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Personal View of Lost Internet Communities and Platforms

Saturday evening I noticed The Guardian‘s call for submissions about lost on-line platforms and communities and I ended up writing two lengthy pieces, first just thinking of communities and ways to talk to people, then realizing that the form actually mentions platforms and that may mean more than communities, so I launched into an even longer piece about GOG.com. Actually submitted both, but they’re obviously not anything that could be published, so I’ll just make a handful of edits and post them here as well.

Really couldn’t pick one, so I’ll have a list, and while I’m not sure if it counts in the sense of this, I’ll start with Yahoo! Messenger, which was my primary means of communication for several years. It was between it and mIRC when I first got on-line, in 1998, or maybe I only “discovered” it in 1999, but either way it quickly became and remained my preferred means of communication when it was a matter of regular chats and not something requiring a longer e-mail until they messed it up, with version 11. Not that I didn’t just keep the old version, and the local logs, even after that, but by then there was hardly anyone left to talk to on it and I was forced off it well before it vanished as separate software, and then for good.

Moving on to Romanian forums, must of course start with Computer Games, in my early years on-line, from its humble beginnings, when it was called Games RoMania, to the massive forum it became within a couple of years. I initially created their IRC channel, but while I posted a few more messages in the years since then, when I needed to ask something, I think it was in early 2001 when I left both the channel and the forum, mainly because of having posted the whole thing about Rose there, one of the guys I had been talking to realizing that he was friends with one of my classmates and had told him the whole thing, me no longer going to school and just being a complete mess and no longer able to deal with the whole thing. And last year it shut down for good, the owner claiming being unable to comply with GDPR as the excuse but admitting that it hadn’t made ends meet for a long time, if ever, and there was no more drive to keep it running. That even made the news here, and it was a rather sad moment for old times’ sake, though the messages I saw stated that the community that existed back then had crumbled long ago.
Then there was Cafeneaua SexAZ, the sex education one that Andra introduced me to, in 2002. I guess she also likely had much to do with the fact that I was made moderator after she also was, before she left it and, with other moderators also becoming inactive and the administrators not really caring, it fell on me and maybe one other guy to rather keep it running, until I left it after she left me, in 2005. I guess it remained rather on life support for many more years, and at one point I had another look and tried to clean things up a little, but gave up quickly, albeit not before starting to talk to one of the newer active users and also ending up on the Facebook group created for it, that group also being how I found out that it eventually suddenly vanished, apparently with no warning. Left the group as well after that, and it was almost completely inactive anyway.
And I must of course mention Andrei Gheorghe’s forum and the sort of people it attracted and the “gloves off” discussions that were there. Found out last year, when he died, that quite a number of the protesters, activists or new politicians I got to know had been there as well at some point, and the person who launched a site where some of the forum members moved posted the second comment I ever received on my blog, after somehow finding it where it used to be at the time. But that forum ended up overwhelming me when I was apparently about to be made moderator, it was way too active, and I just left it… And then got contacted by Ralu Filip, who at the time was the president of the National Audiovisual Council, who said he had selected me to discuss things about the regulations based on what I had posted there. That really shocked and scared me once I realized it really was him and I struggled to quickly move the discussion to the forum and leave it again. My active period there was between late 2002 and maybe 2004, though I’m not quite sure of this last part anymore.
And I can’t end this without also mentioning the very basic forum of FHM Romania. Not even the magazine exists anymore, and I have no other memories about their forum other than the “little” fact that it’s where I met Andra, in 2002… Which makes it the most important of all in terms of actual impact on my life.

To move on to sites, one that’s still around but no longer anything like it used to be is OkCupid. I started using it in 2004 and I’m referring to how it was until I first stopped using it in late 2005, after it became clear that Andra wasn’t even going to come back according to the original plan. How many of the users were geeky or otherwise weird in a good way, how many didn’t care at all about that “dating” part and were just interested in how the system worked, tests and maybe finding some friends all over the world, and all the tests and the connections it allowed. Would most preferably add being able to submit your own questions and see others’ answers, but by the time those features were added much of the rest was largely gone, and since then it has all gone away, now being a forced dating site, if I may use the term, the tests having been removed completely and as of more recently even sending messages becoming basically pointless. I did get back there in 2007, and it was how I ended up talking to Andra again for a while, and still poked around for many more years, but it was more and more pointless and I eventually pretty much just stopped, until I had another look after being notified that somebody had sent me a message. Since then, poking around again, perhaps in fact somewhat more lately, but there’s no point in it.
May also make a little note about KoTango, supposedly a polyamorous dating site that lived a short life, in 2014 and the first part of 2015, before an update supposedly messed something up and the developer gave up trying to fix it, though that may just be an excuse. It had very little activity and had really been originally created by Christopher Ryan mainly to help promote himself and his book, Sex at Dawn, in the Bay Area, but it did have some interesting features and options in the profiles.
And I will make another note for Patook, which has the good idea of being strictly for friendships, interesting profile options and a nice points system that you can customize quite a lot. The thing is that Patook still exists and didn’t destroy itself in time, but it’s lost to me since the algorithms that are used have silenced me completely long ago, due to the number of people who blocked me. Used it for about a year before being silenced, which I believe happened in October of 2017, and would like to be able to get back there, but I can’t, and even making a new profile would most likely have the same result soon enough.

