When Forums Go Bad …

I remember having been online ever since the Web took shape in earnest. Early 90s, was it? That time I still sat at a university PC of the most solid kind, metal casing and all, solid gray and deadly slow. What followed was an equally impressive 386SX Escom PC (… does anyone remember Escom?), a couple of machines thereafter and in between and right now I’m already thinking again of throwing out my current PC to buy into a new one. Actually, I think I have to. The darn things don’t last longer than a couple of months nowadays.

No matter what the technical achievements of the past decade or two were, communication has not evolved all too much. If at all, it has gotten more complicated.

When I started out, I discovered from the get-go that newsgroups, mailing lists and forums were the places to interact, get up-to-date information and converse with people much more knowledgeable in various fields than I could ever hope to be. In short, I discovered that I could further my knowledge with the help of new media and, being the lazy sod I am, that I could gather together huge amounts of needed info without so much as turning a page. Post a question … and wait for the answers.

Of course, things are never as easy as they first seem.

See, once you start participating in these online communities, you also get drawn into them. Because you pulled out loads of info, you try to at least push some new info back into the system; because someone helped you, you try to help that person further down the line; because you profited from the interaction, you interact to add to the pool.

Soon after, you find yourself in contact with people you would never have met in real life, strewn across the globe and coming from the most diverse cultural backgrounds. Yeah, you’ve gone global.

All things web design, literature, film and music have always been my passions, and I have the forum and mailing list registrations to prove it. I am very anal about keeping mails and registration information and a very quick scan of my archive folders tells me that since the early 90s I have been an active member in more than 30 forums. All of them were, more or less, a huge part of my life and they were instrumental in helping me keep up with what’s new, what’s not, what’s controversial and what’s must-have, and my various sites also reflected that I was able to tap into that well of information. In summation: I profited tremendously from the pool of information available at my fingertips and without that information, my life might not have been as fulfilled … as corny as that sounds.

I have also removed myself from all but one (private) forum as an active participant.
Completely.

Yes, many moons ago I regretted having left one or two and rejoined a while later – only to leave again – but these past 24 months I’ve pulled out of all of them, irreversibly.

And I feel much better because of it.

The reason?

All of the forums turned bad along the way and I’m just not cut out for them either. It’s just damn difficult to describe why things developed the way they have. Still, I’d like to try.

See, forums and mailing lists are all about communication, and communication is – after all – the most complicated side of human interaction. Before we proceed, I’d like to elaborate on the personal aspects of that a bit.

I was brought up in a diplomatic family, in every sense of the word. My dad was a diplomat, for 20 years or more, despite the opinionated members of the family we tried to remain diplomatic on sensitive issues (not always possible and certainly not always recommended) as much as possible, and my day job of the past 14 years has called for a huge amount of highly concentrated diplomatic behaviour … every minute of the day. I can be very outspoken on issues, but because I teach the children of many people who I would call friends, there are lines you do not overstep, unless you are in a very private and limited setting and know you can come out with what needs to be said.

Secondly, I abhor people with an agenda. I’ve met too many of the types propagating one and it’s almost as if those people, when you meet them in person or online, have a red sign tattooed smack-dab in the middle of their forehead that just screams “DANGER”, visible from a distance and usually much more vividly apparent after a week or two of having known them. These people can seem quite harmless on the surface, but beneath you can already sense the looming disaster that will then unfold in closer communication. It’s usually quite a spectacle, but an intricate one.

Taking these two personal takes into account, it is almost certain that I will not, in the long run, fit into an online community. Additionally, I know lots of people, people who then turn out to be close friends as things blow up in our faces and who tend to stick together long after forums and whatnot have gone the way of the world, who have very similar if not identical feelings. Surprisingly – and I have not figured this out yet – these people are invariably Europeans (the very few exceptions prove the rule).

Where to start? The issue is not only complicated but also involves abstracting things that many people who read along here are privy to.

