"And sometimes he's so nameless"

Death of an Atheist Forum; the lessons of history

Posted in atheism, Debunking myths, Religion, Science, Uninteresting to others whitterings about my life by Chris Jensen Romer on February 24, 2010

Following the bizarre collapse of the Richard Dawkins forum, I posted this on the excellent Rationalia and  Thinking Aloud Forums. It will be my last blog entry on atheist forum politics :(  I am after all not actually an atheist!

OK, I think I’m giving up on the whole atheist  forum thing. I’ll tell you why, then move on to other topics tomorrow…

Firstly, I am still shocked, saddened and miserable about the demise of the wonderful RichardDawkins.net/forum. The problem is I have seen it ALL before, and not so long ago.  If I thought this was Josh Timonen’s fault, or Dawkins, I could just laugh and move on, and help fight. The thing is I can’t any more. It’s something fundamental and deeper.

Years ago I knew a wonderful cryptographer, medium, and cynic, who I will call James. James joined a psychic research group I belonged to, and noted that every group tends to do the same thing: the leadership cock it up, it fragments, and two new groups appear.  A few years later the pattern occurs again. James was an atheist spiritualist (there are a LOT of them, and one often sees their stuff cited by other atheist who are unaware of their rather strange ideas to modern atheists minds) and in a thoughtful moment he confided in me that exactly the same was true of every atheist group he had belonged to. I guess it’s true of gardening clubs, poetry societies, fan clubs and stamp collectors as well. As he noted, there must be something wrong with human nature. (In fact one sees it less in religious groups – because they can appeal to external authorities and impose their will by divine mandate, which makes them even nastier when it all goes tits up). Of course many groups do survive and prosper, but one thing ghostthunting groups (not parapsychological organisations) and atheist forums have in common is this incredible failure rate.

Now in fact Old Soul posted on my blog entry, and reminded me of something. We have seen this all before, just two years ago. Here is the Encylopedia Dramatica version of events back then on IIDB – http://encyclopediadramatica.com/Iidb The interwebs are serious business. :)

Many of the IIDB exiles fled to RD.net, and discussed what was happening there: and in fact the response was largely one of disinterest, mild sadness, and modding to stop the fight spilling over on to our forum. In fact it is much like the very ambivalent if not positively unsympathetic responses one sees from the JREF today – http://forums.randi.org/showthread.php?t=168039 (There are of course many deeply  sympathetic JREF members, including tsig and Darat, and RD.net exiles should seriously consider registering there>)

Let’s face it, its the internet. No one will die of this. :) Still we can learn a lot from it, maybe…

Now Internet Infidels and Secular Web had a history going back to 1995, and were absolutely huge. I think it is fair to say that IIDB was in its day the largest Atheist site on the web – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_Infidels- and it’s collapse left a vacuum that RD.net quickly filled, along with the Rational Response Squad. The RRS had its own problems in 2008/2009 including a highly publicised (physical, literal) punch up and a falling out with Richard Dawkins over allegations of his having an affair (even if true, who gives a f*ck, and it wasn’t anyway…) However the IIDB melt down,mass deletions, sacking of mods and general shittiness gave birth ot a number of forums, including Rants n Raves, a splendidly irreverent place which is sort of 4chan meets Atheism — http://www.rantsnraves.org/

All of this may seem by the by, but in fact you probably really need to look at this whole mess on IIDB, that we all chose to ignore.There are threads on RD.net – maybe someone with access to the database can find them? However the same things happened – admins sacked, mods dimsissed, members expelled, complete meltdown.
http://spaninquis.wordpress.com/2007/10/31/internet-infidels-seems-to-be-melting/
http://www.daylightatheism.org/2007/11/a-note-on-the-iidb-situation.html
http://rantsnraves.org/wiki/index.php/Category:IIDebacle

Hey there must be people here who lived through all this, and know first hand what happened? Old Soul wrote on my blog

In 2007, the Internet Infidels Inc, a nonprofit educational group, shut down their extremely popular “IIDB” Internet Infidels Discussion Board, driving away thousands of people, many of whom had donated money to the group for both its regular operations and the upkeep of the forums. When the II, Inc. began banning and silencing its forum users, it lost very little real revenue, as the major donors who supported the organization did not care one bit about the teeming masses on the message board. The II, Inc. did not lose any real income or its reputation amongst the atheist elite. It sold the IIDB to a woman from New Zealand, who changed the forum name and continued to silence all dissidents. The II, Inc. did not suffer any loss or long-term damage after divesting itself of its forum. No problem there, either.

