Online Communities: More Harm Than Good?

There is one great joy that all fans of science fiction should get to experience at least once, and that is meeting someone with the same taste in genre as you. But science fiction is, no matter what the success of certain blockbuster films may have lead you to expect, quite a small niche. It’s not gatekeeping to admit that there is a difference between enjoying something, and considering yourself a part of that thing’s fanbase. I enjoy The Walking Dead, but I don’t seek out people to discuss it with. In contrast, I am a Star Trek fan, and am part of that show’s fandom. The narrow appeal of science fiction means that you’re unlikely to meet another fan in school or the workplace. Universities tend to have a generally nerdier population, but you’ll only be in the same social circle for a few years. So where do you go to find likeminded individuals?

Enter the internet, stage right. It has fundamentally changed the way humans interact, for better and for worse. In genre circles, the rise of the online community has been a great boon. Books have always sold by word of mouth and societal momentum. When readers come together and share their favourites, it leads to all round good times. At least at the start. Because if there’s one thing I’ve noticed in my years of being part of online communities, it’s that they’re often not very helpful. And sometimes, they can be downright harmful.

This article might be a little more vague than usual, because I’m not going to mention any communities by name. But if you’re in the same sort of circles as me, you can probably work out which ones I’m talking about.

Forums

Let’s start with the humble forum. These online chatrooms are where a lot of communities started. The rise of social media has all but killed forums, though a few still cling on around the fringes. The general trend is that they are populated by older users (often the ones who founded the forum), and that new members are something of a rarity. And that brings us to the first problem. I remember a time when I visited a forum daily, and it was a bright and vibrant place. These days, it’s the same five or six people having the same conversations. It’s a friendly place, sure. But there are only a handful of books being talked about. The peripheral chats come and go in cycles, and it does feel like nothing new is being added. Much as I love the forum, it feels stagnant. Even the recommendations have stayed the same for a few years now.

The real benefit of a forum is that everything is neatly arranged, and archived for posterity. You can find read-alongs from a few years ago with all the original comments. It might not see much use any more, but the history is readily available. If new blood came in, forums could be a wonderful place, but for now they linger forgotten, until their coding expires.

Facebook Groups

The murderer of the forum, Facebook is where the big leagues now hang out. There are tens of thousands of members who all, in theory, are after the same thing as you. But Facebook is driven engagement. The popular rise to the top, and everything else falls by the wayside. Make a post asking for recommendations, and you’ll be bombarded for a day or two, then silence. But here’s the rub. Because there are so many people, you’ll get the same recommendations time and time again. And they’ll probably be the big names of the genre. Or Malazan. Because everybody recommends Malazan no matter how poorly it fits your reading requirements.

Guess what happens next? That’s right. Within hours, someone makes an identical post, and the whole thing repeats itself. Because Facebook groups have no way of ordering themselves. It’s an endless deluge of posts by people who don’t search for similar ones beforehand. And why should they? Facebook doesn’t want them to. There’s a search button, but I doubt many people use it.

Those tens of thousands by the way, they’re all going to be looking for different things. They’ll all be at different stages of their own personal voyage through science fiction. There will be a hundred different conversations going on at once, and no way to tell one from the other. Facebook also has a nasty tendency to bring out the worst in people, and genre groups are far from immune to this. I barely look at them any more, simply because too many people are unable to tell the difference between opinions on a book, and an attack on an individual.

One final point here is that self-publishing draws a lot of people to and from Facebook groups. It’s the place where readers and writers interact the most, I’d hazard a guess. This good, up to a point. Self-published authors need all the eyes they can get (hence why I’m part of the SPSFC), but it has also led to the biggest class war since the age-old rivalry between science fiction and fantasy began. If a group allows self-promotion, everything else drowns in a tide of it. If they don’t, they’re accused of stamping down on the little guy. Then we get into murkier waters, as the elitist proponents of both independent and traditional publishers start chucking stones about how ‘bland’ or ‘amateur’ the other is. Cliques soon develop, and the mixing of reader, writer, and reviewer soon leads to something between a buddy-system and a cult-like mentality as the desire to promote self-published books takes over. There is one major site I used to frequent that now posts mainly self-published reviews, and I just don’t know if I trust them anymore.

Discord

Discord is in many ways the successor to the forum. You can arrange topics neatly, and they’re easy to set up. I use Discord a lot, primarily for running RPG campaigns with small groups of friends, but also for bookish communities. It is in the latter that I use Discord’s most valuable tool a lot. The ‘mute topic’ button is lifesaver. Discord channels may be separate from one another, but within a channel they essentially look like Twitter. A mess of words and memes. Once a conversation is over, it’s all but impossible to find it again. And Discord lives up to its name, with multiple conversations going on at the same time, crossing over each other and confusing everyone involved.

