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:

A deeper look at the RDF self-immolation and public reactions to it

Update 1/3/2010

From Richard Dawkins: An apology

*Update 24/10/2010

Podblack Cat’s latest blog helps us with the question of whether Josh Timonen is really a good guy:

Dawkins’ Employee Charged With Embezzling $375,000 From RDF Charity

10 thoughts on “Why internet discussion boards are fab and Dawkins is wrong”

  1. Very good exposition of what a forum can mean and its value. Your point about the support to often scared young atheists living in a frightening oppressive theist community is well made and absolutely true.

    If Dawkins had managed a transition to “new ownership” he would have had the thanks of a lot of people and left a valuable resource for atheists (remember them) intact. Instead, he chose to behave in the most boorish and destructive way possible.

    Simon – 7.5k posts to RD.net forum

  2. Interesting that there are some who insist Richard Dawkins is the “Pope” of the “atheist religion”.

    Turns out atheists aren’t remotely like religious people after all. Could you imagine Catholics talking like this about the real Pope?

    I’m not a member of the forum but I understood a new forum was planned with modified rules.

  3. AndyD

    I think what’s being planned is something quite unlike an internet discussion board and more like Humanist Life, where a short opinion piece is submitted for approval, published and then people are free to comment without interference. There is no social or supportive aspect to it.


  4. My last visit there was perhpas 2 months ago. I left in disgust at the poison there. A lot of people seem to be upset at the removal of the ‘abuse facility’ I saw. The internet is great for free speech, though as a place to meet friends, I’m not so sure.

    Friends are people you meet with, share a meal with, you agree with, disagree with in such a way that does not end that relationship. You share your life with friends in real life, in person. In general, you don’t spend your time with friends in an environment that is vile and derogataory. Can you imagine enjoying a meal with friends in a bar while around you fly the kind of insults we wouldn’t hear even during PMQs?

    Yet that is what I saw the last time I took a look. If that language had been flying around a restuarant during my meal with friends I’d have left. If I’d heard language like that in a bar, or outside my house, I’d have called the police to take care of the disturbance. For a number of years I lived in a city, the home of two well known UK football teams followed by fans who were just as well known. When the two sets of fans met on match day the atmosphere was intimidating and the language conveyed more than intolerance. The language I saw on the forum was similar to the two opposing football teams opposing each other.

    Free speech may be important to us all. That in no way is an excuse for what can be and sometimes is abusive language. As always, it is always the minority who create difficulties for he majority. It certainly didn’t suggest to me it was a supportive place to be where I’d learn more about atheism if I were in search for answers and understanding. It just takes a couple of abusive posts, and someone looking for information may well leave double-click.

    Consider this. I’ve no idea about the legal complexities of free speech and just how far the boundaries can be pushed given the current state of English Libel Laws. That surely is a concern that could lead to legal bills to ensure Richard is personally protected from being drawn into a case that is not of his making. Would the abusers step up to the plate and how much time would Richard and Josh have to spend dealing with legal wrangling?

    Secondly, Josh has to deal with forum as part of his job. Why, as part of his job should he be expected to deal with the kind of language I saw on the forum? I’m sure eventually in his shoes, it would begin feel like a taks that would drag me to the depths.

    Oviously, many disagree with me, though if that had been on a forum I ran personally, I’d have closed it down and long before now.

  5. Thank you for your comment, Mary. One of the reasons I never joined the RDF myself is that I didn’t much like the look of the place but that’s beside the point. Not every forum is going to suit everyone – different boards have very different characters – but the fact that the RDF had so many active members tells us that it did suit a lot of people and, having read the testimonies of some of these posters, I have reason to believe that the RDF served for them the useful purposes that I detailed above.

    I do not argue that Richard should have kept the forum, I argue that he should have allowed it to be hived off by those who cared about it and I’ve seen nobody come up with a reason why he couldn’t or shouldn’t have done that.

    By the way, if you don’t like abuse and mudslinging, you might try the lovely forum at http://www.thinkhumanism.com, where you are likely to meet posters you’d like to share a real life meal with.

  6. Hello, and thank you for the article. I am an ex-mod of RDF, and really spent hours moderating the place, like everyone else on staff. For anyone still out there, there is a new forum that we are trying to built, and already has taken in a good number of the most prolific and good posters of RDF. Everyone is invited to join: http://www.rationalskepticism.org
    The forum is new, and we will probably still make some changes, but we are trying to keep the community we had over at RDF.

  7. Personally I think the revolt is pretty lame.

    People seem to think that because they’ve been hanging out in the McDonald’s parking lot at 2AM every Friday that McDonald’s has a moral obligation to accommodate them until the end of eternity. But it doesn’t. Even if McDonald’s had been happy to keep them around because it was good for business before they retooled.

    No atheist foundation has as its primary mission to be a forum, or a blog, or a social network, or a podcast, or a repository of YouTube videos. All those things are secondary and dispensable. Those things might be tools for a foundation to accomplish its mission, but they aren’t the mission itself. If the foundation finds that those tools aren’t promoting their mission, they have no obligation to continue to fund them. And those who on average donate $5/year or nothing at all can’t claim ownership of a high-traffic server that costs 5 figures just to maintain, let alone whatever high hourly rate it costs to get fixed when the server is overloaded, else they would fund their own high-traffic forums.

    So when RDF says “we are not looking to be a social network” I respect that. It’s not RDF’s job to provide a soapbox for lonely net atheists trying to reestablish virtual high school cliques. RDF’s job is to promote reason and science, and that is much more important than blathering about last night’s episode of One Tree Hill at the local pub. If you want to social network go waste your time on Facebook, else or tweeting about the breaking news that you love McDonald’s new breakfast lineup this morning.

  8. Thank you for your comment, Sams Haines, even if it is a non sequitur.

    That you should so contemptuously dismiss posters as “lonely net atheists trying to reestablish virtual high school cliques” would seem to illustrate that the case I make in my blog is lost on you so I won’t bother repeating it.

    I will repeat what I said to Mary, above, however:

    “I do not argue that Richard should have kept the forum, I argue that he should have allowed it to be hived off by those who cared about it and I’ve seen nobody come up with a reason why he couldn’t or shouldn’t have done that.”

    Can you come up with a reason?

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