To come right to the point, I think there are two types of forums users, the ones who have a distanced stance and the ones who get personally involved. The latter, the ones who have familial feelings (for want of a better expression), are the ones who are much more sensitive to the ground shifting in subtle ways as opposed to the former ones who don’t notice, don’t want to notice or don’t care unless the proverbial shite hits the fan.

Let me give an example here, one that is far removed from music.

I used to be a somewhat able web designer. I gave that up long ago, but I was a member of some of the world’s most renowned forums, discussing every aspect of designing good sites for the web. What happened in those circles are things that happened on a music forum or two not so long ago. See, in web design circles there are the so-called “Standardistas”. Those people abhorred table-based layouts and many of them forced their agenda of making sites accessible, they complained about anything and everything that was not standardized, valid code and user-centered, and they took a stance. They were loud and … they were right.

Web design was in shambles after David Siegel had introduced all kinds of nifty tricks to use an inflexible HTML basis to produce both usable an aesthetically pleasing sites, and we needed a group of at times more than strenuous personalities to literally force people to reconsider things.

The problem was that these were and are people with an agenda that did not relent. They soured plenty of conversations, they crapped on each and everyone’s head in an often subtle but very obvious manner, they inserted their conservative view into each thread on any forum that allowed it, and they did not stop (again, exceptions prove the rule). If you asked for a simple opinion on some design it would usually take only a few minutes until someone would come barging into the “room” and yell: “IT DOESN’T VALIDATE!” And that was it. In many cases, days – if not months – of work swept away by one blunt statement.

Worst of all, they killed all communication amongst those who just weren’t good enough or able enough to keep up with them. I’ve stated before that they were absolutely right in their demands, but once they had reached a certain level of expertise, they left parrot droppings wherever they trod, ridiculed dissenting opinion, sent posters personal messages when they disagreed, hung them out to dry publicly, followed people around the Net to quench any similar discussion elsewhere, and altogether created an atmosphere of unease in which “normal” people simply couldn’t and didn’t want to communicate anymore. In fact, they scared many less knowledgeable people away. In the end, a learning process necessary to really help standards along was hindered massively by this behaviour and the consequences can still at times be felt today, although things have improved again.

Cliquish behavior which, in my mind, is still alive and well in those circles today. You just have to hit one member’s website and check out the links … and start hopping down a long chain of names all too familiar from earlier uneasy times.

Personally, I used to love web design but I simply stepped away because the excitement, the fun, the learning of new things was quenched by this at times sublime and at other times open atmosphere of negativity and fundamental opposition.

Many other people I know/knew stepped away as well.

Recently, a forum I used to frequent a lot, a forum that I pulled massive amounts of information from to develop my collection, has succumbed to the same atmospheric change. It was gradual, sublime at first and open thereafter, and it meant the death (to me, personally) of that forum in a relatively short period of time.

What happened? It’s simple. Respected and knowledgeable posters moved in, people with a CV as long as your average Stephen King novel, and in a relatively short period of time they took over the board. The latter is the controversial issue because most other posters on said forum would disagree with me.

Every forum is plagued by trolls again and again, and they are usually dealt a swift blow sooner than later and either thrown out or ignored. We are NOT talking about the typical trolls here, but posters with an agenda. It is that agenda that usually goes largely unnoticed by all of those who do not have the aforementioned (somewhat) familial ties to a forum or just drop by to suck out the occasional tidbit of relevant information.

That agenda does two things: It brings out those people trying to agree because the posters in question are – after all – the ones with the CV to give a healthy boost to their opinion (and it’s sad to see long-standing posters fall into line with them) and it brings out the ones trying to counter the new atmospheric direction (those are the ones who usually leave after a while).

On top of that – and that seems to me to be largely an American problem altogether (sorry, but the people I’m thinking about are, down to one or two men, American … no women involved) – whatever is done, has changed or is deemed unnecessary by a few is countered with the “free speech” bat. Add to that the usual argument by many that a forum is a democratic affair and one needs to either put up with whatever does not meet one’s fancy or simply ignore it, and you have a stance you can hardly argue with, especially if one at least believes oneself to be a stout defender of freedom of speech.

