Online Communities are Ephemeral

Online communities spawn, grow, and die. Why? How? What can be done? Here’s my story of my time online.

Quoting a friend from years past: IRC channel death is similar to the slow process of erosion. Conversation has ceased, yet it may be years before the channel is empty. I think about that frequently.

I started my internet life on Neopets, forums for various interests of mine at the time, and AOL Instant Messenger. The forums are long gone, and I didn’t really keep in touch with anyone from back then. AIM is long gone as well, although by high school I had abandoned that screen name anyway so some friends I made there I could no longer contact. I grew apart from them in other ways, anyway.

In 2008 I discovered IRC through a podcast I listened to on my iPod Touch that led me to the Mibbit web-based client. I started out on mibbit’s own IRC network, which started one of the root nodes of my complicated IRC network graph. The other root node being the now (mostly)-defunct Freenode IRC network. My first IRC nick was “b47619” – eventually shortened to “b4”. My other nick was “nohelphere” to signal that I was terrible at providing help on any topic…not very original.

The Mibbit route branched to running my own IRC network which branched in to another, which branched to time on StaticBox/athemenet. This route eventually led to someone who I thought was a friend who really just enjoyed messing with me. (I’ve tried to track him down years later. He has no online presence that I can find unless he’s now a sports coach at a university). He and his friends liked to send unrequested taxis, free diaper samples, harassing phone calls, and boxes filled with boxes to my house. It took me way too long to realise he was an asshole and was at the epicenter of this harassment. We overlapped several IRC networks through 2009 and a bit to 2010 before some later friends I met pointed out he seemed to really hate me and that he was generally a terrible person. One positive outcome of the StaticBox branch was to Cutlery, but that’s getting ahead of the story. I eventually ended up on a couple small networks named DeltaBox and ConnectTek. I would eventually grow to control most of DeltaBox as an IRC operator by connecting the most servers until its owner eventually shut down the network after getting pissed at me (justifiably. I was an asshole teen in 2010).

A mid-branch was when I was toying around with running various small IRC networks and helping friends (that I’ve now lost touch with) run their own. I checked to see if one of the networks I helped still existed some years back and it seems it had been dead for years.

The ConnectTek branch was a dead end until some of its users spread to WooMoo which merged with Cutlery in the early 2010s. Cutlery which still exists today as a small IRC network under a different name (which I have an involvement with still to this day). Cutlery was a vibrant community from the lateish 2000s to about 2017 when its slow decline accellerated (I joined in 2010). A few core users remain to this day, but the channel is largely dead with maybe a few messages a weeks vs lots of activity all day long in years past. Some users split off in to Telegram groups or Discord guilds, but that’s mixing with different groups now. There are some friends I met there that I haven’t heard from in years that I don’t know on any remaining chat apps/networks. A true dead-end to a long and complicated route. Cutlery was a critical turning point in my gender transition and general growth as a human being from shitty edgy teen to reasonable adult. My friends helped me a lot with growing.

The freenode route is also complicated, but more linear, but it still branches at some points. I joined the social channel there (#defocus at the time) and would socialise there for awhile as a teen until I started to discover IRC bots and would begin writing one in perl (to this day I have forgotten any perl I once knew). That led me to an IRC bot-related channel, where I met some friends I still somewhat keep in touch with to this day but only a small number. I gained the name of “gewt” shortly after as a typo someone else made. This would eventually branch off in to a network named EighthBit. This network would gain users from some other small networks, some small channels, and random other places. Eventually for one reason or another (lost access to the domain, needing to split a group, etc) it became NinthBit, later TenthBit. Every time the network iterated some users would get lost, new ones would join, but a core group remained. After I lost touch with the TenthBit group it seems they went through several different chat apps with a small remaining group eventually settling back on a private IRC channel I’m in to this day with a small number of the remaining originals and a bunch of new people. To this day I am still “gewt” most places. The opening quote was made by someone on one of the various iterations of *bit.

A small branch in the freenode route led to an IRC channel that would spill over a bit in to Cutlery but I think the only way I could keep in touch with anyone from that channel would be LinkedIn, which is an amusing point. I miss most of the people I knew from that channel but don’t really have current contact info for them anymore.

To this day I maintain access to about a decade worth of IRC logs from the various networks I’ve been on, backed up in various places.

In 2008 I discovered twitter, but until 2009 or so I didn’t start to grow my social network there much. Some friends I’d met there in the early days I keep in touch with still, but that’s a very small group. Some of the eighthbit people I know there and have since 2009. I had a small foray in to a small anime/furry group, local friends group, and retro tech subgroups. I ended up eventually carving a good niche in the retro tech and phone hobbyist communities there in 2014 and 2016 respectively or so and I’m still in those groups to this day. I would end up meeting some people I’d date through a hilariously complicated meshing of various groups and chance interactions in threads. Most successful ever app for dating for me. I would fall in and out of various groups throughout the years, following the same pattern as IRC.

When I moved out of my state I broke ties with everyone on all social media as well as via phone. I also changed my name (and gender) making it hard for anyone from back them to find me but I feel that was the right decision considering the experience I had.

Twitter would branch to a couple of slack groups, most of which I am no longer active in. The friends I had met there largely split for other apps, fed back to twitter, or I know in person locally still. I eventually met some people I would date for a short time on one of those slacks.

Twitter and some local events would lead me to various Discord guilds that would follow the same established patterns of online communities coming and going. I’m in some I lurk in, some that have about 5 messages a year, some that have hundreds of messages a day, and some that will soon follow the trend.

What if Telegram dies one day? There are people I can’t reach any other way. What if Discord up and disappears one day? I will lose some of my only contacts with some people, much like the death of forums and IRC networks.

Even some mailing lists I’ve been on for close to a decade have behaved in similar ways. Death of its administrators, change in hosting providers, changes in list names, members coming and going.

Of all the online communities I’ve been involved with, not a single one has been able to completely avoid the trend and become truly eternal.

In that regard, the internet truly mirrors the offline world with how communities change over time. Time to finally put to bed the belief that online relationships of all sorts are any less real, meaningful, or important than in-person ones.

It’s been hard to keep in touch with my friends over the years and changing landscape of the internet and I’ve only managed it successfully with a small number.

It all all ends in the end. Nothing can escape that.

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