Thoughts about online communities…

My friend sarah_prineas started something with her post on the Shrinking Violets blog. Sarah believes that social sites should be for “friendly conversation and debate, for sharing good news and bad news, for meeting new friends, for posting amusingly captioned cat pictures,” not for shameless self promotion. And somewhere along the line lisa_schroeder said, “what’s sad is that our blogging community that used to be about friendship and community has drastically changed. Hardly anyone comments anymore. Is that because people stopped reading because so many blogs became like billboards? I don’t know. But I miss the way it used to be.”

I miss the way it used to be, too.

I told Sarah earlier today that I’ve been “e-mailing” since before it was actually called “e-mailing.” I “e-mailed” back when only the geeks were doing it. I was part of an online community when I was in high school. And I’m 45! I’m guessing I graduated with people who had no idea there even was an online community to be part of…and if they did know, they probably wouldn’t have wanted to be part of it. Like I said, back then it was only for geeks.

My online friends were true friends in every sense of the word. I grew up in a small town in southern Minnesota and when my family would go visit relatives in the Twin Cities, my parents thought nothing of letting me take the bus to Har Mar Mall by myself to meet some of these people (mostly guys…the guys online far outnumbered the girls) I’d been talking to online. You would NEVER let your teenage daughter do that today.

I would never have met my husband if not for this online community.

In my 20s, I got involved in writer’s communities on FidoNet (anybody remember FidoNet? I’m still friends with people I knew on FidoNet). Then came Compuserve and Genie and finally the online communication we have today: e-mail, instant messaging, Facebook, twitter.

Online communication absolutely used to be about friendship and community. And you can still find that…if you try. But it does feel like a lot of our “community” has denigrated to shameless self promotion. It makes me wonder whether someone is really interested in me or do they just want to sell me something.

I know…social media is supposed to be this great marketing tool. I’m supposed to be able to reach all these people…but how many people am I REALLY reaching? Sure, people who come looking for me can find me easily. But for the most part, people who come looking for me are already my friends. They’re people who are already interested in me or my books. Very few people who read my blog stumbled onto it by accident and then decided to stay. Why would they? I’m not a big name. I’m just one voice in a sea of billions. And I’m not sure there’s anything I can (or even want to) do to change that. The truth is I’m no better at marketing myself online than I am at marketing myself in real life.

And after talking to sarah_prineas, I’m thinking maybe that’s okay.

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