But all of the above refers to communities or, to also include Yahoo! Messenger, platforms used to talk to people. Yet platforms may well mean more than that, right? In which case, what follows is about a loss I feel quite deeply now, that of the old GOG.com, back when it still stood for something. GOG.com, of course, still exists, but it’s not what it used to be, but a story of a platform trying to change the market for the better and letting itself be changed by it for the very worse, and in the process spreading the idea that nobody can fight against these rotten practices, making it impossible even for anyone else to try to pick up the banner they dropped, even though there’s no actual evidence of that, since they didn’t actually try to stick strictly to their values and that fight, without taking on other endeavors or having additional goals, and go bankrupt as a result.

Though I only actually made an account in 2011, started following GOG.com, at the time known as Good Old Games, at least since 2009, if not since around the time they first launched, in 2008. It seemed like the only ray of hope in this rotten industry of digital content distribution, or specifically digital game stores, the only sign that something may be worth supporting, and paying for, when it came to it. They actually seemed to want to take their values and experience as a boxed games publisher in Poland to the international digital market, trying to persuade “pirates” that it’s actually worth it to legally purchase games by offering a better experience than that of “pirated” copies, adding additional “goodies” to the games, carefully testing them and even patching them themselves to ensure that they worked properly and on newer systems, and fighting for the gamers against the bad practices of the industry, only selling DRM-free games, at the same price worldwide, and not restricting access to any game for any region, plus offering excellent support, going above and beyond the call of duty.
Though they lost that battle and it was a sign of things to come, they proved to be fighting in 2011, when CD Projekt had signed retail distribution deals for The Witcher 2 that required regional pricing to be applied on-line as well but GOG.com refused to implement Geo-IP, instead letting users just choose their country and actually saying, in a way that pretty much nudged users to do exactly that, that they know that those who end up paying more due to the pricing model will not change the setting just to purchase the game for less. They went to court over that and eventually lost, needing to enforce regional pricing for that one game for a while, before being able to switch it back to flat pricing, but at least it didn’t seem to be of their own doing or volition.
While this was going on, they also attracted a very unusual community of gamers, in a very positive way. The GOG forums were notable for the nice and helpful users and all the generous giveaways that baffled many, plenty of users simply giving away games to others, merely to spread the joy. However, as things changed, the target audience switched from a niche to the same general public that the other major digital game stores fight over and the overall behavior from that of a values-driven organization to that of a profit-driven business, the community took a massive blow as well, many of the “old guard” severely reduced their involvement or even left completely, some even creating a separate forum to gather on. That was due to them giving up on the values which had attracted those original users, some of whom being very involved in actively helping them in various ways, but also to the sort of users brought by their growth and new target audience, their initial “hands off” approach no longer being suitable and their more recent attempts to moderate also backfiring, being too harsh in some ways and still way too “hands off” in others. There is still some community, likely still less bad than in other places, you still have helpful users, and giveaways too, but it’s nothing like it was.
But this is less about the community and more about GOG.com itself. After no longer calling themselves Good Old Games and also accepting new games, in 2012, they even filmed a few commercials, albeit poorly-acted ones, stating that they will preserve their values even for the new games and openly lashing out against regional pricing. In the summer of 2013, in a presentation, they also reiterated their commitment to their values, even at the cost of giving up on games and publishers and profits. Yet that all changed on 21 February, 2014, when they announced that they will bring some new and great games that are very desired by the community, mentioning rather in passing that they will need to accept regional pricing for them and passing it all off as “good news”. As a result of the immense backlash, including calls for a boycott which I may say I led, a few weeks later they partially went back on that, stating that while for the three games already signed in this way regional pricing will still apply, they will give back as store credit the amount paid above the base, US, price by those paying more, and giving assurances that going forward they will continue to push for flat pricing and carefully select games for which they will accept regional pricing, restricting it to excellent games that are highly desired and which really can’t be obtained in any other way and accepting that obtaining some games later or even not at all is a fair price to pay to hold on to their values.
Things stayed that way until August that year, when the floodgates started opening, some games already in the catalog switching to regional pricing, though at first it was newer releases and they still claimed that the older games remained flat-priced, even removing some older games from the catalog due to the publisher demanding regional pricing for them. But that also changed in time, and now only about 1% of the catalog still is flat-priced, and while many of the rest only have discounts in some regions, by now the majority of the titles sold by GOG.com have a pricing model where some pay more than the base, US, price. And, after so far continuing to offer that difference back as store credit for those paying more, just last month they announced ending this policy as well as of March 31. Don’t personally see that as making much of a difference in itself, that second clear, specific pillar of theirs having been knocked down five years ago, but it does mark turning even its final recognizable remnants to dust and scattering it in the wind.
However, while that’s perhaps the most obvious part of what was lost, since they used to be so committed to it, the fact is that the overall mindset switched clearly and openly to competing with the other major players on the same turf and growth and profit above all else. And of course that over the years regional restrictions started applying to some games as well, they also launched their own client, Galaxy, to compete with Steam’s, even though at the moment it remains optional, and more and more games not only lack additional “goodies” or even, if needed, patches beyond those offered by the developers, but hundreds even lack updates, content or features available elsewhere.
And there’s also the site redesign launched for their ten-year anniversary, in October, which broke compatibility with all but the most “modern” browsers, introduced infuriating autoplaying videos everywhere, made it so you had to hover over a tile, and have the video autoplay, to even be able to see the game’s title, relegated the news to the bottom and made it so only the most recent few can be accessed anymore, and the release announcements became rush jobs of usually no more than a couple of sentences. After a while they brought back the list view to the catalog, letting one see the titles again and avoid autoplaying videos, but that’s about it. All of this coming from a place that seemed to be by, and definitely for, people who held on to values and definitely rejected current trends and practices… But apparently all of that was thrown away once that original crowd, thanks to whom they got to the level required to be able to do more, was no longer necessary for the business interests of those making the decisions.

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