Why Do People Become Involved in Online Communities
When people enter online communities they are looking for some type of interaction with other people. They may be looking for people who are like themselves, or for people who come from wildly different backgrounds. Online communities offer two main advantages over their real world counterparts:
Finding People With Shared Interests
Many people enter the online world to find others who enjoy similar things. The online world is not bounded by regional restrictions and it services a far greater audience than most people come in contact with otherwise. The internet and online communities have enabled people who may have previously felt alone in their tastes to find people of similar interests. Most communities come into existence after a group of people come together due to their shared interests. There is extreme diversity in many online communities with members ranging from their teens to their fiftees, hailing from countries all over the world, and with interests and professions that span almost every field.
Creating a New Persona
This is probably the most enticing prospect of online communities for many people. Through the anonymity of a computer people can reinvent themselves. For example, in a MUD, users write their own descriptions, can choose their gender, and can control what they say and do at a level which they may not know in real life. How people choose to present themselves gives an interesting insight into the people who are populating these online communities.
The first thing a user must choose is his/her name. There are no rules to name choosing except that the name must not already be taken. The only pattern that seems to be universally observed is that few, if any, people choose their real name. Online communities are a chance to be someone different and most people seem to take advantage of that fact.
Next the user must describe him/herself. For the first time, users can have complete control over what other people see. Descriptions may be page long dialogs about a person's appearance and character or they may be a quick one line statement. This is a true chance for people to express themselves and create the first impression that they wish to convey. Most descriptions are between 6 and 8 lines, but there are extremes on both sides. Those who write a lot may simply like to write, or they may wish to leave nothing in doubt. Those who have short descriptions may be lazy or unimaginative, but others use it as a calculated effort. One user stated that her looks gained her a lot of unwanted attention in the real world and the MUD was her chance to get people to react to her for who she was, not what she looked like.
Finally each character must choose his/her gender. LambdaMOO supports ten different genders: neuter, male, female, either, Spivak, splat, plural, egotistical, royal, and 2nd. Most users choose either neuter, male, or female, but their choices do not necessarily reflect their true gender. There is a considerable amount of cross over as there are far fewer female users as there are female characters. Some men choose to cross over because females receive more attention from other users. Others may choose to be a member of the opposite sex to see what it would be like. Many females may choose to have a male character so as to avoid harassment from male characters.
With all of the discussion so far we have left out one key motivation for people entering online communities: it is a way to pass the time chatting with friends. Many people enter online communities because it is a way of relaxing or playing a game. In online communities, people have found a place to enjoy themselves and communicate with others without many of the hangups that plague real world interactions. Online communities are not a utopia, but they do offer many benefits that the real world has failed to provide to many people.