Online Communities in the Pioneer Days

Written by on December 3rd, 2008

Pew Report

Life before MySpace, Facebook, YouTube

I was reading a report produced by the Pew Internet and American Life Project called, “A Portrait of Early Internet Adopters. Why People First Went Online and Whey they Stayed”.  The report by Amy Tracy Wells is  a quick read and a fun reminder of where online social networking got started.

Surveys conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project since 2000 have shown that the majority of people went online for personal reasons (50%), followed by work (31%) and school (19%).

Amy reminds us that the early roots of social networking started in BBSs (electronic bulletin board systems) and Usenet, chat rooms and threaded discussion software.  To access these systems one had to fire up a modem and wait!  A really fast modem in those days crawled.  When I lived in Telluride, Colorado in 1995, I remember waiting about 8 hours to download a new version of AOL’s software!

The experience in social networking within this environment was different from what is emerging today.  In those days, the online environment was just like talking to your neighbor from your front porch.  The difference was, it attracted a unique set of people who were tech oriented, yet interested in social contact.  Instead of being forced into conversation with the neighbor you disliked, you were able to pick and choose who you wanted to talk to.    You could find people anywhere in the world who were interested in the same idea, a concept or hobby.   And more importantly, it didn’t matter what nationality, income level, what you looked like, man or woman, you were taken at “face” value for the words you shared.

Consumers become creators

The Pew report also reminds us that a major difference in the online world from the early days was the limitations in what you could do.  For the most part consumers could email, chat and “surf”.   Surfing for information and websites was the major killer in the early days.   However, as more tools became available to users, and particularly when Web 2.0 tools were introduced, consumers became creators.  A quote from one respondent to their survey summarizes this best:

During the first few years (of using the Internet) I was a TAKER.  I looked for and found info I wanted.  Then in the early 90’s I discovered HTML.  I developed my own web pages. First for work, then on my own domains,  I became a GIVER/publisher .

My early days

I followed the same pattern. In 1993 I was exploring and participating in online bulletin boards and using online information systems.  In those days, you paid per hour to access online information databases and was shocked to see a $1,000 bill arrive at the end of one month online.

Once I gained a better understanding of what AOL was accomplishing and decided to start a business to create online communities, there wasn’t any organization that couldn’t benefit from adopting an online community.

I found myself pitching people everywhere on the value developing an online community.  In early 1997 I was on a flight back to Telluride talking to a owner of 3 funeral homes in Charleston, South Carolina about online communities and why he adopt them.  He was more interested in talking about his planned fly fishing trip than how to use the Internet to show respect to the “dearly departed”.

In those early years we were busy selling the online community concept to:

  • Grocery stores
  • Schools
  • Businesses
  • Universities

One of my favorite memories was trying to convince the President of the world’s largest yearbook printer that he needed to buy our tools to begin to put yearbooks online.  He was more interested in getting his digital printers so he could get production running, than consider an idea that was totally incomprehensible at the moment.

Facebook, MySpace, Linkedin and others are taking social networking to a whole different level.  The amount of information that is being shared among people is expanding at an expediential rate.  In fact, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, indicated recently that they expect that the amount of information shared by their users will double every year for the foreseeable future.

If you are interested in taking a quick trip back in time and hear some of the crazy ideas and funny things that happened to me as I continued to introduce online communities to different organizations, click here and download my report, “Online Communities In the Pioneer Days

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