An Unusual Group
Author: Lyssandra Darai
There's an online group that I've been a member of for two and a half years. It's TarValon.net (the White Tower), and it's based on the Wheel of Time (WoT) book series by Robert Jordan. There are many other WoT communities, but no others like this one.
Online communities aren't like real life ones. The only communication between members is through text and emoticons. (Emoticons are little pictures that smile, wink, or any one of a number of things. They're used to express emotion, since text can be so misleading.) But it's still nothing like the level of communication you get in person with someone. Another complication is that people generally use a name and a picture that aren't their own, so you can't really know who someone is. Because of that, communication is almost always shallow. Most message boards are open to anyone who find them; there is no control over information, and no structure to it.
But the Tower isn't quite like that. We have an open message board, but the norm is that no one should post something that attacks or hurts another member. This is pretty strictly enforced, both by regular members and by the administration. Some people have even had their membership revoked and their accounts banned from the board. Interestingly, no one is banned without general agreement from the entire administration; the leader (Amyrlin) of the Tower can't simply kick someone out on her own. Very few online communities have much in the way of due process. There are some institutionalized deviants, but those are people who constantly make jokes and irritate people, rather than ones who are deliberately hurtful.
The result of this is that we can have much deeper conversations than most communities. One of our main values is that everyone has a right to an opinion, and no one can call someone down or reject them for it, no matter how strange the rest of us find it. We are the only community I know of who has a successful Current Events board. In the last six months, we have discussed everything from gay marriage, women's rights, and religion to local news articles, does money = happiness, and a recent spam e-mail case that resulted in jail time for the offenders. About the only rule in starting a new thread is that you should check the forum first, to see if there already is one on that topic.
We also have an interesting rank structure. The group started three and a half years ago, and at the time there was only an Amyrlin and a few heads of some groups. But it has kept changing the whole time, and getting more complicated; right now, there is the Amyrlin, four departments, and numerous staff in each department. But the Tower has grown from thirty people to over four hundred, and all those positions are needed to run it.
There are three basic ranks; Novice/Recruit, Accepted/Soldier, and Aes Sedai/Gaidin (female/male). Anyone can go up their side of the Tower. It doesn't depend on age (except that the person must show the maturity of an 18-year old), race, or religion. It does depend on gender, but that is because the books were split that way. Actually, all those in power in the books were female. We invented the male side, and made it equal to the female one, so we would have some fairness in that area.
Overall, I think it's a very healthy community. There is some major DRAMA that happens now and then, but compared to the size of the Tower, it's probably less than real life groups.