Web communities started small, and many began with purpose. They radiated out from a single source, spread through close-knit circles and pre-viral word of mouth. We may have large social network behemoths that loom over the landscape and dominate the market these days, but they are a far more uniform and manufactured experience, one that’s been gained through aggressive marketing tactics rather than good old fashioned verisimilitude. As we build the technologies of the future, we may be able to take our cue from much smaller communities built on simple principles and frictionless and supportive connections.
In 1997, one of Sona Mehring’s closest friends came to her with a vital request. After enduing a difficult pregnancy, her daughter Brighid had been born, after just 24 weeks. She needed to reach out to family and friends to keep them updated, and hoped Mehring could help. Mehring immediately agreed, but after just a few phone calls she realized she would never be able to get through the list quickly enough. At the time, she ran a consulting firm that had recently stepped into the burgeoning field of website development. The solution, she decided, was to create a website.
Over the next several days, Mehring posted a stream of updates in real time as she got them from her friend. She tinkered with the site to allow for a bit two way communication through messages posted to the site by friends and family. They added notes of support and encouragement, which Mehring would relay back Brighid’s family every day. By binding together Brighid’s loved ones in a shared experience, she brought them all closer together and made them part of the journey.
Unfortunately, Brighid passed away not long after. But that website had been transformative for those closest to the family. It was a desperately needed conduit of support in their darkest hour. At the memorial service, the family even read some of the entries that had been posted to the site.
Then something kind of amazing happened. At the encouragement of Brighid’s parents, Mehring kept at it. Working bit by bit whenever she had a chance, she pieced together a new version of the site, one where anybody could create their own support network page. At a time of great need, it provided a way for loved ones to stay involved, stay updated, and most importantly, stay connected. If you were going through the most trying of times, what Mehring often refers to as a health journey, the site was a way to invite others in, walk side by side with them in a virtual world of compassion. To honor the memory of the little girl who started it all, Mehring named the site CaringBridge.
This was in 1997. Myspace was still 6 years away. Facebook’s rise wouldn’t come for another decade. Even Google wouldn’t be around for another year. But here was Mehring, giving the web a purpose no one had even thought of yet. She realized early on that fundamental connection was an essential project of the World Wide Web. It has the power to break down geographical boundaries and reach anyone, anywhere. Backed by a benevolent design, that’s an incredibly powerful thing.
In the beginning, she worked side by side with users to build their sites and invite people in. As time went on, the tools got more sophisticated. It quickly transformed into Mehring’s passion, and before long, her full-time job and newest company.
Over the years, CaringBridge has been the source of some incredible stories and the foundation for lasting relationships. It’s helped new parents to navigate the turbulence of a complicated pregnancy. Just this year, it brought together an entire community of students to rally around their bus driver suffering from a brain tumor. It’s mission has stayed steadfastly the same. To help others help their friends and family through a difficult time.
Within a couple of years, the site was signing up someone knew every six minutes. In 2002, Mehring officially transformed CaringBridge into a non-profit. She wanted it funded by donors and well-wishers, not the demands and pressures of traditional tech investment. This has allowed the site to stay relatively small and mission-driven, even as its user base has grown at a tremendous rate. The site continues to operate today, though Mehring herself has retired, with all of the same values and traditions that guided it from day one.
The web was built for connection, and if it’s paired with care and attention to detail, it can feel almost magical. That’s what CaringBridge is, a bit of digital magic.