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.