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August 12, 2021

From 90s to Now: A History of Online Communities

An article discussing the pros and cons of anonymity, moderation, and self governance in online communities through the ages.

Our current place in digital spheres has us torn between two opposing ideals: having the 'self' as central to our online persona, and being (for the most part) anonymous. The surge in social media use of the past few decades has completely altered the way many of us live our lives — but how entwined should our online and 'in-real' lives be?

We're looking back on the history of online communities to shed light on the good, the bad and the ugly. From the cowboy culture of pseudonymous chat rooms, to modern platforms that champion the 'self' — there's a place for everyone online.

Chit chat till your connection drops

If you think dial-up is old school, AOL chat rooms (1989 - 2010) precede even that relic. Built around the buzz of 'something new', these chat rooms ushered in the awe of an infinite world online. Subsequently, the 'real' world shrank around us, dwarfed by this new expansive realm.

Starting off with a not so squeaky clean reputation, novel online anonymity allowed users to abandon their worldly cares and adopt new online lives. Undoubtedly, this enabled new heights of creativity and imagination, freeing users of the anxiety laden shackles of real life. However, as you can imagine, such creativity often manifested in a plethora of not so PG discourse. The cries of mum's across the globe to 'not speak to strangers online' are still heard to this day.

Chat rooms ballooned in activity throughout the 90s, and by 1997, AOL's users were spending one million hours chatting every day. However, this saturation of quantity over quality did no favours for their reputation, as "a space that was once a frontier was being standardized, monetized – colonized by moms. And the places that remained on the fringes were categorically gross: full of spam and sludge and a/s/l-style solicitation, a far cry from the supportive communities of the late ’80s."

The sheer amount of time people spent online chatting signalled in a new era — users waited patiently through dial up, experienced countless interruptions, and powered through internet speeds we can barely comprehend today. Despite this, something incredible was happening behind all the X-rated rabble — people were finding each other, communities were building, and a new sense of belonging was forged.

Everything in moderation

Early self-governance came from some unlikely platforms that you may not perceive as 'communities', but nonetheless performed as such. After a wave of seemingly lawless web wandering, users saw themselves trusted on sites like eBay (1995-present) and Wikipedia (2001-present) to police themselves. Unsurprisingly, these sites have stood the test of time, proving the importance of trust, and community based contribution.

eBay relies on the goodwill of both its buyers and sellers to maintain high standards and reputation. Its creator, Pierre Omidyar was an advocate of self-governance, relying heavily on the honesty of the users to drive legitimate sales. As eBay grew in activity, Omidyar realised the need for better tools to accommodate this Libertarian ethos. By creating the Feedback Forum, wherein buyers and sellers could rate each other, Omidyar eliminated the middle-man in disputes, allowing the community to decide for itself.

Though novel at the time, online reputation provided the basis for trusting strangers online. Today, the concept is littered throughout all manner of platforms, utilised by brands (in both good and bad faith) to legitimise their products, and even weaponised by the masses in bids of retribution.

A green old-fashioned typewriter, with the word 'review' written out onto a page in large lettering.

Wikipedia had little need for self-governance, but did follow a similar path regarding editorial duties. Jimmy Wales' vision of an online encyclopaedia where “every single person is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge”, is not a far cry from the truth of the site today. Though many scientific articles require subscriptions, university logins or money, Wikipedia remains free to us all (unless of course we feel generous enough to donate).

It all started with Nupedia, where experts in their fields would contribute articles to be peer-reviewed by other highly educated experts. This system was undeniably inefficient, and so Wales created a sister platform, Wikipedia, where everyday people could contribute. These articles were then to be peer-reviewed by experts — however they were so concise and accurate that the peer-review scheme was abandoned altogether.

What Wikipedia inadvertently proved was that with enough people writing and editing the articles, there would eventually be a settled consensus on the widely agreed facts of the time. Thanks to the increasing half-life of knowledge, as time passed, these pages required maintenance. Low and behold, the community responded with more topics, facts, figures and corrections. This autonomous method of contribution proved something more poetic than originally expected — that despite the frequent 'Fake News', trolls and jokes injected into the articles, eventually the masses would band together to reach an equilibrium of truth.

The social network boom

For many of us, MySpace (2003 - present-ish) was our first experience of the internet as an extension of the self. The noughties were spent lamenting over "Top Eight Friends" and carefully choosing your (likely illegally downloaded) favourite song to adorn your profile. As online friends became IRL acquaintances, a new fear sparked in the minds of parents. Meeting up through mutual friends became a sport played by the youngsters, a friend-collecting fiasco. The questions on every trembling parent's lips: Who are these people? What are they talking about? Can they be trusted?

Well, let's be honest, there are a lot of awful people on the internet. Facebook (2004 - present) group admins have self appointed moderators, yet this doesn't extend to Public posts, which leads to a whole host of cruel comments slipping through the cracks. With this lack of moderation, people have taken to cancel culture and exposé-style doxxing.

Doxxing is where private or personal information about a person is leaked to the public, usually with malicious intent. Unsurprisingly, the fear of people using our own information against us has been growing steadily since the 'self' was placed centre stage. Gone are the days when your presence online was separate from your 'real' life — accountability is king.

Many are retreating back to the days of old — to platforms such as 4Chan (2003 - present), Reddit (2005 - present) and Discord (2012 - present) where anonymity is often key. The choice is yours to reveal your 'real self' — and most users just don't. 4Chan abhors moderation, believing it to be 'censorship' — users run riot, with a no holds barred approach to discourse. Inevitably, 4Chan has seen more than its share of real life horror stories — the likes of which you'd expect only to find on the dark web.

Reddit and Discord rely heavily on moderators to keep out undesirables, and many Discord servers even have their own vetting systems before you can even chat. Such systems are integral to community members, and help nip any bad behaviour in the bud — but with concentrated power comes concentrated responsibility. Through strict internal moderation and banning, some argue that we could unwittingly walk each other into echo-chambers of thought.

The censorship consensus

The answer to these growing concerns isn't now, nor will it ever be, simple. Humans are varied in belief and character, so a consensus may not be attainable any time soon. If we've learnt anything from the communities of the past, moderation and self-governance are key to building lasting communities with a propensity to trust one another.

Platforms with the 'self' at the centre have proven that anonymity is not the only instigator of inflammatory comments online, which, if left unchecked, can cause significant harm to others. Without moderation, the internet could devolve into 4Chan style skulduggery, inevitably fuelling the fires of cancel culture. On the other hand, in banning members, we deny them the opportunity to learn from, and grow with, their chosen communities.

The key, of course, is balance — everything in moderation, if you will. Time and time again, we prove ourselves in online spheres. Thoughtful, thinking, intelligent beings that work together to forge lasting communities. At least, if you can wade through all the smut, that is.

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