C. Caravello 3/8/2009

Online Communities: The Past

This research is aimed at determining the future of online communities. With the rise of social network sites (SNS) there has become a distinct difference between websites set up for users to connect with one another based on common interests, and social sites that allow for a more personal network. This first paper will discuss the past of both topical based communities (referred to as “forums” in this project) and social networking sites, and how the members of these communities connected before the rise of such sites. The second paper will examine the present state of these communities and how there seems to be a blending of public discussion websites and SNS’, as well as a bridging of both offline and online communities. The final paper will examine where online communities are headed based on the theories and trends discussed in the first two papers. This project is being conducted to determine the future of online communities, and will draw on sources relevant to forums and SNS’, in particular one such community that has incorporated both. This research will answer an important question: Will internet forums become obsolete or evolve? The future of internet forums quite possibly will involve incorporating many features of social media, which opens the discussion of whether or not forums will exist as being separate from social media. Either way, it is obvious that forums will remain a fixture of online communities in the future; it just needs to be determined in what form this will be in.

Online Communities: The Past
The purpose of this paper is to display the history behind online communities. With the rise of social networking sites in the last few years, people have been able to communicate with individuals from all over the world. There are two questions this paper will attempt to answer: How did these communities form online? What were its members doing before the creation of these communities? Answering these two questions will show how online communities have impacted the way members of our societies communicate with one another.

The History of Interest Groups
Interest groups have been forming for several centuries in all Western civilizations. There are four phases that can describe the formation of these groups in the United States, which had strong ties to trade and industry (Thomas 1993). Phase one saw organizations in the preindustrial era from the mid 19th century which came about to assist the poor as the primary form of association. Groups formed to give aid to those less fortunate remain prevalent today, both online and offline. These groups were formed mostly from middle class citizens.

Phase two corresponds from the industrialization that occurred in the latter part of the 19th century. It is during this phase that saw the mingling of classes within these groups. Interest groups were formed with economic interests in mind, such as trade unions as well as employer groups. Agricultural groups also formed to bring together members with a common livelihood.

Phase three came about from the beginning to the middle of the 20th century, and groups began to come about to connect those with common profession as well as those promoting causes. The size of these groups grew in membership and spanned larger portions of the country.

Interest groups are currently in the fourth phase and are characterized by common interests such as hobbies, environmental issues, and civil rights. Interest groups also began to exist in multiple versions according to geographical location.

One technological breakthrough allowed these interest groups to become connected and far ranging without the limitations of physical location: the Internet. This accelerator eliminated the main suppressor to the formation of large interest driven communities, geographical proximity. The Internet led to a heightened sense of connection within our society that mirrored the feeling brought on by the invention of the telegraph a century earlier. Society was even closer to being “one homogeneous mass”, to quote Samuel Bowles. While the Internet changed the way these communities were able to form and become connected, the even bigger change lay in the types of people that were joining these communities.

John Lucas, an administrator on an online forum had this to say about his social life before discovering ways to communicate online:

Before I was a member of the Downboard the only real outlets for discussing music I liked with others was either via going to a concert and talking to people or seeing people in school with band shirts on I liked. Going to concerts had its downfalls because not everyone wanted to talk sometimes. They had to be “heavy metal” and not say a word. Seeing people in school wasn’t the easiest thing either. Many band shirts would violate dress code. I think I only saw a handful of Pantera shirts at high school because pot leaves and naked chicks riding snakes were out of the question. Discovering ways to discuss music with people via the internet has easily become the best and fastest way. Most bands have their own forums and many genres have dedicated forums too. It allows you to edit out who you want to talk to and what you want to talk about.

This “third place” Lucas describes as the online communities he sought out to converse about music on became common as the World Wide Web became popular. Early online communities were made up of mostly of those that shared educational goals and research. During the late 1990s, the combination of less expensive computers and the Internet becoming more widespread encouraged thousands of users to go online (Preece Maloney, & Abras, 2003). “The increase in online access by all kinds of Americans highlights the fact that the Internet population looks more and more like the overall population of the United States” (Preece Maloney, & Abras, 2003). According to a 2001 A project conducted by Pew Internet & American Life showed that 84% people online had visited an online community and 79% could name at least one community that they visited on a regular. To many of these users, the internet was an extension of their communities that they were members of offline, such as churches, schools, and clubs. According to Sociologist Barry Wellman, this phenomena is called “glocaliztion- the ability of the Internet to both expand user’s social contacts and bind them more closely to the place where they live” (Preece Maloney, & Abras, 2003). These online communities allow its users to hang out away from home and work in a virtual “third place” and discuss topics of common interest, which reiterates what John Lucas said in his quote.

