If you’ve spent any amount of time on the internet recently, you may have noticed that it’s not a very nice place. Death threats and harassment have become a depressing norm on social media, especially in the sphere of the gaming industry. Just a few weeks ago, threats against the life of Hello Games’ Sean Murray made headlines after he announced a two-month delay for their sci-fi title No Man’s Sky. Kotaku’s Jason Schreier got the same treatment for merely reporting the delay.
Earlier in the year, Alison Rapp of Nintendo was fired after being the subject of a lengthy online harassment campaign. Even on Facebook groups or fan forums there are constant, countless instances of racism, sexism, and hate spewed daily, often over little more than disagreements about comics, films, or video games. From the outside looking in, the state of online fandom is a total shitshow, where the vocal minority rules the roost and the silent majority is all but nonexistent.
For the longest time, I thought that was all the Internet is. An echo chamber, devoid of warmth or sympathy. A few years ago, in the middle of a deep depression, I stumbled upon a site that let users make random confessions to other people in their area. Seeing a possibility for an absolution of sorts, I took a chance and anonymously posted two paragraphs detailing some recent mistakes I had made. I was looking for someone who had been through the same thing, someone who could maybe offer any sound advice— but what I received was an audience. People only looked at my post to dig at the wound I had exposed. Still, I held out hope that one of the growing number of comments might offer me what I was looking for. It never came. Thirty-something comments later, I had discovered how cruel the internet can really be.
After that, I stopped posting online. Aside from my work as an aspiring “games journalist”, I had little to share with the Internet. I may have joined a dozen or so Facebook groups for video games or comics, but rarely did I ever share anything on them. I would regularly peruse the posts on my wall, focusing mainly on the comments. All too often, my dim view of the internet would be validated—that it brings out the worst in people and altogether drives us apart, more than bringing us together. As time passed, I learnt to quit comment browsing altogether, finding that good rarely came from it.
Like most people who join fan groups and forums, I did so to show appreciation for something I enjoy—even if I never posted. As soon as I started to pay less attention to the negativity of comment sections, I found myself gravitating towards positivity and support—posts full of congratulations and prayers for total strangers. People from all walks of life would share stories of tragedy, celebration, hope, or loss—people really putting themselves out there, exposing the vulnerabilities for all to see.
People like Eric Reighard, a casual gamer who listens to podcasts on his drive to work, and plays Playstation in his free time.
In September of 2015, Eric and his wife Amanda were trying to adopt a newborn boy named Levi, who had been diagnosed with Tetralogy of Fallot—a rare birth defect of the heart that needed to be operated on quickly if Levi was to survive. When Levi was born, there was a waiting pool of possible parents looking to adopt, but as time passed, that number dwindled until just Eric and Amanda were left. They had the option to drop out of the pool as well of course, but after hearing Levi’s story, Eric and Amanda felt they were ultimately his best option.
On October 21, Eric had shared that he and his wife had been selected to adopt Levi on the Facebook group Podcast Beyond, a fan group dedicated to IGN’s Playstation podcast. They met their new son soon after, and once he recovered from his surgery, Levi was taken home to enjoy Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Unfortunately, Levi’s prognosis worsened. In the following two months, he would go on to have two open heart surgeries. His body was unable to take the stress, and so Levi was placed on life support. After conferring with more than sixteen caretakers and medical professionals, the Reighard family came to a decision—their son deserved to pass peacefully from a world which had only shown him pain. On March 7, Eric Reighard shared the story of his son’s untimely passing with the Podcast Beyond Facebook group.
In the first week, more than 700 people showed their support through comments and posts, and soon after the group started a fund to take care of Eric and Amanda, raising more than $2,500 in the span of a few days. It’s worth noting that, aside from the announcement of Levi’s pending adoption and various updates on his health, Eric Reighard rarely posted or commented in the Beyond group. But this didn’t stop an outpouring of unconditional support and even love for him and his family. When I spoke to him about everything that had happened, he was still in disbelief, surprised that so many people would go so far, for someone they knew so little.
“It’s just been overwhelmingly positive, just the amount of people showing love, sending good thoughts and prayers,” he said. “(It) brings tears to my eyes that total strangers are willing to do so much for people they’ve never met.”
