When I first started learning bass, I did what any young geek does during a new challenge: I went online.
My roommate was a bassist, and a pretty good one. Unfortunately, my roommate was also insane and didn't play well with others. I bought a used amp from him, but he wasn't much help for developing my skills. I also picked up a copy of Peter Murray's Essential Bass Technique, which had lots of pictures of how to use my hands--fingerstyle bass can be very technical, and I honestly considered myself too uncoordinated to learn. Beyond questions of physical movement, though, I had a lot of questions about what the bass does in a rock band, what situations I might want to prepare for, and how to properly set up the equipment.
I don't know how I found the Lowdown. I probably just googled a random topic, and one of its threads came up. I wasn't reading Bass Player yet, so I doubt that I realized that the Lowdown and the magazine were linked. But there was a lot of information available, and a lot of really experienced players. I practically read the whole archive, and I lurked on the main page for weeks before I made my first post.
I've been a member of the forum since late 2003--about three and a half years now, I guess. It doesn't seem that long. I don't post very often, and when I do it tends to be gear-related, since I don't usually have much to contribute to the theory or technique threads. But what has amazed me are the ways that I feel like I know those people, even though I've never met them in person. I've gotten help with buying wine (kind of hard when you don't drink it), learned to ask "What would Lemmy do?", and given someone money to buy a Swatch.
A few months ago, one of the oldest board members--a moderator, actually--died of a heart attack. It was very sudden. His name was Dave Brown, and he was a music teacher in Texas. Dave had been one of the calm, helpful members of the forum, and someone who could contribute to discussions of musical theory, which were always valuable even if the rest of us didn't understand all of it. Dave's passing became the forum's first sticky thread, and all the regulars (as well as a number of lurkers) gathered there to dig up our favorite quotes or threads. Bass Player took note, and an obit appeared in the February issue. Dave's family even got in touch with a few people, and posted audio from the funeral online for us to hear.
That an interpersonal connection could be created without face-to-face interaction (for the most part) is not completely new. But the speed of communicating over the Internet makes it easier. The structure of forums themselves--grouping conversations by searchable topics, while still retaining a chronologically fluid linearity instead of the heirarchy of threads that's more common in places like Livejournal--means that discussants can interrupt each other, wander off topic, and all the other noise-to-signal that nevertheless is a part of most human interaction. Over time, a forum develops its own personality, and people who join it have to learn its quirks and customs. I don't like to think of these as a "space," because I think that gives forums credit for more physicality than they deserve. It's more like an echo.
There's an article in Wired this month about MTV's virtual space, built to promote trashy reality show Laguna Beach. MTV's online environment, like Second Life and other massively-multiplayer online games, seems like it's meant to be the next step up from the text forum. Because I think part of my schtick is to be a luddite, I'm honestly a little skeptical. My main criticism is that they're not archived--newcomers can't search through the environment's past for bits of wisdom. Instead, most of what people tend to learn in avatar-based spaces has to do with the space itself--and they may resort to more traditional forums when it comes time to document those lessons.
By Internet time, text forums are old. They date back to BBS systems. I guess I'm just impressed that something so relatively simple can be such a powerful experience, one that seems hard to improve. I don't think adding polygons is the next step, but I'm stumped as to what it could be.