It seems like whenever people talk about online community, all you get are wistful recollections of late-20th-century chat rooms, bulletin boards like the Well, and digital public spaces like MUDs and MOOs. Damn, remember MUDs? They were multi-user dungeons, originally modeled on role-playing games, where every user took on an online identity and chatted with other users, gamed, hung out, and even had sex in text-based virtual environments. Yeah, those were the days. Early theorists of online life made much of MUDs, waxing rhapsodic about how liberating they were: You could shed your body, take on a new personality, and share with people halfway across the world.
But the spirit of the MUD is no longer with us. Sure, you can play Warcraft III online, but the dialogue you swap with your fellow gamers -- "Take your fleet over there!" "Eat this, asswipe!" -- is hardly the stuff of which community is made. The Well and its ilk are no longer thriving as they once did. As for chat rooms -- and their spawn, instant messages -- the novelty has worn off. People use chat rooms the same way they use the telephone. They're not for forming new communities but simply about facilitating communication within the old ones.
Perhaps the most lively of the community-building tools on the Net today are reputation systems. Web sites like Slashdot and Kuro5hin are host to thousands of community discussions, all of which are self-moderated on the basis of "reputation points." You earn a reputation based on how highly other users rank the coolness of your comments. So, for instance, if I really like Cory's posting on Slashdot, I'll rank it at five. If I think his comments suck, I'll give it a zero. The more comments you make, the more people vote on them, and the more "accurate" your reputation score becomes. And reputation matters. Some people who read Slashdot choose to filter out any comments that have been ranked below a certain number. The idea is that the more people like you, the more people will read you. Whether this means the most talented thinkers will be rewarded is unclear. After all, popularity hardly equals capability, and indeed one might easily argue that the opposite is true.
Reputation systems are also crucial to the blog community, whose members measure reputation in Web site traffic. Bloggers link to each other, push traffic to favored sites, and generally work as a community to send eyeballs to the most "deserving" blogs. I find this interesting because bloggers -- generally a very noncommercial bunch -- seem to have inherited the dot-com era's lust for Web site "stickiness," that ineffable quality that can keep people's eyes glued to a particular site. Although stickiness didn't provide a sound basis for commerce, apparently it does provide one for a reputation economy. If your popular Web site couldn't make money, at least your blog can make you some friends.
And yet I can't help thinking the reputation system is less about creating communities of friends than it is about building cults of personality around popular, "reputable" individuals. And is it really fair for 14-year-old script kiddies to be ranking comments about the philosophical underpinnings of free software? Or for some much trafficked, sexist blogger to be evaluating Candy's blog based on his understanding of the talents possessed by "ugly chicks"? What happens to ideas that are smart but unpopular? In a reputation system, it's too easy for them to be exiled, cast beyond the bounds of what the community deems expressible.
Geek activist John Gilmore told me recently he thinks the free market works a lot like a reputation system: Businesses rise and fall based on how the public perceives their reputations. And, as he noted, not all reputations are deserved.
Perhaps this is why the free-form spirit of the MUD is gone, replaced by the competitive popularity games of the reputation system. It is the nature of capitalism, after all, to transform everything it touches into versions of itself. Of course I'd rather have people competing for points than for money -- obviously, in a reputation system the stakes are lower. You won't die of starvation if you lack for reputation. But I resent seeing communities turned into competitions, places where unpopular thoughts have no place.
Sometimes we need to listen to people who have bad reputations. Often they are the critics, the people with a talent for seeing flaws and problems none of us wants to face. Communities can't thrive if they never answer to the least reputable of their members. So, for now I'm waiting for a new community system, one whose wisdom will destroy reputations and replace them with something more meaningful.
Annalee Newitz ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is a surly media nerd with a bad reputation. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.