Yep, that was my understanding.He also has a very long term perspective –

Decades ago, Madalyn Murray O’Hair shut down every chapter of American Atheists, alienating thousands of people, but doing no long-term harm to herself or the group. No problem there.

I suspect the young and British influenced RD’ers may not all know about the tragic and bizarre story of Madalyn Murray O’Hair — http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madalyn_Murray_O%27Hair Some of the links like the Time article are REALLY good reads.  Anyone spot similarities with how AA was run and the current situation? OK, we don’t have claims of fraud and dodgy accounting, or blatant theft. Yet we have exactly the same  pattern of self-proclaimed atheist leaders fleecing members, f*cking over the organisation and so called rationalist acting like compete arseholes.

Even after the great October Purge, when many of us left, I eventually drifted back to RD.net. TAF and Rationalia split: I can’t help but being reminded of the South Park episode Go God, Go! where the United Atheist Alliance (UAA) fight the United Atheist League (UAL) and the Allied Atheist Allegiance (AAA) –sure it was a shit episode by South Park standards, but there was more than a grain of truth in it.

Old Soul really hit the nail on the head though when he wrote

This is just business as usual for atheist organizations, why are you all so surprised? This is how it is done. Richard Dawkins will not lose any face. He will not suffer a publicity backlash. As far as his staff is concerned, you are all ungrateful for complaining about not being able to use the forums any more. Guess what? They do not care. They will make new websites, write new books, and speak at new conventions. Where thousands of you dare not tread, thousands more unsuspecting atheists will fill the seats you won’t occupy, and buy the books you won’t read, and visit the websites you won’t support. No problems.

It gets bleaker

There are millions and millions of atheists worldwide and no major atheist group has ever lost any money by not accommodating all of them. For every hundred of you who leave in disgust, two hundred more will take your place. For every post that is deleted… the same. The outcry of atheists who are offended by being silenced is not a problem in the grand scheme of organized atheist groups.

These groups operate in a realm that none of you occupy. It is a world in which *you* do not exist, and none of them (on the national or international level) are focused on “atheist community” or “the needs of nonbelievers.” They are money-making operations supporting authors, lecturers, philosophers, and publicity hounds, all in the name of atheism, and all for naught.

If you are operating a large atheist organization, shutting the internet out of your atheist group will not hurt you in the long run. This is demonstrably true, and the RDF staff certainly knows it. Now you all know it too. Visit this page again in 2 years, when Dawkins’ books are selling like hotcakes, his lectures are standing-room-only, and his new website discussion area is busy and bustling with passionate atheist activity. All of this complaining is not going to change anything.

There will be no problem for the RDF. Atheist herd migration will not disrupt the activities of any major atheist group, certainly not the biggest moneymaker of them all.[

He is indeed a wise old soul. :(

This has seemed I am sure to many of you yet another betrayal, but really, I am deadly serious. If we can’t get it together, are we (and I guess  it’s not really we is it, I’m a Christian, but I count myself as one of you lot in that I remain a loyal member of the Richarddawkins.net internet community) any better than the religious groups etc?  Sorry, it seems that the loss of the forum is irrlevant to most atheists, and will remain so, based on the examples of history. We will be a footnote ina  wiki article, and spawn threads on a few secular websites, but no one is listening, and the RDF will laugh all the way to the bank. If you think people really care, look again at the JREF thread, or look at the Skeptics Guide to the Universe one – http://sguforums.com/index.php?topic=26298.0 Think about how much you heard, or cared, about the demise of IIDB – now sucessfully running as a series of small forums from what I can see, with new names, and a new identity.

