I've been studying online communities since 1994, believe it or not. My master's thesis was called "Escape to Cyberia: Subcultures as Agents of Change." Go ahead, make fun of me for the title. It's cool.
But back then, no one -- or at least, very few people -- studied online communities as fodder for social science. I set out to prove that people could actually form social bonds and even social structures -- in this case subcultures -- online. I then went on to show that what happens online can affect what happens in the "real world." Several professors at the University of Chicago thought I was insane -- "Real world vs. online? What is this, 'Tron?!'" -- but I aligned myself with a forward-thinker named David Laitin who, too, was ready to accept our future robot overlords.
At the time, Usenet wasn't the dark, gritty back alley of the internet that it is now. Newsgroups were full of discussion, moderation and netiquette. They were, if you will, "where it was at." I was a daily contributor and reader of alt.mountain-bike, where at least 100 new messages about trails, bike maintenance and burritos kept my attention. It was, you might say, just like Reddit. Sorta.
We were a tight group, and we had little to complain about. Then the World Wide Web showed its colorful, graphical, sexy self and changed everything. "Mrrrh!" we groaned. "This newfangled web with the clicking and the mouse will never replace Usenet! Keystrokes and text forever! Who needs pictures? Mrrrh! Mrrrh, we say!"
Change is hard. We get comfortable with something, get used to it and then someone moves our stuff, and we get annoyed. I used to indulge in a bi-weekly housekeeper because I was never good at the whole cleaning thing, but I eventually let her go when she moved my towels from under the sink to the linen closet. The closet was the right place for the towels, of course, but I had no interest in change. I realized that the reason I was so insistent on keeping the towels under the sink was because all through college and my years in Manhattan I never had a proper closet, so I put the towels wherever I could.
I've since re-hired her and my towels go in the closet. My silverware also goes in a kitchen drawer, but that's another story for another time. When Apple moves an icon, we tell them it was better where it was before, even though we've had that app running in the background for six months anyway. When Google takes away background images, we decide that we loved them all along even though we never changed them. And when Engadget launches a new site, our first reaction is, "Where's our stuff?!"
Then we're right back at it, doing what we do, and we eventually learn -- hopefully -- that the designers knew what they were doing all along. This isn't always the case. When Digg tweaked their design and formula, millions of users ran, flocked to Reddit and rediscovered animated GIFs to the horror of those of us over 30. When Reddit redesigns -- and they will -- you can bet that throngs of angry, old 20-somethings will be at it again. As consumers of consumer electronics, we complain when things change, yet change is exactly what made us all nerds in the first place. We tell our friends and relatives to get with the program, update their devices and change with the times. We look forward to exploring new operating systems and hunt for bugs and glitches like little gophers in a giant green field of code.
Do I want to go back to chatting on Usenet instead of Reddit? Heck no. I'm good with the kittens and rage faces, thank you very much.
Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.