Strap in folks, this is going to be a looongform post. It is highly recommended that you stock up on snacks and have a cup of $your_drink_of_choice close at hand. It will be a trek.
People are slowly leaving the social media platforms, a feeling of the rebirth of the early net is in the air. Or at least we are slowly waking up to the possibility of some kind of alternative. With the slow adoption of the indie web. [Ed.2023: with Twitter sinking beneath the waves, even more have made the leap.]
The alternative title for this post is Small (Online) Community Living, because while the grand communities of yore are no more (fairly certain that is distorted by nostalgia), there still exists a fluctuating number of old and new communities based around various technologies that do not lend themselves to the modern monetize-everything-track-everyone online culture lead by a multi tentacled tiny group of advertisers.
These small communities serve as a counter balance, and a place where you are free to hide away. It was pointed out a while back by another blogger (no I won’t link, keep reading and you will see why) that the internet used to be a place where you could be left alone in obscurity. You could meet like minded folks and form a community while also hiding away. Shitposting, half formed ideas and poorly thought out screeds are nothing new on the Net, what changed is that now the algorithms will search them out and highlight them for everyone to see. This ability to be left alone is such a key part of de-stressing the current online world.
One, reasonably accessible, clutch of small online communities not indexed by the social media hordes are the worlds of MUD/MOO/MUSH/MUX/MUmmy-its-just-too-much. Multi-user, online communities of pure text accessible via Telnet or SSH (in some more modern cases). Imagine a piece of interactive fiction, played by multiple people at the same time, where the developer forgot to disable the admin tools so anyone can be, do, express and change the things around them.
A BRIEF GLOSSARY
MUD : Multi User Dungeon.
MOO : MUD Object Oriented.
MUSH : Multi User Shared Hallucination.
MUX : Multi User Experience.
MU*’: Collective term for all of the above and other variants.
It all started with the success of the first interactive fiction game Adventure in the early 1970s. Within ten years there were a heap of MU*s about the place (more history here). The idea was simple; make a text game that allows multiple users to connect to it in real time. Choose a setting, create a series of interconnected rooms, some loot, monsters and quests. Then let everyone have a hack’n slashing good time while role playing and competing for the prizes.
Thing is, we are social animals. Even the most ardent RPG mud has a social component, often found in the Out Of Character (OOC) chat channel or rooms. Enter the Social MU*. The themes varied and some were literally built by their users as they were allowed to create their own rooms and items.
Take LambdaMOO, possibly the longest continuously running social MU*. It became part of the Net lore back in 1993 when one of its denizens went on a spree (ref. A Rape In Cyberspace for the full story) causing what had been a stable community to briefly devolve into arguments for and against online exile, the (virtual) death penalty and where the border between your online persona/real-body/mind-inside-your-skull were.
Mind you, MU*s are not only dark drama. Robin Sloan writes about his experiences rambling through the old gopher net to get onto MicroMUSE where he created his own transforming robot, built a home, and many years later tried to return (from what I gather he is offering a cash prize to the first person to find his old creations on MicroMUSE). The MicroMUSE community is still online today, though perhaps in a different guise than back in the early 1990s. It is a place focused on learning and teaching.
I was never a member of a social MU*, preferring more role playing focused ones, or ASCII strategy games. Still, the social aspect was one of the key reasons why I kept coming back. In one MUSH I spent a happy year being a wild west town barber running from troubles back east. On occasion a prostitute, barber, doctor and gunslinger would get together and play poker while chatting about life. It was quite the sight as everyone were sat with a Poker For Dummies leaflet under the table trying to figure out whom was the big blind.
If a textual community sounds like something for you, check out the MudConnector’s list of MU*’s and see if there is anything for you.
For those that got stuck on that line a few paragraphs back about gopher, have a shortcut into the exiting world of Gopherspace—the Net before the Internet with winding paths and a text document focus.
The independent small community Net seems to have latched onto this idea of a text interface. In the olden days when systems were more UNIX and less Windows, a shell account was a priced possession. With a shell account you could, usually, connect to a shared mainframe at a university or company. Navigating the labyrinth with various commands and pipes you could play games, write documents, chat with others using the same mainframe or check your email. The world of the shell never truly went away, though it is a lot less common for university students to be issued a shell account these days.