Discord is very good, when it is limited. Those channels I haven’t muted are the ones dedicated to a single author or series. In these you can have a genuine conversation. But because not everyone reads every book, these channels often sit unused for long periods of time, and unused channels are often deleted by overzealous administrators.

One of Discord’s selling points is how easy it is to get into a server. Click the invite link, and you’re there. There will always be some members who are more active than others, and many will simply lurk and observe conversations rather than actively participating. This isn’t a problem in itself, but the constant addition of new voices means topics are endlessly revisited. let me be clear, new members of a community are how a community stays alive. But constantly dropping them into the middle of today’s stream of conscious does nobody any favours.

A Question Of Numbers

Social media incentivises numbers. Facebook, Twitter, Discord, and all the others exist to get more people to sign up. At a community level, it’s only natural that you want to welcome more people. But chasing those numbers has been the ruin of many communities. There are studies suggesting the maximum number of friends a person can have is around two hundred, and there’s a lot of evidence to support that. One Discord I am a member of was active when I joined, with a few dozen members. It was a cosy place where everyone knew everyone. A read-along could be scheduled and read in a few days. It was great. But chasing numbers means that Discord now has over five hundred members. It has lost the cosiness. There are still good chats to be had, but that close-knit community feel is no longer there. Now it’s just another swarm of people talking at cross purposes. My desire to engage is still there, but it’s hampered by the sheer volume of people to engage with. A paralysis of choice. I can no longer consider the other members friends, but merely acquaintances.

Too Broad A Vision

I think the key to a successful community is a community of purpose. If we are here to talk about Star Wars, then let’s only talk about Star Wars. I feel very much alone in this belief, however. Why? Because people don’t want to limit themselves. I would rather be in ten groups that do one thing, than one group that does ten. Yes, lots of readers also write, but do we need writing competitions? Yes, many readers are roleplaying enthusiasts, but do we really need multiple D&D channels? No. No we don’t. People can get that elsewhere. Let’s talk about the books that drew us here.

Of course, even a narrow focus isn’t immune to problems. Join any Star Trek discussion group and you’ll be pulled into pointless arguments over which Star treks are ‘real’ or ‘canon.’ (Spoiler Alert: They’re all real.) No fandom is immune to schisms, though some generate more toxicity than others. All you have to do is whisper the name ‘Brian Herbert,’ and a cult of Dune-worshippers will drag you through the mud for daring to enjoy a book by someone not called Frank. But the smaller a society is, the more civil it tends to be. At least in my experience.

Author Interaction

The chance to speak to authors is one of the great boons of social media and online chats. Every time an author messages me, it gladdens my withered heart, and I’ve had nothing but positive experiences with published writers. Yet there is an issue with authors joining communities of readers, and it’s one that most authors acknowledge from the outset. Personally, I think it’s great that the creators of things I love get a chance to speak with people who enjoy their work. But if you’re not a fan? Well, then things can get awkward. Having an author present shifts the conversation. Everybody has books they dislike, and most people have the common decency not to shout that fact at the author. But if an author is just another member of the community? How do you avoid them stumbling across your thoughts?

Several months ago on Discord, the novel Nophek Gloss was the topic of conversation. Everyone was being very positive about when some asked for a recommendation. Crusty old soul that I am, I began typing my more conflicted thoughts on the book. However, before I was done, a link had been sent and author Essa Hansen dropped into the chat and thanked everyone for their kind words. I never sent my own thoughts on the matter. I didn’t like the book, but it seemed a bit rude for that opinion to be the first thing Hansen saw. Similarly, a server I am a member of has a Sun Eater channel that has regular input from Christopher Ruocchio. This is great for me, as he’s willing to answer a lot of questions about his work. But I can’t help but wonder how many people are afraid to post criticism of the book for fear of offending the author.

So What’s The Solution?

Honestly, I don’t think there is one. You either wither away, stagnate, or grow until you explode. And these are just my opinions. I’m sure there are people out for whom online communities work just fine. But the fact of the matter is I have muted or departed all but a tiny handful of them. Really, I think the best thing you can do is make some friends and take the conversation outside the madness of communities. Because at the end of the day, what I’m really after is someone to have a pleasant chat with. And a bustling community is not the place to do that.

Published by Alex Hormann

I'm a writer, reader, and farmer, with an interest in all things speculative.

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