The week of January 17, 2016

The uniqueness of Internet communities

By Jesse Hicks

“Community” is a word that’s often stretched to the point of meaninglessness. The “Facebook community,” for example, consists of more than a billion people worldwide. In that case, the use is a sleight-of-hand, a way to suggest a monolith of people with aligned goals and interests, where in reality there are many people united solely by the fact that they use a particular piece of software. But “community” has a folksy ring to it, suggesting intimacy and support; it’s far more cuddly than “users,” with its suggestion that Facebook is, in fact, just a utility.

But the Internet has enabled communities that wouldn’t otherwise exist, where people with shared interests come together, build connections, and genuinely get to know one another. They find support and camaraderie, and their friendships often extend into “real life.” In this issue of the Kernel, we’re looking at some of those communities—the online spaces that have shaped the lives of people who joined them.

Rick Paulas offers an oral history of A Special Thing, the message board that brought alternative comics like Louis C.K., Patton Oswalt, Scott Aukerman, and Rob Delaney together with their fans. Today, of course, you’d simply call them comedians, as they’ve become mainstream names. But that wasn’t the case in the heyday of A Special Thing, a message board that felt like a bunch of comedy nerds geeking out about their favorite bits, methodically reviewing live shows, and recommending up-and-comers. A group of people who just really liked comedy became a tight-knit community, with inside jokes and real-life meetups. It’s the kind of thing that likely couldn’t happen today, at least not the same way. Or maybe it’s happening right now, in a thousand different corners of the Internet?

Kastalia Medrano looks at a much more diffuse group: tightlacers, who use Victorian-style corsets as a form of body modification. Without a central home, but through a number of private Facebook groups, Tumblr sites, and Flickr accounts, tightlacers around the world have come together to offer support, advice, and encouragement. Even 10 years ago, the same group of people would have been limited to occasional real-life meetings; today, even though scattered geographically, they can find one another online. Meanwhile, their style has been leaking into the mainstream, with Kim Kardashian posing on Instagram in a “waist training” corset. The newfound attention has been a blessing and a curse, helping some tightlacers find self-acceptance while others receive public scorn. Still, when it matters, they can find support among a like-minded community.

And finally, Erica Lenti writes about growing up in the Habbo Hotel, a teen-centric virtual world that was among the first social networks. (Even today it has millions of users, though unless you’re part of its target demographic, you’re probably only vaguely aware of it.) Much like today’s social networks, Habbo provided a place for Lenti and her online friends to present the best versions of themselves, in carefully wrought avatars and finely curated rooms. But it also gave them a space in which to be vulnerable, to share their hopes and fears with people they knew would accept them. It was a playground for the dire intensities of teendom. And then people grew up, drifted away, joined Facebook. Lenti revisited Habbo today, only to find it immeasurably changed. Without friends, it wasn’t the same, nor could it ever be—you can’t go back to Habbo again.

Enjoy the issue.  

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