What it comes down to is that the people with an agenda have not learned, will never learn and will not ever adhere to one of the most important aspects of conversation, and that is … wait for it … it’s important … restraint. Their perceived stance of neutrality on certain issues does not allow for restraint. It’s a basic character flaw which has nothing to do with their expertise. They simply cannot hold back. It is comical to watch a thread on, say, a person recently deceased, knowing that the poster in question does not like and has never liked that person. If you refresh the thread, you can sense that poster waiting to dump onto everyone’s restrained words of condolence and invariably it will happen, usually sooner than later. Without fail. It’s an opinion that they NEED to make public, that they revere in seeing in (digital) print. Look! It’s me. I disagree. The recently deceased individual just sucked. And maybe he or she did, but that’s not the point here.

Restraint is an essential ingredient when conversing with people online, especially if your are moving about in a culturally diverse place such as an international forum. I do not mean verbal restraint per se, although that is often also a good thing, but restraint in the content you post and in being able to judge what is useful and what is not. People with an agenda are simply unable to apply simple conversational skills such as these. More often than not I would say that some people are just unable to do that, agenda or not. No idea why. I have been told by somewhat neutral bystanders that person A or person B is “really quite the opposite in real life”, but with 15 years of educational experience under my belt and half of my life spent with people whose main job it was to converse sensibly and tactfully, I do wonder. Invariably, once you get to know these kinds of agenda-pushing people a bit better, those ugly sides will also come to light in real life. All you need to do is wait a while and enjoy the show.

Here’s advice for those wanting to equal the efforts brought forth by those with an agenda: Someone died? Tell the world that he/she sucked. Someone likes a certain musician? Dig around your files and post – substantiated by many accounts – that this person was a knife-wielding maniac. Someone is deemed inferior by people in the know? Enforce the opinion by a myriad of personal letters, informed quotes and tidbits posted in every thread in which someone who actually likes the stuff voices his opinion. Dissenting opinions? Dig around the board long enough to find the one or two places where the dissenter did something similar … and then toss it back at him/her, with a backspin. Keep a watchful eye on every thread and make sure that whenever you dumped on some artist or idea, you immediately post a humorous response to any dissenting opinion. Distract the audience and let them know that you were only kidding, or that despite the shite you just posted you’re not really such a bad guy. When you’re called out, post a photo of you and some celebrity, one of you with some musical genius, preferably in another thread, scan in personal letters that were never intended for online consumption and post them in hi-res for everyone to see, cite your known and respected sources a few threads removed from where you just dumped on something or someone, hang anything and anyone out to dry to support whatever it is you said.

Then revel in the feeling of unease you are causing.

Once things don’t work out for you anymore, delete as many contributions to a board you’ve made (and as many as the board software allows you to trash), move on to the next one and make sure to let every member of the new board know that the members of the old one are inferior, uneducated, feeble-minded, a bickering bunch, not worthy of your time, whatever. Make sure to phrase insults carefully as to not make things too obvious.

Smokescreen, people.
Smokescreen.

Come to think of it, clothe your negative (at best) or cynical (at worst) world view in as much cryptic verbiage as possible. Keep the readers on their toes and try to keep them guessing whether you are the personality they perceive you to be or if you are, perhaps, someone educated enough to actually be right.

If that doesn’t work, make sure you post wherever you can catch a dissenter, ridiculing him/her, leave a humorous but insightful admonisher or just, all in all, be a general nuisance.

I have seen it so many times in many different forums that I could actually call that a trend.

I remember being invited to a panel discussion here in Germany, having to debate issues with a bunch of Neo-Nazis in front of a rather huge audience. Despite the fact that I knew beforehand that this wasn’t possible, I learned my lesson: Never attempt to even try to do that. What I really learned was to watch them take themselves apart by the agenda they were pushing and hoping that a few people in the audience would enjoy the spectacle as much as I did.