The Beginning of Online Forums
There are several developmental breakthroughs that need to be mentioned when looking at the history of online forums. Online bulletin board systems (BBS) were a very popular way to carry on threaded discussions before the use of the internet became widespread. Developed by Ward Christensen and Randy Sues in January of 1978, BBS started as an idea for a simple computer communication system. Christensen developed the software and Suess assembled the hardware. BBS operates like a virtual thumb-tack bulletin board, with users posting messages to a public “board,” while other users respond to these messages, creating an online discussion. Given that the internet was not very wide ranging yet, most discussions focused on computer science and communication. Eventually topics began to broaden and by the 1990s an entire virtual world was opened up to BBS users as the internet gained more and more users. Around the mid-1990s BBS usage began to dwindle as the graphics oriented World Wide Web was developed. As things like graphics and point & click interface were implemented, it became clear online communities would be changing drastically. Previously, only a single person could be logged on at a time. Real-time discussion became possible and widespread as the entire system of BBS became obsolete.

As the WWW became more common, many of these communities moved to the global network. This evolution to allow the incorporation of new functionality and design led to the next step in online communities. Online communities appeared in a variety of media, which were gradually integrated into single environments.

One administrator of an online forum had this to say in regards to forums and message boards as a form of online communication:

….having a message board is, in my opinion, the best means for peer-to-peer communication. The message board allows more people to join and talk about a broader array of subjects than most SNS do.
Users participating on a message board can build bonds with each other and interest groups will easily form around a topic’s discussion, and most boards are divided into sections focus on a particular subject. Message boards often have administrators that manage that make the technical decisions of the board, as well as control the look and feel of its appearance.

The Beginning of Social Network Sites
Social network sites can be defined as “web-based services that allow individuals to construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, articulate a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system (Boyd & Ellison). The types of connections and networks may vary between different sites. Meeting new people is often not the primary goal of those that join social network sites, they are usually just extending communication with those that they already know offline.

Alex Batess, a cofounder of an online network has this to say about how SNS’ have changed they way he stays connected within his network of peers:

The power and ability of social network sites have further allowed me to connect with more people and in more ways. Before, when I was just a member of a message board, there were a limited number of members and a limited number of ways to connect. But with the help of social network sites, I’ve really been able to connect in so many new ways and with so many new people that I never really even imagined before. Now, we can stay connected pretty much 24/7 and no matter where we are thanks largely to many of these sites, such as Twitter and Brightkite, allowing for user updates via SMS. Now you don’t even need a computer to stay connected. There are also social network sites that allow for conference calls between its members and records the calls as posts for the users, such as Utterli. And thanks to the great SNS tool site, Ping.fm, users can update their SNS’ via so many different ways like SMS, IM, email, and even telephone calls. Thanks to all these sites, there are almost an unlimited number of ways for people to connect to each other.

This is to some degree what most members of SNS’ go online to accomplish, as SNS’ “enable users to articulate and make visible their social networks” (Boyd & Ellison).

The first Social Networking Site was created in 1997. This SNS was SixDegrees and allowed its users to create a profile describing themselves and their interests, as well as list who their friends are on the site. These profile features existed before on applications such as AIM, although this is merely a free standing profile as no one else could view a users friends list. Another predecessor to SixDegrees was Classmates.com, which allowed people to be listed and affiliated with their high school or college and surf the network for others who also were alumni of their institutions, but users could not create profiles or list friends until years later. What makes SixDegrees the first SNS is that they were the first to combine these features (Boyd & Ellison).

