Niche Online Subcommunities
What makes niche online communities so successful? And why are they so elusive until you find them?
I’ve always loved the internet.
Not in the dot-com bubble, tech VC investor type of way, but in the ‘oh shit it’s 4AM and I’m 5 hours deep into this forum about the drama between two youtubers + I have 45 more tabs to go through dating back to 2011 before I can satisfy my curiosity’ type of way. I often wonder if it’s because my parents were strict growing up and I turned to the computer for entertainment + knowledge, or if I would have turned out like this even if my sister and I didn’t learn how to use VPNs in middle school to bypass parental controls. The internet feels boundless and infinite – it’s omnipresent; it’s inescapable, yet all of us experience it so differently.
Niche internet subcommunities are everywhere. We’re all part of one (more likely many), and I’m fascinated by understanding how these communities come to be – how a group of people interacting behind usernames and in totally different time zones band together to create a community that exists solely online , often around a topic that most people have never even heard of.
When I first read Stephanie’s background on her Circles proposal, I was floored (in a good way 🙂). I related heavily to her; I too had been a hackathon organizer (with a similar experience / sentiments) and was also curious to do work around finding connection / fulfillment through online communities. I wanted to hear how other people thought about non-physical spaces and the way they shape us as humans. Our circle was small but mighty, and all four of us each approached this topic from a totally different perspective, which I found made the experience more enriching. I am laying out my thoughts / work in this page, recognizing that a common initial purpose often yields very different questions / responses / approaches – which is kind of the magic of it all.
In my section, I will be exploring niche online subcommunities and diving deeper into their dynamics + addictive nature and laying out my general musings on how online communities facilitate intimate connections between total strangers.
I can’t say that I have many academic qualifications to talk about this topic – my only real source of legitimacy is what I like to consider ‘field work’ – the countless hours I’ve spent trolling around on the internet and interacting with my own subcommunities. I plan to dive into a couple in the course of this reflection, but also note that I spent a semester in college studying “Tribes” in digital communities, which is actually what helped me realize I was even interested in this are + synthesize a lot of my general thoughts on the space.
I want to first list out some of the online subcommunities I’m a part of to a) help the reader understand what I consider a subcommunity and b) inspire the reader to think about what niche interests or online spaces he or she may be a part of. We oftentimes don’t even think about the ways in which we interact with the digital world, and how a like here and a comment there can contribute to a growing digital space that only we are privy to.
Here are some that I’ve studied + silently observed or been a part of: Army wives, #Vanlife, Mukbangers, Bronies, Return of Kings (tangent to the redpill community), That’s it – I’m Wedding Shaming”, Who? Weekly, r/tinnitus, wall street oasis, subtle Asian traits, A group where we all talk like Jason, etc. I’m including a few examples below across different mediums, as I am a firm believer that online communities exist everywhere.
I’m certain many of us have interacted (even if tangentially) with members in these communities, oftentimes unknowingly. If you’re reading this, my hope is that you leave this reflection with a little more curiosity about the rich [online] world(s) to which we all belong to.
A case study
I’ve done a lot of work (actual work, I promise - not just content consumption) on the Brony community, which I think is an interesting example of an online community (one that is both somewhat exclusive and incredibly rich with content).
🐴 My Case Study on Bronies
Learnings & Takeaways
One of the things that struck me the most is something that seems obvious, but took a conversation with Melissa and Stephanie for me to fully come into my thoughts. We were discussing differences in bonds formed via in person friendships vs. online communities , and how they differ / why we can integrate into online relationships so easily. We realized we’re often able to feel so close to people we’ve never met and communities we’ll never tangibly see because of:
- low barrier to entry
- constant availability
Which brought me to the conclusion that online community building / friendship is actually quite similar to building friendships but on a highly accelerated schedule / scale. Friendships IRL take time and effort to build (coordinating schedules, figuring out where to meet, spending $ + time + effort, working past surface level conversations into understanding someone’s true feelings and person) - many of those gating factors in IRL friendships are bypassed online. Separately, because there’s oftentimes an element of anonymity, we’re able to display our true selves and jump into communities where you know there’s a shared interest immediately, vs. looking for common ground. I think this is part of the reason why online communities work so well and why people feel so bonded to them - because you can be yourself authentically, consume content how and when you want, disconnect when you feel like it, and repeatedly engage at a low barrier to entry in a group in which you know you have common ground.
One other interesting element about online communities + not knowing who is on the other side of the screen is that we’re able to project our desired perception onto other members – by shielding elements of race, class, gender, sexuality – even voice tone, height, and other physical attributes – we can decide how and when we want to perceive people. It’s easy to read comments and imagine who the person on the other side of the screen is, having no basis for our imagination other than preference / internal bias. The inverse is true too – we’re able to present ourselves how we want to as well. I remember posting in a reddit forum about vaping (trying to find a birthday gift for my boyfriend) as myself and getting slightly rude responses. I tried again the next day posing as a ‘bro’ and the responses were much nicer – someone actually gave me a discount code for a site – all because they thought I was “one of them”.
This further begs the question – how do we decide who is “one of us” in the online community? I think this is often where online communities either break down or find massive success – oftentimes the initial barrier to entry (figuring out how and where to find a community, being able to engage + understand content, interacting with other members in a way that is productive) – creates just enough of a screen for filtering people who wouldn’t “get it” out, while making space for those who do.
Finally, a bit of a paradox – a group of 4, all interested in online subcommunities and developing relationships via the internet – had a very hard time aligning schedules and actually following through with meeting. I admittedly contributed heavily to this problem – and in writing this reflection, I’ve been thinking a lot about what this means in the context of digital friendships and relationships. I’m still trying to figure out my takeaways but my primary thoughts thus far revolve largely around the dissonance between our personal and online lives. I think it’s really difficult to make space in your physical life for spaces that only exist on the internet, and even more difficult to prioritize those online spaces (which are often associated with convenience and ease of access in terms of time and medium) when they are anchored instead to a specific location and time.
It all kind of circles back to the fact that these communities and space are often so addicting and easy to integrate into because you choose the speed, time, location, medium, profile, etc at which you engage. As our world becomes more and more digital, I’m curious to see if the way we prioritize our lives - both online and in person - changes.
- What niche online sub-communities are you involved in? How did you find them? Why do you like them?
- Why do you think so many have an element of secrecy / are oftentimes elusive? Shame? Exclusivity?
- How can we translate bonds from online communities into the physical world? Or is part of the magic of them that they’re online?
- Do you think anonymity is helpful or harmful for online communities?