As this article is inspired by my being a member of the Foster writing community (Foster.co), I thought it would be interesting to look back at my journey through some online communities over the years and why they mean so much to me.
Foster is just the most recent community for me in a long string of communities that go back to when I joined The Motley Fool UK in 2000. I was invited to join Foster by my friend Beccy, whom I met in another community: Ali Abdaal’s Part-time YouTuber Academy (affiliate link to join the next cohort).
The Motley Fool
On 30 December 1999 I flew to Almaty, Kazakhstan to start my new job as a Russian translator for Ernst & Young. I worked in the tax department and worked on an old Windows PC and an even older version of Microsoft Word, translating local tax legislation and client correspondence. Unlike the tax consultants and auditors, I wasn’t billing my time, so nobody was really monitoring my performance to any great extent. I mean, I wasn’t a total slacker; on a good day with a deadline I could bash out four thousand words! But there were, shall we say, many breaks throughout the day, and I became adept with the old Alt+Tab key combo to switch apps (they were called ‘programs’ then).
It was the first time I’d had any disposable income since I was a teenaged apprentice in the British Army. I’d been with the woman I later married for just over a year but had left her behind to start my new job. We kept the long-distance relationship going for nearly two years, but that’s another story for another time! I’d also just had a settlement from the Ministry of Defence as compensation for the accident I suffered in 1989. Yes, it really did take 10 years of legal wrangling for them to admit liability. But I digress.
So, there I was with a healthy-looking bank balance and no idea about what to do with it. That’s what brought me to The Motley Fool. I don’t remember how I found it, although now that I’m writing this, I have a sneaky feeling that it might have been through one of my work colleagues.
I signed up for an online course that they were offering on how to learn about investing in the stock market. As part of the course we had access to their online forum, including a couple of locked-down boards just for course members. And that was how I was introduced to online forums. They had boards for just about any kind of investment topic you can think of and many more off-topic ones besides, including the amusingly-titled LOOTP, or Land of Off-topic Posts!
I spent a lot of time posting my research with fellow classmates, before graduating to the big boards and really becoming part of a community. Being overseas meant that I was somewhat lacking in a community and I also had a lot of free time. I mean I should really have been maximising my language learning opportunities, but again, I digress.
I spent a lot of time on the British Telecom board. It was one of the first shares that I bought and was my case study during the course. I learned how to read company reports and study fundamentals and all that jazz, and would then post my findings on the BT board. Then I’d sit back and wait for the ‘Recs’ - or ‘likes’ in the parlance of our times. Sometimes I’d even get replies from users with TMF suffixes on their usernames - Staff!
I also spent a lot of time on the ‘Help with this Blasted Computer’ board, being, as I was, interested in computers and software, particularly when I moved to Luxembourg in 2001 and got into modding my own rig and self building and all that fun stuff. That was also when I got into cycling, so I spent a lot of time on the cycling board, too. And there was the Comfort Cafe, where I’d go in and talk about alcoholism and depression. That was a really nurturing group to be a member of. And the book club board - that was excellent. Reading a book a month and posting reviews introduced me to many authors I still read today and got me writing a bit more creatively.
My favourite board had to be the Music one, where I got involved with the Tape Trees. You’d sign up to a tree and be assigned a slot in the ‘spreadsheet of power’. Then you’d make a mixtape and post the track listing to the board as the start of your thread. You’d post your mixtape to the next person on the list, and receive one from the person before you. You’d keep it for a month, listen to it as much as you could and then post it forward. And that was when you’d write a review in the appropriate thread. I took part in TT4, TT5 and then ran TT7 myself. They then were upgraded into CD Circles - same deal, only with CDs. I can’t tell you how much music I discovered through this. In fact I’ve made many of my favourites into Spotify playlists and go back to them often. I also carried the idea forward into Suzanne Vega’s community, The Undertow, where they were called Towie Trees. That was a fun community too, and it enabled me to meet Suzanne a few times at gigs. You’d tell the sound engineer that you were a friend to the undertow and you’d be taken backstage to meet the lady herself.
Besides meeting Suzanne Vega, the only other online friend I met in real life was username edlscre - which I still see in my mind’s eye with a big red star after it, meaning that he’d made over a thousand posts. His name was Chris and I met him for coffee in Frankfurt in December 2001.