I still remember being blown away by the whole affair. Like many others, I posted my support, offering a listening ear if he ever wanted to talk about it—even if there was really no way I could know what he was going through. Like everyone else in the group, I saw someone in need and did what I could to help him, even if it was from the other side of a computer screen. When I talked to Eric, he told me that the whole thing had reaffirmed in him a belief that people are inherently good. He told me that finding a community that share interests is so important because it gives people a chance to share themselves, their successes and their failures. It gives people a chance to find friends.
When Greg Miller helped form Kinda Funny, that was exactly the kind of camaraderie he wanted to create with fans. Miller records a variety of podcasts and video content with his three best friends, sharing a love of comics, video games and the like. Kinda Funny’s hugely dedicated fanbase, as with Podcast Beyond, soon created a Facebook group. It was founded with the goal of creating a safe, inclusive space where fans could find support, talk about anything, and make new friends. Greg commonly refers to Kinda Funny fans as “Best Friends”, and after having a chance to speak with him, I know he believes it wholeheartedly.
Thinking about other times I’ve seen people find support in online communities, I immediately remember Alex Oldhauser. Alex was a Best Friend who had met Greg at several Kinda Funny meetups, an active member of the Kinda Funny community who posted regularly on both the forum threads and Facebook group. He even supported Kinda Funny through its Patreon, and had just been sent a personalized thank you video from Greg Miller and co. when his life was tragically taken in a car accident.
“I had just talked to him on Patreon that week…” said Greg, looking back on when he first heard the news. “…and just days later, to find out we lost him, that was the crazy part…it was the real loss of a friend.”
After taking some time to process the news, Greg made a post to the Kinda Funny forum, announcing the loss of a Best Friend. In his heartfelt post, he brought special attention to Alex’s mother, whose house had recently been lost in a flood. Before his passing, Alex had started a GoFundMe to help his family, and even mentioned it in in his Patreon video, that was made just a few days before.
“It’s not fair. She shouldn’t have to worry about the house at a time like this.”
On their stream the following Friday, Kinda Funny put all proceeds toward helping Alex’s family in their time of need. With the combined efforts of the community, Kinda Funny raised $28,000 for the family, far exceeding the original $22,000 GoFundMe goal.
Looking back to when I first heard about Alex, it was almost meaningless to me. A tragedy for someone I had never met. It was a tragedy to be sure, but it didn’t affect me personally.
But as I think about it now, it means a whole lot more. That a son’s final wish for his mother could be fulfilled by people he may have never even met is simply amazing. That a group of people brought together by hobbies and podcasts can prove themselves to be Best Friends, in every sense, is unbelievable. That a tragedy of one, seemingly random, fan could inspire such positivity and determination is astounding. As I read over the responses to Greg’s post from the community, what I saw went beyond shallow thoughts and prayers. In the hundred plus comments, in between the personal memories shared with Alex and the outpouring of support from total strangers, I saw love.
It has taken me literally months to write this article. Ever since I first saw Eric’s story, I knew I had something to say about what it really means to be a part of a community, but it took a long time to find the right way of saying it. I think that I finally found it in those forum posts.
It’s an easy thing to see the world as being full of hate, especially on the internet. It’s easy because it’s everywhere. You don’t have to go far to find racism, death threats, or rampant tribalism. As I write this, I can’t help but think about the recent shootings in my country. It seems like every day comes with a new death toll. Call it racism, or homophobia—it’s all hate. It permeates every aspect of our lives, and it can suffocate us if we let it. In the 21st century, we are all connected at all times. And for as many things that drive us apart, we have more ways than ever to be brought together.
If you ever need someone to talk to, there’ll be someone on the other side of a screen who is willing to listen. It doesn’t matter if you like comic books, video games, carpentry, or anything else, there is a community with someone who will listen or help—if you just reach out. We live in a world that’s more connected than ever, and we shouldn’t have to feel alone.
Love may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of an online community. Dip your head in and you’re sure to find an argument or two, even among Best Friends. But just a layer beneath that, you can find all kinds of support from total strangers. Every time I see a post about someone losing a job, or going through a divorce, I can look at the comment section and see Love. I see a bond between human beings that can’t be contained by screens and keystrokes. There’ll always be someone giving a helping hand with no regard for what might be in it for them, other than helping somebody else get through the day.
Love might be a strange way to describe it, but I can’t find a word that fits better. What other word fits when a man loses a son and gets financial help from people he’s never met? Or when a community rallies around the family they don’t know, and gives them back a home? Other words fall short in describing the power of these moments. We commonly see the internet as a place where nobody will help you up if you get knocked down, but I know better.