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Online Communities Temporary at Best

The word "community" is overused in academic fields, but it is the best word for what it on my mind today.

I closed a Web server this week on which I had created a Drupal and MediaWiki site on special education. The site was functional for about two years, which is an eternity online. The reality is that online communities come and go so rapidly that what was popular a year or two ago is often "inactive" now.

There are dozens of Yahoo groups that are dedicated to special education. Most of these were active five years ago, but have since fallen out of favor with users. Just as the Usenet groups and most "listservs" have faded away in the last five years, so have many online forums.

The Internet has accelerated the speed with which a community grows, propers, and then declines. The timeline of the Internet is punctuated by technologies and business ideas that were "hot" for a moment. When is the last time you used IRC or read a newsgroup? Remember CompuServe? Prodigy? And Netscape was nearly synonymous with the World Wide Web.

Many of us live in physical regions or communities for decades, even lifetimes. I've read that most people end up living and dying within 500 miles of their birthplaces. Humans demonstrate a bond to physical communities we simply haven't developed, and might never develop, with online settings. I read a study in "Population and Environment" finding only 92,000 U.S. citizens migrated in or out of California in the 1980s (international numbers were much higher). Thirty million Californians remained in the state.

We enter and exit online communities impulsively. We form few lasting online bonds. For the most part, we use online spaces for a purpose. Once the purpose is met, we exit. How many truly close, lasting friendships are formed online? They come and go, like most school year friendships.

I wonder if Web pages will matter in a decade. I now read more news and information via non-browser technologies. My iPod Touch is my primary Internet device. Specialized applications present the information. The Web? I navigate it indirectly.

Many of my colleagues in education talk about Second Life and other "virtual worlds" as the future. I don't think that's the case -- Second Life has already "come and gone" for most Internet users. My students scoffed at the mere thought of using Second Life -- they'd rather use video chat and see real people. I don't know if online game worlds last longer or not, since I don't play any multiplayer games.

I miss FidoNet and BBS systems. I miss the sense of community I felt on CompuServe. Increasingly, the Web seems more like television and pop culture magazines -- video, audio, and very short articles. Even blogs with comments sections seem less about dialogue and discussion than they are about ranting and some level of narcissism.

Yeah, I'm a curmudgeon. I miss the Golden Years of online communities.

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