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I thought this was an atheist website!
It is of course wrong to rejoice in the suffering of others. But when the angst is on the website of Richard Dawkins, a little schadenfreude on the part of the habitual recipients of the world's most famous atheist's vitriol is perhaps understandable.
The blind webmaster

Over at Richarddawkins.net, Josh the professional webmaster has decided to close the forum and replace it with a strictly moderated comments system. This announcement results in outrage from the volunteer moderators and from the former users of what is being described as the world's busiest forum for atheists. The site itself is coy about what has happened, but Peter Harrison provides an elongated account from the moderators' perspective, on a blog dedicated to "atheism, skepticism, herpetology and typical geek behaviour".

Meanwhile, Ruth Gledhill provides a brief interview with Dawkins in her Articles of Faith column for
The Times. (I wonder when the National Secular Society will be helping the Pope tell the Catholic side of the Inquisition story.) Gledhill says Dawkins is "genuinely distressed" by "extremely unpleasant remarks" that remind him that "it's a nasty world out there". Sadly, he didn't actually use the words "survival of the fittest", but the irony is still hard to miss.

Is flaming an Internet meme, or would the term "original sin" be more accurate? Whatever the answer, the online beastliness of huge numbers of atheists tends to undermine Dawkins' repeated claim that religion is the fount of all beastliness. As Gledhill puts it, "Do Dawkins' own followers, suppurating their rats' rectums all over his long-suffering staff, stand squarely in his atheist tradition?" (The colourful language is a quote from an outraged Dawkins forum member.)

The democracy delusion

But, amusing though base as it is to note that "the atheist lobby that is most ardent in campaigning for assisted suicide... seems to be in the throes of an assisted suicide all of its own" (Gledhill again), the basic story will be familiar to anyone who has ever tried to run an Internet forum. Christian forums have similar experiences of outrageous behaviour by site users, moderators and owners. In that sense, this is not a story about atheists. It's a story about how the dream of ethereal dialogue pans out in practice.

Dawkins suggests that "the cloak of anonymity under which so many posters on the Internet hide does encourage a culture of rudeness and extreme language which people would never indulge in if they were writing under their own name". On this point he is in agreement with the Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright. Now Wright did admit recently that his knowledge of the digital sphere was "akin to being able to play
Twinkle Twinkle Little Star on the Durham Cathedral organ". Nevertheless, it is touching to see how much great ideologues from opposing traditions really hold in common. And, in my view, how they can both be wrong. Anonymity is certainly an issue, but, for example, the scathing blog article above contains the full name and photo of its author.

The real issue, in my opinion, is ownership. The actions of Dawkins' webmaster make perfect sense if the website is the personal property of one individual (and a site address consisting of the name of one individual may be a clue here). But, inevitably, the users of the recently extinct forum don't see it that way. From Harrison's blog...

The forum was like a society of its own. The forum was a huge part of many lives... The forum had become so much more than just another website... We would watch new friendships emerge, we saw members become engaged and married... we even experienced tragic deaths within the membership... The moderation team stressed... how important the culture of the forum was, only to be met with silence.

Those who have not invested significant time in online communities tend to dismiss such affirmations as ridiculous. But the ability of groups of people on the Internet to develop a sense of community around almost any shared activity is surely one of the defining features of Internet culture. Never mind religion or atheism, similar expressions of anger and bereavement were generated when Facebook dropped their version of Scrabble for legal reasons.

Dawkins puts his finger on the real problem when he notes the assumption on the Internet that "websites 'belonged' to those who posted on them". Both Dawkins and Wright seem happy to assert ownership of the words they post on dead trees, and international law supports that assertion. But there are no equivalent rights attached to content posted on social media. Whoever owns the copyright, there is absolutely no obligation for a website owner to continue to make available someone else's content. It's hard to see what can be done about this. But the result is a fundamental mismatch between the expectations of users and site owners.

The selfish net?

Forums are extremely easy to bolt onto a website. The assumption is often that by installing some free software and letting people post on it, the site will attract lots of sympathetic followers who will play happily in the main site's gardens, to the delight of the site owner and his ad-tracking software. In that sense, Dawkins' webmaster has a point when he says that "using a forum as a substitute for a real website is sloppy and lazy".

The reality is that forums are remarkably difficult to run well in the long term. The most common problem is never reaching the critical mass of users required for a forum to function, which is why the Net is full of shiny forums with a total of 15 posts, 13 of which are by the site owner's son-in-law. When forums do take off, they display the best and the worst of human nature, 24/7, and there is rarely a budget to pay someone to do the online equivalent of mopping up other people's vomit at a non-stop binge-drinking session. Forums without moderation head toward self-destruction faster than an asteroid intent on wiping out the dinosaurs.

Moderators are therefore essential for any forum to function. But there is no right way to moderate a forum. Each user expects moderators to deal with the huge perceived vices of others, but no user thinks they need moderating themselves. If moderators intervene a lot, they are control freaks. If they intervene less, they don't care. If they apply rules strictly, they are legalistic. If they apply rules flexibly, they are inconsistent and biased. Whatever they do, at least some of the online community will complain about the moderation all over the website.

At that point, the forum looks less like happy play in the site garden and more like a bunch of hoodies armed with spray cans and wrecking bars. That, I would suggest, is why the Richarddawkins.net forum had to go. Forums never entirely submit to the magesterium – not even the atheist magesterium.

Forums have been around for a long time, and are not about to disappear. But they require some sort of shared commitment to hold them together, and it seems that not believing in something was insufficient to make the Dawkins forum a shining demonstration of humanist virtue. (Of course it is easy to demonstrate that really disliking other Christians isn't enough to make a forum work either.)

In many ways, the blog is a much more realistic vehicle for Internet individualism (described as "cultural masturbation" by the Bishop of Durham). There is no doubt about who owns a blog and who therefore gets to set the rules. Organisations can pick their bloggers while distancing themselves from their blog entries when necessary. But there is still something quixotically noble about trying to get groups of people to live side by side in the same space. DNA may be selfish, but maybe humans should aspire to something more, something shared, something bigger than the individual.

At least that seems to be the opinion of many atheists this week.
 
steve tomkins
Mark Howe is the author of Online Church?
   
 
 
 
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