Communities are temporary things, online communities doubly so. Brought together by a common interest, people congregate where they feel comfortable and accepted—or sometimes simply where they want to be accepted. Many, many people have called the Internet (and the World Wide Web especially) one large community, uniting all of mankind into one "global village". It's a shame that such a noble notion simply isn't true.
The Internet is not one big happy family. It isn't even one big family, never mind the happy part. The Internet more resembles Europe in the Dark Ages; large feudal lords and small, wandering tribes all huddled together by the fire to ward off the night, and on their way again come daybreak. We all know who the lords are; Microsoft, AOL, and their ilk. What we don't know is who the tribes are. The tribes are the artists, the tinkerers and the independent souls. We are gypsies, tramps, and thieves one and all. I'm not the first to make this comparison, Jeffrey Zeldman's exit gallery used to be called Gypsises, Tramps, and Thieves, and if you look up Daniel Vena, he'll talk about this until he's blue in the face to anyone who'll listen. He's the one who got me thinking about this.
As an example of what I'm talking about, I will once again steal from Daniel and use the example of the Dreamless.org message board [editor's note: Dreamless is now defunct.]. Most of us (and by "us", I mean members) thought of Dreamless as a unified whole, a single community, and that's how much of the outside world thought of us (well, those that thought of us at all). It just wasn't so. Dreamless was made up of many smaller groups—we all just happened to be huddled around the same fire, as it were. This was doubly evident in the board's last days, when those who inhabited one forum more than the others began to "invade" the other forums. These sorts of conflicts between forums had become frequent, and Joshua Davis owner of the board, announced that it would be closing (and rightly so).
Do you suppose then, that someone tried to open a place where the whole "community" could regroup? Of course not. Each of the smaller groups, the tribes, if you will, made plans to congregate and reopen their own small section of Dreamless somewhere else. The members are all still out there somewhere, finally in real communities–we are just no longer all huddled around the same fire.
This sort of behaviour can be seen all around the web. People who preach about rules for web design hate people who design in Flash, although they would both be united under the same banner should what most people call the "web-design community" actually exist. People who have personal sites devoted to their own creative endeavors ridicule the blog scene (yet somehow love design portals which essential serve the same purpose), and yet they too could fall together under the same banner by having personal sites. Common interests on a broad level are no longer enough to form a community. Specific goals and micro-managed interests are now required. After all, tribes have always been more intimate than communities.
Is this a problem? I honestly don't know. But I do know that even the smallest tribe will eventually need a fire, if only for a little while.