Many times, the roles that are taken up in an online community that’s based around a “thing” are so structured and expectant that you could almost fashion carved wooden masks for them. You’d choose to wear that mask and then hop on stage and do the dance that so many have done before you. I don’t have direct evidence for this but I suspect it goes many many years back, those conversations lost to history.
There’s similar templates for offline communities but that’s someone else’s job to describe them, and I suspect academic libraries are jammed full of those descriptions. Come to think of it, they’re probably jammed with descriptions of online communities too, but here’s mine, subject to refinement. Consider it a rough first shot at these definitions, with you getting what you paid for.
Let’s start with the roles themselves.
The first is Very Communicative Person. VCP is the main motivator of conversations, and will jump into all of them if they have the time to. Sometimes they know what’s going on and sometimes not, but they’re not hostile about it. In fact, you kind of feel bad telling them they’re wrong, because they’re being so nice about them. If a community is lucky, they’ll have half a dozen of these folks online and your new cycle (a week on BBSes, an hour on web forums) will reveal another round of insights. Without at least a couple VCPs, your community is very very dead-looking, and not likely to attract new people.
The Flighty Tourist is someone who doesn’t normally go into the community but who might stumble upon it due to a weblink, or (in the BBS era) an index card on a bulletin board at a computer store, or a phone number a buddy gave them, or any one of a hundred opportunities. Unfortunately, they don’t really know what all this community is, what it’s about, what’s cool and isn’t cool, and so on. But they do know how to post! So post they do, either contributing an already-long-answered question or misunderstanding the fundamental nature of things. The FT is useful for the same reason that it’s good to occasionally get the flu; a little crisis now and then will rally the troops and make people understand the tight-knit nature of the community (or, on the other extreme, the insularity of it). Some FTs even become community members, which is even greater because they feel like they have slowly earned respect from humble beginnings. Of course, too many FTs coming in at once and the whole cabbage goes to rot.
The Tiresome Contrarian is universally hated but somehow doesn’t let that universal hate stop them from constantly posting the fact that everyone else is not just wrong, but personally flawed. Imagine a big purple rolling ball that belches and throws up. Imagine that you’re working on something in your room and every once in a while you see the purple ball roll by your open door. Damn if you don’t want that ball to roll in where you’re trying to get something done. And if it does, then that sinking feeling you get is quickly followed by having to clean up the vomit. Same with the conversation or piece of the community in question. TC shows up and the party just went from happy dancing to two people facing off with broken bottles. Sometimes, like an FT, a TC can be a good way to bring the strength of the culture up to a higher level, but that’s playing with fire.
The Power-Imbued Elite can either be the person who runs the community, or someone who is given administrative powers by the owner, or, in a few rare cases, someone who dominates the whole shebang by sheer force of will. Once the PIE enters a conversation, it can warp the thing as easily as a magnet dropped into the back of a TV. Look at all the pretty colors! People, it often seems, like having an elite, or at least a benevolent leader, who they can communicate with and whose word is, ultimately law. It helps settle arguments pretty fast, and it’s a kick when they weigh in in the middle of a discussion. You sit up and listen, as does everyone else. Naturally, if the PIE is always popping in and being a constant contributor, then they can often revert down to a VCP and you kind of forget they’re a PIE until something whacky happens and then they grow wings and shoot lasers out of their eyes and you make whatever sound for you represents “woah”. Too many PIEs flexing their muscles and the same problem as the TCs taking over: chaos, then death.
The House Organ Grinder does not always make an appearance in a community, but when they do, the whole place benefits. A HOG will keep track of the file sections, or suggest doing an introductory textfile, or will archive all the old messages for easy perusing later. They might run a newsletter or a support group or handle where the pizza parties go. They don’t “own” the place but they can sometimes have more than a passing voice of authority if they decide to. Often they won’t, however, and they’ll simply pipe in to tell everyone they’ve been working very hard and they have something to show you that you’ll like. HOGs are probably the easiest members to burn out, since they’re sometimes doing even more work than the PIE.
