Dead Forums, extinct communities and a loss of shared niche cultures
I saw an interesting post on Hacker News the other day about the GPD Micro PC, a miniature laptop with a 7-inch screen. It’s about half the size of a regular laptop; in fact, if you saw one on a table with the lid closed, you might think it was a wax miniature figure, or one of those things that look like a real device, but upon prodding with a knife is then discovered to be a very realistically textured birthday cake.
This post isn’t about the GPD Micro. I’ve done the research, and 3 hours of battery life and suspect after-sales customer service do not make it worth the $1200 or so needed to buy one. It was during the process of researching the product line however that led me to the topic of this post. Way back in 2009, I actually had one of these micro-laptops, and for a whole lot less than what they cost now. I paid $250 for a refurbished Dell Mini 9, which then retailed for $350.
As the specs weren’t very good, I went hunting online for information on how to optimize things like battery life and operating speed. That led to a web forum called “My Dell Mini 9”.
Back then, hobbyist forums of this kind were common, but the 2010s completely changed the landscape of online communication, and many forums fell by the wayside as users preferred moving to social media groups and chat apps like Discord and Telegram. Back in 2009, the Dell Mini 9 forum would be a mainstay of my daily Internet rounds. But I sold the Mini sometime in 2011 and eventually stopped visiting.
Aeons later, I typed the name into Google and was shocked to see that it was still around. I’d searched for it specifically because I needed a break from the energy-sapping digital landscape of irritating Youtube thumbnails, formless engagement-bait tweets and swipeable short videos in a UI-less screen. I tried logging in with the same username and p/w I had set up for all the million little forums I used to visit. It worked! At the corner of the screen, it told me when I had last logged in: Jan 2011.
There is no responsive design to speak of; it looks exactly the same on mobile as it does on desktop — the telltale sign of a website that’s not quite extinct, but certainly in the critically endangered end of the spectrum.
I couldn’t help but feel a tiny bit sad as I looked through the ruins of the site. Once, there was a real community of people that visited every day, sharing maybe a new BIOS tweak to squeeze out more battery life, or posting pictures of their setups, be they overly simple or ridiculously ornate. There was even a 10-page long thread begging a designer named ‘decalgirl’ to create adhesive skins for the Mini as she had done for other netbooks like the Asus EEE. This was a niche product with limited marketing and support, so to get queries addressed, you went to the community first rather than the vendor.
Each picture in those setup threads told its own story about the person that posted it. Sometimes the use cases were pedestrian, but plenty used the device to express a bit of their personality, from band stickers, ornate laptop sleeves or even the flavor of Linux installed. Each post invited conversation, and discussions were friendly, as the community was anchored by its shared interest in miniature mobile computing. There weren’t any ‘influencers’ and as a result conversations never had that artificiality that’s all so common on modern social media.
Describing the site’s present status as “in ruins” isn’t meant as a jibe. A solid chunk of the images in the setup threads don’t load correctly or at all. They were all ImageShack embeds, so when that site died, so did all the images that the Dell message board linked to; so even though the skeleton of the site lives, and text posts still work, a good chunk of its visual history is gone forever.
The site’s SSL certificate has also long since lapsed, so it’s only a matter of time until the whole site disappears from the searchable web, due to search engines downranking non-HTTPS sites. They do so because HTTP-only sites are insecure and can be easily compromised, so stronger measures must be taken to incentivize HTTPS adoption. But the humble webmaster of the Dell Mini forum is unlikely to ever do that as the site is no longer a going concern. A quick WHOIS lookup tells me that this 14-year old site might be gone forever when its domain certification expires in September 2022.
This isn’t a eulogy for the My Dell Mini forum; as 2000s forums go, I was definitely more active on others:
- XDA Forums – Phone software modification – deserves its own post
- AbsolutePunk.net and Netphoria.org – talked about Placebo constantly here
- SputnikMusic: not a forum exactly, but my review of Suicide’s first album sparked a 50-comment thread of praise and surprise from first-time listeners
- DrownedInSound forums – great discussion
- 9:30 Club forums – discussion forum for the alternative concert venue in Washington DC
So perhaps it’s a eulogy for a certain type of website, and a grudging acknowledgement of the very real possibility that that type of small-scale hobbyist community won’t come back, at least not in this neat, self-sufficient format, uncontacted by the other internet civilizations.
Look at that WHOIS snippet again. Whoever created the site had to purchase a domain and hosting through a provider and set up the messageboard and software on the web server. That requires a whole bunch of technical proficiency and comfort working with “techie” software. Today, that person could have gotten a message board off the ground by:
- creating a Facebook group
- Creating a subreddit on Reddit
- Creating a Discord channel aka the worst of all worlds, with its completely unstructured asynchronous ‘conversations’, awful search, slow Electron-based app
But I believe that it’s the effort required to create something that ensures that the creator works on making it a high quality sort of internet watercooler.
There is a shared culture on the message boards of yore that disappeared with FB, Reddit and especially Discord. The reason is simple. Message boards let you ‘lurk’, aka view threads without commenting on them. If you lurked enough, eventually you’d sign up for a user account so you could start conversations on topics yourself (called “creating a new “thread””) or respond to threads started by others.
Creating a user account added friction to the experience. You had to create a username and password, and had to click a verification link in your email to join. You really wanted to participate if you’re willing to go through all that. So automatically, you accept the culture of the community you’re joining.
My login isn’t a sort of all-access internet Schengen visa. It can only get me into the Mini 9 forum and nowhere else. My identity there is anonymous, and can’t follow me into the next community I join. As such, there is almost no risk of “brigading”, which means moderation is done by a human, and not automated, which causes so much useless discussion about censorship and cancel culture in larger forums.
There is no real solution, except to commit to being an active participant in the remaining few forums that DO still exist, and have proven to be worthwhile. For right now, there are two I have in mind:
- Tumult Hype forums: a place where people are still making web animations and interactive web experiences. A place where the creative legacy of Flash lives on. I don’t want to oversell it. But let me tell you, it is nigh on impossible to find a community related to digital animation that isn’t based on After Effects (video, not web), or webtoons, which isn’t something I’m interested in.
- Logseq Forums: a revolutionary tool, still open-souirce for the time being. Local-first note-taking software with a graph view and a ton of customizability
While the Dell Mini site lives to fight on for another year, at some point its owner will pull the plug. I’m glad I’m able to write this little ode before that day comes. Thanks for the good times, mydellmini.com. You are missed.