Monday, June 22, 2015

Deserted Cities of the Web

I don't recall precisely when I got my first Goldstar modem to link my Mac to the various worlds beyond my home town. The World Wide Web did not yet exist. But there were communities forming, via chat rooms on America Online (AOL) and I was exploring them. It was a year or two before the WWW emerged, accessible first with Mosaic, then later that year with Netscape. The online networking giant was only a fledgling then with a million members or less when I first took the name ennyman as my handle.

What I do recall is how invigorating it all was. There were chat rooms for everything, from writing and art to favorite authors, music, politics of all stripes, cars, history interests of all types, and on and on.

I taught a few writing "classes" in a chat room there where people typed "clap clap clap clap" at the end. I also did research on the series of articles I authored for The Senior Reporter exploring the issue of doctor assisted suicide.

Essentially, these forums enabled the development of short term or long term communities of people from anywhere in the world, if connected to the Web. One of these "communities" that I participated in included a former member of the '60's psychedelic band Strawberry Alarm Clock. I forget now the theme that gave our group coherence, remembering only that we existed for a space of time.

The internet as we know it today has fostered innumerable numbers of such communities over the years. Sometime around eight years ago I became part of a Ning community that shared art. The site became a means of not only seeing the work of artists in other countries but fodder for blog content.

Social media platforms like Facebook advanced the sense of community possibilities as well.  After our 2011 Red Interactive show as part of Phantom Galleries - Superior, John Heino and I created a Red Interactive "community" on Facebook in which friends and participants were encouraged to share art and photography featuring the site's red theme. Red Interactive had a lot of energy initially, but over time though carried forward by the initial momentum this energy subsided and the center of the community dissipated.

About three years ago Twin Ports Arts Align was formed here in the Twin Ports with more ambitious aims. The local nature of this online community included face-to-face meetings on a regular basis. But what I have noticed is the recent slacking off in participation, and the feeling I get is that another community is evaporating.

The internet has often been compared to the Wild West and the metaphor seems to hold. There were territories to be settled, rules laid out, and an influx of people driven by different passions, whether to
explore the unknown, or to make money through commercial endeavors, or to meet people and start anew. And like the West, there are ghost towns everywhere, places where a community once thrived and now all that is left are abandoned homesteads.

While listening to an old Cream CD the song "Deserted Cities of the Heart" was playing and I couldn't help but think of all these deserted communities on the web. According to Forrester research the web is changing yet again. The big buzz in recent years is around the idea of content. "Content is king" seemed to be some kind of Holy Grail in the realm of marketing your goods and services. However, making content is so easy today that we have a problem. There's far more content than there is demand for it. In other words, as one B2B marketing spokesperson notes, "the supply of content is growing, but the demand is static."

Is this what happened to all those communities? Initially they promise something but to what end? When it is easy to belong, it is equally easy to disengage.

Maybe an online town comes and goes because the reason for its existence is unclear.

Or maybe there's something happening but many of the community members would rather lurk than contribute. I mean, we live in a culture where the actors are few and the fans are many. Have television, theater and sporting events turned us into a nation of passive viewers as opposed to active players? Then it should come as no surprise when the same thing happens online, for the cyber-world simply mirrors what is taking place in our "real" world.

Just making an attempt to articulate a few thoughts that were passing through my head this past week. What do you think?

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