Olu Online


Have you ever felt at home on the internet? Possibly in surprising news about someone as extremely online as I am, I'm not sure if I have. I've been closest to feeling at home in Discords, WhatsApp groups, and weirdly, on Twitter pre-Musk. To be fair, I have a perennial lack of the feeling of belonging. I find communities not built upon individual interactions hard to understand or engage with, though I am trying more with this recently. I have a strong preference for one-on-one meetings in all spheres of life.

My first attempts at meeting complete strangers online, hoping for connection, happened on platforms like Neopets, RuneScape, and role-playing forums. The former two actively discouraged users from getting together away from the games at the time, but the role-playing forms were very different. Once you were on them, you had a little more freedom to be who you wanted to be. I was purposely never anything vaguely resembling myself when in character, and rarely out of character beyond an introduction. I feel like whilst my "do your thing and leave" approach has a place, building a home for yourself online is not located nearby.

I think a certain degree of loitering around the water cooler (to for some reason use an office analogy) or the heart of the home, the kitchen (better) is necessary for anyone to feel at home anywhere. They need a certain amount of being in a place for no reason but to enjoy the space and the people in it. I assume you can feel at home completely alone, but I guess the scope of this is broader, like feeling at home in a village/town/city or a smaller community.

What makes people feel at home in general? I'm trying to distil what the ingredients of "belonging" are in any community, and so far I've come up with:

  1. people who are like you
  2. people who are different to you
  3. "vibes"
  4. type of platform or meeting place being compatible with your needs and wants
  5. shared values
  6. being liked, valued or at least respected or tolerated by others sharing the space

Looking at the list, I think i've often struggled with "people who are like you". I have a particular set of skills intersecting identities that have made many things in my life difficult (picking therapists for sure!) and I often feel the bind of "choosing to centre this aspect means I'll be missing out on exploring/being open about some other part of my identity in this space, or worse, will actively be made to feel weird for the bits that don't overlap with this space". For those needing a concrete example, lots of queer spaces are very white, lots of black spaces are very straight, and that's only one identity. It's an ongoing headache deciding where to spend energy.

I don't really know how I fix finding people who are like you, if "you" is a complex bundle of attributes; I assume a lot of people I would like to talk to are just not very online for this reason, or stick to private chats that I will never hear of.

I'm very nostalgic for my first forays into the internet, where "people who are different to you" didn't feel as fraught as it does now. I lurk on all sorts of corners of the internet, but interacting feels strange unless I'm there with purpose.

"Vibes" is a strange one, and I know the internet will just never have good vibes for some people, and that is okay. For people who want or need to use the internet to interact, it can be frustrating, as we definitely don't have as many different kinds of spaces as the earlier web promised.

On "type of platform" being ideal, I've been checking out Neocities (a Geocities respawn) and the handcrafted/"homemade"/purposefully-janky-in-some-ways web did make me feel welcome and like more was possible, but I'm not sure if that would be the case for most people. The original Geocities apparently didn't have much in the way of community for actual users, and I don't know how much can be built around the idea that you all like to build sites and no other shared values1. From my cursory research, people weren't looking for community on the early internet; they popped in to have a look around at something specific and then logged off. Slightly later, if you had community you had it, if you didn't, you weren't expecting it.

On "shared values", finding people shallowly into the same things as you is pretty easy on social media and the web at large, deep resonance much harder. I know part of that is just the difficulty of being in community groups, though a lot of it does seem to be amplified by the badness of our platforms, similarly to the last point, "being liked, valued or respected".

Maybe I'm mistaken, thinking the web is a place I should feel at home. Maybe at its best, for someone like me, it's a kind of third space, a place where I of course can work and can rest, but can find all sorts of possibilities outside these two categories too.

This piece is part of my attempt at Alphabet Superset, a 6-month creative challenge. Other posts so far: abolition, bump, boost, culture, discussion, english, formulaic and gone.

  1. The idea of a homepage as the front door of the internet seems to be in its last gasps, if it was ever true. Once search engines took hold, that seems to have been a wrap, but I guess it can be the front door to your own personal patch of something.