Online Communities: I hate you, I love you
I was very lucky to grow up with my own PC for most of my childhood. When I turned 10, that PC was also connected to the Internet. I became curious about tech which led me to online forums about Linux, and later on about hobbies like manga/anime. I grew up participating in these online communities. My first projects as a teen were around creating forums and communities. They were my getaway to meet like-minded people beyond the small town I lived in.
I found people who were willing to answer all my questions, help me with onboarding, and introduce me to take part in discussions. We would build on each other’s ideas and get excited about the latest news. I could help out other newcomers as well and the cycle of a growing community continued. I learnt about the Web, mobile, and coding thanks to the various communities I had the pleasure of participating in.
When fun projects became work and adulthood kicked in, it became harder to stay up to date and contribute to all the communities. I started feeling like an outsider and impostor syndrome hit hard. There was this constant pressure that you need to be active online to create opportunities for yourself. I’m not saying that’s not true, but this perspective sucks all the fun away from it.
I still never lost the feeling of wanting to re-engage. I tried many times, but I would always burn out after a few months. I’ve kept thinking about my struggles while remembering all the good times spent in them. I want to find my way back and contribute to making them better. Being able to collaborate on fun things with people from all over the world is very powerful. While we’ve made huge strides with tools for communities, I enjoy thinking about how they can become more accessible, fun, and meaningful.
Over the last decade, online communities have been moving away from Web forums and IRC-like chats to more advanced applications like Discord. It started as a way for gaming communities to play together and have their own space to continue the conversation when they weren’t playing. Now, it has expanded to all online communities. Slack gained popularity initially, but its limitations on its free plan, the hassle of changing workspaces, and its association with a more professional context left a space open.
With Discord, it’s very easy to sign up for a new community and switch between them. Its mobile apps are easy to use to keep up on the go. It provides a lot of flexibility to community admins with roles and bots for more advanced onboardings and moderations. For some communities, you have to read the rules before being able to see all the channels. For communities tied to a Twitch streamer, you must be a subscriber. I’ve also seen servers that have different groups (like the houses in Harry Potter) and depending on your participation in the server, you win points for your group. This flexibility makes Discord the ideal community chat application for many styles of community building.
Let’s compare an online community to a physical one. Online has unattainable features like async communication and breaking down geographic barriers. These applications have great features for online collaboration, but they are still far from comparing with an in-person get-together. Hanging out with others in person is something special. During the pandemic, the term “Zoom fatigue” started being thrown around. Seeing people on the screen, even when it works with high-quality video and audio, doesn’t give you the same energy as interacting with someone that’s right next to you in 3d and that’s real and alive. You see the other person’s feelings by noticing tiny muscle movements throughout their face. You can get thrilled together about a topic, creating a special moment as you build on each other's ideas. How can we get closer to physical world interactions?
We should also add the fact that keeping up with many Discord servers is very hard. When you’re in local communities, your body can’t be in multiple places at the same time. Nor can we speak with numerous people at the same time. But that’s how it feels like on Discord. It’s so easy to post that there’s a constant influx of messages in all your communities. Keeping up is very draining and takes away a bunch of our time.
Oftentimes, communities are not just a town square. They may also need particular bureaucratic infrastructure to self-organize efficiently, especially when that community has specific goals they want to meet. They may even have some assets that they control. In-person communities may set up an organization in their geographic jurisdiction. While this is outside of Discord’s scope, we should keep it in mind when thinking about communities.
Discord is not the only application making strides to improve online communities. The terrible Covid situation has brought investment into the space with different projects blooming. An interesting tool is https://gather.town. It’s a simple bird’s-eye view 2d world with a wide range of spaces for people to hang out and talk. You only hear and see people close to you. It’s used in events allowing for different things to happen in different spaces. There are also games to mess around with others. Or you can create your own space entirely. It’s a complete video-conferencing app with the addition of a virtual world to reinforce engagement. This is an old concept adapted to the needs of online teams and communities that work together today.
Another old concept for hanging out online is fully-fledged 3d worlds. Some have found new success like VRChat, Roblox, and Rec Room. They also come with a bunch of tools for creators to make their own worlds and adapt them to their needs. Companies use some of their marketing budgets to showcase their products on these platforms. Many young people hang out with friends and play games. And avatars are still pretty bad at expressing our emotions in high definition. This is a growing market, though 3d social platforms have found it hard to stay relevant for long periods of time.
Mozilla set out to showcase that the Web, with WebXR, is an ideal platform for 3d worlds. They created Hubs so people could instantly hang out in a virtual world by accessing a link from any device. Hubs Cloud allows people to have their custom deployment of Hubs which they can customize. Countless events and groups have used it. The concept is simple but powerful.
These tools are more fun. They are also different. Moving around these worlds and exploring proves to be an enjoyable experience for teams. Over time though, the fun aspects can be seen as an added layer that needs to be peeled so people can get to the point. We’re in a fast-moving world and the time we have for work or to participate in a community is limited. When the approach is more professional than just messing around, we don’t care as much about a cute flimsy virtual world with games.
Web3 also provides new tools for online communities. It could help with funding, asset management, and enforcing the rules set by the community. DAOs allow for people to come together and agree on certain rules for their group. These rules are written as smart contracts so the underlying blockchain can enforce them. They can decide how people can come and leave the DAO or how to use its assets. New funding models are being tried out with NFTs. With all the scams, hacked projects, carbon footprint, and bad UX it’s hard to shine a light on the people using these tools creatively. I believe that a lot of fresh ideas can stem from here.
There are many new possibilities for online collaboration. By studying the limitations of existing tools and exploring new ones, I want to try out different ideas in the shape of small experiments. I don’t know where it will lead but it’s an exciting space that is close to my heart. I’m just having fun.
I will share the different projects I work on to gather feedback and figure out what works and what doesn’t. Each experiment will bring new questions to the surface. Follow me on Twitter!