A murder of crows, a crash of rhinos, an unkindness of ravens; collective nouns for animals are a source of fascination and amusement that, if memorized, provide priceless dinner party banter. Many can be applied to humans too – a gaggle, a bevy, a troop, a horde – but one underrated epithet exclusive to our race is a ‘community’. For millennia we have gathered together to hunt, create shelter, share water sources and other essentials. Now our physical communities are established, we create our own online versions to fulfil our evolving needs.
Humans, unlike most animals, have unique and diverse personalities, often coming to disagreements with other individuals. To resolve these differences we must find a common ground and this is the starting point for any decent community. Forums and bulletin boards were the earliest online example of this, with early adopters gathering from across countries and oceans to discuss science, mathematics and other subjects which inspired passion in people that they simply had to share. This tradition survives in groups and Like pages on Facebook or circles on Google+, where a minority want – or rather need – to share information without intrusion from other users.
If we were all able to share our views, our ideas and our passions freely with everyone we met without fear of reprisal then sub-communities – online OR offline – simply wouldn’t exist. For example, sound engineering is a particularly niche interest shared mostly by men (sorry ladies, it’s true) who work on albums, live concerts, television shows and movies. If everybody knew how to ‘push their drivers to achieve a high output bandpass’ then there would be no need to go to a forum. Thus, for a community of 100 people to exist and chat online about PA speakers or microphones there need to be 100,000 outsiders who haven’t a clue what they’re talking about.
During childhood, if you were a girl then your mortal enemies were any and all boys and you would rather die than reveal your secrets to them. A safe haven such as a treehouse, wendy house or a hand-built den at the end of the playground was crucial to protecting the group. At risk of over-stretching the metaphor, there were groups of boys and other girls all over the playground, much like in social networks such as Facebook or Twitter; substitute the wendy house for a group or a pre-arranged hashtag and you can begin building your posse. A REASON, such as a musician or actor’s Twitter account, can spawn a community and subsequently a CLUBHOUSE through mutual love of that individual and online chat about every facet of their being.
Having 2,000 Facebook friends – 80% of whom you only grace with a wall post on birthdays – or 10,000 Twitter followers who never moved past the default ‘egg’ avatar is all well and good, but by no means constitutes a community. If you’re looking to encourage the growth of a group on any sort of social network it takes commitment. If you’ve got a YouTube channel, for example one that promotes short films by amateur directors, then you have to watch each and every relevant video, posting helpful comments, chatting and building a rapport with your peers. If they respond in kind then you have the beginnings of a REAL FRIENDSHIP even if you’ve never met that person before.
We’ve pretty well covered the ‘social’ side, but that is only half the story; while forums may have set the mould for online communities, social networks and media sharing applications have broken that mould and expanded it to include more than mere words. Users should always have something pertinent to add to the mix, whether it’s a newly-published article, and soon-to-be viral video or a long-lost image from simpler times. Communities based around the most serious subjects are easily swayed to trivial discussions over weird childhood crushes or favourite chocolate bars.
Online communities spring up all over the web and they’re based on a human being’s natural need to belong to something. While this remains a trait of ours they will continue to thrive, and represent a hotbed of our best (camaraderie, support, empathy) and worst (short-temper and love of confrontation) traits, kept for posterity in the form of online chat.