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The Rise of Virtual Communities
A discussion with Amber Atherton about the pioneers of the early internet
Hey community builders! Welcome to the 83 of you who joined this week. If someone sent you this post, join the 3,500+ people learning how to build better communities and businesses every week.
I’ve got something special for you this week. I’ve never done an interview on this newsletter before. That changes today! You’re going to get an exclusive, behind-the-scenes look at a new book that I’ve been eagerly looking forward to: The Rise of Virtual Communities by Amber Atherton.
I’m fascinated by the history of virtual communities. Their wild founding stories, eccentric founders, and oddball cultures are the stuff of legends amongst us community folk. And I think we can all learn a ton about building communities today by investigating the work of titans of communities past.
This book is like crack for community nerds like us. It’s coming out on May 1 but you can preorder it here.
Until then, grab your Flickr, power up your Second Life, peek into your Well, and let’s dive into the wonderfully weird world of virtual communities with Amber Atherton.
Amber, thanks so much for chatting with me. So let’s start with a little background. Why did you write this book?
You know I’ve always been intrigued by archeology. Studying history through physical artifacts. So I had this idea for community archeology. A way to preserve the history of all the virtual communities that have existed in the past, in physical book form. I like the idea of someone stumbling across the worlds of Club Penguin or Discord in years to come - like a future relic.
How does your own story as a community builder show up in the book?
I grew up as an expat. Born in Hong Kong, moving around from the UK to the Caribbean to the US. When you live that lifestyle you very quickly learn to get good at building community. You seek out people in new places, start recognizing social patterns and hierarchy. Above all, you nurture this insatiable curiosity to learn from others. To better understand your place in the world, to define what you believe in. You can learn so much from a 5-minute conversation which is why I chose the interview format.
Your book website is the best I've seen for a book maybe ever. What's the story behind the design?
Thank you! It was such a fun thing to build. I knew there were only two people who could create it with me, Bertie Brandes and Lily Scowen- two old friends of mine from London. A few weeks over the Christmas holidays, Bertie’s galaxy brain melded with Lily’s design and engineering genius, and the website was born. We just spent hours on Zoom happily reminiscing about our childhood on the internet and what type of websites we loved. The little blinkies and cursor were fun to create.
So you got to interview these founders who were all community visionaries and all, I'm sure, delightfully weird. Did you identify any commonalities in what makes these people tick? What does it take to start a community that reaches such massive scale?
Two core things stand-out 1) is an interest in technology 2) is an interest in convening people. Whilst the meeting places all these founders built were different, fundamentally they all liked living in the future and asking the question, “What if?”
As for what it takes to start a community that reaches scale, I'll tell you the quote I've had framed on my desk for the last 15 years. 'Rome wasn't built in a day.' I don't think any of these founders could predict how big their communities and platforms were going to be. They started by creating a place and solving a problem for a specific group of people and continuing to work every day on making that place better so it eventually attracts even more people.
Interesting. Would you say they saw themselves primarily as community builders or technologists?
I think probably the former. Almost every founder started with thinking about how to use technology to help people gather. When Michelle Kennedy founded Peanut, she was living a double life. By day she was working in dating at Badoo and advising on the board of Bumble. By night she would be at home desperately searching for information to do with raising kids. When she felt like Google search results and Facebook Groups for new mothers weren’t cutting it she founded Peanut to provide that sense of safety and community at such an important time in life.
I bet your conversation with Philip Rosedale from Second Life was interesting. (For our younger readers, Second Life was one of the very first virtual universes). I once hung out with him at a happy hour after a conference and he said, "I bet I can get everyone at this bar to lay on the ground" and then just dropped to the ground. We laughed. But slowly, one-by-one, everyone else got on the ground too. I'll never forget it. Curious, what was your conversation with him like? Any memorable takeaways?
Philip is extraordinary and endlessly curious about human interaction. Our conversation weaved all over from Elinor Ostrom’s ideas on polycentric governance to DAO’s and democracy.
There's a story about Second Life. In the beginning, they had text forums. People would go into the forums and they would be horrible to each other. And do you know what Philip would do? He would go in-world and find their avatar, walk up to them, and say “Hey, it's Phillip. What are you mad about?” and their response would immediately be, “I'm so sorry. I don't know what got into me. I didn't mean to be cruel. I will go and apologize to that person.” People get mean as soon as they have asynchronous text, but when you chat face-to-face with them, as an avatar, people immediately adopt the physiological behavior that we do in real life, which is to be polite and civil.