People don’t just not care, THEY DON’T WANT TO HEAR IT. It’s just like us at RichardDawkins.net when IIDB went down – some one lese politics, proof the rationalist dream crashed when it meets the reality of messsed up humans. Good people will carry on and have a laugh, but the majority of the atheist population will just say “shut up and stop whining”. Bleak I know, but do a Google search and you will find its true… http://www.sciforums.com/showthread.php?t=99807

In fact even the blogosphere only returns Darkchilde, myself and Peter Harrison’s blogs.  This is not going to hurt the RDF, or makke any difference; We lost, people got treated like shit, and no one will care outside of TAF and Rationalia.

I have had enough. I’ll find better things to do with my time :)
j x

The End of an Era: Richard Dawkins forum to close


I was going to write a brief piece tonight on my new board game “Earth: Our Home” I created for the the Richard Dawkins Science Writing Contest. I test played it with Luke, Kev and Tom tonight, and we had a wonderful time slaughtering each other species and fighting for control of this pale blue dot.  500 million years passed in two hours, and at the end it was incredibly close, but I won. :)

Unfortunately I popped over to RD.net to see what was going on, and found that an announcement had been made that the forum is to close. It will remain live for 30 days to allow us to retrieve anything we want to save: given I had written over 10,000 posts (7,000+ remain after an earlier purge)  and I guess many million words as I am not known for my brevity, that will prove immensely difficult. Given that the search has not worked for months, in order to protect other parts of the website and keep the bandwidth manageable, well it will be next to impossible. I have tried waybackmachine: no good. :(

Jerome's avatar

My RD.net avatar designed by Thwoth to mark my Science Writing victory...

I had a hilarious exchange on this blog once before with someone who had a rather bizarre view of the history of RD.net: the details don’t matter, but I will briefly now discuss the matter. A few years ago the great man Dawkins0 became aware that there were forum posts which were rather er, colourful (“What does sperm taste like? was the infamous example always cited) and suddenly over night a large part of the forum was just deleted.  The bit which went comprised the chatty silly areas -  I lost about 20% of my posts, as i tended ot post mainly in the Faith & Religion and General Science areas anyway. This led to a major row, with a  number of atheist who saw this as censorship buggering off to create their own communities: it was not really the imposition of community standards which did it, but the clunky way it was handled. We lost the original admins (OBC, Kevin Ronayne)  about that point, and by 2009 a new set of mods had taken over. It was still a great site though, though I miss the early days – but nostalgia ain’t what it used to be… :)

Tonight the proverbial has really hit the fan. Again the closure of the forum may NOT be all it seems: a new kind of heavily moderated discussion area will exist, and approved topic can be discussed. What it does mean is the death of the forum community, and like the end of the Living TV Most Haunted forum dozens of new forums will spring up, but I’lll lose touch with most of the friends I made in my years over there since December 2006.  We can’t even talk about iot now – I tried to log back in and found a message telling me “Sorry but this board is currently unavailable.”

It is such a blasted shame: to try and name them all would be impossible, but my thoughts really go out to all those who worked so hard to make it a success – firstly Sciwoman, so long a mod, then an admin, and a good friend. We shared a lot of laughs and a lot of misery, and she has been a good friend to me. Then there is the excellent CJ – no not me, CJ was an admin or possibly just a mod I think and was one of the best, and used to welcome every new poster. In the great purge he was demoted to ordinary member status for something that had nothing to do with his work as a mod: the backstairs politics of the forum was always machiavellian, but CJ happened ot have publicly discussed things which were considered verboten from his own personal life – ironically things this CJ discusses just as openly.  Who else? The Old Farts were all great, and much missed – they were a loose collective of posters who had a great time. JimC was always one of my faves, a wonderful Australian biologist with a sharp sense of humour.

