The inner workings of internet communities

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The inner workings of internet communities

Illustration by Kayla Black

Illustration by Kayla Black

Illustration by Kayla Black

Eli Marshall, Staff writer

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Social media.

It’s an integral part of our lives today. We often talk about the negative effects of it — how addicted we are to it, how it impacts our sleep, how it hurts our self esteem and causes mental health issues. And considering all that, we often forget the positive things it can do.

There’s a reason all of us are on social media in the first place, a positive reason that has to keep us coming back. Maybe it’s for entertainment purposes, maybe to keep in touch with friends, maybe to stay informed with what’s going on in the world. But for some, including myself, social media and the Internet as a whole can create opportunities for communities that couldn’t exist and flourish offline. This has made the “online community” a new concept of the Internet age.

Now, the idea of an “online community” is very broad and the nature of how it is used varies significantly based on who you ask. But for the sake of this article, I’ll be defining an “online community” as any space an individual frequently interacts in via the Internet, where the people they interact with there aren’t people they also primarily interact with in the real world. Because, while so many people use social media, often times they’re using it as an additional means of interacting with people they see in real life on a regular basis, or to interact with people they initially met in real life but don’t see often. Though I’d consider an online community to not include that type of relationship — instead, it would be really any community where most of the members exclusively interact digitally and have never met in the real world.

For those who use online communities regularly, they could be used as a means of developing real social bonds with people around the world that you may never meet otherwise, and for some, a means of support through a mental health condition, or any other issue that may perhaps be more taboo to talk about in real life.

But at the same time, a lot of those same reasons could keep people coming back to social media. So why not social media in general rather than an “online community”? Well, social media may be an escape from real life, but it doesn’t come without its well-documented issues on the brain. Peer pressure, fear of missing out [FOMO], the constant struggle for likes and of course, the addiction we may very well have to it. “Traditional” social media — like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram — at the end of the day, are built around keeping people addicted to them for followers and likes. They’re popularity contests that double as social platforms, and sometimes the pressure to fit in here is too much and alternative platforms are sought out. These could be places where people can feel completely detached from their offline life and interact with different people they couldn’t see in real life, yet still form real and intimate bonds with others.

And that is where the online community comes in, as being a preferable mode of social interaction, entertainment and many other uses, for some people. Though this can vary, an additional layer an online community that may not be available on “traditional” social media is an added amount of basic anonymity. While heavily dependent on the type of platform, as each community may be so different that it’s hard to speak for everything. The Internet is such a place where no personally identifiable information may be necessary to be handed out on a given site. Anonymity can certainly mean different things to different people as well, but I believe the most important feature of it is that it allows oneself to construct an “online persona” that may be completely different in character from their self outside the screen.

This phenomenon may exist on “traditional” social media as well, but the nature of other online communities allows for it to exist to even more of an extent. Phys.org reports that “online, people tend to exaggerate their personas because they have much more time to revise and calculate the content they present than in spontaneous face-to-face interactions.” As part of a study specifically on more major social media sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, it examined the correlation of personality traits between one’s real self and one’s online persona. Once again, exceptions can be made left and right for each individual who may participate in an online community, but these basic principles I’ve found are what drives me personally to one.

A computer and the Internet are tools I’ve been able to use and have loved using for as long as I can remember, and naturally I grew to find the communities built there to be fascinating. Over the past year, I’ve spent a lot of time essentially curating and managing my own, learning invaluable life lessons along the way on being a leader, decision making, the value of hard work and so much more. The value these experiences have been to me was my inspiration for pursuing this topic in the first place, and what it as a whole may mean to not just myself but anyone growing up in the age of social media and the Internet.

While said community is centered around a specific topic, a college football based simulation type game, the community that has grown around it is unique from the topic it built itself around. The specific platforms that are used and allow it to thrive are Reddit for the game itself, and Discord for discussion, the latter of which being where the community is facilitated and grows. While by some definition, both of those platforms could be considered social media, the difference in them still creates a much different dynamic than other platforms I previously mentioned; rooted in a huge level of anonymity and how no personally identifiable information matters, one’s own actions are all that perceive how others view them. This creates a dynamic where gender, race, nationality and chiefly age, does not matter; it all comes down to how one presents themselves to the greater community. Certain communities can still naturally appeal to and be composed of certain age groups, genders, or any other parts of identity, but when you don’t necessarily know those things by default, there’s still a certain dynamic it creates.