Enter ~Tilde, a drunken experiment that spawned a microverse.
Tilde.club is one cheap, unmodified Unix computer on the Internet.
- Stevie Nicks (creator of the Tildeverse)
You can read the whole story of its creation in the creators own words. A TL;DR version goes something like this:
On a late drunken evening Stevie decided to spin up a UNIX machine on a droplet and to offer UNIX shell accounts to anyone that wanted one. What followed spawned the Tilde-verse — a loosely organized community of UNIX users from all walks of life.
Question is, what can you do with a shell account? Learn UNIX (coding, tools, software), write your own web page by hand, learn to use a static site generator, chat with people on the same server as you, email, or just play around with what other people have already created. If you don’t want to make a web page you can try the community mailing system, or chat function and just hang out.
On a side note: for the shell enthusiast there is also the Super Dimensional Fortress. One of the longest running communities of this kind. They have a US and a European server. Most of the activity is on the US server. Unlike most of the Tildes however it is not free. Within a year of joining you will have to make a donation to keep your login credentials.
Another hub of textual communities is the Bulletin Board System. Originally accessed via dialup, a BBS was the net before the net. There were multiplayer games, software piracy, ascii art, zines and online romance. No matter what your interest was there was a BBS for you.
For a history of BBSing and how it all developed from a single board into an industry (and then fell apart as the Internet grew) I highly recommend the documentary by Jason Scott — freely available on the Internet Archive and YouTube.
If BBSing sounds like your jam, check the Telnet BBS Guide (600+ listed BBSs as of the date of posting).
No listing of small online communities would be complete without at least mentioning one of the Great Old Ones that is still around; The Well.
[The Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link is] a small town all over the world.
WELL user/WELL marketing copy
The Well (est.1985) is one of the oldest continually operated online communities in existence. It, much like LambdaMOO, has its own stories recorded in the annals of the Net. Incidentally it also covers the story of a troll - though with a slightly different tone than the story of LambdaMOO.
Unlike most of the other communities mentioned here, The Well is supported not by donations or adverts but by a subscription service that also serves as a de-anonymiser (only real names may be used). Every person that joins has to fork over a monthly or yearly rate, and use their verified real world name.
While there are plenty of downsides to such openness on the modern Net, it has some upsides. It makes it much harder to create dummy/troll/sockpuppet/bot accounts—and makes you stand behind the words that you type. No hiding behind a nickname here.
In addition to the conference system, they also give you an email account and a small web hosting account should you wish to setup a web page.
Not all small communities have that 1980s vibe however. Some are pure 1990s.
In the late 90s everyone and their dog had a Geocities page—I did, as part of an ITC project in school. My site served up bad midi tunes and even worse walkthroughs for the Hugo series of adventure games. It was where people first cut their teeth on HTML and CSS, or Dreamweaver. Most pages were definitely not user friendly, UX and GUI design were foreign concepts as we had yet to get drowned in the design cult that keeps filling the tech journals with advise (possibly one of the reasons why so many pages look the same these days?).
2009 the US Geocities site shut its doors (the Japanese sister site kept going until 2019), setting off a mad dash to archive the large trove of early web pages and cultural artifacts housed there. Though they did not get it all, they got a large part of it. A browse-able archive of GeoCities is still available, as is a giant torrent file for those with the hard drive capacity to download it.
Again, learning to create your own site is central. It can be a bit of a hurdle but well worth the effort. For those that are interested there is a list of resources provided by Neocities, as well as the free W3 school.
For those that just don’t want to have to learn a bunch of commands, UNIX, HTML, CSS, JS and other crafts of the Great Old Ones there are forums. The public discourse that the ancient Greeks so loved. No idea why they are often overlooked these days. In many ways they are superior to Facebook groups IMHO. They are easy to setup and configure - with or without registration, custom avatars and “sig’s” in your post footer (I may have had a short and lackluster career designing signature graphics for folks in my teenage years).