My life will be poorer for not hearing from the splendid Aussie atheist Goldenmane: I’ll miss Hackenslash, Ilovelucy, Durro, MedGen, Mechtheist, MacDoc, FlyingScot, Natselrox, and me and Tim O’ Neil had a wonderful time together fighting Jesus Mythers and the terminally ill informed. Mercer is a thoroughly fine fellow: and my companions in faith Imperiatorium and of course my good mate Grahbudd, plus the really decent Jewish engineering student whose name I  just can;’t for the life of me recollect right now.

There are SO many others – Darren from Canada, whose profanity was always laced with awesome humour; Mazille, who brought me back to the forum with the science writing contest I have invested so much time on, Thwoth the brilliant artist and sharp wit, Hyrax a truly lovely guy and great mod, Campermom who was always great on science,  the simply awesome FedupwithFaith, and one of the sharpest minds of all Spaghettisawus who is a really top bloke.

So I’m sad: rather than carry on with the litany of names, which is so difficult as i’m missing dozens of really great people out (Topmum?- I just can’t recollect user names right now) I’ll make a few general comments… (but not forget Jerome Serpenti, Homo Economicus, Matalnifesto, Dave C, Pdavid…)   The sad thing about the death of an internet forum is in some sense all these people become part of your life, and they touch you. I really got to care about people I only ever knew as words on a screen. Sad? Maybe, but its a part of life in the 21st century – some of our friendships are with people we may never physcialy meet. (I was lucky enough to meet three members – sadly the accounts of our meetings were lsot in the first great purge.)

I enjoyed being Jerome (a contraction of Jensen Romer), the Anglican who always had something controversial to say. I enjoyed my arguments with the great and the good, my ill fated challenge to Richard Dawkins to a debate on the history of Science, my fun debates on the rationality of theism and on life after death.  Most of all though I enjoyed the people, the new ideas, the constant challenge to my beliefs, and the ability to ask others to question theirs.

Apparently the new website to replace the forum will only allow posts clearly in the areas of Reason and Science, and that is in itself interesting. I wonder what that means? Will Atheism cease to be a major plank of the new website? Will religious believers like me now be officially banned? In my more more egotistical twat moments I’d like to think my success at arguing for actual history over myths may have hastened the demise of the old forum, and this is a ridiculous attempt at censorship — but I VERY much doubt it: in fact it’s absurd.  What I doubt will ever happen on the new website is that someone will win the say writing contest with an essay ripping to shreds the nonsense about the conflict of religion and science, or we will have a sensible discussion about parapsychology, or the evidence for the historical Jesus, or any of the things I spent so much time  writing about on the forum.

That’s a damned shame. Reason and Science were furthered by those discussions I think: people came to examine their personal beliefs (I certainly did) and were exposed to opinions sharply divergent from there own. I learned a helluva lot, but above all I learned tolerance and respect for my opponents, even if I still disagreed with them after all the shouting. :)

So why has it happened?  No one actually knows. The mods have been dismissed, or rather given notice, and the website administrators made a unilateral decision to withdraw the forum for the new website. My utterly cynical guess is simple: it comes down to money. I have no idea how well offf the Richard Dawkins Foundation is, though it’s a registered charity so the accounts are public domain I think: but ultimately the forum must have eaten a hug amount of resources and bandwidth.  I have no idea if the Rational Response Squad is till going after their troubles in 2008 , but running an atheist forum is probbaly a license to lose money. People loved the forum, but did they buy from the shop, read the main pages and support the RDF? I don’t know, but I suspect most forum users went staright to the forum and ignored all that stuff.

And so I appreciate this may have well been a sound commercial decision: to support the RDF,  more traffic needs to be routed through the main site.  Looking at ALEXA the site had continued to grow slowly in popularity, and was ranked 14,799 in the world (top 2000 in New Zealand and South Africa, top 4,000 in the UK, top 9,000 in the USA) – a tremendous success.  Yet the search function had gone, and as always the forum often fell over through sheer weight of numbers. It desperately needed investment in servers and infrastructure: instead it has been decided to kill the forum, and create a new streamlined website.  I can see why — but it does not help those of us who invested so much in making the site what it is.

