Dawkins.net: Storm in a teacup 2.0?

by endlesspsych

Haythornwaite, C. (2008). Chapter 9: Social Networks and Community, Oxford handbook of internet psychology – Edited by Adam Joinson British Journal of Educational Technology, 39 (3), 561-562 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8535.2008.00855_4.x


By Keir Liddle

Anyone in the skeptical and atheist community who hasn’t heard of the row that erupted over changes to richarddawkins.net forum probably still uses a 56K modem and a dialup connection. The central issue seems to be a lack of communication between Dawkins tech team and the forums user base – an issue well covered by a former moderator of Dawkins forums here, here and here – the fallout from the closure resulted in Dawkins posting this rather vitriolic statement and then once the red mist had cleared this more reasoned one.

There are a couple of quotes from both of Dawkins statements on the matter that seem to reveal a degree of bemusement that people are getting so hot under the collar about the closure of something “so trivial” as an Internet forum:

Surely there has to be something wrong with people who can resort to such over-the-top language, over-reacting so spectacularly to something so trivial. Even some of those with more temperate language are responding to the proposed changes in a way that is little short of hysterical. Was there ever such conservatism, such reactionary aversion to change, such vicious language in defence of a comfortable status quo? What is the underlying agenda of these people? How can anybody feel that strongly about something so small? Have we stumbled on some dark, territorial atavism? Have private fiefdoms been unwittingly trampled?

The connection with our forum was simply that the comments – of necessity now made elsewhere – had been written by a few individuals who had previously used our forum, and revealed a disturbing sense of territorialism, entitlement, and extremism of language; and that this reinforced our determination to ensure that the whole of RichardDawkins.net should more closely serve the purposes for which we set it up.

Dawkins goes on to use the analogy of a “specialist magazine” to describe the new forum: a view at odds with how some former forum members viewed the site: as a community of like-minded people that had global reach and importance:

The forum brought rational thinkers together in incredible numbers, from all over the world. It was a safe haven for individuals who lived with overly religious families, or lived in oppressively religious societies where admitting an atheist worldview could result in death.

The story also appeared in the press in the form of this Times article and on the Guardians ‘Comment if Free’ and the general press coverage and reportage of the issue seems to have revolved around the disparity between the perceived seriousness of the issue (the closing of an Internet forum) and the outrage, bile and possibly righteous indignation this caused. Key to the “controversy” seems to be the idea that the indignation and sense of entitlement of a group of Internet based atheists is a storm in a teacup – a lot of fuss and nonsense over nothing.

But how alike are communities built in bits and bytes and communities built of bricks and mortar? Should people really be able to calmly leave a “virtual .com-unity” without a second thought or does such a thing sometimes prove as gut-wrenching as leaving flesh and blood friends behind?

How can a community exist without physical co-location and a geographic touchstone?

This is the question posed by Caroline Haythornwaite in the chapter “Social Networks and online community” in the Oxford Handbook of Internet Psychology – Joinson (ed) and she frames the issue as one of social networking. Explaining that communities emerge not because of a shared geographic space and co-location but rather as the product of cumulative interactions between individuals.

It is these pairwise interactions – be they sharing the social resources of stories or information, providing social support to other members or working towards some common goal – that form the building blocks of any community online or “away from keyboard”. Indeed research has reported that members of internet communities report experiencing the same strong emotional and social bonds that one might expect from a relatively close-knit local community. Communities online can evolve to be truly shared spaces for communication and the exchange of ideas – where social bonds can be formed (and broken) and the emergence of social norms and self policing can be observed – just as they would be within a “real” community.

Communities online generally form around shared interests and ideas and provide a space for these interests to be advanced and ideas to be developed. They can also generate very real friendships between members, social norms and a sense of social capital. Although this is not true of every online forum and some can more correctly be considered communities then others it does seem from the fallout resulting from the richarddawkins.net forum closure that is did indeed qualify as a real community. That is was not simply the proposed changes in the forum that caused the reaction but rather the manner in which it was communicated to the forum members. Here the members were very much treated as merely users of a website rather than members of a vibrant community in which many individuals on the forum had invested a lot of time and effort to build and maintain.

To write off thie fallout as something trivial or as a “storm in a teacup” seems to me to miss the importance online communities and perhaps even to deny their existence. To my mind communities are composed of people and interactions and it doesn’t matter if the backdrop for these interactions is bricks and mortar or bits and bytes what’s important: interactions.

People make a community be it online or “away from keyboard” and in my humble view the following paragraph shows how much users had invested in the forum:

The forum was like a society of its own. The forum was a huge part of many lives. The forum brought rational thinkers together in incredible numbers, from all over the world. It was a safe haven for individuals who lived with overly religious families, or lived in oppressively religious societies where admitting an atheist worldview could result in death. The forum had become so much more than just another website.

Those dismissing the closure of the forum as trivial and the reaction from some of the users as an overreaction should perhaps consider that this forum was “more then a website to the users”. You may not agree that it is important – but you cannot deny it was a very real community and it will be interesting to see if the community returns to RichardDawkins.net or if this debacle has soured their experience of the site too much for them to do so.
UPDATE: I have been informed that RD.net forum has moved and the community lives on at http://www.rationalskepticism.org. Thanks for this are to be directed to Bernhard Breisser (aka LIFE) for launching the lifeboat.