As a junior in high school, I spent 10 months living in France with a host family and attending a local lycée. I documented my experiences on a blog called Dix Mois. Thanks to the magic of the Internet and long-lasting Blogspot hosting, it's still up!
Foreign exchange blogs were a big deal while I was dreaming about foreign exchange, living it, and eventually, reminiscing on my time in France. I was an avid reader of so many different ones in those days.
I learned about some of these blogs from the big foreign exchange companies' social media feeds, or from browsing my favorite social network at the time: Cultures-Shocked, a now-defunct forum for past, present, and future exchange students and their host families.
You can find a version of what the main page of Cultures-Shocked once looked like on the Wayback Machine. There were several different boards split by one's stage in the exchange student lifecycle: applicants, outbounds (people preparing to leave for exchange), inbounds (people currently on a foreign exchange trip), and rebounds (people who had completed a foreign exchange trip). There were dedicated boards for people who were on university study abroad, people who were now "adulting" after experiencing foreign exchange as a younger person, and host families.
The forum was among my first forays into active participation in an online community made up of people I didn't know. Earlier trips into cyber community were oriented around play, namely Runescape and Neopets, where I could role-play, code my own fan site, and browse a treasure trove of other user-generated content about the game.
The moderation on each of these platforms (well, not Runescape) must have been good because most of the time, it was invisible. I knew there were moderators, but rarely witnessed an event that required their intervention.
On Cultures-Shocked, the community of frequent posters seemed to be pretty closely knit, even though most of us probably never met one another. We'd read each others' blogs, though, and post frequent updates in long-running posts dedicated to sharing causes for celebration and complaint. We also were quick to help answer questions from newer folks, maybe about what to expect in our host country or with our exchange coordination companies. We were each others' confidantes. Inbounds could seek advice on problems they didn't yet have the language skills to discuss with their host family, and which seemingly would just make their real family worry. We found camaraderie in the shared struggles and joys of our experiences.
Later, in college, I developed crippling stress-induced chronic back pain. By this time, the dedicated single-interest forums like Cultures-Shocked had faded and were replaced by Reddit, Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook groups. I discovered a refuge in the form of /r/chronicpain. Here too, I found a community that felt close-knit even during the time I was just a lurker. People came to the subreddit with their deepest fears about their health, their biggest frustrations about doctors and their loved ones, and the accumulated wisdom of years and years of living with pain. Though I hadn't been struggling with chronic pain for long at the time, I felt such a sense of relief: finally, I had found my people.
Besides Reddit, today many people find support groups on Facebook. As The Atlantic reports, some have tens of thousands of members; others for very rare diseases have only 60.
After college, I was briefly involved in moderating a large Facebook group focused on progressive activism in Lincoln, Nebraska. It turned out that no one in our group's leadership, myself included, really wanted to take the time to be a careful, round-the-clock moderator of the space we had created on Facebook. Instead of finding people interested in moderating and working together to create a clear list of rules about what could and could not be posted, the leaders decided to simply shut the group down.
Most recently, I've been involved as an active member of the Crisis Text Line community of volunteers, first as a volunteer myself then as Crisis Text Line staff. The community is distributed across the country (with a few members even checking in from other parts of the world) and nearly fully online. We know each other primarily through the chat room on the platform that connects volunteers to the people who text in for support in a crisis, though occasionally there are meet-ups in real life for volunteers in the same region. Crisis Text Line has also set up its own private social network using Mighty Networks, where volunteers and staff can swap tips for volunteering, articles about mental health, and other stuff they're interested in under the broad label of self-care. On the Crisis Text Line Mighty Network, you might find someone asking for tips on squeezing in volunteering around a busy work schedule, sharing rainbow pictures with inspiring captions overlaid, or posting their favorite book to a thread asking for recommendations. Moderation on this network is a little more visible than on other online communities I've been a part of, perhaps simply because as a staff member, I have a vested interest in elevating to the moderation team any content I see that breaks the rules.
I've also used social media as a political organizing tool, for distributing calls to action to progressive activists and coordinating with other organizers to strategize and recruit more participants to fight for a neighborhood project at the city level. In these cases, the most successful appeals came from one person making direct contact with one other person. Success typically meant getting someone to take some action in real life because of what they saw when they engaged with the online community.
Overall, I've been part of a wide range of online communities. Some were all digital, while others were merely digital components of a community that was primarily in meatspace. What unites all these communities is that people came together for a reason: a shared interest or experience, or a common goal. When these communities worked, it wasn't just an accident: there were real humans thinking about how to elicit the best behavior from members, and how to respond to transgressions. Don't listen when the big tech companies tell you moderation of online spaces can't be done; I've seen it myself.