Back in the 00s I spent many an evening role playing across the multitude of free boards hosted on (now defunct) EZboard. Later I hosted a small private forum for a writing group (circa 2010). I still use forums. For example I am a member of Restricted Academy, which is a lovely place to meet creative folk and have a chinwag.
For those interested, there are plenty of free forum hosts out there (often supported by advertisements)—or you could grab some FOSS and host your own via dynamic DNS, paid hosting or something entirely different.
The modern Internet is a series of walled gardens and apps—yet we have all gotten used to the way Facebook, Instagram and Twitter function. None of these places require you learn HTML or hand code anything. It is all neatly packaged and as simple as a click to use. Thing is, there is a growing alternative that is catching up and developing according to what the community wants.
Enter the Fediverse. A federated network of alternative services that can be run by anyone from corporations and non-profits to folks with a spare computer in their bedroom.
Tired of Twitter? Try joining a Mastodon instance. A small tip: find the instance for you, don’t just join the big main instance (Mastodon.social). Otherwise you will be drenched in the fire hose of toots and never quite manage to get into it. You may find yourself joining three or four instances before you find the one for you. I joined three before I found the right one. But once you do it quickly turns into a new microblogging home.
[Ed.2023 - a lot of people have joined mastodon, and there are more and more micro-blogging alternatives hooked up to the fediverse - here is an alternative database of services - it can also be used to find a Mastodon instance to join]
Try Pixelfed instead of Instagram, Friendica or disaspora* instead of Facebook, PeerTube to replace YouTube, FunkWhale as an alternative to Spotify, and Fedireads in place of GoodReads. Why are all these communities mentioned in a single breath? Because of what all of them have in common. AcitivityHub. As explained by Eric, it is the technology that underpins the Fediverse and allows all these servers and users to communicate with each other. Its quite nifty, or so I have been told by the more tech-able people I know.
Blogging is also A Thing that seems to be making a slow comeback. It will be hard work ripping the dead clammy claws of the SEO serpents off of the blogosphere (what? serpents don’t have claws? …) but it seems worth it. For those that want to give it a go I can recommend Collected Notes (big on owning your own data, and like Neocities has a subscribe for premium features model of finance), Write As (they have a very active Mastodon instance), or doing what I did and simply getting a Neocities page and use a static site generator like Hugo (Neocities 5USD/mo required for this to work). If you are not quite as rabid about the whole “owning your own” and supporting the indie web there is always Wordpress, though please do not use Medium.
Now, not every community has to be in the Internet. For the hyper local (in a geographical sense) there is the Library and Pirate box. Simply buy a router, attach a USB memory stick and install the software. Now you have a wifi hotspot that is completely off the Internet. Anyone can connect, share files, chat, leave a message on the forum or even stream content. In a way it is a more simultanious-mutli-user approach to the USB dead drop (of which there are quite a few).
I’ve always wanted to setup one of these in a public park or busy town square. Let it run for a summer and see if anyone notices. Perhaps put it in a backpack and take it with me to see if there are anyone that would connect as I travel around. Heck, it could make for a fun “secret society / treasure hunt” out of it. Though this would require living in an area with people, and those people being allowed to congregate in groups in public. Neither of which seem likely to happen any time soon.
The title of this post is perhaps a bit over optimistic. The modern isles of blogging, and other small online communities, seem to be filled with the technorati and marketeers. It is all a Fata Morgana, a distorted illusion on the horizon of something far away, from a different time. Though something is in the wind and the small online communities are multiplying and growing.
On that note it is time to end this giant post. It is way too wordy and in need of a TL;DR. Too bad that I’m too lazy to write one. I’m not sure about the layout either. Still figuring out the format for the blog. For those that found this ramble through the world of small online communities of interest I would suggest checking out October First whom is writing a series of articles around the creation of better online communities by studying Internet history.
No doubt there are other examples of small online communities that I have not included. For example Usenet. If you know of any that I should check out, feel free to email me.
Until next time,
// Cornelius K.
Title image generated via The Sierra Death Generator by Foone Turing.