Depending on how old you are yourself, it may sound shocking that I didn’t have internet at home until I was in my teens. A fact that – as I watch my 3-year-old deftly navigate between a toddler puzzle app and slime videos on YouTube – makes me feel particularly Flinstonian.
That sweet, if somewhat ear-splitting, AOL dial-up tone opened fascinating (and often undesirably NSFW) doors to teenaged me via chat rooms on burning topics of the day like: did Courtney kill Kurt? Lurking in these forums, I was dipping but a single toenail in what was – even at that time – an ocean of virtual communities built by people who were as invested in creating and sharing online content as I was in the Seattle grunge scene.
While I could date the era (and myself) even more by pointing out that the Spice Girls were recording their first album, the fact is that online communities actually got started back when The Village People were lighting up the charts.
Starting in the 70s, private discussions via rudimentary email with one-to-one messaging capability were superseded by group discussions thanks to listservers with one-to-many functionality and crude Bulletin Board Systems, which gave rise to early internet forums that allowed individuals to post and comment on messages.
While it’s easy today to think of goliaths like Google and Facebook as holding the keys to the kingdom, it was actually a bunch of “davids” who were responsible for building the internet as we know it through community-based projects that sprung up, morphed and expanded organically.
Projects like the legendary Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link (The WELL), a ground-breaking online discussion community known for its literate conversation and widespread influence that belied its small-by-today’s-standards user base. The WELL was founded as a dial-up bulletin board system in 1985 to facilitate a dialog between the writers and readers of counterculture publication The Whole Earth Review. To quote The WELL’s ‘about’ page, it’s “widely known as the primordial ooze where the online community movement was born.” It’s also where influential writer and thinker Howard Rheingold first coined the term “virtual community.”
The WELL attracted an active and engaged membership, many well known in the worlds of technology, music, and publishing. Impressive, considering that the early user experience was slow and cumbersome, and internet access so expensive, that members often went offline to write their missives (or, y’know, to take a phone call because: dial-up) and logged back on to post them. What could drive such perseverance and dedication among the earliest members of internet communities?
The need to belong starts early. Like, real early. Parent-child attachment is one of the most fundamental milestones of human development and is hardwired into our DNA. Beyond the bonds of biology, there is evidence that humans have been forming non-familial group connections for about 2.6 million years.
Today, we may not need to huddle for warmth or hunt and fend off predators together, but we definitely haven’t lost our primal urge to form meaningful connections with others. We now know that belonging is a matter of psychological survival and a basic human need. And a sense of belonging is the true linchpin of any community, online or otherwise.
Simply put, humans need a tribe. Writer, blogger and all-around visionary Seth Godin has written much on the subject, and points out that, “A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.”
Enter online communities, offering people a way to come together over shared values, goals and interests – no matter how obscure – and irrespective of physical geography.
Which is the perfect segue to talk about GeoCities, one of the earliest web startups which was founded in 1994. GeoCities provided a platform for users to create their own web pages and then organized them into “neighbourhoods” based on their content, such as Nashville for country music, Yosemite for outdoor recreation and Napa Valley for wine. This approach gave the average newbie internet user a familiar frame of reference to understand the different communities and decide where they might want to hang out and contribute, regardless of their actual location. In other words, they made it easy to figure out where to belong.
Like many an ancient civilization, GeoCities eventually crumbled. As other blogging sites, hosting platforms and social media sites came online, droves of community members wandered off to new frontiers. Their purchase by Yahoo in 1999 put the nail in the coffin through a combination of neglect, a failure to adapt and monetize, and unwelcome changes to features and user agreements that riled the community.
In 2009, when GeoCities was in its death throes, other communities were just taking off. Houzz started with one house – the Palo Alto, California home that husband-and-wife founders Adi Tatarko and Alon Cohen set out to remodel. They built Houzz as an online idea book—a place to compile photos and other snippets of inspiration for their own project. But also a place to find the right design and construction professionals and connect with others who were embarking on similar home projects of their own.