Almost every online community I’ve ever been a part of, or even examined in retrospect for historical purposes, has ultimately dissolved. Of those that are still around, most are spiraling the drain. As someone who’s been online now for over 20 years(!), it’s kind of interesting to me to examine why, and also why there are a few that persist.
The simplest answer to why could probably be reduced to: It’s just too big a pain in the ass to maintain. There’s not a lot of money in it most of the time. Most of the time, there’s no money at all. But I’ve seen this happen on CompuServe in the pre-web days, too, where genuine income streams were given up rather than put up with the hassle.
But hassles—serious ones, anyway—don’t just arise. They’re created.
And it always unfolds the same way. There is always (at least) one person who is at cross-purposes with the community. You could call them “trolls” but that’s not really comprehensive enough a word. “Traitor” would be a good word, even though they often wouldn’t see themselves that way, like Benedict Arnold, or someone who’s trying to save the community from itself.
I was in one community where a person like that came in with about five others and systematically and cruelly mocked the regulars. The owner decided “free speech” and those people managed to drive off almost everyone who had made that place their home for years. Most of the locusts, as I envisioned them, left pretty soon after that, including the main troll who managed to offend the owner. trounce the rules, etc., enough to be ejected.
That was a particularly dramatic example. Usually, the treasonous ones are subtler, because in most cases the person who owns the community will defend overt attacks, and people will naturally bind together and fight off interlopers. So, they’re covert.
The most insidious ones can foment trouble without ever being fingered. Or even better, for a community’s destruction, they can become a bone of contention around which people side. Best of all is if they can fracture a community along principled lines. “Free speech” is a popular one. “I don’t want to hang out in a place where we aren’t free to post pictures of dismembered babies!”
The people who are like this can be hard to spot, especially if you’re guileless. They present a picture of trammeled innocence. They were just minding their own business when baseless attacks were suddenly leveled.
It’s never a regular dispute, where people blow up, and then they either get over it (or they leave): A slight is never forgotten, and is always repaid, and repaid, and repaid. Slowly but surely the troll drains the fun out of the community while increasing the burden on the community owner. It’s not a wonder that online communities eventually dissolve, but they stay together for any length of time.
Probably the key characteristic of community traitor is a complete inability to communicate. Nothing ever, ever gets in. And they’re good at faking it—pretending to respond, like a super-advanced Eliza program—but there’s never any real indication that anything ever permeates to their being. (The essence of receiving communication is to be changed by it, after all.)
This isn’t true just for online communities of course.
Which brings me to the ones that I’ve seen thrive: They’re all united around a real world purpose. Technical matters, religion, a genuine craft, something that both requires an effort to be a part of and has a put-up-or-shut-up aspect.
In the purely virtual, we hang to imagined threads. No exactly imagined, but really co-created. The community exists because we say it does. We have shared values in some fashion. But our understanding of those values is imperfect, and all it takes to shred a virtual community is someone to come in and push the boundaries of that understanding, to point out the weaknesses, and to drive people to those corners.
It’s a shame but I’ve seen it happen so many times over the years I’m practically inured to it. I think if I were going to start an online community now, I’d do it around an activity. Like, I don’t know, bowling.