This past month, my family asked me to design a website to showcase my late grandfather’s paintings. Grandpa passed away in ’93, the same year that I was born. We visited him when I was a baby and he held me. There’s a picture of it somewhere… but I never had the chance to really know him. When I was first asked to put his website together, I felt compelled to work on it primarily because I had the most technical experience of anyone in my family in web design. But not long after beginning the project, unexpectedly, it became a personally emotional journey. While working on the site, I enjoyed looking at Grandpa’s art and choosing each spot for his paintings on the site’s gallery. He was quite the painter in his time. Once featured in TIME Magazine in 1950, Grandpa won several prestigious artistic awards, with pieces showcased in New York, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Washington D.C. As I designed his site, I found the time I had with each of his paintings to be a visually moving experience. When viewing his artwork, I could look at it and exist in a moment just as I did laying in his lap 27 years ago as a baby, not really knowing him, but seeing him, if only for a brief moment.
Often times when people create forums, we begin with a basic technical reason why. Forums offer places for our users to hangout, discuss the platform, etc. ‘The users are the center of everything we do’. At times, though, the forums we create become quite a bit more than we initially anticipated. When users are viewed as people, people become friends, and in that space, a community develops and thrives.
My name is Nick Weiner and I grew up using forums such as Neopets, Gaia Online, and various phpBB-based communities. Like many of you, forums were my connection to many friends I would never have the opportunity to meet in person. Speaking at a conference in 2008, former Gaia Online CEO, Craig Sherman, said “Anonymous forums allow an extra level of getting to separate yourself from your core who you are and allow a little less consequences, and therefore, you can connect with like-minded souls in a way that’s harder to in the real world”. Sherman explained it as a similar experience to meeting someone on an airplane, opening up with them about everything in your life, and doing so because you knew then that you would likely never see them again (SGS,2008). In that core separation when our identity is separated from real consequences there are new opportunities to act on all sorts of impulses. Anonymity gives every person who uses forums some power over their identity.
Despite never knowing my grandpa, he left behind 63 paintings, each of which conveyed a full range of emotions, passion, understanding, thoughts, and feelings. I found him as a faceless master who chose to share his identity in a profoundly beautiful way. Through his artwork, I was able to deeply connect with him 27 years after he passed away. I believe that, despite the way we have previously thought about our forums, it is time that we take a moment to reflect on what each person who uses our forums is trying to convey while using our sites as a master of their own identities. John F. Kennedy once said “So, let us not be blind to our differences — but let us also direct attention to our common interests. Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s future. And we are all mortal”. It changes everything knowing that because of our anonymity, we can actively celebrate identity and understand the behaviors of those within our communities. Forums allow us to be artists and masters of our own identities. Knowing that, no matter where we are presently, each of us now have the opportunity to create stories that will reveal to our grandchildren what we were all about.