To promote itself, SixDegrees claimed to help its users connect with others and allowed its users to message one another. Despite attracting millions of users, SixDegrees could not achieve financial success and closed in 2000. The founders believe SixDegrees was simply ahead of its time, specifically in regards to people not having a large network of friends who were online. The critics of the site also complained that there was not enough to do other than accept friend requests, and not many people were interested in meeting people that they did not know, a stigma that seems to have died down in the following years with the rise of Facebook, Myspace, and the various online dating communities.

Various social networking communities sprung up from 1997 to 2001, all of which incorporated profile creation and publicly displayed Friends lists. Niche communities such as AsianAvenue, BlackPlanet, and MiGente gave its users the ability to create profiles for personal, professional, and dating connections, and also allowed friends to be added without having to seek approval from users. Many other online communities began using this connection feature, such as the Swedish OC LunarStorm in 2000 and the Korean OC Cyworld. In 1999 LiveJournal launched and allowed its users to create privacy settings to determine how their profiles could be viewed and added as other users contacts. The founder of LiveJournal has said that he modeled this after the privacy controls from AIMS Buddy List. This site also allowed its users to create online journals that their Friends could follow. LunarStorm also allowed its users to create online journals, as well as guest books for users to leave comments on.

In 2001, a new wave of social networking communities appeared, with the focus being on creating networks for business contacts. One such community was Ryze. Ryze’s first users were members of the business and technology communities, many who in turn helped create future online communities of their own. What made communities such as Ryze, Tribe.net, LinkedIn, and Friendster different than the previous online communities is that its members were closely connected both personally and professionally. The founders of these communities believed that they could support one another without necessarily competing with one another. Ryze was never able to achieve mass appeal, Tribe.net was able to become a niche community, LinkedIn became a successful professional business tool, and Friendster became “one of the biggest disappointments in Internet history” (Chafkin, 2007). At the end of this wave of SNS sites, there would be two that would emerge and change how online communities were thought of forever.

Figure 1. SNS launch date timeline (Boyd & Ellison).

By 2006, the immensely popular Myspace and Facebook and other social networking sites had changed online communities as we know them forever. Online forums will need to evolve as these SNS sites continue to play a bigger role in users online social lives. As discussed in this paper, the past has shown just how different these types of online communities were. While they share common roots, the birth of the WWW accelerated growth of a myriad of offshoots from these origins. In the next paper, the present state of these communities shows how the line separating the two types has become blurry, as social networking sites have incorporated more and more of the features that online forums posses. In conclusion, the desire to socialize with those that shared common interests brought people together to form groups that later made the move to the Internet, and before this move to the online world, these groups existed in a geographical location relevant to its members physical community.

The next paper will discuss the present state of online communities, and where these communities are headed. With the rise of social networking sites in the last few years, people have been able to communicate with individuals from all over the world. There are two questions this paper will attempt to answer: What communities have risen to the top of the ever changing internet landscape? How are they changing the way members of our society interact with one another, both online and offline? Answering these two questions will show how online communities have impacted the way members of our societies communicate with one another.


Batess, A. (2009) Telephone Interview.

Boyd, D & Ellison, N (2007). Social network sites: Definition, history, and scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(1), article 11. http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol13/issue1/boyd.ellison.html

Chafkin, M. (2007). How to kill a great idea! Inc. Magazine. Retrieved February 1, 2009 from http://www.inc.com/magazine/20070601/features-how-to-kill-a-great-idea.html

Lucas, J. (2009) Telephone Interview.

Preece, J., Maloney-Krichmar, D. and Abras, C. (2003) History of Online Communities (Eds.), Encyclopedia of Community: From Village to Virtual World. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Rheingold, H. (2002). Smart mobs: The next social revolution. Cambridge, MA: Perseus

Smith, M. A., & Kollock, P. (1999). Communities in cyberspace. London, UK: Routledge.

Thomas, Clive S. ( 1993). First World Interest Groups, A Comparative Perspective, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Tu, C. (2004). Online Collaborative Learning Communities: Twenty One Designs to Building an Online Collaborative Learning Community. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc.

Werry, C. and Mowbray, M. (2001). Online Communities. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

One Response to “The Past of Online Communities”

  1. […] The Past of Online Communities The Present and Future of Online Communities Presentation Annotated Bibliography […]

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