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Digital Niche Communities

Prof. Oke’s comment a couple posts back and the coming end of the year reminded me of something I’d much rather forget — college applications. Early college decisions are coming back this Friday, and as a college freshman, the anxiety and the nerves of last year are still fresh on my mind. The stress of college applications naturally spilled over into my online life, so fall of my senior year, I began frequenting the forums at College Confidential.

College Confidential
bills its forums as the “Most popular on the Web!” The community is largely devoted to undergraduate college admissions, and its boards are populated with threads about college essays, interview tips, and choosing the right college college. There are a sizable number of parents and administrators on the site, but the large majority of posters are anxious teens.

As I have blogged about before, it makes sense that DNs will go to an online community for support and advice in times as stressful as college application season. Although I learned a great deal from those forums, I always came away vaguely uneasy. Whatever I gained was undoubtedly balanced out by the added stress from being in such a distorted environment. The site, unsurprisingly, caters mostly to students aiming for elite colleges. College Confidential is the kind of place that scoffs at 2400s and 4.0s. This isn’t be very healthy, is it?

The Internet can connect you with virtually anyone anywhere in the world, but we invariably choose to connect with individuals with whom we have common interests and goals. This creates self-perpetuating niche communities that may be skewed away from the mainstream. There, one can find acceptance for many different sets of values. High-pressure college admissions is a relatively innocuous example, but what if that niche community was, oh say, a pro-anorexia site?

The possible danger here is that DNs are at ages when their values are still being shaped, and the Internet can foster behavior that is healthy neither physically nor mentally. The Internet certainly did once have a reputation for being the hangout of loners and freaks. While I no longer hold this to be true, what is true is that there are communities that encourage maladjusted behavior. The proliferation of pro-anorexia sites is a particularly disturbing example, where members get tips for suppressing hunger and purging. A typical post might go something like this:

“Today was good. Only 200 calories + 5 hours at work where i’m on my feet all day. I feel a little dizzy, but the happy and proud feeling is 100x better. Although, i’m dreading tomorrow. I have to go to a restaurant with my friends for lunch.”

[Disclaimer] I hope this doesn’t come off as paranoid, as I do believe the vast majority of online discussion (not including spam of course) is productive and healthy.