Ultimately the decision is one man’s: Richard Dawkins.  I never really got to know the bloke in all my time on the forum, as he posted less and less, and when he did it was often after something like this, when he gets the stick. The Great Purge was necessary to protect his reputation and that of the rDF when it was going for charitable status: some of the stuffon the site might have upset the Charity Commissioners, but I think they could differentiate between what the RDF stood for and the opinions voiced on an internet forum – but maybe not.  Still, if he is digging deep in to his own pockets to support the forum, and would rather spend his money on “God probably does not exist” adverts on the side on buses who are we to complain. Ultimately it’s Richard’s site – and Richard calls the shots.

Still, I think a lot of people are as usual not so much upset that it has happened but at the usual complete lack of communication that have left us with thirty days to save what we can and make our escape plans. And that si really not something i can forgive lightly. Oh well, so be it…

I returned to the forum to say my good byes and found I could not actually post any more.  What I found was a hilarious piece of craven cowardice and stupidity. A notice appended to the previous announcement, which reads –

Update: We had intended to leave the forum fully-funtioning (sic) for 30 days, but due to the inappropriate posts by some users and moderators, we have decided to leave the forum in a read-only state. You can still download and archive your posts and private messages, but the ability to enter new posts has been disabled. It’s unfortunate that it had to come to this. We know that change can be difficult and sometimes frightening, but we are all very excited about the direction of the website and the future.

I’m not, and I suspect over 85,000 other forum users will join me in calling on Richard Dawkins to sack those responsible for what has been a lousy piece of absolutely moronic administration, and boycotting the new website entirely. I don’t mean the decision to close the forum – I can understand if that is necessary – I mean the appalling, insensitive and now frankly ridiculous way it has been done. I wait with interest to see what Dawkins himself makes of all this. To be honest it is a particular kick in the teeth for everyone who has worked so hard on their entries for the Science Writing Contest — voting was due to start tomorrow.

If any one from the old forum reads this, please do comment, I want to stay in touch!

I’ll end with a public service announcement

Atheist forums you might want to try

http://www.rationalskepticism.org/

(a forum specifically set by poster Life up for ex-RD.net folks, where I also happen to be a mod)

http://rationalia.com/forum/

http://forum.herd-of-cats.com/

http://freethought-forum.com/

http://thinkingaloudforum.com/

http://www.thinkatheist.com/


and forums that are intelligent fun and atheists may enjoy, but which are NOT atheist forums

http://www.ukskeptics.com/forum.php

http://forums.randi.org/

have fun guys, and may your gods go with you…  ;)

UPDATE: Former mod Darkchilde’s blog offers inside perspective  on this extraordinary mess:  http://tenebra98.blogspot.com/2010/02/death-of-forum-death-of-rdnet-forum.html

UPDATE: Hackenslash rallys the refugees! – Good on you man… (YouTube link) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kyLnxu19DM8&feature=player_embedded

UPDATE: Several mods deleted, along with all their posts.. Mazille, CJ (the other one), Valden, kiki and Darwinsbulldog — about a 30.000 posts gone in this most peculiar purge.

http://rationalia.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=75&t=8864

UPDATE: Former mod  Peter Harrison blogs on events at the forum -

http://realityismyreligion.wordpress.com/2010/02/23/locked-entry-will-open-soon/

Update: Richard Dawkins responds

http://forum.richarddawkins.net/viewtopic.php?f=60&t=110356

As I have engaged in no such vitriolic attacks i will not be apologizing: they are ridiculously over the top, and i’d love to know where they were posted and take the idiots who said it to task.  I will apologise I personally villified Richard Dawkins in anyway. Yet I stand by EVERY WORD I wrote: this whol ematter was dealt with dreadfully, and the deletion of the mods posts was shameful.

J x  (who is an Anglican: prejudice declared!)

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