Common Interests Cement Online Communities

My sister and I walked into Chumley’s at about 6:15 p.m. on Saturday and asked the hostess where we might find the Cecil Adams party. She pointed to a table in the corner where a diverse group of people were drinking beer and preparing to order dinner.

I was nervous. I’d never been to any sort of real-life gathering of an online community before. Whenever you hear a news story about online friends meeting in real life, you also hear about assault, abduction, or worse. Fortunately, this particular gathering ended up being perfectly safe. I walked over and introduced myself.

“Hi. I’m THespos,” I said to the group.

I shook hands with Tripler, Falcon, Swimming Riddles, Biggirl, Houseman, and Wonko the Sane, six long-standing members of our little online community. Rather than learn new names, we introduced ourselves by our user names and used them throughout the night.

Thus began a really fun night of partying and good times in New York with a bunch of people I’d never before met in real life. What brought this about?

It all started in 1973 when a man named Cecil Adams wrote the first of a series of newspaper columns for the Chicago Reader. This column, The Straight Dope, is written in an entertaining question-and-answer format, and readers from all over the world submit questions to Cecil, who bills himself as “the world’s smartest human being.” For those who have never read The Straight Dope, think Ask Marilyn meets Bill Nye the Science Guy, with a little extra kick of insanity thrown in.

Cecil’s column is wildly successful. It is read in 33 newspapers in the U.S. Syndication led to a series of compilations, which led to The Straight Dope AOL site and web site, which led to The Straight Dope Message Boards, which was the reason for the NYC gathering.

The Straight Dope Message Boards constitute a true online community. Fans of Cecil’s column sign up and are given privileges to post to the board’s many forums — those for responding to the columns, for posting questions for Cecil to consider, for all-out flame wars between members, and for member debates. My favorite forum is MPSIMS (Mundane Pointless Stuff I Must Share), which on any given day can contain discussions ranging from what a member had for breakfast to “Simpsons” trivia to which BattleBot will prevail in Comedy Central’s tournament.

Dedicated Dopers (that’s what Straight Dope fans call themselves — it’s not a drug reference) attend DopeFests in various cities around the world. The gatherings are organized not by the Straight Dope staff, but by board members. Typically, you’ll see a post in MPSIMS asking if the Dopers from a certain metropolitan area would want to get together at a bar or restaurant. The DopeFest I attended was the sixth in the NYC area, and it made me think about a few things related to online communities.

First of all, the level of trust that had been developed among Dopers was simply amazing. Very few of the attendees (44 showed up by the end of the night) had ever met in person, yet all were very trusting of one another. One Doper, Billdo, let a couple dozen Dopers hang out in his apartment. Some of those people were from out of town and ended up crashing on the floor of his apartment at the end of the night. It simply amazed me that this level of trust can be built up online, without ever meeting someone face to face.

Second, my theories about interest being the web’s common unifier were more than confirmed. Glancing around the room at the 44 Dopers in attendance, I saw a wide range in age, sex, ethnic background, and occupation. Some 19-year-old college students were partying with 45-year-old computer geeks and 35-year-old housewives. What united the group was a love for Cecil’s columns and an Internet connection.

The dedication of the Dopers to the group was also staggering. Although many of the attendees were from the New York area, several had come from the Washington, D.C./Baltimore area. Another had come from New Hampshire. Yet another was on military leave in the area and had dropped by for fun.

When I contrast this online community to other so-called community sites, I’m reminded that common interests are what unites people on the web, not just a 10 MB directory in which to place a personal home page. When a site caters to an interest, the loyalty and dedication to the community created by that site can be powerful indeed. I’m also inclined to think that the narrower the interest, the higher the level of dedication.

Cecil Adams has aligned a dedicated following behind his writing. Is he the world’s smartest human being? Well, I do have to admit that he certainly taught me a lesson about online community this weekend.

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