Disgruntled Peter Harrison, a (former) forum moderator at RichardDawkins.net, dishes on a behind the scenes controversy between the site’s support volunteers and Josh Timonen, the site’s manager. Peter Harrison now wants people to join him at a different (and presumably more open) secular site called Rationalia. Meanwhile, Richard Dawkins’s site is revamping, and Josh Timonen has decided to can its volunteer moderators and have a more regulated environment. The ugly fallout over the news has led to the closing of the community forum section of Richard Dawkins’s site. A lot of community volunteer work—extending over years—appears to be going down the drain. The moderators are, understandably, upset:
If you visit the forum at www.richarddawkins.net now, you will find that you can still view threads but no longer post. . . . All members of the community have been treated like garbage, especially the hard-working moderators who were kept out of the loop and shoved aside in a rude and offensive way with no warning. The moderators and the regular members were explaining how they felt, and that it was a bad idea letting the number 1 atheist community on the internet be killed. Regular members were also angered by the fact that Josh [Timonen] had used and lied to the moderating team. Many members had come to the forum to speak freely, and were upset that they would need to seek approval to discuss very specific topics on the new system. Everything about the news was a disaster. Not a single post was made claiming this was a good idea. Then the drama really began.
In response to the unanimous criticisms, Josh started playing with the settings in the forum. First he deactivated private messaging. This caused a major problem, as members were starting to share personal details so that they can keep in touch with good friends if the forum really did end up closing. Members also filled their signatures with details and where to find members after the forum had closed. Josh went on to lock viewable access to the forum. For a while, nobody could do anything. With the forum all to themselves, Josh and Andrew deleted any posts that criticised the decision. Next, they removed signatures so that other forums and meeting places could not be advertised. When all of this was done, Josh and Andrew reopened the forum in a read-only state. Nobody could post anymore, and the complaints thread had been completely deleted. . . . Josh’s actions towards staff and all members couldn’t have been any more heavy-handed. Josh has done more damage to the website’s reputation than any other person could ever have done. To make things worse, Josh and Andrew started deleting members. The moderator who explained that the staff were innocent and treated so disrespectfully, Mazille, had his entire account deleted. This isn’t like a ban where you can no longer access the forum. When an account is deleted, all the user’s posts are deleted too. Mazille had thousands of posts that he was hoping to archive over the next 30 days. All gone, forever. They aren’t in a Recycle Bin of sorts. Next was CJ, a member who had been posting on the front page to explain what Josh was up to and that he was hiding the criticisms and the evidence that the moderating team were lied to and censored. Tens of thousands of posts lost forever.
Quite a power play. And surprisingly, Richard Dawkins himself joined the pile-on, supporting Josh Timonen’s rather cruel deletion of people’s accounts and posts. Here’s part of what Richard Dawkins wrote in defense of the revamp of the site and of Josh Timonen’s actions on his behalf. Comments responding to what Dawkins wrote are not enabled at his site:
[Q]uality will take precedence over quantity, where original articles on reason and science, on atheism and scepticism, will be commissioned, where frivolous gossip will be reduced. The new plan may succeed or it may fail, but I think it is worth trying. And even if it fails, it most certainly will not deserve the splenetic hysteria that the mere suggestion of it has received.
Surely there has to be something wrong with people who can resort to such over-the-top language, over-reacting so spectacularly to something so trivial. Even some of those with more temperate language are responding to the proposed changes in a way that is little short of hysterical. 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?
Be that as it may, what this remarkable bile suggests to me is that there is something rotten in the Internet culture that can vent it. If I ever had any doubts that RD.net needs to change, and rid itself of this particular aspect of Internet culture, they are dispelled by this episode.
Something so small? People devote a lot of energy to their postings at community sites, and it assists them in their social networking and intellectual development. Deleting whole swaths of people’s posts is akin to journal or book burning in an earlier time—and must be a terrible blow to the people who have experienced it. Such a thing can make a person rather alienated and cynical.
As an agnostic, I myself have written a lot of posts at Dawkins’s site. I just assumed that they would always be there. One thing I’ve long liked about his site is the feeling that here is a place for free, unfettered, and protected speech. But perhaps it’s a delusion. Maybe the next time I click over for a visit, I’ll find all that I’ve ever written there is gone. Not good etiquette in the Internet age.
I hope that Richard Dawkins corrects this, and at least apologizes to the web volunteers that gave his site so many unpaid hours, but he appears to have dug in with Josh Timonen on this, and in the process he has shown himself capable of being both imperious and callous: what he writes is important; what forum contributors write is “small.” Perhaps it’s true. The average person has always been disposable. Sometimes somebody from the elite classes has to remind us of this.