An online community is like a bar
Here is just one helluva lede from a post by Max Read I find lodged into my thinking regularly:
One of the foundational beliefs of this newsletter is that, especially at the elite level, many important spheres of human activity and commerce including politics, newsmedia, and entertainment now largely take place on, and derive their context from, huge tech-industry platforms that are, formally and culturally speaking, not very different from the message boards and forums of the Old Internet, and therefore that understanding the world in 2022 requires historical and genealogical knowledge of internet culture1. Put another way, some immense portion of elite energy is currently directed toward what scholars of and participants in the pre-platform internet will recognize as trolling forums, winning message-board arguments, complaining to mods, and other, similar activities – activities that were undignified and debasing to the circa-1995 teenaged pornography addicts, Japanophile I.T. administrators, awkward goths, and underemployed lawyers who once made up the core population of early forum posters, let alone to the titans of industry, public intellectuals, Hollywood icons, etc. who are now the foremost practitioners of message-board culture, spending their days, as they do, trying to have the last word and accrue upvotes in our bleak approximation of a public sphere – and longtime forum posters are, despite their obvious mental-emotional insufficiencies, the people best-equipped to apprehend and contextualize American public life in the 21st century.
(See also this deeper dive into how today’s internet most resembles Something Awful)
For one, I find this thesis (that today’s platforms are functionally indistinguishable from chat rooms and forums of a bygone era) obviously true because it appeals to both my age and one of my broader critiques of tech platforms, namely they are somehow more bereft of responsibility than bored teenagers during the Clinton administration.
I was reminded of this reading Derek Powazek’s “A community isn’t a garden, it’s a bar”
Bars are subject to a heinously complex mesh of laws. City, county, state, and federal, not to mention departments of health and safety. And those laws will be vastly different from city to city, state to state, country to country.
Bars are responsible for serving only so much alcohol per drink, not serving someone too intoxicated, not serving to anyone below a certain age. Keeping track of every drop of alcohol. And if they break any of these laws, they can be shut down permanently, owners can lose their license, people can go to jail. Why? Because alcohol is dangerous. With Facebook inciting genocide in Myanmar, mass shooters in America being radicalized online, the January 6 insurrection that was planned online, and nazis reinstated on Twitter, can anyone still claim that poorly managed social spaces are any less dangerous?
Another of my peeves about today’s platforms is their almost insistent misunderstanding and misconstruing of not just the word but the very idea of “community”. How many times has Zuckerberg, in his infinite non-apologies before Congress and the world, invoked the billions of people on his website as a singular community?
Powazek’s got it right here, a bunch of people online is as akin to a bar as anything.