Personal

Community Building in the Digital Age

The first online community I was a part of was a group of fan fiction fans for this one Harry Potter fanfic in 2006. I was 13 and the mixture of hormones, angst, and eighth grade uncovered an urge to obsess. I chatted in the comments with strangers about the latest chapter, speculated on what would happen next, begged the author for updates. Within six months I’d lost interest and moved on to the realer things of my best friends and I having a whole summer to ourselves, and a boy who wanted to kiss me.

The second online community I had was two years later. At the ripe old age of 15 I’d figured out that I was queer and as such was desperate for queer community. Living in a mostly red state made this difficult, but I did have one gay friend. We had met at summer camp and he lived in Connecticut. He told me about a website called QueerAttitude.com (rip), a message board system with private blog options all for queer teenagers. Within the hour I’d created my profile. It was real queer teenagers talking about real queer things. The first time they kissed someone and liked it, how to hide their identity from their parents, what everyone thought about the last season of the L Word – you know – classic gay kid stuff.  I fell head long. This was nothing like comments on a Harry/Ginny fan fic, this was community, it brought me belonging, it brought me friends across the country, it brought me home.

I met a girl on QA. We started talking. We started Skyping. We swapped numbers and we would text all day, every day. She lived in Seattle, and I lived on the east coast, so I would text her good morning and get a reply half way through second period and then would stay up as late as I could to see if we could talk after she had dinner. Weekends we thrived. We shared our hopes and dream and fears. We bonded over coming from split family homes and having half siblings.

We dated online – for all intents and purposes – and she was the first person who I felt like I could really love, and she was the first person I told that to.

She dumped me for her best friend, proximity and history winning out over distance and two months of texting. I understood, but I was heartbroken. I turned back to QA, my loving supportive wonderful community and was met with the kindness and tenderness of long time loving friends. To this day I don’t remember any of their names.

I didn’t come back to online communities until much later. I’d gone to college. I’d had friends fall in love and get married. I’d gotten a job at a software company. I was living on my own with my cat and I had two best friends who lived super close to me. It was great. We’d hang out every weekend and do something new and something fun, explore, live our twenties, be adventurous. And then one of them got married, and the other got a job in her field. They had both moved out of the area in that time. In the space of two months my world stopped feeling full, but became cold, and lonely. I started sleeping later and later, my performance was dropping at work. I would stay up until three am just staring at the ceiling, my cat curled in my hair, wondering what on earth I was doing with my life.

I know now that I was dealing with a low grade depression, but at the time it felt like the world of being an adult wasn’t something I could ever be cut out for.

I turned to Tumblr, the new bedrock of all fandom, the corner of the internet that no one really understands, but hey whatever. Back to fan fiction, I turned, writing whatever I wanted about who ever I wanted, putting it out into the world to see. 5 likes and 1 reblog. Not too shabby. Slowly I learned how to tag. I learned how to promote what I’d done. I learned the phrases people would latch onto. I developed rapport with various writers, mostly small like me, some moderately sized. Once I had something reblogged 3 thousand times – it still gets reblogged today – I don’t really remember what it was.

Through this slow immersion into fandom life, I could feel myself slipping down the rabbit hole of obsession.

I was so desperate for something to do, someone to share it with.

I would shit post my feelings for the world to see and wonder if I should delete it the next morning. I stumbled, I slipped, I feel head first into the world of obsession as I turned the corner of the internet and discovered my people.

The first one I met was L. A 23 year old non-binary friend-parent with long rainbow hair and a Texas accent. They pulled me into their world with the centrifugal force of a planet. They sat on the floor of their living room knitting blankets for their friends and telling me why I needed DnD. They asked me about my day. They told me about theirs. They gave me someone to talk to. So simple and stupid, but someone to actually spend my evenings with.

They introduced me to who would later become my partner, the blond haired beauty on the other end of a three way Skype call, laughing as I tried to fix her computer for her remotely with no tools or knowledge, just sheer gumption. The three of us formed a group, a place to come home to at the end of a long day. Three states, two time-zones, and one Skype call and we were together battling the world together.

That was over two years ago now. Z and I live together with my cat. L came to live in Brooklyn for a while but had to go home to care for a declining mother. The three of us still talk. Not every night, not with the same free abandon as it was, but with an earnest and strong friendship and bond that seems impossible to break.

Z, L, and I wandering a parking lot in Austen, TX – March 2018

L saved me. That community saved me. They brought me to where I needed to be and to who I needed to be. They showed me my potential. I could do things like move to New York and got to San Francisco on a whim. I could do things like quit my job and talk back to people who deserved it. I could get the promotion and the raise and still be a good cat mom. I could do it. I did it. And I couldn’t have done it without them.

The world is a really big place, and it’s very easy to feel very small. Community is hard, it takes time and patience and intention. But when you have a whole generation being fed the tools of the internet from such a young age, you have to know that they will find each other. We found each other admits a corner of the internet strife with pain and sarcasm and fear and danger. We seek each other out like beacons over a dark water, calling each other together.

Maybe we’re just ports in a storm, but sometimes we take root and call each other home.

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