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 The library contained inaccurate or outdated information.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.