From AOL to Tumblr and now TikTok, internet communities take all forms.
Throughout history, people have formed communities based on a common interest – similar jobs, shared culture, or even supporting the same football team. In the age of the Internet, the idea of community has divulged into something virtual and can now span continents and time-zones. This idea of online communities has existed for a while, but since lockdown, these communities have grown tremendously.
Online communities were brought to the public originally through chat services. AOL became a service many could use to communicate online, primarily through chat rooms. These chat rooms could be both public and private, with the latter allowing for any form of chat to be tolerated. An October 1996 article in Rolling Stone found that half of these chat rooms were based around sexual acts. While AOL was one of the first instances of online communities, it also was one of the first times that the safeguarding of these communities was brought into question.
A prominent website for these communities during the 2000s was Tumblr. Like many teenagers, I spent many hours each night scrolling through Tumblr and reblogging information about my favourite fandom (which I will not be disclosing due to severe embarrassment). It felt like a fun place where I could talk to those with similar interests to me. Anybody with an account would know of the different sides of Tumblr – the “science” side, the “superwholock” side, the “hipster” side. These would be the sub-communities within the website, and almost every user identified with a “side” and felt safe to explore the community through the website.
Looking back, we probably should not have felt so safe.
Almost everybody made friends within their communities on Tumblr and would meet up with them. Everything we had learned about stranger danger was thrown out of the window: shared interests created a strong bond which helped to create trust. It was easy to forget that anybody could create an account and join in, which could lead to negative consequences. Tumblr community guidelines currently say it should not be used for things such as exploitation or impersonation, but do not mention anything about meeting people from the website. It may be argued that the website should explicitly say more about this issue.
There were also “sides” of Tumblr which were not pleasant or healthy – in my early teens, there were communities which would glorify eating disorders, poor mental health, and abuse. I can even remember when the website edited its guidelines to include the restriction of pornography on the website, plus the backlash of this very decision! These communities would support unhealthy behaviours and often would suggest others should support them too. Often the website would be a very toxic environment, and this has come to be replicated throughout internet communities such as 4Chan and Reddit nowadays.
However, having “sides” at all was unhealthy and toxic. People were shamed for their interests, whether it was a love for writing fanfiction about YouTubers or supporting big emo bands. I still feel subconsciously judged for my past interests now. These sides would have rivals and would be attacked by other people for no other reason but their interests. This would be classed as cyberbullying, which is against the Tumblr Community Guidelines, but it caused a lot of distress for users.
This idea of “sides” of websites has not died down, even in the new decade. During the pandemic and throughout the rise of TikTok, there has been an idea of “sides” on the platform. The TikTok algorithm records what you’re interested in and shows you videos that it thinks you will like. Through this, it will show you only selected videos. This means that some people will see TikToks of people dancing and lip-syncing, while others will view endless hours of creators trying to make a musical. While this could be harmless, people have been dubbing this as “sides” of TikTok.
As somebody who has viewed a platform being built on sides, this scares me. It creates divides in a larger community and can break out into fights, arguments, and potential bullying. Some creators have addressed this, but it is mostly ignored as large platforms obviously will not contain people who share similar moral beliefs. However, it could create grounds for people to be hurt.
TikTok, unlike Tumblr back in the day, has up to date guidelines against cyberbullying, nudity, and graphic content, amongst many things. It has also been known to take down things which do not cause harm as a precaution and is very quick to remove content that goes against guidelines. While the platform currently works well to support a variety of communities, it is unknown whether it will manage to continue to support them as the platform grows. However, they must be applauded for the current work they are doing as there are fewer reports of it causing bullying or issues than other major social media apps.
In the digital age, it was certain that a new form of the community would be formed. Communities on social media are vast and complicated, and we must learn to enjoy them but also control them to an extent. Some websites create positive experiences and some may be negative – hopefully, they will continually get better in the future.