Generally this has been as a sign of affection, and acts as an indication of the closeness of the friendship. As we'll see, doing the same for your online community can have a positive effect on your community building efforts.
Using a nickname strengthens bonds
In 2009, researchers found that intimate language in the form of nicknames and code phrases leads to resilient and stronger relationships. Published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, the study on couples' "insider language" reported that the more nicknames, inside jokes and personal expressions a couple used, the higher their relationship satisfaction tended to be.
Jamie Turndorf, Ph.D., a New York City relationship therapist, said: "Using nicknames and made-up language is an easy way to inject positive communication into everyday life". In fact, out all of the ways to build an online community, it's probably the simplest and easiest way to strengthen your members' bonds with each other.
Carol Bruess, Ph.D., the director of family studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, adds: "You are saying, symbolically, that you care enough about the other person and the relationship to develop your own way of speaking. You've got your own private world, your own mini culture."
Using nicknames can move a group that may have loose ties and low personal contact into a cemented and more solid type of relationship, where the nickname defines the group goal. The appropriation of the moniker signifies acceptance of the community's norms, a sense of participation history or volume, and a sense of belonging to an exclusive and valuable club. For an online community, encouraging the use of a nickname to define the group that is your community members can act as a shortcut to greater emotional connection and a stronger community spirit.
Nicknames in forms of entertainment
The use of nicknames has been prevalent for a while within communities of TV shows fans. The best-known example is probably referencing fans of Star Trek as Trekkies (although they prefer Trekkers themselves). You also have Buffistas who are fans of the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer, who then sub-divided into groups such as Kittens (who worship the character Willow) and Immortal Lovers (who want to see Buffy get together with Angel, as opposed to FireStarters who would rather it be Spike).
We see this trend amongst music fans as well. There are Phish-Heads and Dead-Heads (fans of the bands Phish and Grateful Dead respectively), Maggots (Slipknot), The Unified Scene (The Hold Steady), Erasurettes (Erasure), and Little Monsters as Lady Gaga affectionately calls her fans (her ability to lead her community of fans is worth studying for community management techniques).
There are examples to be found in most forms of entertainment, such as TOGs (Terry's Old Guys/Gals, who are fans of British radio presenter Terry Wogan), Cumberbitches (devoted to British actor Benedict Cumberbatch) and Hulkamaniacs (fans of legendary wrestler Hulk Hogan).
Online community nickname examples
So, what sort of nicknames do communities bestow on themselves?
- 4chan members of the notorious /b/ boards call each other /b/tards.
- DeviantArt members like to refer to themselves as Deviants.
- Diggers inhabit Digg.
- Part of the Reddit community? That would make you a Redditor.
To provide a frame of reference and inspiration, I asked some fellow community managers whether their community members had a name to define themselves as a collective. Big thanks to @swhite159, @evanhamilton, @askdebra, @themaria and @JanetAronica for responding to my question on Twitter, and to all others who answered but have been omitted due to space restrictions.
Does your online community use a nickname to define themselves? Do you think it has made the atmosphere more positive, or do you prefer to avoid the use of a nickname for community members?