A deeper look at the RDF self-immolation and public reactions to it - blog by Gurdur


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A deeper look at the RDF self-immolation and public reactions to it
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Posted 25-Feb-2010 at 03:58 AM (03:58) by Gurdur
Updated 25-Oct-2010 at 03:13 PM (15:13) by Gurdur

Following on from my first blog post on the debacle of the destruction of the RDF board, I'll discuss more of my thoughts on it all, and also on the public reactions to the debacle. I titled my previous blog post "The Richard Dawkins Foundation net forum (RDF) self-destructs -- yet another big atheist board immolates itself", for a good reason -- this is not the first time this kind of catastrophically ill-advised vandalism to a big atheist board has happened, and I'll discuss those other times here including in later blog posts, and also start bringing in overall web design and humanist points made very well by one of the real pioneers of web design and related information science, Wikipedia link for Jaron Lanier Jaron Lanier, in his rather brilliant book, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto.

I'll start by making a checklist of points, and expand on those underneath:
  1. If something works, don't break it, even if you think you're fixing it by breaking it.
    • The RDF board was working, and in comparison to other atheist big boards (not truly a big board of the net itself, but biggish), it was working reasonably well inside the parameters set for it. Junking the board is breaking it.
    • As I blogged previously, Richard Dawkins was simply not correct to blame closing down of the RDF board upon it being broken in any way, and his given reasons for justifying the lockdown are very much post facto excuses.
  2. If you have a real community on your board, including many activists helping to advance your cause, do not treat them like chattels or serfs, and do not simply piss them off and throw them away. They won't forget it, and activists and those active on boards have already proven themselves vocal, so they are going to be quite vocal about your treatment of them.

    This is also a blow against the atheist movement as a whole, both ethically and practically.
  3. Yes, there will be times you will need to ban people. It happens. There will also be times you will be faced by some coterie of posters bent on trying to take over your forum from you, and you will need to face them down, and you will need to live with that group then going elsewhere (I stress that was not the case with the RDF, just a sideline from other similar cases). That's fine, that's life. But you do not idly simply insult those who are actually well-intentioned towards you, and you do not throw them away -- since that indicates you in actual fact value blind obedience to orders rather than activism in genuine support of the cause you are supposed to be promoting.
    • Richard Dawkins has in fact done just that -- he has effectively thrown away and unnecessarily insulted a whole large group of activists and supporters who were helping promote his cause. This is not brilliant tactics.
    • Since Richard Dawkins' stated goal is advancing atheism, and by that the atheist movement too, Dawkins has a moral obligation to explain his actions to the atheist movement, and he has a moral duty to those atheist activists who supported him. He has not carried out his obligations.
  4. When you have to ban someone from a board, you do not delete their entire user account. That is extremely silly, and leads to very badly mucked-up threads.
  5. If you have to ban, you ban only the true offenders, and possibly also outwait a few other offenders to wander away under their own power happily incorrectly convinced they are doing you in by doing so, but you do not in effect ban your whole board.
  6. If you are having database size problems, with consequent search and server-cost problems, you do not solve the problems by destroying your board.
    • You can easily build in links to Google Search for your board, or you can use Sphinx Index & Search for vBulletin, or you can upgrade your server, or other possible answers.
    • If your user base is that large as to cause such techincal problems, it's also that large enough to appeal to for money to support better server hosting.
    • It's easy enough to archive old posts so they do not form too high a burden on the server.
  7. It is never a good idea to junk board history wholesale. People need an emotional connection, and the old posts are that -- an emotional connection, a sense of history and place. This is needed. People like Richard Dawkins, who himself is emotionally attached to his cause, cannot expect everyone else to behave like emotionless robots in support of his cause.
  8. A busy board cannot be run like some sort of mini-Twitter facility. There is a reason for the subforums model of any board, and that is that it makes life much easier for guests and members.
  9. You make the very important distinction between substantive disagreement and personal abuse, and you do not confuse the two. You deal with one as indicated, and the other you simply ignore or ban -- but disagreement can be very valuble for sharpening your own thinking and goals, so you do not simply adopt a "You're either with me [and following my orders] or you're against me" attitude.
  10. Related to that point just above, if by chance you are a member in disagreement with owners or admins, do not get personally abusive. It doesn't work, and while it may feel satisfying to you, it will lose you support you may have gotten otherwise.
  11. After Dawkins' public response, it is no longer appropriate to blame Josh Timonen for all the actions carried out in locking down the RDF board. Dawkins has basically assumed full moral and practical responsibility through his public response.
  12. While any activism-related board will have a consequent goal and focus, idle chitchat is also very necessary to a board -- people are not automatons to be manipulatively used.

    Relatedly, forcing pre-approval of new threads is a very bad idea that will drive many would-be posters off.

Now, apart from all the reactions I mentioned in my last blog post, including Fizzle's two blog posts (written under the blog name El Juego), there has also been a typically snarkish post by PZ Myers, where PZ managed to miss the point entirely.

PZ Myers makes the following claims:

My own reactions to those claims
"I so do not want to get sucked into the drama" So then PZ Myers immediately starts making his patronising opinions well-known. He's contradicting himself. If he really did not want to get involved, he should just say so and then shut up, or simply stay quiet about it completely. But instead he goes on to make a bunch of silly assertions, which is the best way of getting sucked into it. His problem is he wants it both ways -- on the one hand, he wants to stand aloof like a figurehead and be seen to be doing so, and on the other hand he loves telling others what to do. This can be incompatible at times.
"It is Richard Dawkins' site" That is correct but not thorough nor complete. It is Richard Dawkins' site specifically set up to attract public support and activists, and to help activist organization, and just how he then treats those people is a very damned pertinent issue, whether Richard Dawkins or PZ Myers likes it or not.
"There has been a lot of vilification of Josh Timonen going on" This is actually halfway correct, and I have covered this in my points [9], [10], and [11] above.
"I've been active in forums on the web in the past, and I've also played a role as a moderator." Quite true. And PZ Myers should now explain to everyone just why he acted the way he did, when in two seperate childish tantrums of his in the not-so-distant-past he walked out unnecessarily, loudly and nastily from two different atheist boards. Quite apart from the hypocrisy of PZ Myers now advocating behaviour he himself did not display when it counted, one thing that is clear from those two seperate episodes is that PZ Myers simply does not like a level playing field where he is treated the same as others, and where he can't make his own rule count. His lack of involvement with the atheist movement is noted; he only takes part through his blog Pharyngula, and he does not play any role on any other board. There is much more to say on that all, but it can wait till another later blog post.
"Every one I know of follows one of two paths: a slow decline into quiet apathy, or a rapid growth in membership and activity which leads to an eventual implosion into chaos, acrimony, and drama..." Nonsense; there are other possibilities happening around the net too. PZ Myers really needs more experience of actual boards, including atheist ones.
"The forums at richarddawkins.net should not have competing interests, but only one: that of the Richard Dawkins Foundation. I think the recent changes are intended, in part, to remind participants of that." Way to miss the point entirely; there was no major noise on the board of the type claimed by Myers or Dawkins, and also see my point [12] above. Additionally, the needed focus referred to by Myers already was in operation at the RDF forum, just not to the bizarre extremes now announced for the RDF replacement.
"The forums are not going away, but they are going to change in character. That hurts if you have an attachment to the old forums, but this is reality, and reality is dynamic and change happens all the time. Adapt or die. Who knows, the new format may be even better than the old — try it!" That isn't even thought, that's merely evasive dismissiveness expressed in empty buzzwords.
"You can always just come to Pharyngula and chat here." Look, if people wanted Pharyngula, they would have already been on Pharyngula. They weren't, because what they wanted was the RDF board. Now that is being taken from them. Deal with that, Myers.
"The community is not going away and is not harmed by a change in one outlet for its expression, ..." Bullshit. The community has been harmed, regardless of how much Myers would like to pretend otherwise.
"...and if it is, then it's not much of a community, now is it?" A community being harmed is not much of a community because it allowed itself to be harmed? What kind of ridiculous, wrong platitude is that?

There is much more to write, and I still not have yet gotten to the comparisons with similar catastrophes on other atheist boards, but the hour is very late, and I must leave the rest till the next day, for my future blog posts.

I will conclude this blog post (though very soon I will make more blog posts on the RDF matter) with an appeal to Richard Dawkins sent to me in PM for inclusion by verte, a member of the Hub and of the RDF:

To Prof. R. Dawkins:
please imagine that YOU, as an obscure person who does not make lots of money from book deals and speaking engagements, put many hours of work and one's heart and soul into building and maintaining something because you believed in it with all your heart. Then imagine that your contributions were devalued, destroyed, and you were all chucked out on your ear by some uncouth lout of a bouncer, and imagine this person would determine whether or not you were even allowed to speak. How would you feel about that?
I agree it is "ludicrously hyperbolic animosity" but I think it is from your paid staff. I think the members are simply venting their extreme hurt and frustration. Why not ADDRESS IT??? Do something constructive about it?? Get better help for example??
I will be writing much more on the RDF debacle in my next blog posts. Till then!

If I have anything wrong, please say so; and please feel very free to comment. I would be very grateful for comments and critiques; you are very welcome to disagree with me, though I ask you please to explain why in detail.

Edited: Guests can now comment on my blog entries.

The Richard Dawkins Foundation net forum (RDF) self-destructs -- yet another big atheist board immolates itself (24-February-2010)

A deeper look at the RDF self-immolation and public reactions to it (25-February-2010)

Richard Dawkins Forum implosion -- more public reactions (01-March-2010)

Richard Dawkins Forums meltdown -- how it went down, in quotes (01-March-2010)

Down among the dead men -- not just a board, never just a board (02-March-2010)

The persistence of the negative stereotypes of atheists caused by New Atheist Richard Dawkins (12-August-2010)

Richard Dawkins sues, alleges Josh Timonen embezzled $375,000 from Richard Dawkins Foundation (RDF) (24-October-2010)

More details on Richard Dawkins and RDFRS suing Josh Timonen, Maureen Norton, and Upper Branch Productions (25-October-2010)
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  1. Old Comment


    I don't always agree with you (Nialler here), but your criticism of RD and PZ Myers is spot on.
    Posted 28-Feb-2010 at 08:43 PM (20:43) by Unregistered
  2. Old Comment

    DB size may have affected adding posts, not searching

    I don't know what forum s/w rd.net was using. But I can tell you about wordpress (not exactly forum s/w, but it's a round peg that can be hammered into that square forum hole and is illustrative anyway).

    Searching is a pain, particularly searches on the bodies of posts. But, as you said, that's what google is for. In any case, search time is on the order of n*log(n) with a db.

    Reading is also on the order of n*log(n) but people consume posts at a far lower rate than a search. Some form of cacheing will help a lot if it does get bad.

    Posting is the bitch. In order to permit simultaneous posts to do the right thing, wordpress searches for ALL posts in the same categories and with the same tags to adjust the counts. This is on the order of at least n*n*log(n) and where it all goes pear-shaped. Adding a post causes wordpress to do a lot of work if you already have as lot of posts.

    I look after several servers. One used wordpress as a kind of CMS, being fed new posts (a few hundred a day) from an XML feed (don't ask) that updated hourly. Due to a coding error, changes to existing posts resulted in wordpress-type historical articles that weren't displayed but clogged up the db. 20,000 live posts eventually resulted in 1,000,000 total posts (most of which were not visible except to admins). That's the point at which the server melted down when you tried to add a new post.

    So a db size increase can kill the server if the code is bad. Here's a good rule of thumb: if a db-driven system melts down the fault is in the design of the db or the code that accesses it. Don't bother thinking about tweaking apache (minor gains to be had) or adding cacheing (not quite so minor gains to be had) or upgrading to a more powerful server. If you've hit db scaling problems installing a cray supercomputer may only buy you a few months but fixing the bad design will buy you years.

    In the case of this forum s/w, it's possible the only way to fix bad design was to replace it. But there's no reason the original forum could not have been left running for archival purposes. As the new s/w started to be used people would access the archive less and less and so its burden would become vanishingly small.
    Posted 25-Oct-2010 at 11:02 PM (23:02) by Unregistered
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Dawkins.net Meltdown — New Forum for Exiles; rationalskepticism.org « "And sometimes he's so nameless"

26-Feb-2010, 06:44 PM (18:44)
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