Many of you should know by now the events that resulted in the crushing of the RichardDawkins.net forum. If you dont you can find a poigniant description on Peter Harrison's
blog. I'm still dizzy from the disruption to my life and my virtual community so I need to chat, but I don't want to chat about those events.
I believe the Dawkins admin folk are planning to replace the forum with something like this system at Atheist Nexus. I want to discuss why the community was awesome and why set ups like this one at Atheist Nexus don't have the same dynamics. The problem is that a blog is not a discussion, its a presentation, and it breaks my sense of conversation. I know that Atheist Nexus actually has a forum so I will be chatting there later, but for my purposes this medium provides an example of my thesis so I will stick to it.
The Richard Dawkins forum operated for over three years and formed what many consider the worlds largest atheist community boasting somewhat over 80,000 members. Actually calling it an atheist community is not entirely correct. We had long standing theist members, some well respected as rationalists (with a minor god delusion problem) and some not..quite so..well respected. We also had heaps of cretinist drive by commenters and woo wingnuts of every description. These later drawn to the site by Richards flame.
This constant appearance of adversarial chew toys actually helped the community develop skills in dealing with sophistry, allowed us to model standing up for your beliefs to the timid lurkers who were hiding from oppressive religious communities, occasionally deconvert someone whose delusion was not chronic, and build a sense of activism, logical criticism and outspokenness. I know for me it has led to doing things politically here in Oz.
As well as the delusion wars there was an extensive political and scientific arena and resources of scientific and secular value that were priceless. All this contributed by the kind of free wheeling "just start something" system that the forum allowed.
The moderation of the forum, done by volunteers, was spectacular and allowed enormous free speech but protected individuals from attack. Many of the theists with batshit ideas had difficulty learning the difference between criticising ideas and criticising the person, but some got it and became adept at it. I learnt how to disagree strongly with someone and not bring anger into it. For me that has been a great move to intellectual maturity.
Being a forum where you could start any thread, as long as it was on topic for the given forum area, meant that even the most timid would sometimes throw in an interesting thread. Often with no more than a title and opening sentence a vast sprawling conversation of some merit would ensue. That's how I started and that's how many of the best contributors as well as the chew toys made themselves known.
The new functionality at the Richard Dawkins website apparently wont be like that. It will be a blog like system, much like this, where blog entries must be approved before anyone gets to see them. The volunteer mods will not exist so approval will be channelled through one or two staff. That will inhibit the vibrancy to the point of community death I am afraid. No more dissenting voices. No more people seeking refuge and finding warm welcome. No more training one another in the art of reasoned discourse.
Apart from the very bad way it was handled the change at the website seems to me a huge failure to understand what was there and to harness it. This makes me sad, but also determined to gather together the amazing people that formed that community and build something new somewhere on the web that captures the strengths of the old site.