Birth of an accidental community

Once the mainstay of techies and fringe groups, online communities are going mainstream.

Call it an accidental community.

When it launched, Open Diary was a project to allow people to write ongoing journals anonymously online without having to launch their own Web sites. A month down the track, however, the Web site has evolved into an alternative online community. The evolution began after Open Diary decided to allow readers to post comments on each diary entry. That simple option proved hugely popular, as people following the real-life stories chronicled on the site increasingly began to weigh in with their own thoughts and stories -- a process that has evolved into a vibrant meeting of the minds.

Open Diary's evolution intrigues site founder Bruce Ableson, who said he didn't foresee the involved interplay that is developing between the diarists and their readers. "It is a little surprising, but I think it's great," said Ableson, who is also president of site developer Able Sites Inc.

Random relationships
Of course, online communities are nothing new. For several years, online communities have linked people who live in the same place, work in the same field, or share the same hobbies, interests or medical problems.

On sites, such as GeoCities (www.geocities.com), users can make their own home pages, explore other members' pages by searching based on a variety of topics, and chat with other members in topic-based forums. The site boasts three million active members, company officials said this week.

But Open Diary journal-keepers and readers are different -- coming together across rather more random lines.

Numerous relationships have already developed between people who appear to share little, if anything, in common.

For example, for the past several weeks, a diary-driven dialogue has gone on between a 43-year-old teacher in the United Arab Emirates and a 32-year-old store clerk and mother in Virginia.

Through career annoyances and personal crises, the two women have offered one another advice and comfort. For instance, when the Virginia woman endured the death of a close friend, her new online friend in the Middle East was there to provide support.

This type of dialogue is repeated over and over again among the site's 1,300 diarists and an unknown number of readers. Some conversations encompass three, four, five people or more.

"I've had quite a few people write in to say that the reader comments really helped them out when they were in a tough spot," Ableson said.

'Stupid, cruel comments'
But the interplay isn't always so positive.

One diarist, a 41-year-old Missouri woman who is using her diary to chronicle her third pregnancy, attracted some sharply critical feedback that led her to lash out in frustration at readers posting "stupid, cruel comments." (The offensive messages were subsequently removed by site administrators.)

And while the friendships and conflicts that emerge in online communities are similar to friendships and conflicts in the physical world, some experts predict that as community sites grow and change, people will discover these sites can serve new purposes.

Few have watched this Web-community paradigm unfold with more anticipation than Howard Rheingold. A former executive editor of HotWired and author of several books on technology and society -- including the 1993 work "The Virtual Community" -- Rheingold said he thinks people might now be using the term "online community" too broadly.

Community 'smeared' all over
"The word 'community' has been smeared all over the place," Rheingold told ZDNN in an interview. "It's a complex thing. Just giving people free Web pages -- that's not a community. That's stretching it too far."

It's the debate, the interplay among individuals, that makes community sites come alive, he said.

Rheingold noted that the online community concept is far from new. Long before there was a World Wide Web, people used Usenet and listservs to hold expansive conversations that turned into the first "virtual communities," he said.

"Community isn't new, but it's new to the Web," Rheingold said.

The WELL phenomenon
Gail Williams, executive director of The WELL, one of the oldest online communities (Rheingold has been a WELL member since its inception), said that in its earliest days, the term "online community" signified virtual meeting places for "people who were isolated or outside the mainstream -- hackers, socialists, and extremist libertarians."

When The WELL opened 12 years ago, it functioned mainly as an electronic bulletin board for writers and readers of the Whole Earth Review magazine. Between 1992 and 1996, it also offered Internet access, but in 1996, the ISP business was consolidated with that of a San Francisco-based ISP called Hooked -- forming a new company called Whole Earth Networks.

Whole Earth Networks now runs The WELL's servers and billing operations. (Unlike with most other community sites, however, membership isn't free: members pay $10 to $15 per month.)

Over time, other highly specialized groups have flocked to the Internet to form communities.

A Yahoo! search for online communities shows hundreds of older sites with names including "QuarryWorld -- the online community of crushed-stone and sand and gravel producers," and "CraftWEB Project -- the online community to help promote quality crafts in basketry, ceramics, fabric arts, glass work, jewelry, metal arts, painting, paper art and wood work."

Not so geek-centric
Members of many of the Web's earliest organized communities came together chiefly to talk about technology, said Robert Schrag, a professor of communication at North Carolina State University.

"Now, with the maturation of the Internet, in many of these groups the technology is no longer seen as the unifying theme. It's just the tool that brings people together," Schrag said.

The concept of online community grew more mainstream along with the Internet itself, and soon people from all types of backgrounds, from all over the world, took to community sites to make their voices heard, whether to vent frustrations or express opinions, The WELL's Williams said.

Community portals?
Today, the community idea has merged with another hot Internet trend: that of aggregating useful functions in a Web "portal." Sites including The Globe and Tripod offer users the news headlines, search functions, and free e-mail available on the portals, along with home page building tools and a host of community functions.

The emergence of diary-keeping sites makes sense because "first-person singular is the language of the Net," she said.

But in addition to talking about themselves, the online diary keepers will "reconfigure the diary metaphor itself," Schrag said.

"Keeping a diary on paper means being in a dialogue with yourself, but keeping it on the Internet means being in dialogue with others," he said.

In the nearly eight years Williams has been with The WELL, "the biggest change is that it's not as esoteric as it once was," she said.

Whereas in the past one might have found only systems administrators, now there are soccer moms trading recipes. But in the course of the conversation, those soccer moms might expand to a host of other topics, Williams said.

In one of The WELL's "catch-all" discussion areas (or "conferences," as they're known on the site) dubbed the "Weird" conference, contributors generally meet to trade insults.

But recently, one longtime user, well-known to the group, "left a very moving posting about the death of a pet, and the others didn't touch that. It was like he just wanted to share that experience with the people he knew from the conference, and the others respected that," Williams said.

It's no cyber Utopia
If finding new friends to rely upon is one major use of online communities, another that will become more prominent as the sites evolve is a tool more commonly associated with Web portals -- organization of schedules and personal data, said Anya Sacaro, an analyst with Jupiter Communications in New York.

"In the beginning, the audiences for these sites were more transient, where now they are more focused, targeted and utilitarian," said Sacaro, who is now writing a report on the changing nature of advertising on online community sites.

As more of the sites begin to offer organizational and calendar tools, their usefulness will increase, along with their attractiveness to advertisers, she said.

In the future, Rheingold predicts community sites will offer more features and be easier to use.

"What we have yet to see is a place that offers a well-integrated mix of Web-based conferencing, instant messaging, chat and Web publishing," he said, "but it will come."

Such changes are as natural as the evolution of the "real-world" society, The WELL's Williams said.

"The online village is not a Utopia, but more of an extension of the physical world," she said. "We're really still at the beginning of the evolution."