In case of the aforementioned “Standardistas”, the ones pushing validity of any code, the tide turned after a few years. Today, they are often smiled upon belligerently (although many people hate their guts), but they have converted many and by their very behaviour also delayed what they in fact wanted to achieve. They gave birth to a group of people who for quite a while automatically ignored, countered and just out of principle opposed many good things they were asking for, just because people had had enough of their verbal vomit. Counterproductive, to say the least.

Additionally, and this does reveal a certain (but acquired) degree of arrogance on my part, I have learned to smile at those people who fall for this kind of crap, the ones trying to lick the boots of their perceived superiors, laughing out loud when someone runs yelping into a thread on some forum, trying to make good with the people he or she wants to be friends with (not knowing that there is a bigger chance of hell freezing over than those people letting anyone into their small, cynical and largely ignorant world which was set in stone decades previously). There are endless examples of people remaining neutral on some issue and then suddenly exploding into a cloud of negativity once “someone in the know” had taken the first step and trashed some artist, programmer or whatever.

In short, one has to see the humor in it all, which I have learned to do.

I remember a humorous line by some poster characterizing forum members as junk-food-eating loners, with oodles of time at their disposal, with keyboards that had two buttons, “Porn!” and “Who Can I Trash Today?” Said poster was banned from the forum, and rightfully so, but after 15 years of online time, I have to agree. It’s just become more sublime. I often wonder if those agenda-pushing people missed out on their toilet training, had some encounter(s) that soured their take on life forever, had their hobby and/or work ruined for them and made them turn into the eternal cynics they are.

It is that last point that reveals the irony of it all. No matter where you place Diogenes of Sinope in the development of cynicism, it was he who went about town fornicating, masturbating and urinating in front of or onto people he didn’t like, people who did not fit into his world view and dissenters who did not adhere to his view of the world as being artificial and hypocritical.

On the forums I have left, fornicating, masturbating and urinating in the manner described above is very much alive, well, and – right now – apparently still very much “en vogue”.

Hey, we’ve reached the 21st century.
Who would have known.

Posted by Volkher Hofmann

Volkher Hofmann (deus62) has been blogging on and off since the 1990s and deus62.com is all that is left. He loves music, literature, drumming and, most of all, real life. He thinks the open web is much more important than social networks, closed-in ecosystems and other severely commercialized online endeavors.

  1. split infinitive alert! heheh.

    freedom of speech is a licence not an order to insult.

    Reply

  2. a) I always split my infinitives to up the word count. 🙂

    b) Yep.

    Reply

  3. Judging by the comments on a forum I used to frequent there is hardly a distinction between the two across the pond…

    Reply

  4. @couw and @Hans,

    I’m going to rush to the defense of people I summarily trashed in my post. Saying that the “free speech bat” is the one weapon one can’t go up against is putting it into too simple terms.

    I would never dare say that whoever used that approach used insults only to counter any argument. I would limit that statement to very few individuals that seem to have their mode of attack tuned that way.

    I think that what I referred to as “restraint” above is the single most confounding issue. See, I’ve been in touch with posters on various forums that had never wasted a thought on what I wrote about here. They were insensitive to the issue because their upbringing, their daily encounters and whatnot simply did not demand a reappraisal of their stance. In short, they simply didn’t know they might have overstepped an invisible line.

    Yes, there are individuals who have adopted a certain modus operandi that mirrors what I wrote about above, but that’s not everyone.

    Reply

  5. Just found this place, it’s nice. I rarely frequent forums. I am much too sensitive to endure such heated debate. But I been online since those days of big university computers and have seen my share. I think people find it easier to write terrible things than to say them out aloud to a person who is present. I found this site scanning through forums for information on DVD Audio and was surprised to see flamewars over technical things like bit depth and sample rate, I can’t really imagine being excited by such. I have met such people in reality though. They push their agenda and they aren’t really concerned with the consequences, and as you commented on the web designers, they might as well be right -but when their personality has me running for the hills that matters little. Anyway I chatter away -just to say, like the site.

