At What Price Community?

Two controversies have embroiled the small corners of my world of late.

One is the developing situation at Slacktivist, the other is on my very own Peaks Island. Both are about who gets to decide what a community is and how it evolves; both are bringing a lot of anger and hurts old and new to the surface. Both interest me because after writing, I view building community–the community here at my blog, on my Twitter, in my world of books and singing sirens and travels and dream-making, to be the thing I am Here For in a very real sense, and I have much still to learn. (That could not sound more pretentious, but it’s true.)

And because, as it’s been a week with LJ not getting me comment notifications (yes, I’ve checked my spam filter–I get 7-8 comments out of 50-100 on days I post) while rolling out something as insignificant, pathetically imitative, and useless to the bulk of their audience as a Farmville clone, I am finally considering leaving LJ after a decade of beloved dedication.

So here’s what’s going down.

Slacktivist is a site I’ve been frequenting for about two and a half years now. On it, a guy named Fred Clark writes about all kinds of things, but what he’s known for is an epic, ongoing, meticulous, page by page takedown of the Left Behind series. Fred is a Christian, and his takedown involves showing in precise detail just how horribly LaHaye and Jenkins have betrayed what is good in that faith while promoting what is sociopathically evil. It is brilliant, insightful, heartbreaking, and has taught me worlds about grace, understanding, and yes, Christ–though I tend to take those lessons as more about godhood in general, due to my own leanings.

The other part of his site is the comments.

Now, I have never commented on Slacktivist. I am a long time lurker. Each entry gets from 200-1000 comments and more, and it is one of the most inclusive, intelligent, awesome, erudite, funny, and engaged communities I have ever encountered online. Fred’s posts are highlights of my week, but only partly because of Fred. Hapax, Kit Whitfield, Madgastronomer (who left the site previous to this, much to my sadness), mmy, Lonespark and the other regulars there feel like friends, even though I’ve never talked to them at all. I can’t wait to read what they’ll say. 

And last week, Fred moved his blog over to a site called Patheos, a religious portal that claims it respects all faiths and has room for all opinions. It isn’t and it doesn’t–it is primarily frequented by and clearly intended for evangelical Christians and many homophobic slurs, anti-semitic articles, and pro-Jack Chick screeds, comments, and administrators immediately surfaced. Comment threading, moderators, site registration, and sorting by "like" buttons were all introduced to a community that had never had them, that self-policed and self-organized much in the way the Making Light community does.

Right now, it’s looking like there’s a very real chance that by changing the service provider and structure of his site, Fred may have killed his own community dead. People are leaving in droves, trying to find other places to congregate together. I left my first comment. It’s so sad I can hardly bear it. So far Fred has only commented on the site design changes, but everyone is still waiting to hear what the hell is going on with having a liberal-leaning, inclusive, self-organizing community dumped into an evangelical portal that has shown it is interested only in the pageviews such a community generates, while being openly hostile to them as people.

Many are pointing out that the commentariat, much as it was a part of the value of the site, never owned Slacktivist, and has no right to have a say in how it’s run. That’s true to an extent–but an essay-centric blog without comments falls in the wood and makes no sound, and people have put years of work and words into the space they had at that blog. In some sense it belonged to them, too. This blog is no Slacktivist, but in considering my stance on LJ this kind of thing sticks out in my mind–a simple design change can implode a community, can stifle it instantly. And this space is not, and never has been, mine alone. Fred Clark has some hard choices ahead of him, but I really wonder what he can do to retain the community as it was, beyond retconning the whole thing back to Typepad and pretending it never happened, which he probably contractually cannot do.

At the same time, my little island is embroiled in its own site design controversy–that of secession from the city of Portland. I know I’ve never mentioned it before but I tell you what, it’s all people are talking about here. The upshot is–our property taxes are very high, higher than most of the city, yet we get subpar services, very little fire protection, no protection at all from an increasingly predatory ferry company, and little voice in local politics. Secession has long been proposed as a solution, and it’s getting seriously heated up in here.

See, there was a vote on this right before we moved here. And since we moved, I’ve heard that during that vote, Peaks voted definitively for secession, and was denied by the Portland City Council. Through the island listserv (we have flame wars too!) it’s come out that this simply didn’t happen, it was a vote to continue looking into the process, and even that barely passed. The fact is that our taxes wouldn’t go down if we seceeded–we’d have to buy all our infrastructure, our water pipes and electric lines and all of that from the city of Portland, who would be disinclined to give us a good price, on a ten-year plan. We’d have to fund our school ourselves–and many of the residents here (who are jerks, frankly) think there shouldn’t be a school at all. We’d have to have a mayor and city council when as it stands we can’t get anyone to care enough to serve on the island council as it exists now. It’s a terrible idea.

So naturally, a bunch of people have tried to end run around the islanders who are against it and get some kind of writ of secession approved in Augusta, whose provisions we would not see until we were simply given the right to approve or deny what other people negotiated without our knowledge. OMGWTF. On top of that, very simply, Patheos the pro-secessionist are being a bag of dicks on the listserv, engaging in some hilarious troll tactics, Tea Party dogwhistling about hating the government, and condescending rhetoric, and I went from being all "Hell, secede if you want" to being strongly against it. No one knows what’s going to happen. It’s likely that if the trolls have their way Peaks will lose massive amounts of government funding, while not getting better services or lower taxes, and will be at the mercy of the guys with free time and an ax to grind about how the rest of us should live.

What these fights are both about is: who decides what a community is? What it looks like? Who sets the rules? Where are we going as a group? Do we go together or do we fracture?

I think all communities have these moments. Some evolve; some wither. I hope both Slacktivist and Peaks Island choose to maintain what is good and has always been good about them in the face of change of dubious value. But of course some change is good–if Fred Clark had moved to a site with less obvious issues, I don’t think there would have been quite the uproar. If not for the Augusta end-run around our voting rights, I don’t think people would be as angry here. Process matters. Design matters. Small things have huge effects on a community, which is always a moving target, a breathing, organic thing.

This community has grown hugely in recent years and even months. It is a place where I want people to feel safe. Where I want them to talk and leave long comments and go off on tangents and feel free to do so. I can only dream of hosting as gorgeous a cyber-table as Fred Clark has, but I do dream of it. Do I stay here at LJ, which has given me so much love and friendship and laughter and insight? Or do I secede, move onto my own site, (a major redesign is in the works either way), because I am simply no longer getting basic services from the net-town where I’ve been living since 2003? How would that effect the community of robust commenting and conversation I have here? What would be lost? To thread comments or not to thread comments? Is it even my decision alone to make?

On the other hand, I believe what’s best for Slacktivist and Peaks is to let things go on as they have been. So maybe I should take my own advice.

I’m watching the outcome of both debates with intense interest. Not just for myself but for the communities of which I am a member (albeit a quiet one). It hurts my heart to see these islands of discourse and camaraderie disintegrating. Hell, it hurts my heart to see my friends leaving LJ. We all want to stay together even after high school in the places we’ve found where we’re valued and where we learn and grow online. It’s shocking how much simple changes in format and policy can create and destroy the cultures of a site. It’s disconcerting, yet fascinating, to see people taking apart their assumptions about who owns the space, who can decide what is done with it. After all, we LJ users, who create the content here and thus Livejournal as a viable entity, have never had any say in who the site gets sold to, or what they do with it. Ditto YouTube users before the Google sale, columnists at HuffPo, etc. There are no easy answers anymore, if there ever were.

Quo vadimus? Where are we going? Into the unknown, that’s the only sure thing.

Posted in Blog Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *