Life in the Commune

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Title: Life in the Commune
Creator: Loch Ness
Date(s): 2001
Medium: online
Fandom: multimedia
Topic: mailing lists and forums
External Links: Wayback link/WebCite
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Life in the Commune has the subtitle: "Or, 'You've murdered my mailing list, you bitch!'" The essay by Loch Ness is about fan discussion forums and the concept of community.

It was also reprinted in full in Discovered In A Letterbox #18 in 2001.

The author argues that fan discussion forums are not the happy family communities they claim to be and that:

  • They serve to encourage off-topic posts.
  • They foster hurt feelings and feeds bitterness into disagreements.
  • They encourage people to pile on in fights.
  • They give you pseudo-friends/pseudo-family you didn't ask for and don't necessarily want.
  • They chill honest communication by stifling honest debate.
  • They discourage new ideas, especially if they're advanced by members who are perceived as newbies.
  • They encourage childish behavior by protecting people who behave childishly.


I've been involved with online fandom a lot more than five minutes -- I started on the old FIDOnet back in the mid-80s, before most of us had even heard of the Internet -- and I've come to the conclusion that the sort of grade-school bickering that results in explosions like the one above is simply inevitable. And I've concluded that one major reason it's inevitable is the idiotic insistence among 'net denizens that fan forums are "communities." The idea that a 'net forum is a community is not only utter nonsense, it's also corrosively self-destructive nonsense... It's destructive because it's delusional. The reality is that a fan forum is simply not a community. In a community, people live and work together to accomplish similar goals. Often they have a broad set of similar problems that need solving, and often they may continue to work together for a long time to solve those problems. Consensus among the community members is vital for stability and security, and disagreement is viewed as a negative, because the community has goals and issues that are regarded as sufficiently important that small differences must be put aside for the greater good. As the community members live and work together, obligations are implied; compromises are made; ideally, consensus is hammered out and progress is achieved. Some members of the community may--or may not--become friends. None of that is necessarily the case in a fan forum, which often is established not in the service of living together or working together to achieve something, and whose members may not have the same goals in mind at all. In a community, people share more than one narrow interest, while the members of a fan forum may have nothing in common except a taste for a single TV series, movie or comic. A fan forum may have as its goal nothing more cosmically important than to provide a place for meaningful or meaningless conversation. It may even have no purpose except to stroke the ego of the individual(s) running it.
A lot of people in fan forums get away with behavior that would get them immediately ejected from most civilized gatherings because the "community" approach values consensus, stability and mutual support above civilized, adult behavior.
In a community, consensus is vital. It's consensus that makes progress toward shared goals possible, that allows the community members to band together and stand together. In many cases, consensus is regarded as so important that any disagreement is viewed as a threat. Because people wrongly believe that 'net fan forums are communities, they often regard even civil disagreements in fan forums as threats to the stability of the forums. (The argument commonly is made that such disagreements often don't stay civil for long, but that, too, is partly because of the community delusion, as I said above.) Forum members will argue that "if we don't stand together, we'll fall separately," ignoring the fact that most fan forums don't actually stand for anything more specific or enduring than "we all love Xena." Placing so much emphasis on agreement among the members of a forum tends to pressure people to conform to a (usually bland) common standard. People become wary of expressing controversial opinions because doing so carries considerable risk of being attacked as troublemakers. In truth, a forum without an occasional controversy is a pathetically boring place to hang out. Commonalities bring people together; diversity makes people interesting to be around. Insisting that everybody should be nauseatingly nice to each other turns some fan forums into a mind-numbing orgy of group ego-masturbation.