Recently, my attention was brought to an article in Wikipedia on the "Membership Lifecycle for Virtual Communities." They are defined as "a group of people that primarily or initially communicate or interact via the Internet, rather than face to face."
I've been participating on e-mail lists and online communities and what-not for over a decade now, ever since I first got a Macintosh in my home with internet access. The first one I signed onto was for fans of, would you believe it, the music and dance of Cape Breton. I got on it quite by accident, and soon got off because I was getting these messages about things that didn't concern me at all. I just wanted to know when a certain band was gonna be in town.
The most contentious lists tended to be those devoted to the classical Roman liturgy, the "Trid Mass," if you will. I have been permanently banned from one very well known list on this subject, not because of any misbehavior, but for advocating what one Cardinal once called "a reform of the reform." Oh yeah, that was Cardinal Ratzinger. He's only the Pope now. Which means that the Moderator would probably have to throw the Pope off his list, or people would complain and Billy Boy would soon lose control of his little imaginary kingdom. Oy vey...
The most obnoxious list I was ever on was for Feeneyites. These are followers of the late Father Feeney, some Jesuit in Boston or thereabouts who interpreted the adage "outside the Church there is no salvation" a bit too narrowly. He was excommunicated, not for his teachings, but for not shutting up. (That's the short explanation, okay, so if you're a Feeneyite, get the hell over it!) Some of his followers have reconciled to Rome, some have not. Those who have not go on their way as if nothing was amiss.
I've been on "Catholic lists" of general interest and conversation, where my role was devoted mostly to brilliant explanations of Catholic belief, and general comic relief. (It's not that I'm a particular pious individual, in case you needed reminding; I just happen to be really good at this.) These fora tend to be dominated by pious twits who don't have much to say, but can't stop saying it. Fortunately they're generally harmless, and well-intentioned. I'm currently on a list of a local chapter of "Voice of the Faithful," a group that believes the Church can be reformed by attacking her, and that victims of clerical sexual abuse are best served by trotting them out in front of news cameras and prolonging their victimhood, a practice with which any experienced therapist would beg to differ. There are a few reasonable participants who make the whole thing bearable, even when they're wrong. There are also a few listmembers pushing sixty who are emotionally stuck in adolescence, having been completely ruined by their glory days in the late 60s and early 70s. I'm mostly in it for the news clippings, and for the great sport of refuting people who don't know nearly as much as they think they do. I generally win, which makes them upset, and being the bunch of angry twits that some of them are, they resort to name-calling, a luxury the moderator grants them because she's also a twit. I don't have that luxury. I don't need it. I'm not a twit.
I also moderate a list devoted to "old-school" Scouting, which has members from all over the world. It's a low maintenance operation, since most people behave. Plus I am a "lurker" on a number of lists which send me announcements about when this artist or that band is going to be on tour and whereabouts.
There are those who suggest that the "weblog" has overtaken e-lists as an electronic medium. They could be right. It is in "group blogs" that the two forms tend to converge. "The Boar's Head Tavern" is a good example of that, where members tend less to write commentary to an audience, than to post to each other. There is also another one, a group of conservative evangelical Christians from (where else?) the South known as "The Thinklings," a name inspired by C S Lewis' "Inklings." They describe themselves as "the seven samurai of the intellectual universe." And who are we to argue? This group is somewhat unique in that their camaraderie was formed in real life, with the internet as an afterthought, as opposed to the other way around. Both BHT and Thinklings are more carefully monitored than discussion forums like "Angelqueen" and "Ornery," and still provide a conversation for all to see, including "lurkers." The latter are people on lists who rarely or never say anything, but who are listening nonetheless. I heard from one recently, who has been following mwbh for the nearly five years of its existence.
(Pardon me while I have a Mark Shea moment right now.)
I wonder if "IMs" or "chat rooms" will be the response of the next generation, once the magic of MySpace wears off and having your business trotted out for the whole world loses its appeal.
I also wonder if we'll ever get to know the people who live next door. In a town like Washington, it's a long shot.