Online Communities. A dynamic space.
Was it always this advanced? No, not really.
Let’s rewind to the time when the offline world was the norm, before mobile and unlimited internet access. Seems like a distant reality, doesn’t it? That gets us thinking – When was the first step taken toward the modern-day, hyper-connected online community?
In these hyper-engaged online avenues of today, you’ll be surprised to know about the humble beginnings of communities. These early efforts were nothing compared to what we have today, but they were communities, nonetheless.
So, let’s rewind to the initial efforts-Communities 1.0.
Community 1.0: How It All Began
The Internet saw a drastic change in the decade 2010-2020. Before this, the online world grew slowly and steadily. Once, the ARPANET transformed into the internet, the pace of growth took off. And, a part of this transformation were online communities, first introduced sometime around the 1970s.
Having said that, the 1970s was the time when only a handful of people were familiar with computers and the internet. And, the early communities were mostly read-only, static pages. There were no images, graphics, or ads on the pages. Basic communities leveraged the server’s file system to serve content and were built using Server Side Includes or CGI (Common Gateway Interface). As one would expect, communities were nothing more than static, text-based pages positioned using frames and tables.
How Did it Start?
In February 1985, the online community movement was born with the foundation of WELL (Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link). Surprisingly enough, this platform is still up and running.
The reason it is described as ‘the world’s most influential community’ is because of its influence over modern communities. Its evolution is beyond imagination as it quietly captivated many accomplished people even before the public internet was unleashed. Even the word ‘virtual community’ was coined in this community. That’s why it has long-term active members who outpour their support for the platform.
Before WELL, other text-based forums existed. So, it might not be the very first community to emerge. However, it was the first subscription-based platform with ‘conference’ concept. ‘Conferences’ are the sub-communities or discussion forums that made WELL a cherished destination for discussions and conversations.
Types of Early Communities
WELL might be the first platform that offered the concept of ‘conferences’ but there were various text-based communities existing already. These old-school virtual communities may not be the most interactive and flexible communities, but they did revolutionize the web. Some of the earliest community types are –
Around the early 1980s, CompuServe’s CB Simulator was introduced. It was a real-time online chat system. Not long after, other similar group chat platforms emerged like Internet Relay chat or AOL’s chat rooms. However, it wasn’t the first time people were exposed to text-based group chat. In fact, Talkomatic was the first text-based group chat introduced for the PLATO time-sharing system in 1973.
Email Discussion Threads
Email threads go back to the mid-60s when people at MIT were leaving messages for one another on time-shared mainframes. The features were added steadily to the system over the decade and resulted in an email list for broadcasting messages to a large group of subscribers. It is hard to pinpoint the first email discussion thread but MSGGROUP was probably the first one to emerge in 1975. And in 1986, LISTSERV, an email list management system, was introduced for the efficient management of large email lists.
Commercial Online Services
Commercial online services were typically aimed at a local audience for news broadcasting. CompuServe or The Source were the first ones, introduced in the 1970s. However, they were in full swing around the mid-1980s.
Bulletin Board Systems
Bulletin Board Systems, commonly known as BBSs were another virtual communication means. They were similar to commercial online services but were run by hobbyists and limited to just one user at a time. It would offer downloadable applications and files as well as discussion forums. They were available outside government, academic, or corporate networks, and were pretty popular.
WELL is the most suitable example of web-based communities. First founded in 1985, this subscription-based platform has managed to sustain itself financially even today. Designed for slow-processing computers, this basic platform still doesn’t display images or ads. Home to many writers, journalists, thinkers, and readers, this platform offers a diverse range of ‘conferences’- sub-communities and discussions.
From text-based, static pages to AI-powered hyper-responsive communities, communities have come a long way. Although early communities may seem basic and inflexible as compared to today’s communities, they have a big impact on modern-day communities. It’s where hyper-connectivity theory came into play. And, people learned the true meaning of ‘belongingness’ that can be fostered by sharing words over the internet.
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