I’m sad to say that The Motley Fool deleted the boards a few years ago. I have saved a few posts as PDFs but it’s a real shame that I can’t go in and look back through my old posts. I’d probably save them into my DayOne journal now. Oh well.
Acoustic Guitar Magazine
When I moved to Luxembourg in 2001, I decided that I’d like to upgrade my guitar. I was still spending a lot of time on the Motley Fool, but there was no board on their site for guitar nerds to go deep into the intricacies of rosewood vs mahogany or Martin vs Taylor, two stalwart topics of guitar-related online communities! So I began looking for other places where I could learn more about guitars and soon stumbled upon the forum belonging to the US Acoustic Guitar magazine.
I learned a lot really quickly and it wasn’t long before I’d settled on a Lakewood guitar, bought from the wonderful GuitArt in Luxembourg city.
I became a regular in the ‘AG forum’ and, through that, was introduced to many other guitar communities, including the wonderful RMMGA newsgroup. Remember newsgroups?! Each community had its core of regulars, but there were many of us who were rather promiscuous and jumped about on all of them and we soon built up our own friendships and banter. I ended up being an admin for the Santa Cruz Guitar Company forum, the result of which was that I got to meet the head honcho of SCGC, Richard Hoover, to discuss specs for a guitar I was having built and got access to their special wood stash! The guitar turned out amazingly well by the way. You can read all about that here.
I even started up my own forum, Celtic Guitar Talk, which became quite popular and ended up being a really nice repository of sheet music of arrangements posted by forum users. It’s still there, but it’s been dormant for a while now. I let Tapatalk take it over after it had been dormant for a few years and they’ve not done anything with it. Surprisingly, it still gets a few signups a year. It was through that forum that I got to meet Cameron, a displaced Scot in Germany. We became friends with his family and stayed in touch after Cameron passed away.
From URL to IRL
One of the most prolific posters across all the forums was a user called Little Brother, a blues musician near Atlanta in Georgia. In 2003 he hosted his first annual jam at his home. I missed that one, but I went in 2004 and again for the next few years. It’s still to this day one of the most exciting and life-changing things I’ve ever done. The friendships that formed at that jam reach far and wide.
The RMMGA newsgroup I mentioned above was a bit of a different beast. The old newsgroups were read in your email client rather than in a browser and they had weird nomenclature - the abbreviation RMMGA stands for rec.music.makers.guitar.acoustic. Every year participants in different regions would host gatherings, including one in the UK. The first one I went to was in 2005 and it was fantastic. I’ve been going to that one on and off over the years and it has led to so many friendships, as well as the beginning of my YouTube channel in 2005 so I could share my camcorder footage of the open mics. (My first YouTube video) I shot video at the next year’s gathering as well, this time recording a separate audiofeed from the mixing desk into my iPod with Video via a 30-pin mic interface. Good times!
Of the guitar forums, the only one that I’m really involved with in any way now is the Acoustic Soundboard. It was forked from the UK magazine Acoustic’s forum after the publisher shut it down. It’s a small but perfectly formed community and I’ve been attending their annual gatherings in Yorkshire for the last few years. In 2021 it was pretty much the highlight of my year after not attending anything during the pandemic. It was such a treat to get to do that again and it’s something that I look forward to every year.
I’m sad that Acoustic Guitar took their forums down a few years ago, just as The Motley Fool UK did. I’d love to be able to go back and read my early posts that led to my first good guitar, or remind myself of how much time and energy I poured into researching British Telecom and other stocks.
I guess the forums were of their time, before social media was a thing and the algorithms took over. But I’m so grateful that I had them, for the richness they brought into my life, for the way that the Motley Fool in particular helped me with the loneliness of working overseas. My love of guitar has been enhanced immeasurably by the online communities I’ve been part of, and my annual highlights are usually the RMMGA and Acoustic Soundboard gatherings.
And now I get to hang out with YouTubers and writers in modern cohort-based courses and Web3 communities that are bringing into my life a lot of what the guitar forums and The Motley Fool gave me, except now we have video conferencing!
See you online!