Who remembers the dopamine high of a "nudge" from your crush on MSN Messenger or the political minefield of choosing your Bebo "other half"? So were the glory days of early social media; a symphony of screeching dial-up tones, flashing message boards and "top friends" lists. Anxiety-inducing features aside, these burgeoning digital communities tapped in to our very human craving for connection.
Yet this desire was soon overtaken by our impulse to share. Smaller sites were replaced by larger, more centralised and mobile-friendly platforms. Facebook, Instagram and Twitter became the holy trinity of social networks. It was the dawn of information overload.
In reaction, today's social-media users are increasingly looking to curate rather than create - streamlining the channels they follow in a bid to dial down the clamour of content in their feeds. A recent study shows that 66 per cent of those who engage with online communities do so to interact with like-minded others. Social platforms have become a space for people and cultures from across the world to share, connect and belong. But will virtual communities ever fully replace physical ones?
To find out, we caught up with four trailblazing women who have each established themselves in their fields by finding and fostering online communities. Sharing the stories behind navigating their digital careers and personas, they reveal the power and pitfalls of connections built online.
As the founder of technology company Beautystack, Sharmadean Reid is on a mission to connect and empower independent beauty professionals.
Beautystack is a social-platform-meets-booking-system that closes the loop between brand awareness and actually booking a treatment. I recently started the The Beautystack Podcast because people in business are often interviewed about their work; I wanted to ask founders about personal topics as well as the role beauty has played in their career. Creating bonds such as this is always stronger than those simply formed by a "market" of people buying your product.
A real community communicates. Technology that supports this has been especially important for women over the past few years, enabling those in caring roles to work flexibly and be more mobile. My advice to those who are looking to grow an online community would be to give it a really clear, does-what-it-says-on-the-tin name, like Run Dem Crew. It will serve as an instant reminder if anyone loses sight of what the group is really about.
Activist, writer and campaigner Gina Martin is best known for winning her case to make upskirting illegal in 2019. She declined an OBE in 2020.
I am a firm believer that collective action online can be an unparalleled catalyst for change. My campaign to make upskirting a sexual offence was almost entirely digital. Since then, myself and plus-size model Nyome Nicholas-Williams have fought a successful battle on social media to make Instagram's nudity censorship policy more inclusive.
Performative activism is an issue on social media - you can post, scroll and shout opinions without actually listening, showing up or engaging in any deep learning. I use social media to support and mobilise people, but the majority of my work is done elsewhere.
The biggest lesson that I've learnt from campaigning online is that nothing you ever do is new; there are always groups of people who will be discussing similar issues and experiences. The key is to tap into these communities in order to create a lasting dialogue and bring about change.
Liv Little is an author, presenter and the founder of gal-dem, a magazine committed to sharing perspectives from women and non-binary people of colour.
At university, I noticed a lack of collective space in which women of colour could share their experiences, and gal-dem was founded in response to this. The platform grew quickly, but has always retained a sense of community. Our membership scheme asks women to #supportthegaldem in exchange for perks - and that money goes into the hands of authors, artists, filmmakers, editors and other creatives. Our community is powered by the very people for whom we exist.
Social media has been an invaluable tool for growing my business and career, and it's a particularly important space for marginalised groups to connect. Recently, though, I've been trying to carve out spaces online that feel more personal. A newsletter felt like the best channel for this; I've felt able to share things that I wouldn't normally voice on other platforms, and it's been a beautiful way to foster meaningful conversations with my readers.
The bestselling author and podcaster Emma Gannon built her career online as an early adopter of the blog, podcast and "multi-hyphen" method.
Finding my online "voice" meant writing in a way that's closest to my natural speaking voice. I honed my style over several years. In the early days of my blog, I tested different writing styles while no one was watching.
Thanks to my "multi-hyphenate" career, working on several projects simultaneously, I've experimented across a number of online channels. I find podcasting particularly powerful as a woman because it's one of the few platforms that focuses solely on what you're
saying and not what you look like. My newsletter, The Hyphen, connects the dots across all of my platforms. It's a far more intimate space than social media - I get direct feedback from my readers.
Although online communities will play an increasingly large role in our lives in the coming years, I don't think they will replace human contact. The internet fills in gaps for sure, but we are social animals and need to see people in 3D in order to truly thrive.