Author Topic: The story of a forum


The story of a forum
« on: April 25, 2005 »
Time is said to heal all wounds, so a time machine is a handy thing to have around. Never buy a used one without having it checked by a mechanic. On my test ride I ended up back here in 2005, at the dawn of acf, where the machine promptly conked out.

. . .

Once upon a time a friend told me, "You'll like this." He was talking about the web. I was not an early adopter. When I finally jumped in it didn't take long to find the cyclists. They were the ones arguing about helmets and swapping SMIDSY stories.

I joined the conversation. After a while a few more of me stopped by. It was cheap entertainment. After another while I discovered the Cycling Plus forum, affiliated with the magazine I was writing for.

There were some good times. The forum got me virtually out of the house, which can be lonely when you work there.

It also provided hosts for my hospitality tour from Land's End to John O'Groats, turning screen names into real people.

The downside to the mostly online hobnobbing is that it could be like opening your door to a stranger and getting punched in the face, or at least slapped around a little. I decided that the best way to ensure a friendly environment was to make my own.

My first forum failed. Promoting it on the newsgroup where I'd got my start just got people cross with me (then me with them). Thinking that a big name on the marquee might pull in the punters, I managed to get Sheldon Brown to post once or twice, but no matter: there was no oomph to the place, no "critical mass" — a phrase almost impossible to avoid when discussing cycling forums. I gave up.

After an appropriate period of mourning I tried again, with another cycling forum. I happened to launch this just as Cycling Plus was giving a very committed group of its regulars conniptions. The accident of timing brought them to my new site, with the enthusiastic help of those who'd already discovered it.

As the C+ forum continued to falter, and word of mouth about my site spread, new users swarmed in. It was a heady experience.

My first order of business was making these fresh immigrants feel safe from trolls, which for the most part meant the sort of keyboard warriors who'd been giving them grief back at C+: petrolheads, as they were known without the affection they might give the term if using it on themselves.

I came down hard and fast on anybody who looked like they might cause trouble. To better do this I recruited a group of troll-spotters and general eyes about the place. They weren't moderators at first, but they helped as I formed my opinions and made decisions. I didn't really want moderators. I just wanted Theodore.

Theodore Blovius, last seen on a newsgroup squabbling with Gertrude, was placed in charge of The Hotel California. My hope was that this institution would be both a fire station and a learning annex. It didn't hurt that it gave me the continued opportunity to poke fun at my own propensity to prolixity. I chose one of my favourite songwriter/singers for the avatar.

Lists of rules bored me, so I came up with commandments and memos instead, which were basically rules by other names, but which I hoped would be a smidgeon less boring.

What with Theo and my rep as a dictator (if a "benevolent" one to acf's citizens), and my intolerance for the unnecessary roughness I had come to know and loathe on newsgroups and back at C+, it's not surprising I collected critics.

Some gagged on my always-under-construction version of a utopia. Others took a dislike to Theo. Still others simply didn't like me personally, as far as I could tell, as I'd never done anything to rain on their parade other than be myself.

After a phase with a proxy I eventually picked moderators. Perhaps a little too fond of imaginary constructs, I also recruited a librarian. The Library was, to me, the heart of the enterprise. Recall (or not if you've never heard of it) BikeReader. I wanted a forum where words were cherished and sometimes woven into stories, prompting yet more words and more stories. If attached to this there could also be a generous helping of advice both on topic and off, respectful debate, camaraderie without offputting cliquishness, safety for oddballs and misfits like myself, and general good-natured mayhem, all the better.

. . .

I'm not sure where it started to go bad. For some it was quite early on when it became clear things weren't going their way – or my way, if they were simpatico. Most appeared reasonably content, though there were dark rumblings and warnings from unhappy campers. My own list of grievances came to include, notoriously, the innocent-looking smiley.

Yellow bobbles are a poor substitute for words. [Insert cranky smiley here?] God knows I like images, but not samey ones that are stamped out by the tens of thousand. Other talkative sites that I value manage fine without them. They also struck me as too "have a nice day" American, which was strange given the negative reaction to Americana often not far below the surface. Whatever you think of smileys, I thought it was fair to try this:

The death of smileys brought the house down on my head. I took shelter in the Hotel. There was an almost instant poll which helped polarise the issue. Real venom started to leak out and spread in a poison blossom. A truculent post by "Zipperhead" pushed me that last inch to delete my own account, not recognising my own forum.

Before long I returned to witness the aftermath with fascinated horror. I had put too much time in this to walk away. Most painful was the failure of the group I had originally gathered to help, to have helped. Granted they were now without the permissions which enabled them to moderate. However, almost without exception they made no effort to make anything better as acf crumbled. (There was a calm post by Tim.) While I could understand disorientation and possibly anger, I had a harder time with their feeble defense of the realm — or being admittedly selfish here, of me in my distress. (Paul had once said the forum was me.) Whether or not my leaving like that was defensible, they appeared surprisingly bereft of one of the attributes I value most: empathy.

When I came back all the way the first thing I did was delete some accounts. It's quite possible I was being stupid. Maybe I should have tried harder to come to an understanding with those who I felt had violated the acf ethos, which was about transcending the usual forum nonsense.

(Prompted by a former member's insistance that I remove his contributions, I would go on to delete most of the database, forestalling what I thought might be further demands and who knew what other unpleasantness.)

While I had been away history rhymed. "Rogerzilla" put up an eerily familiar Yet Another Cycling Forum, registering while he was at it. This seemed like a good idea to a lot of people, so they left. The duplication seemed a lot like plagiarism, so naturally I complained. Enmity bedded in.

I felt the loss of what I thought had been, or might become, real friendships. Goodbye Paul, Vince, and little miss Alex. And goodbye to those who I shared less with, but who still engaged me on a level higher than mere acquaintance.

Goodbye also to FNRttC Simon, who did his best to convince me to keep acf going. I still see him from time to time on some of the rides he organises, so while it's a goodbye to roads not taken, it hasn't been the same dead end.

Finally, goodbye to what I knew would be

the only chance I'll ever get to tend an active online community.

It worked for a while.

Forgive and forget, the advice goes. They orbit each other. The entire affair had me examining them like an astronomer, wondering if I'd get to land on either. For me, forgiving and forgetting, or at least moving on, involves writing – the best time machine of all.