanisms would work, but they make getting the community up to critical mass a slow process. And simple membership and sign-up methodologies work fine on AV Forums, but they're too easy to sneak past to be practical on a political forum.

I'm leaving readers with an open question: Is there any way to establish and maintain an online community with no fakes and vandals ruining it for everyone? Or is the problem just a reflection of society that we must live with? Your input—ironically, called for in this online forum—is appreciated.


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Oh yeah, I've fictionalized myself. Of course. I mean, who WOULDN'T want to be a 17 year old geek and internet addict? I'm actually a ridiculously handsome football player with 50 girlfriends and I've just been lying all this time.

Anyway, I'll agree that people do fictionalize themselves (hell, it's happened on this forum at least once). However, I don't think it's all that common. I mean, I just don't see the point.

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I'm one Wind's 12 accounts guys.

He's just playing with a few of you to make you think you're actually part of a community.

i already new this, because i have an IQ of 3435435,5435435,.5546567gfes43, yes i know what your thinking, a human cant really be that smart. Well im not human, im an AI construct...blah...blah...

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Dude I'm totally guilty. IRL, I work in the nursing home, providing the highest quality of care to eldery, sympathizing with them, etc. But on WoW, i love to talk shit to people onthe general channel and be an all-around dickface, mine other people's stuff, disband from the group once my quest is done, and just insult everyone i can possible.

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Dude I'm totally guilty. IRL, I work in the nursing home, providing the highest quality of care to eldery, sympathizing with them, etc. But on WoW, i love to talk shit to people onthe general channel and be an all-around dickface, mine other people's stuff, disband from the group once my quest is done, and just insult everyone i can possible.

That sounds fun!

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Man, with me, being a dbag in online gaming goes way back. Teamkilling in Halo... Backstabbing in StarCraft (me and my buddy would enter a 10v1comp stomp and not ally victory until we killed everyone. then the last person left we would make him tell a funny joke as our carriers and guardians loomed over his last remaining building, and if it was deemed unfunny we would destroy him. this was our favorite thing to do, and i got a lot of good jokes that way)... Playerkilling in Diablo 1 (my entire inventory was ears... my entire equipment was hacked and duped)... Im the guy you love to hate

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