Community, discourse, and digital space

This past week has seen an absolutely fascinating dust-up over at one of my favorite blogs. I’ve been reading Slacktivist, authored by journalist and liberal evangelical Fred Clark, off and on for seven or eight years now. Fred writes about religion, politics, and contemporary public discourse with considerable insight, but more importantly, with a degree of charity and graciousness that sometimes borders on mind-boggling. He also writes an immensely satisfying regular series of posts eviscerating Tim LeHaye’s and Jerry Jenkins Left Behind books chapter by chapter. Like many of his readers, I came for the Left Behind posts and stayed for the rest of the commentary. Many of those readers are also active participants in the comments section, which usually takes Fred’s posts as a springboard for a wide-ranging discussion among a number of thoughtful, well-read (and often highly educated) people of a number of religious and political stripes.

Last week, Fred announced that the blog would be moving from Typepad, a general blogging platform, to the website Patheos, a community of blogs and resources devoted to religious discussion. Fred described Patheos as a genuine, if imperfect attempt at pluralism, and explained that having his blog hosted through Patheos would give him both visibility and credibility (he would no longer be just some guy with a Typepad blog), while also allowing him to engage more directly with people with a wide variety of perspectives. He also explained in a later post that there were financial considerations—moving to Patheos would provide him with some income from his blogging (it’s hard to fault him for that one—every newspaper journalist in the country is probably looking for secondary sources of income right now). He promised that the content of the blog would remain unchanged, as would the community of commenters.

The commenters, though, were not so easily swayed. Many of them started looking around Patheos and found that, though the site purports to be widely inclusive, the portals devoted to Christianity seemed to be more recently updated than those devoted to Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, etc. The library contained inaccurate or outdated information. The most prominent bloggers appeared to espouse many of the fundamentalist positions that Fred works to refute. They were concerned that their comments, pageviews, and clicks might support a community whose values they found problematic. They also worried that the Patheos community would be hostile towards the newly-arrived atheist and agnostic readers (Patheos’s atheist/humanist section appeared to be abandoned). Many commenters were also concerned that the discussion in the comments section would become more inflammatory as commenters found their way to Slacktivist from other Patheos sites. The Typepad comments community had been largely self-policing, and the commenters were concerned with their ability to continue to maintain a similar environment with the new larger and potentially less-invested audience. Many of the commenters expressed sadness at seeing the disappearance of a community they had considered a safe space. And finally, they were unhappy with the technical changes made to the site and the comments in general, particularly the introduction of threaded comments and the repositioning of the comments box from the space below the already-posted comments to the space above it.

Fred isn’t generally active in the comments, but the volume and tenor of the concerns caught his attention, and tried to address them, first in a post clarifying his motivations for the move and then in a post discussing the ways the poorly designed comments system at the new site negatively impacted the tenor of the conversation (short version: threaded comments make it hard to follow the whole conversation and encourage people to read selectively, and posting the comment box at the top of the thread implies that it’s okay to add your two cents before reading what everyone else has already said).

Fred’s responses failed to pacify everyone, and debate continued to rage in the comments. A number of commenters expressed the opinion that Slacktivist was not Patheos, even if that was where it was hosted, and readers were under no obligation to venture out to the rest of the site. Others argued that it was silly or cowardly to wish for an insulated community—what commenters should be doing was using the site’s expanded audience as an opportunity to sway others’ to their way of thinking. For the group of commenters who were unhappy with the move, though, Slacktivist had been a place where they had not needed to confront arguments they found patently offensive—homophobic, racist, misogynist, etc. Many of them had to deal with these sort of arguments on a day-to-day basis, and enjoyed having a space free from that conflict.  They did not relish giving that space up in favor of one of constant conflict. Furthermore, they did not see it as their obligation to educate the benighted in their spare time.

Ultimately, Fred handed the old Typepad blog over to the commenters, explaining his decision in a post that I’m not going to try to summarize, since he puts it better than I can. The whole incident is a wonderful example of the ways the internet changes the way we think about space and discourse, and the ways it doesn’t. Part of the conflict rested in the question of what Slacktivist was, and who owned it. Obviously, the writing in the posts was Fred’s, and he was free to do that writing where he chose. But the comments, and the community they represented, had relatively little to do with Fred. They did, however, exist on a domain registered to Fred. But the space of that community was important. It would not be the same in a space affiliated with an organization that appeared to be hostile to certain fundamental tenets of the community. Fred and the commenters use the language of privilege, but we might also think of it in terms of publics and counterpublics. Slacktivist on Typepad had constituted an important counterpublic for a number of commenters. For them, moving to Patheos might arguably constitute aligning themselves with the public against which they were defined, at least in terms of religion—many of the commenters were atheists and agnostics, and they saw Patheos as representative of mainstream evangelical Christianity. Fred may have decided to engage more directly with that public, but in handing the blog over to the commenters, they retained their counterpublic.

The Typepad site is now engaged in defining their community and the standards of discourse they will maintain. They’re trying to decide what to call themselves, how to deal with trolls, etc. Over at Slacktivist on Patheos, the commenters are dealing with similar issues—what discourse will look like now that some of the most vocal commenters have left for the Typepad community. There’s been at least one argument about how “rational debate” is defined and whether it’s even possible, particularly given the likelihood that the Patheos site will have its fair share of commenters who may not be willing to find points of stasis. As one commenter put it, constantly having to argue from first principles can be tiring—but the imperative to “rational debate” as defined as an unfailingly reasoned and polite argument from established premises seems to require it.

I’ve barely scratched the surface here, and though I don’t usually follow the comments on Slacktivist, I may have to keep up with them on both sites for a while to see how things develop. These two diverging models of public discourse are particularly fascinating, because neither of them is necessarily irenic—the Typepad commenters value argument but don’t want to listen to arguments from sources that are uninformed, bigoted, or unwilling to examine their own privilege, while the Patheos commenters are, by remaining at Patheos, tacitly agreeing to engage in argument with a wider variety of viewpoints. Neither community is attempting to avoid argument entirely. I’m interested to see how things work out.

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