The History of Internet Communities

1. World Wide Web vs. Information Superhighway

In the early 1990s, there were two competing ideas for what the future Internet would look like. One was the Information Superhighway, the other was the World Wide Web.

A special edition of Time magazine in April 1993 was titled “The Info Highway: Bringing a Revolution in Entertainment, News, and Communication.”

2. AOL

One of the core features of AOL was online chat. There were public chat rooms organized by topic as well as private chat rooms where anything was fair game. It’s an open secret in business that sex sells — like the way porn movies drove adoption of VCRs and the way VR found an early use case in porn. Thus, it’s no surprise that the popularity of AOL was driven by lots of sex chat where anonymous users could talk dirty and role-play sexual fantasies.

3. eBay

One unique feature of eBay in its early days was that it was just a marketplace. It didn’t store any inventory of goods unlike Amazon. Likewise, the only tangible asset eBay had was the goodwill of buyers and sellers and the reputation of its online community.

4. Wikipedia

Jimmy Wales had a vision that the web could create the largest encyclopedia conceivable where “every single person is given free access to the sum of all human knowledge.” To do so, he started the Nupedia project where everyday people, preferably “true experts in their fields and (with few exceptions) possess PhDs,” could contribute articles that would then be peer-reviewed by other experts.

5. Blogging

One of the killer apps of the Internet was the ability for users to freely generate content for others. Blogging enabled everyday people to publish in front of an audience without going through a gatekeeper like the New York Times. The Internet was the endless human storybook for people to share their own perspectives and experiences.

So what?

Most people view the success of the Internet as primarily driven by top-down decisions, but in reality it was the organic communities that formed around different projects that enabled the Internet as a whole to prosper and get mass adoption.

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