Thursday, July 06, 2006
The Failure of Online Community
Online community is attempted daily, and fails nearly every time. I'm not referring to those insular places where no ill word is ever spoken -- because such places do not offer an open door to all comers no matter their interest in the local definition of topicality. Such places have never been tested with a good, visceral flame war. I'm referring to those places, insular and open, which have been tested and have come up short.
I have to confess, my standards for success are very high, but I deeply believe that those standards belong at that height, because it is only by that standard that online community can be truly compared to real life. In real life, we have the direct analogs to flame wars, and we judge our ability to recover from such conflicts by the character of our community and its continuity.
I should point out, too, that an aspect of that standard is going to eliminate most insular places. For a community to be a success, in my not so humble opinion, it must be truly open to all comers.
The success of alt.callahans is not even close to its avoidance of conflict, because conflict is a hallmark of that space. Its success is not in its ability to protect itself from unwanted attention, because it is just as vulnerable to spam, scams, trolls and instigators as any analogous space in real life. No, its success is not in exclusion, but in inclusion, and the shared mechanisms that gently and dynamically fit the disruptions into their appropriate places in the overall community.
Amazingly, astoundingly, the place gets broken and fixes itself cyclically. There is no guardian, no person or small group that takes it upon itself to maintain the community. The entry price of the community is simple, yet profound: members of the community share equally and collectively in the preservation of the basic ethics of that community, and rules of conduct and moderation fall far short of the efficacy and power of such shared responsibility.
That, for me, is where it starts. Any cyber space that claims to be a community must have that shared energy, or its claims hold no water. It must be self-sustaining, or it must eventually fail, especially when that small group that wants the community to continue hit the wall of burnout because they don't get the level of commitment from enough of the members of that community that they themselves have given.
The structure of that community makes no difference. It can be the wild and woolly Usenet newsgroups, where alt.callahans resides. It can be a private website, like Beliefnet's discussion boards. It can be a publicly provided service, like Live Journal. It can be as simple as a reply-to-all email group. Wherever it resides, if it lacks that fundamental, uncoerced but fiercely supported ethic of commitment, it will fail sooner or later, and that failure will take the form of at least one person leaving with a bad taste in the mouth, combined with one or more people with a self-righteous conviction that they've "taken care of" someone as sie deserves... without realizing that unless they are in real life, they have no basis for that conviction outside of their own minds, and chances are excellent that they don't have a clue to the real person behind the screen to whom they've transmitted their ire.
Feelings are real. Pain is real. The ethic of Callahan's, that shared pain is lessened and shared joy increased, recognizes those realities, celebrates them, embraces them and in every respect validates them. The difference is not in the lack of fights (Callahan's has plenty), but in the explicit support for the notion that every voice is worthy of sounding and of listening, and that judgment is reserved for 20/20 hindsight. We do not refrain from judging, but we always own our judgments and never assume (at least not successfully) that anyone necessarily agrees with our judgments.
So, if you really want a successful community, if you want it to thrive on its own energy and not be a black hole sucking the life out of the community organizers (a sure deathknell to many such places), then you could do a hell of alot worse than to study the dynamics of alt.callahans closely.
I've linked to your blog there, for the benefit of the patrons, and instructed Mike to have a BOYC ready for you... and to tell you that your buck's no good for that round. ;-)
Then again, I've been lazy lately and have been accessing A.C. via Google Groups rather than Seamonkey, so that might explain it... apparently your thread fell off the front page on Google.