Matrix across these roles the following critical events that happen in most communities. These are the myths, the stories that these masks then assemble into to provide a dependable show and often a predictable outcome.
The Loss of Important Infrastructure can be as simple as a hard drive dying or as complicated as a unexpected lack of compatibility between required-but-dodgy modules in years-old program code. It can rise from a network outage, or a disasterous upgrade attempt. However this happens, the result is the same: a mad scramble among the members, statements of what the community means to them, a call to arms, and a declaration/offering of support. The community is in danger of disappearing! If we just band together and show the world how strong we are, we’ll survive this unexpected bump in the road. Sometimes the PIE causes the crisis themselves by deciding not to go on, and others might offer to take the community out of their hands. And sometimes it’s just a matter of everyone chucking in $10 and a new drive is bought. This critical event can often be the first time a community realizes that it really is a community. It can also be the first time it realizes it is not. This is also an excellent time to shoot the TC, hide the body and plant a bush over it. By the time the smoke clears, nobody notices we’re down one asshole.
The Radical Change in the Makeup of the Place can occur with the influx of money, the spontaneous leaving of a lot of VCPs, the shifting of PIEs, or even the HOG burning out and not uploading a newsletter any more. The software, the hardware, it’s all fine. But the makeup of the people has shifted, and maybe you find out that you weren’t showing up because of the cool door games or the flash animations or the porn uploads but because of the people, people who are now gone. When a community is sold off or merged or otherwise affected by outside parties who want to squeeze it for a little street cred or even cold hard cash, they can often find out that they have been gifted with an empty shell and the crab has crawled away overnight. Either way, it is often the sign of the beginning of the end, or the end of the beginning, or the beginning of a new beginning. When you look back from the perspective of years, you can tell that something changed, something deep. Please bear in mind, this is an absolutely unavoidable occurence and people constantly think it’s something that can be protected against, but you can’t, as long your community is actually composed of human beings.
The Ruinous Hatred can happen after the Radical Change or the Loss of Important Infrastructure, but sometimes it happens on its own, due to events far outside the control of the PIE. Someone sleeps with someone else. Someone owes someone money. Someone punches out someone else at a party. Maybe even within the community, an act as simple as a message/file deletion or banning of a person sets it off. The point is, people are forced to take sides and when that happens, when a civil war erupts within the community, there is almost no chance for it to survive unscathed. The PIE can rush in and declare a stop to it, the VCPs can explain it away, but what really happens is this is the TC’s time to shine. They jump into this like vultures on a corpse and go to town, making people speak out who otherwise would have been wisely silent, and old minor disagreements come back to haunt the messages, strengthened with this new spilling of blood. This is when someone will say my favorite phrase: “You’ve Ruined Everything”, blaming the people who took the side they don’t like, or blaming the HOG for reporting the facts, or the PIE for not being more firm. Often this person is a TC, but sometimes it can be a VCP who’s having a bad evening or a headache. It’s often as bad as it can get.
The Death represents the final days when the community is well and truly gone. The artifacts are still around and if people point out or reference the artifact, a VCP or HOG or PIE or even a TC can step in and go “yeah, I used to be there, it was great/horrible/nice”, but when you ask they why they’re not still there, they can point to the time of the Ruinous Hatred or the Infrastructure Crisis and say that it wasn’t the same after that. The only surprise here is that people debate what could have been done to avoid this situation. And the fact is, there often isn’t one.
Communities are born, live and die, just like the people in them. We hop on the stage, wear our masks, and play the acts out. Some of us don’t want to bow and admit the play is over, so we just walk away and never get our goodbyes in until it’s too late. That’s a choice each person makes, but if I may, I’d like to suggest the recognition that each community is a floating bubble, imbued with the power given to it by its inhabitants, and that all these bubbles pop. Treat them, when you can, like the amazing parties they are, the magical miracles of coincidence and interaction that we ride in, and then remember to take our bows gracefully as it scatters to the wind.
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