    Reply

  6. I’ve been online since late ’98 and I have been a member of many forums/bulletin boards. It doesn’t matter what kind of board it is or what topic is being discussed, there is always one or two or many people that love to stir the pot and destroy everyone’s discussions.

    I joined a board of a well-known Hard Rock mag when I went online and it was a delight to discuss new albums, band reunions, etc. Then the plague began and every topic was hijacked by one or two “members” that constantly tore down the topic and the board members. Forget moderators, hundreds of posts a day can’t be checked for anger, spite, and hatred. After a year, I quit, never to return.

    I started to join forums on official band websites figuring that there would be great discussions. There was for a time but then certain “superfans” decided that everyone else’s opinions were wrong. When personal attacks came my way after defending my opinions, I quit. Too bad because the actual websites were very good. Hijacked again!

    I joined many Onelist email groups, they became eGroups, then Yahoogroups. Same thing happened there the difference was it got sent to your mailbox! BBs & forums have taken the lead so these lists are ancient, I still belong to a few but the posts are few and far between. The only Yahoogroup that has survived infighting and hijackings is the UFO/MSG group I have been a part of for close to a decade…..SITN (Strangers In The Night). To this day, many of us are friends and join together at area concerts.

    I’m a member of forums, at least in name, but I’m not active and rarely visit. I check the Steve Hoffman forum maybe once a week, same with the Melodicrock.com Noticeboard & forum. The one place I still contribute to is the Heavy Harmonies forum. I’ve been there for close to 10 years and my posts get respect and responses. I’m more of a lurker now, it’s easier to avoid the hassles when they come around.

    Steve
    Heavy Metal Addiction

    Reply

  7. @b

    “[…] and was surprised to see flamewars over technical things like bit depth and sample rate, I can’t really imagine being excited by such.”

    That one really made me laugh, especially since I’ve been entangled in one or two of those myself. Since then, real life has gotten the better of me, so life is better all around. 🙂

    Welcome to the site, b.

    @Steve

    Yeah, and the story continues … Seems like most people I meet online, especially people who have spent a lot of time researching the Web for information, have had similar experiences.

    Maybe we should start our own forum, invitation only?
    On second thought, let’s not. 🙂

    Thanks for the heads up on some more information resources. I might check those out. The SH forums are the only ones mentioned by you that I’m somewhat familiar with.

    Reply

  8. Thanks for your insights.

    I agree with Hans in that this behaviour can be found anywhere, although I’ve found the average American poster to be somewhat more insensitive to what is really going on.

    On the other hand, I’d like to add that I’ve participated in “local” (meaning members from one country only) forums with a limited amount of active users that have been spared from this development, despite several years online. It might have helped that these are very specialized forums, where the members exchange experiences within rather limited frames, for example maintaining cars of a specific brand.

    Reply

  9. I realize that my comment above was ambiguous. In reply to what couw posted (“freedom of speech is a licence not an order to insult”) I meant to say that, judging by the comments on a forum I used to frequent, in the United States there hardly seems to be a distinction between the two. I agree with Daniel about the insensivity of average American poster.

    Reply

  10. Yes, that was also the gist of my post, so I agree. I have been in touch just recently with quite a few Americans from one forum I left quite a while ago that would even subscribe to this as well. They have reduced their posting activity in a major way because they sensed – and didn’t feel like going up against – the same things I wrote about here. When people are afraid of posting in certain threads or starting one themselves because they know one of those with an agenda will invariably put them down (and others will automatically rally around them), I think it’s a sad state of affairs. If we take a music forum, for example, in which on an average day a post dumping on a single musician gets ten times the posts (and a multiple number of hits) when compared to one discussing some other artists’ music, there’s definitely something wrong.

    I’m just glad I’m not the only one that has experienced this kind of stuff. For a while I just thought I was being over-sensitive.

    But I also consider myself cured.
    I just stay away.

    Reply

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