The average age of my community based on an anonymous demographics survey was 20, with sizable populations of high schoolers, college age students and real adults that might be twice the age of other members of the community. How one presents themselves — word choice, interests and often interestingly, typing patterns (such as whether or not they capitalize or use proper punctuation) — creates a perceived age, versus someone’s actual age if they choose to reveal it.

Of course, the dynamic of a perceived age versus an actual age doesn’t exist quite as much in the real world, since seeing a person’s face and how they look in general can usually give people a reasonable estimate for how old someone is. Drawing from my own experiences in my community, I always take an interest in learning things about people, such as their age and where they’re from, things that we of course generally become much more familiar with in offline interactions. It helps me feel more like I’m talking to a unique, individual person, because sometimes, it’s hard to remember you’re talking to a real human when all you see of them is text over a screen. Perhaps the biggest spectacle of all is when a member chooses to do a “face reveal. ”I think if anything this shows how much value we as a society place on how people look given how much attention within the community one of these from someone tends to create. But at the same time, getting to know a person before you know what they look like reduces a lot of judgements one could have about them. More people tend to be comfortable revealing their age than their face, which is part of the reason I view it as the most important and fascinating characteristic to learn about someone from an Internet community. The impact of it all shows when people are surprised when a person’s perceived age doesn’t match their individual age; I’ve been thought to be much older than 16 due to my leadership position, while I’ve mistook people for being much older or younger due to nothing other than typing patterns and word choice.

In my experience, online communities that can sustain themselves long term also have a well defined authority positions, with each member in authority having some sort of real job that works towards benefiting the community. This could be anything from maintaining spreadsheets to facilitating relations with the rest of the community and then there’s also an overarching leader that keeps everyone in check. This is the role I fill, in addition to doing a few other important tasks necessary to keep the game the community centers on running each day. I feel as though experiences in that role have given me skills in leadership, problem solving, managing a group of people that I didn’t have before — skills that will be valuable for the rest of my life. All it took to acquire such skills was being invested in a community enough to want to contribute it and learning along the way.

Participation in an online community can also develop skills which effectively translate into making an individual a more politically active citizen. Political engagement can be encouraged even when a group isn’t explicitly for politics. Discussions over any issue, whether it’s apolitical, community-specific or a larger publicized issue in our world today, may start to form, and it teaches people to have an opinion about something. These findings were reported by a Youth Participatory Politics (YPP) survey, in partnership with a team at the University of Chicago, between 2011 and 2015; they concluded that more nonpolitical online activity causes more political action years later. The survey also found that 25 percent of young people take part in at least one online activity having to do with their interests each day.

It isn’t just about the skills I’ve acquired; I’ve seen real relationships with people around the world develop in my time around the community and have become close to many people I never would have met if not for the existence of such community. It’s often said that regularly talking to people who may be from a completely different place, across the country or the world, helps widen your perspectives and understanding of the world. After having the opportunity to do this myself through the community, I’ve seen for myself the impact that truly has.

I’ve observed the true meaning of the community gradually from conversations with some people; some have cited they are much closer to the people in my community than their real life friends and family; some have said they use conversations with the people there to cope with the likes of (but not limited to) depression and anxiety. These experiences have defined the magic of an online community to me, as what it means to not only myself but the lives I’ve impacted by being in it. The fact that in today’s digital world building real bonds like such are so easily accessible to many, I believe is truly a positive for society as a whole.  

There may be some negative effects of social media and the Internet as a whole that you can’t ignore, but it always seems we focus on those far more than the positives. And one positive the digital age has brought is the existence of online communities and their ability to flourish, for many a platform for entertainment, social interactions and emotional support. These benefits being readily available to the youth of today in their crucial teenage years has certainly had an impact on not only myself but many others as well. I believe the presence and understanding of online communities, particularly those similar to my own that I’ve described, will only continue to grow and be important as more of the world connects to the Internet. There’s something special that can be found in the social media, online communities and the Internet as a whole — exemplifying why it is considered an integral part of our lives today.