Ramblings of General Geekery

The Olde Internet

Joan Westenberg misses the internet:

The real internet. The one we used to have. Before it all got so much less – and somehow so much more – complicated.


The one that existed before terms of service. The one that existed before social graphs. The one where being a User meant having a degree of respect, not being treated like a retention/churn statistic.

I Miss The Internet

The article goes into a lot more aspects of the internet that changed over the last two or three decades, but that part made me think about something else I read recently:

I’ve been thinking about online vs real-life communities, and how in the real-world, there are many aspects that separate individuals, but also groups apart from each other. And yet, I’d estimate that most people feel more connection to people in the real world than on any online community.


We’ve gone from having small local communities, to what can feel like at times, having the entire world in your living room.

Small Communities

Sure, those who jumped onto the social media bandwagons, from MySpace onwards, did face all the problems created with algorithms and engagement metrics and millions of people online on the same website. But that “older” internet didn’t go away. Small communities didn’t go away.

First, the forums of yore are still there. I regularly check a handful or so of them, including a couple that have been going since the early 2000s that Joan misses. These forums have somewhere between a few hundred and a few thousand people on them (of course, only a small fraction are actively posting). This feels like the old internet, and in some cases it’s literal, since some of these are stuck on mid-2000s message board software1… I’m even part of some equally old mailing lists!

In terms of new technology, Discord has become extremely popular in the past couple years, and it’s where all the kids I know spend their time. While you only need one Discord account to access everything, just like a world-wide social network, you can’t scroll through all Discord servers and post anything anywhere without having an invite first. So you need to know where to go, and then you need to sign-up, just like with a good old forum.

I think that aspect of forums and Discord servers is one of the main reasons they feel like nicer places compared to “traditional” social networks. You can’t participate to an ongoing discussion thread unless you take the time to register or sign-up somehow. In the case of Discord servers, and some rare forums, you can’t even see that discussion until after you’ve signed up anyway. That eliminates a LOT of annoying “randos” in your comments.

Another reason is, of course, the moderation. Forum and Discord communities are, by definition, moderated by the community itself, whereas social media is moderated by a corporation and its outsourced contractors who, by equal definition, are not part of any given community.

The biggest forums I visit, like the venerable French Geekzone or the “big purple” RPG.net, are well known for their unapologetic moderation policies. “Ban-hammers” fall swiftly and often. I hear a lot of criticism about this for RPG.net in particular, but frankly I’m totally OK with it2. Other communities, like The Grognard Files, simply force you to talk to a human to get an invite in the first place, and this brilliantly front-loads a lot of moderation, allowing a more gentle hand later.

In the roleplaying games community, I hear a lot of people lament the loss of Google+, the ill-fated social network that allowed you to make up “circles” of people with whom to communicate. My theory is that people liked that exactly because it allowed agency over membership and moderation in ways that Twitter does not. That is: it allowed a Twitter-like service to act like a forum or Discord server. Some moved over to Facebook Group, which provides similar features on the surface, but has many downsides such as forced identity, annoying algorithmic sorting, poor notification handling, and so on3.

I’ve seen some people argue that Mastodon (and the Fediverse in general) solves some of the traditional social network model’s problems in that regard, but I’m not convinced.

These people seem to think that joining the Fediverse involves picking an “instance” according to which community you want to belong to. So a game developer might join gamedev.place, an open-source advocate might join fosstodon, a TTRPG enthusiast might join dice.camp, and a furry might join meow.social… but it’s partially pointless since all these instances can talk to each other anyway. The Fediverse lives in some sort of uncanny valley between a traditional social network and a group of isolated forums. Do you want to tie your online identity to “being an open-source guy”, with a fosstodon handle? Would you reply to discussions on dice.camp with that handle, or should you create another identity there? What about your three other past times and passions?

It’s all very blurry and confusing4. You can largely still get randos slip into your mentions, and your own community’s moderators aren’t fully in control. Plus, blocking an entire instance often ends up being the easiest recourse for these moderators, and that leads to yet another batch of problems.

Anyway, I’m digressing… join forums and mailing lists and Discord servers! Find a good community! Have fun!

  1. Remember BBCode? Yeah… it still exists… ↩︎
  2. I can count on at most one single finger the number of times I heard complaints that sounded even remotely justified. ↩︎
  3. Plus the fact that it’s, you know, Facebook. ↩︎
  4. And one big reason I’ve got my own instance and personal handle, thank you very much. ↩︎