TidBits from Online Community History

Earlier this week, I did a talk with a graduate Communications class at the University of Washington. Below I’ve focused on some of the historical perspectives from the talk:


Online Communities predate the public Internet and the Web. In 1978, when the Ward Christensen put up the first BBS (Bulletin Board System), the primordial ooze of online communities started to sprout legs or fins.

Since that time, the growth and adoption of online communities have been shaped by two big forces (among many):

  1. Lowering of Technical Barriers (hardware, connectivity, skill, interest)
  2. Increased Understanding/ Positive Perceptions.

Lowering of Technical Barriers

It’s no wonder that the people using BSSs in the 80’s found a sense of community- there were huge technical barriers. Connecting to a BBS required the right equipment, technical skill and interest to find the people on the other end. Back then, the few people with the required elements no doubt had many other things in common. The technical barrier filtered out the noise. Even today, this idea of “common threads�? is what holds online communities together.

Moving into the 90’s and even to today with Web 2.0, we’re seeing more technical barriers lowered. Sites like Yahoo Groups and AOL put the power to build a community into non-geek hands for the first time. Since then, we’ve seen community platforms become significantly easier to use and Internet connectivity become almost ubiquitous. Further, community sites have become much more usable and less technically oriented.

The de-geek-ifying of online community technology has been a huge contributor to growth and adoption.

Increased Understanding / Positive Perceptions

The geeky roots of online communities impacted the perceptions of what it means to “meet someone online�?. In the 90s, it was still rather odd to say “we met online�?. The widely held perception was that weird men in dark basements were the only people talking to each other on the Internet. It was rather icky for many people.

In the post-bubble era of the Web, this perception has changed significantly. Thanks to sites like Match.com, MySpace and Linked-In, it has become much more acceptable and mainstream to create new relationships using the Web. The focus has shifted from the enabling technology (the Web), to the ease of achieving the outcome- the relationship.

In the business world, the adoption cycle has taken a bit longer. Despite the soothsaying in the ClueTrain Manifesto and a million bloggers decrying the value of “community�?, only recently are businesses understanding that their future depends on their ability to enable a community of customers and mobilize that community to accomplish their goals.

The Future

The future of online communities will be marked by remarkably similar forces. More barriers will be lowered and more understanding will increase demand significantly. The holy grail for me is to have my Mom ask about creating a blog because she wants a better way to keep up with family around the country. Right now I would say there are two things keeping her from asking:

  1. The technology is not easy enough for her to grasp effectively
  2. She’s still not sure if she is the type of person that would use a web site in that way anyway

Funny how the more things change, the more they stay the same.