Community on the Internet

Everything you've wanted to know about North African falconry in the 1300s, but were afraid to ask
by Sky Dayton
(Originally published October, 2000)

The word "Community" used to apply to people living in a certain geographical area: the neighbors on your block, the people in your town, your local school or club. With the spread of the Internet, the concept of community suddenly gains a much broader definition. And that's a good thing.

Though you hopefully share much in common with your neighbors, there is no guarantee that they will have similar hobbies and interests to your own. If they do, then you're lucky. Chances are, your access to like minds has been greatly limited.

Before the Internet, physical distances separated people of like interests. Like the characters from Gilligan's Island, their search for others who shared their passions was constrained to a suffocatingly small pool of available participants.

Stamp collectors, model railroaders, and the like counted themselves fortunate to find others living nearby who understood the nuances and detail involved in their particular hobbies. Lacking local contacts, perhaps they corresponded with others through the mail, and kept up on the latest through magazines or newsletters. Those interested in more obscure topics were less fortunate, often living out their lives knowing few others who shared their interests.

The Internet has changed all of this. The Internet now connects hundreds of millions of people across the world to one network, unbounded by geographical limitations. Of course, older technologies, such as the telephone, and long before that, the telegraph, have connected hundreds of millions of people for a much longer time. The problem with these technologies was that they didn't allow someone to search through everyone who was connected and find people of like mind and interest. Yes, there are hundreds of millions of people who currently have telephones, but in general, you are only able to contact people you already know.

falcon The Internet is the first mass communications medium that allows any two people anywhere to connect with each other, and allows someone to search and sort information to find new people.

This means that suddenly we can form new communities based not on geography, but on common interests, and we can do this with an ease that was never before possible.

Some areas of interest are so obscure there may only be 30 people in the whole world who care anything about them. But these small groups of people will be passionate beyond reason for their subjects. If you have ever browsed through Internet discussion groups, you have probably seen listings for groups interested in arcane topics like "Small yellow birds from the upper Congo," or "French military medals from the 1600s," or "Housecats of the ancient Sumerians," which might be a subgroup of "Pets of the ancient Sumerians." The likelihood of the participants in these discussion groups finding each other out in the "real world" is pretty slim. But on the Internet, they can hook up within minutes, across the world, after a brief search.

And, of course, it's not just hobbyists who benefit. It's anyone looking for others who share similar interests, similar backgrounds, or even similar problems. If you are an American living in Turkey, the Internet can help you locate other Americans living nearby, who could probably lead you to grocery stores carrying items you would find homey and familiar.

If you or a loved one is suffering from a disease, on the Internet you can find others in the same situation and compare notes about doctors, therapies, and what has and hasn't worked. This kind of interaction was much more difficult before the Internet, and often happened only through referrals by your own doctor.

And, of course, if you are looking for songs to teach your pet mynah bird, information on raising grubs for a living, textbooks on medieval British archery in Yorkshire, or any of hundreds of thousands of other esoteric topics, you are bound to find kindred spirits on the Internet ready to swap wisdom. Of course, the truly great thing about the Internet is that if you can't find that perfect community that already exists, you can always start your own!