On Community

The following is a (slightly edited for typos and spelling) post that I made to net.subculture.usenet on February 26, 2005.

I'm not sure if this is going to be particularly coherent. Perhaps that's why I'm posting it to a group I'm not sure anyone is still reading.

I just filed into my mail archive a really nice and heart-felt note I received from someone, out of the blue, thanking me for some of the things that I've done (mostly with free software). On a whim, I started reading some of the other things that I've filed away over the years. Then I started thinking about the message I received, not so much what he said but the nature of the communication, the context in which it was sent and received.

Someone (I don't even remember who) a long time back told me to save all the messages I was sent expressing gratitude, just to have them to read over when I'm feeling down. So I have a small collection, in a few different topics, going back to the late 1990s, and I've just finished re-reading them all. The more recent messages are mostly from random different people, people who have found some software package useful or some response helpful, or who liked some bit of writing. Those make me feel good in a pleasant sort of way, like I accomplished something.

Then I go back a bit farther, back to the 2001 era or earlier, and there are these messages from people who I just respect more than I can say, people who I remember being there, creating the communities that I cared greatly about, saying they were impressed by something I wrote, some discussion I helped. And I read those messages, and this sense of context, this sense of community comes flooding back, and I'm sitting here staring at the screen and feeling the echo of that original feeling. "This is a message from David R. Henry complimenting me on my writing. Stef thought that was a great post. Wednesday put something I wrote in her sig."

And I read through some of those messages, and I see people wishing me well in the middle of huge flamewars about net-abuse, and I see people pulling together to try to preach the religion of a newsgroup for any topic people want to talk about, and I remember responding to Bloxy's in blank verse.

And then I realize that I'm sitting here with tears in my eyes and I'm feeling this overwhelming sense of wistfulness and loss, and part of me is going "isn't this interesting — where is this coming from?" and part of me is going "woah, what just happened?"

Why am I sitting here feeling like something that was incredibly important to me slipped out the back door of my life, and I'm not even sure when it happened?

Why are the messages that come with all of that emotion, all of that sense of community and support and comraderie, three or four or five years old or more? Why are the messages that that made me scared to post because they were so raw, the messages where I remember vividly how I felt when I wrote them, responses to Dave Hayes, or reactions to news.groups stuff that no one even remembers any more, or replies to people who I've lost track of completely? Did I just stop doing the things I used to do? Why does it feel different?

Because it does feel different to me. Yesterday, I would have argued that it didn't, but I just finished looking at the geologic strata of my on-line presence, and I would have been wrong.

I've strongly disagreed with the idea that Usenet is dying. I still do, I think. I think things ebb and flow and shift around, but up until now I haven't really thought about how my interaction with Usenet has changed, whether Usenet has died a little for me. But I'm sitting here, trying to capture how I feel about newsgroups and the communities in them, how I feel when I post, what threads I participate in, and... there's That Hierarchy, there's a sense of attachment to the technology and to a bunch of technical newsgroups, and there's some combination of dogged persistence and obligation attached to news.groups. But... friends, connections, common causes, play, passion for a cause... that all used to be there, that's all in those old messages, and where did that all go? Did I change, did it change, what happened?

I remember the stress too. I remember getting so angry I couldn't see straight, I remember losing hours to trying to salvage some thread that I started with some idiotic half-baked comment, I remembered seriously burning out a few times on trying to get through to people. And then every once in a while, I would just nail it... I'd manage to write something that just captured a moment, that just rang in my head like a bell, and when I posted something like that, there were people to echo it, there was e-mail from people who I respected more than I ever expressed saying "good job," and the messages wouldn't just be about the future authentication strategy or how to balance AFS servers or even about my opinion on some random book. They'd be part of a discussion, about hopes and dreams and politics and religion and belief, that dug down into the meat of what other people believed, that came off my fingers raw and contradictory and impassioned, and they weren't like everything else I did.

Now, when I post something controversial, I'm worrying afterwards about whether it's just going to start a long thread that I'll feel obligated to respond to and produce a lot of stress. I think about how to extract myself from pointless debates. I worry about energy levels. I write much more reasonable stuff, but you know, I also don't write about the same sort of thing any more. I wrote a response to Dave Hayes about community ownership and responsibility intermixed with the words of a Toad the Wet Sprocket song. I can't remember the last time that doing something like that even occurred to me.

Did I just change? Or did something change about the environment that would helped me write like that, feel like that?

