Why internet discussion boards are fab and Dawkins is wrong
Here’s a quick post to express my sympathy with all the posters at the richarddawkins.net forum (RDF) — a place I hardly ever visited and never posted at but which must have had something going for it because when it was closed earlier this week it had over two million posts.
Reading some of the reactions to it, I am again reminded that people who’ve never been part of an internet forum community don’t have a clue about how important are these places that allow people from all over the world in engage with each other. To thousands of atheists they are a godsend, so to speak. And many of those who do know the benefits and spend most of their free time on one just can’t comprehend why not everyone feels as they do.
I know from my own extensive experience of internet discussion boards that the benefits reaped from them are immeasurable. They help people learn how to think critically and debate rationally. They provide a place where people can test and develop their ideas. They inspire people to educate themselves about important topics. I’d estimate that thousands of books on science, history, philosophy and whatever else are bought and read because of a discussion had or followed on an internet forum. I’ve lost count of the number of religious people I’ve seen deconvert through engaging with atheists on discussion boards.
The benefits are not just intellectual. Loneliness and isolation (often isolation because of their atheism), health problems, bereavement, family problems, marriage breakdowns and depression — I’ve seen all of these aired in supportive internet communities. I’ve seen more than one suicide prevented (according to the testimonies of the suicidal) and one kidney donated (don’t ask!) through participation in various boards. I’ve seen people reduced to tears plenty of times but many more times I’ve seen people having fun and sharing laughter. I also know that countless real life friendships only exist thanks to internet boards.
To put it another way: the social interaction and intellectual stimulation that people all over the world get from being members of internet communities is as important to us as the social and intellectual life Richard Dawkins enjoys in his own rarified circles surely is to him. Furthermore, internet communities break down barriers and allow people to interact with those whom they would never meet in real life, enabling the development of mutual understanding and tolerance.
Thus, humanists should be in favour of internet communities and making space for one on his website was absolutely appropriate for a vice-president of the British Humanist Association, whereas the manner in which that same community was closed was absolutely not.
It seems incredible that Richard Dawkins doesn’t realise all this but what other conclusion can be drawn from his dismissal of the matter as “trivial” and his incredulity at the strength of feeling?
This quote is from his announcement.
Was there ever such conservatism, such reactionary aversion to change, such vicious language in defence of a comfortable status quo? What is the underlying agenda of these people? How can anybody feel that strongly about something so small? Have we stumbled on some dark, territorial atavism? Have private fiefdoms been unwittingly trampled?
Private fiefdoms? I don’t think so. Simply a vibrant and nurturing web community run by a dedicated team who put in countless unpaid hours to keep it going and who are suddenly told their project is closing and they are surplus to requirements. They are not feudal lords; they’re just human beings. And they’ve been deliberately — not unwittingly — trampled on.
That said, I have some sympathy for the paid staff member who is widely considered to be responsible for the debacle and who is being villified accordingly.
To quote PZ Myers
Josh is a good guy, and he’s neck-deep in work for the RDF — not just the richarddawkins.net site, and not just the forum, which only represents about a quarter of the daily visits to the site overall. Yet the forum represents most of the drama and trouble in maintaining the whole business.
I don’t know if ‘Josh is a good guy’* or not but I can imagine that the forum must have seemed like a millstone round his neck. I gather that there were frequent technical problems, which must have taken up time he considered would be usefully spent elsewhere. He didn’t see the value of that internet community. Like his boss, he is one of those who just don’t get it.
For the record, I’m not suggesting all discussion forums are wonderful or useful. Some of them seem so horrible I can’t understand why anyone gives them the time of day. Some are dangerous. Then there is PZ Myers point:
It takes a lot of work to keep a forum afloat. Every one I know of follows one of two paths: a slow decline into quiet apathy, or a rapid growth in membership and activity which leads to an eventual implosion into chaos, acrimony, and drama as disparate interests try to tug the forum in different directions.
Hmm. So things come to an end. Does that mean they are not worth having at all?
I’ve known forums that faded away and others that imploded in acrimony. I’ve known yet others that have been rescued and gone on to thrive. When Internet Infidels Inc wanted to get shot of their huge and lively internet community, IIDB, one of the users took it over and turned it into FreeRatio.
Here’s what the organisation said at the time:
Although we have hosted a bustling discussion board as a service to our readers for nearly a decade, IIDB has been so successful that it has grown beyond Internet Infidels’ ability to manage it. Because we recognize that IIDB has been a valued resource to many of our readers for several years, we feel that it is in the best interest of everyone to turn the bulk of it over to capable administrators who can give it the attention it deserves, rather than either letting it fall into neglect as absentee landlords, or shutting it down altogether.
(Of course, there’s a lot more to that story than meets the eye, but you see where I’m going with this.)
The terrific Heathen Hangout has gone through several changes of hands since its first incarnation as an off-shoot of IIDB. The very civil and friendly ThinkHumanism forum evolved from the tiny forum on the Humanist Society of Scotland’s website, which all the regular posters abandonded when (in their view, of course) a bunch of numpties took over the HSS a few years ago. All of these are examples of how internet communities can be saved and developed, provided there is the will to do so. I’ve no doubt the community of posters at RDF had the will if only they’d been given the opportunity.
That they weren’t, beggars belief.
Here’s a few useful blogs, I’ve come across:
RDF moderator, Peter Harrison’s done a few posts. The latest is here: My reaction to the overreaction
From a former poster: On the RDF’s demise
Detailed analyses from Gurder at Heathen Hub, the latest is here:
From Richard Dawkins: An apology
Podblack Cat’s latest blog helps us with the question of whether Josh Timonen is really a good guy: