On the hidden or out of the way yet sometimes thriving web forums

This is something I have noticed recently in several sites I visit frequently: there is a little community of consistent posters who have been drawn together and slowly get to know each other. While one of these sites, the Ask Amy column posted on the site of the Chicago Tribune, is not exactly hidden, The Economist discusses some web groups that have formed in really hard to find or unlikely places:

The programming crew had accidentally created a community of the sort that crop up all over the internet. Most online discussions take place in discussion forums designed to allow people to create an identity and interact in threaded, chronological conversations. But the hidden recesses of the web provide enough soil to root entire worlds, too. Wherever one person may post words which more than one other may read and respond to, a world is born.

Read the article to hear how devoted fans of Douglas Adams founded a group in a forum that was an afterthought and how some people unhappy with Sonic Drive-In’s service found each other.

Sounds like a start to a very interesting research study: what exactly motivates people to (1) seek out these spaces and (2) then continue with discussions and getting to know each other. The description of what happens in these settings in out of way parts of the Internet is hilarious:

It’s been thirteen years of hosting an accidental community. It’s somewhat like ignoring the vegetable drawer of your fridge for a year, then opening it to find a bunch of very grateful sentient tomatoes busily working on their third opera.

I would guess that the people who participate in groups like this are a limited number of total web users. I wouldn’t tend to be drawn to such forums: read a comment section of any blog or news story and you would likely find the conversation to be quite tedious or inflammatory. But I can remember the heady early days of AOL when chat rooms were the exciting feature of the Internet (and content took forever to load).

And these groups can be like real-life groups, meaning that they become territorial and protective:

Another surprise is that they will treat growth as a perturbation as well, and they will spontaneously erect barriers to that growth if they feel threatened by it. They will flame and troll and otherwise make it difficult for potential new members to join, and they will invent in-jokes and jargon that makes the conversation unintelligible to outsiders, as a way of raising the bar for membership.

It sounds like there is a starting period when the group might be somewhat fluid as people stumble unto such forums. But once the group coalesces and becomes a collective entity, others are not welcome and sharp boundaries are drawn to limit the influence of outsiders. So if one wants to become part of such a group, does one simply have to be lucky or have good timing?

Another question: what do the users get out of participating in such long digressions?

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