I’m curious how the darker underbelly of virtual communities shows up in your research. Did you talk to Moot at 4chan or any other communities like that?
I didn’t. You’re bound to get a few bad apples showing up in a virtual community, or a bunch of 14-year-olds pranking each other, but I kept this first book focused on the positive side of online communities! I was more interested in giving community professionals and the wider public an idea of how this space has evolved and what familiar challenges we all continue to face. I think 4chan and sites like Silk Road would be fascinating to delve into from a psychology point of view. It’s just a little bit harder to get a hold of those founders…!
How did you define a virtual community (as opposed to a social network or something else) when you were selecting who to interview for the book?
Caterina Fake the co-founder of Flickr and I discuss this in the book.
People have grown up today in this very transactional experience of social media. They notice loneliness and a lack of human flourishing but don't necessarily know why. It’s the water in which the fish is swimming - it's hard to see when you’re in it and it’s all you know. Liking a tweet is not a real human connection and it cannot replace that. Ultimately social media is about exactly that, it’s photos it’s advertising it’s not conversations and belonging.
Social networks drive you to just add as many people to your network as possible versus fostering deep connections. I tried to bring a balance of founders at the intersection of virtual worlds and community building. The less transactional the better.
I’m always fascinated by a community’s founding story. What was your favorite from all the communities you interviewed?
Honestly every time I finished an interview I would say to myself 'Well that was definitely my favorite interview!' They are all so unique and fascinating. No one held back in telling me crazy stories and they are all in the book.
Trevor, who founded FWB, is just generally one of my favorite people. He has a special ability to trend forecast and merge culture and technology in a way that feels very human. His ideas for community-owned products and how governance and technology are going to evolve are totally fascinating.
The concept for how Friends With Benefits started was that members could participate in a chat room - a Discord - and be their awesome, fun selves. But in order for them to be in that chat room, they needed to own a fixed number of tokens - 50 tokens - and there was a fixed supply of tokens. An analogy would be if you owned a nightclub, which was really cool and people wanted to come into that nightclub but they needed tokens to be admitted; that increasing demand on a fixed supply would increase the value of those tokens. To the point where if you were holding the very tokens that others needed to get into that nightclub, you would see the value that you had created. FWB was that nightclub, in the form of a virtual chat room.
Is there any consistency in what it takes to get a community off the ground?
First impressions are key in getting a community off the ground. No one's gonna stick around if they didn't have a good onboarding experience.
The DeviantART interview with founder Angelo Sotira is packed full of tactical advice on how you get a community to grow. Most noticeably when any user posted their work, every Deviant Team member had to comment on it. That immediate engagement and feedback encouraged other members to interact too. As Angelo says in the interview, “It's such a winning principle of successful virtual communities to just welcome new members and encourage them on their journey in those very early interactions. It makes such a difference to how long you stick around.”
I love that advice. I always like to make a rule for any new community I start that every post has to get at least three responses in the first 24 hours.
Exactly! You don’t want to feel like you’re just shouting into the void. If you feel like you don’t have the time or resources to deliver that first impression in a live chat forum, you can always start with a pop-up community strategy, make it a read-only/forum-based experience with weekly live AMA’s or video chats to allow for interaction and responses. Then graduate to real-time as the community grows.
A good story requires some hardship. What were some of the biggest hurdles these community founders had to overcome?
It's the technological hurdles that stick out to me. Stacy Horn who is one of the few female pioneers in the early internet space had to overcome a lot. No investors would back her, so she decided to charge a subscription service to members to keep her afloat. This was in 1989 and Stacy was paying for the phone lines people used to call up Echo aka to get connected to the internet. As Echo grew she had over 100 phone lines going into her apartment. Eventually, the telephone company had to rip up the street to install more phone lines.
Wow. And now all you have to do is hit “launch” on a new Discord or Slack and bam… you have a community up and running! Do you think that the ease with which we can launch new communities today is having a negative impact? Looking through all the communities in your book, I can’t help but think that the communities of old had so much more flavor than most of today’s communities.
