A Facebook post recently led me to reconnect with some members of a community that I’d been a part of, some time ago. During the 2000s, I spent a lot of time in the nascent webcomic community around Keenspot and Keenspace and more independent comics. Most memorable were titles like Bruno the Bandit, Roomies!, Sluggy Freelance, and the one whose community I really got involved in, CRFH!!!.
I spent a lot of my late teens bouncing around the internet, looking for places where I could be. I spent time (that I’m not particularly proud of) on the Yahoo! message boards, in roleplaying chats, and other places. Luckily for me, I ended up in the CRFH!!! forums, a welcoming place that wasn’t toxic. From there, I jumped into a sub-set of fans, who imagined their own universe.
I spent a lot of time with those people, chatting, posting, writing, thinking, dreaming. They were probably one of my biggest influences, as far as being a person. I drifted away from that community as I reconnected with real-life friends and made new ones. I also made my way through other online communities, including a World of Warcraft guild and later, the National Novel Writing Month local chapter.
I don’t think it’s a particular stretch to say that we’re all looking for places where we’ll be accepted and we can also meaningfully contribute. What kind of form that takes and what we want it to take is going to be different for everyone, but if we don’t have that, I think we want it.
But what makes a good community? What makes a healthy community? I think back to the time I spent online, and sometimes I feel like it’s fairly miraculous that I turned out like I did. The time I spent on those Yahoo message boards now makes me cringe. So too does a lot of my behaviour in other communities. I spent time on 4Chan, and looking back it’s fairly clear that some things I picked up there did not make me a better person (and it’s also easy to see how, taken further, people can pick up toxic and hateful beliefs and even be radicalized from the communities they take part in). All of these communities were non-sexual in nature, but I tended to seek out the sexual parts of them, and there ended up being nudes of myself online fairly quickly after it was legal (although that was always by my consent and I count it as a positive experience).
I think it’s easy to see how any of those things could have backfired, and quite honestly I’m glad that social media like Twitter wasn’t around during those days, because the many mistakes I made could have easily been magnified.
When I think about my time in the healthy places, I think some of the most important parts of me are because of it. I found a community that generally didn’t care who I was, in terms of sexuality, political belief, hobby and ethnicity, so long as I was someone who was pleasant to interact with, most of the time. More importantly, they were people who were there during difficult times in my life, when I didn’t have many friends in real life.
Community, I’d argue, should foster positive growth in us, while discouraging the negative and asking us to be better. We should contribute in constructive ways, ways that help both ourselves and others. They should support us when we need it. Perhaps in this way it’s better to be a recognizable face in a small community rather than someone in a large one, but I don’t know if there’s a wrong way to do it.
I think about community because I wonder how I’m going to help KRH find healthy ones. There probably won’t be any one place I can guide him to that will be a positive influence for the rest of his life. Instead, I expect that like I have, he’ll pass through many different communities, sometimes being a problem, but hopefully learning as he does. The internet was new enough (and in my experience, the dangers slight enough) that I was able to make my way through it without being damaged, but I don’t think that’s the case now and I don’t expect it to be when KRH goes online, which I guess will continue to be one of the main ways we seek out community. So how do I help him?
Here’s what I’m planning. I’ll speak frankly to him about my experiences online, as he’s ready, and I won’t leave out the parts for me that are embarrassing or that paint me in a negative light. I’ve had these experiences and I think I can model being better for him. Especially as he’s younger but at all times until he becomes an adult, I’ll keep a careful eye on what he’s doing online, and his exploration of the world in that way will result in a lot of conversations and discussions about appropriate ways to treat others, dangerous beliefs and activities, and probably all kinds of things I can’t even anticipate yet. And those conversations will be difficult, but we’ll have to have them anyway.
I expect he’ll still have to do what I did, which was to go out and make mistakes, to be foolish and childish, on his way to learning. But I hope he’ll follow a similar path to me, in which that learning makes him a kind person. What will his healthy communities look like? I certainly hope they’ll look like mine. But what’s more important is that they be positive places, and he be a positive member of them.