The word "community" is overused in academic fields, but it is the best word for what it on my mind today.

I closed "The Autistic Place" today. It was meant to be an online community dedicated to issues of autism and education. The reality is, however, that online communities come and go so rapidly that what was popular a year or two ago is often "inactive" now.

There are dozens of Yahoo groups that are dedicated to autism. Most of these were active five years ago, but have since fallen out of favor with users. Just as the Usenet groups and most "listservs" have faded away in the last five years, so have many online forums.

The Internet has accelerated the speed with which a community grows, propers, and then declines. The timeline of the Internet is punctuated by technologies and business ideas that were "hot" for a moment. When is the last time you used IRC or read a newsgroup? Remember CompuServe? Prodigy? And Netscape was nearly synonymous with the World Wide Web.

Autism communities are difficult enough to maintain in real life. Online, they exhibit even less civility than physical gatherings. I am not surprised that some autism-related communities cannot manage to survive online.

Many of us live in physical regions or communities for decades, even lifetimes. I've read that most people end up living and dying within 500 miles of their birthplaces. Humans demonstrate a bond to physical communities we simply haven't developed, and might never develop, with online settings. I read a study in "Population and Environment" finding only 92,000 U.S. citizens migrated in or out of California in the 1980s (international numbers were much higher). Thirty million Californians remained in the state.

We enter and exit online communities impulsively. We form few lasting online bonds. For the most part, we use online spaces for a purpose. Once the purpose is met, we exit. How many truly close, lasting friendships are formed online? They come and go, like most school year friendships.

Are there virtual autism communities that have survived more than a few years? I doubt it. Maybe online isn't designed for lasting communities. Virtual spaces can help maintain connections with real-life foundations, which demonstrates that we still need physical, face-to-face communities.

I wonder if Web pages will matter in a decade. I now read more news and information via non-browser technologies. My iPod Touch is my primary Internet device. Specialized applications present the information. The Web? I navigate it indirectly.

So, The Autistic Place is simply another example of how short-lived online spaces are. For all the hype about virtual worlds, it turns out they are fragile places.


  1. ANI-L is still going, I have been there for over ten years now. I am still in regular contact with many people I first encountered online that long ago, some of whom I have since met off line, those are very definite lasting bonds, indeed Autscape is an example of real space that had it's genesis on line and is still managed on line.

    As for the web, my site has been there since 1997 and it's not going anywhere yet. You can still reach it via a Geocities address which is saying something given that a whole web culture subsided like Atlantis when Yahoo pulled the plug for all but paying customers.

    If facebook and all those blogging sites were to go tommorrow (and they might) I would just return to updating my web site now and then.

    That being said, many sites around when I started up are not there any longer and many people who seemed prominent and visible back then have simply vanished from the scene.

    Whatever, the internet has served me very well and enabled me to make those first connections that have led to my offline involvement in the NAS and academia.

  2. I'm sorry you have to close it up for all that work you put into it.

    You seem to have a pretty good following here, as you said.

    I think you made a good decision, frustrating as it is.

  3. I believe the communities that manage "real" gatherings last longer. I found teaching hybrid courses with some physical meetings was more cohesive for the same reason -- people emotionally connected a bit better.

    I tried various autism mailing lists. I still belong to a few that allow me to read via the Web when I want without flooding my inbox. I can't focus when I get an e-mail message every few minutes. It starts to overwhelm my sense of obligation to respond.

    Honestly, I'm not as passionate as the people on most autism mailing lists and don't care to be that engaged. I'm not a loud, outspoken crusader and I dislike arguments. Never understood the humor on most autism lists or forums, either.

  4. This is why I just don't see the point in Facebook, either. I have always found it almost impossible to maintain long-distance friendships. It's hard enough to maintain friendships in the physical world.


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