Argh I agree. But David, are we both just internet nostalgia romantics?! When I think about the communities of old there was a sort of innocent creativity. You weren’t trying to be an influencer. You were world-creating, third-place-making, and having fun hanging out and chatting. Today I think the negative impact is less driven from the ease in which you can start a community, and more from the social gamification. Most platforms are not driving you to form meaningful connections or be creative. But I think that is changing, and optimistically it’s coming from gaming. Half of US kids play Roblox and the creativity and congregation of friends in that platform is fantastic! It’s like our Neopets or Habbo Hotel. A lot of fantastic community builders and founders grew up on those platforms. But yeah if you just launch a Slack or a Discord with no plan for the architecture or what purpose it really serves, it’s just gonna be a dud.
What would you say is different about the culture of internet communities today, compared to the communities of the early days of the internet? What's better? What's worse?
The key thing to remember is that in the early days of the internet, there just weren't that many people on the internet! Because the communities were smaller, you'd run into familiar usernames on different platforms. There was a huge sense of collective problem-solving as everyone was trying to figure out how to improve their broadband speed or experiment with graphical interfaces. It felt more like a village vs today's globalized billion-person megatropolis. So for better we are more connected than we're ever been, but for worse our connection and attention span has been reduced to digital actions likes ”pokes” and “likes”. Part of the reason why podcasts have surged in popularity is they make you feel like you're actually taking part in a conversation.
All of these communities eventually became behemoths, pulling in loads of traffic and influencing the internet culture of the day. What were the inflection points that took these once small, niche communities into the mainstream?
One pattern you can quite clearly match whilst reading the book is the growth curve being accelerated once the community is discussed off-platform in real life. For example with Club Penguin, kids were talking about it all day at school and then getting home to hang out, chat, and play together online once they were home. Not dissimilar from MSN or AIM chat or Roblox and Fortnite today.
Other notable inflection points readers will pick up on is the idea of serving your most passionate members first. For example, with Flickr that was about serving amateur but passionate photographers, Discord served gamers, Water & Music serves people at the intersection of music and technology. When you focus on building the best product for a small but growing niche community, oftentimes it ends up getting adopted by other groups and scaling through advances in technology.
Fascinating. So we know a virtual community is primed to take off once they’re talked about offline. Ironic in a way isn’t it? It’s interesting to think about how virtual communities changed the way we connect in person.
Yeah I mean look at dating! People are fearful of rejection. Better to de-risk the situation by connecting first virtually THEN meet in real life. In general we’re flipping from an offline-to-online-influenced world to an online-to-offline-influenced world. What blows up on Tiktok becomes a trend in real life. What’s fashionable in Fortnite becomes popular at Fashion Week. As we collectively spend more of our time congregating online, investing in our digital persona the more offline functions as a validation loop vs a catalyst.
After writing this book, do you have hope for the future of internet communities or are we all going to be stuck in a Zuckermusk hellhole?
There's a very binary trend emerging with Gen Z and younger. On one side kids are all day broadcasting on TikTok and on the other they are completely off the grid. No social media accounts (well any linked to their real identity!) anywhere. So I think future communities will be built to serve these two growing tribes. Those who want to connect in a pseudo-anon way in environments where your identity and appearance are all malleable and those who want their digital identity to sync up to their real-world life. One thing's for sure- we are social animals so I'm hopeful that we will continue to convene in new types of town squares.
What strange corners of the internet do you spend most of your time in today?
If I’m being totally honest I have a bias for IRL community. I’m a huge convener and love throwing dinner parties, salons, and brunches bringing people together from all walks of life. In my role as Executive Director of GBxglobal.org it’s about bringing Brit’s in tech together. For Patron.xyz, it’s about founder meetups and expert workshops. I’m looking forward to my Hong Kong friends dinner in a few weeks to gather the Hong Kong Diaspora in the bay. But internet-wise I’m a huge Hacker News girl. I spend hours reading the comments and having debates with people. For aesthetic stimulation, I go down the Tumblr rabbit hole.
Alright, before we wrap up, give me your top three pieces of advice for community builders that they'll take away from your book...
Architect a space you are genuinely proud to host a community in
Make sure every member is part of a 15-minute on-boarding/ welcome session on video
Build unique products for your community.
Amazing. I really appreciate all the time you’ve given me, Amber. To wrap up, where can we send people to buy the book, connect with you, and all that jazz?
The book is available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and excitingly quite a few of my fave indie book shops like skylights books in LA.
I’d also like to invite all of your readers to my SF launch party. Tons of community experts and press coming!
Thanks so much Amber.
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That’s all for today! Thanks for reading.
What did you think of the interview format? You dig it? Should I do more of these? Who else should I interview?
Until next week…
Thanks for building community!