Over the past couple of years, I've done a lot of shifting of where I spend my on-line resources, in a way that I think is very similar to what many others have gone through. I've put a lot of time into my web pages, I've focused on publishing work that I've done, I've narrowed the mailing lists I'm on down to technical ones, and I've started widely reading blogs and LiveJournal and commenting on LJ posts. And I've seen fewer and fewer familiar faces in news.groups or news.software.nntp, I've given up on the net-abuse groups completely, and That Hierarchy fills a void for me but... it's a different void.

Some of it is just growing older, moving away from communities that meant a lot to me when I was younger, having groups like Stanford's local newsgroup community largely drift apart. But there's also something... different about the web. About LiveJournal. It's not Usenet. And it's not Usenet in a way that's more than technological.

I get mail about the things that I put on the web, but it's from people I don't know, expressing appreciation for things that are functional, not... emotional. I get contributions, and they're each one-to-one, and each results in an exchange and then passes on out of my life. I exchange mail with close friends and family, and that mail supports and nurtures those relationships and greatly enriches my life, but that's a relationship, not a community. It doesn't fill the same void. And tonight, I'm thinking about community, and I'm remembering how many of those conversations started on Usenet, and I wonder how I would now meet the next person with whom I would start a long correspondence, what shared community would provide new material to chew on and bridge the places where we ran out of topics.

I read LiveJournal, and I follow other people's writing and tales of their lives and I feel like a voyeur at times, and at other times just like the recipient of a magazine. I post comments, and someone perhaps listens for a moment or two, and maybe there's a small thread, and then the relentless "latest first" nature of LiveJournal pushes the discussion out of sight and it dies, and at the end there is no more sense of community, no more sense of shared space than there was if I had never said a thing.

I read journals and blogs, and I see posts with comments, and I see one person owning a space and writing to an audience. I see a rallying chorus of supporters, comforters, and friends, I often see a community that those people brought to LiveJournal, I respect LiveJournal for providing a forum for those personal thoughts, and I feel a sense of alienation. Either I'm a friend, in which case my comments carry all of the context of my friendship invisible to anyone else listening, or I'm a stranger and my comments are even less significant than a random e-mail reply to a web page. And either way, time marches relentlessly on, the entry scrolls off the bottom of friends pages, no one checks back for more comments, and the restless executioner of technologically enforced attention span puts a bullet in the head of another conversation.

I've encountered people I knew from Usenet on LiveJournal, and I don't know what to do. I feel a sudden strong sense of connection, coupled with a sense of nostalgia and loss, and I don't know how to express it. I don't know if they even remember me or care. I can comment in a journal thread or find their e-mail address and send them mail, and we might exchange a message or two about old times, and then the connection would fade away again. And that doesn't help, because the connection wasn't to just that person, it was to that thing that we were both part of, and I don't know where that thing is now.

There are messages in my archives that, five years later, make me cry to read. They make me cry because they came from people who were MY people, from members of MY community, from people who welcomed me to something we all SHARED. They make me cry because they came from people I knew. I got to know those people on Usenet. And I'm not sure I know how to get to know people on-line any more.

LiveJournal is personal space for people and their friends, or for writers and their audience, where every journal is firmly staked with a "Property Of" sign and persistent community can only be brought, not created. LiveJournal communities are collections of soap boxes used for individual pronouncements, each one forming its own little space of personal property in the comments.

E-mail is immediately intensely personal and direct, like sharing a table in a restaurant. It offers privacy for two people who know each other well and can bridge the silences, and a forum for casual politeness between two people who have something momentary to communicate, but trying to get to know people purely through e-mail is hopeless without an immediate connection. There's nothing with which to bridge the silences while still letting the conversation continue. I get to know people by watching them, and I cannot watch someone else in e-mail without also performing.

Usenet and social mailing lists are special. Shared space is special. Shared space creates communities. Communities enable new relationships. Open communities build friends.

I've kept my friends. I'm blessed by my friends. But somewhere along the line, tonight, I'm feeling like I lost my communities. My communities were on Usenet, and I've changed, and Usenet has changed, and I'm not sure that I can see them any more, and I'm not sure how I found them in the first place. But something disappeared and I didn't replace it, and I'm afraid the places where I found it originally are too toxic to find it again.

I'm not sure that I have a point or conclusion to this. It was just something I had to write, because it's like the sorts of things I used to write. And if this is read by some of those people who were part of that community I just read about again... I want you to know how much that community meant and means to me. I've never told people how much they meant to me as promptly or as much as I should. I've never told a lot of people how much I respect them. I rarely realized at the time, in the midst of all of the chaos, anger, frustration, and argument, just how much of a community both the Usenet net-abuse and the news.groups folks built, but it is a deeply powerful thing in hindsight. Thank you, all of you, for creating that.

Weds, it still takes up disk space.

Last spun 2013-07-01 from thread modified 2013-01-04