When An Online Community Isn’t

I’m sure at least some of you have heard me holding forth at great length (and occasionally volume) about just how distasteful things have become (or sometimes are, depending on your POV) on both the Marillion and Mostly Autumn official forums. Well, this week I dared to air my perhaps controversial thoughts about one of the many reasons why the official Mostly Autumn forum is so damned unpleasant, and it seems that already my words have caused grave offence to some of the people who are admins/moderators there. Consequently, I feel I should mount some kind of more reasoned defence of my words – which, I’ll freely admit, were harsh, somewhat generalised and unleavened by tact… 🙂

There are many reasons why I find the forum in question so unpleasant. However, the chief reason is that it is so closely moderated. Without some sense of community, there is absolutely no point having a forum at all – unless people feel comfortable posting there, no-one will post, leading to a ‘Ghost Town’ tumbleweed effect. Considering that it’s dedicated to a band who have been around since the 90s and turned in about 10 albums-worth of material, the Mostly Autumn forum has very few members, and even then, it’s a tiny minority of around 15-20 people that post on more than an occasional basis. I would say that the chief reason why it’s so quiet and people seem so reluctant to post is because the level of moderation is utterly asinine. It’s been the case for several years now (and as far as I know, still is the case) that every single post to the forum is moderated before it is displayed. For a forum with such a modest membership, comprised (one would hope) of fans of the band, this is a level of overkill somewhat akin to treating acne with a tactical nuclear strike.

I could speculate why the band – or their representatives, more accurately: it’s hard to be certain of the level of involvement of the band, since I’ve never seen any commentary from them concerning the forum – seem so worried about what might get posted. I can only assume that (a) they’re concerned lest there still be fall-out from the days when they were signed to Classic Rock Productions, who made some highly questionable business decisions for the band and issued a stream of poor quality live releases and DVDs at premium prices, both of which did for a lot of fans around the time, or (b)they’re simply not viewing the forum as a place where community needs fostering, more as a ‘vanity board’ of the type that causes so much mirth when such a thing appears in the public domain.

Now, if the OTT moderation was the only thing that made the board so unpleasant, it could perhaps be addressed (assuming, that is, that anyone cared to acknowledge the issue). However, as on the Marillion board, there is a subset (or subsets) of the board members that make the whole thing even more unpleasant. I hasten to add that these are for the most part small groups, spoiling it for the majority of members – however, this is less obvious on the Mostly Autumn board since it is for the most part only the members of these small cliques that actually bother to post much. It’s fairly easy to spot the board members who aren’t part of these little virtual ‘Flash Mobs’, since they seem to spend a lot of their time wondering why their remarks caused offence, or trying in vain to forestall the inevitable by prefacing all their remarks with comments like, “I’m not saying that [a] is bad, but…” or “Without meaning to offend anyone, I feel that…” Typically their attempts to be reasonable or express some opinion that’s out of step with the ‘party line’ is greeted with lengthy responses couched in the sort of condescending language used to talk to asylum inmates, or flat, unreasoned rebuttals that essentially say “You’re wrong, and you’re an idiot. As you clearly don’t know what you’re on about, just shut up and stop stealing our oxygen.” The comical thing is, those who post such bilge often then turn around and congratulate the board at large (i.e. themselves) for ‘allowing’ such ‘spirited debate’, and enabling the airing of diverse views. What a crock: they’re just shouting down a dissenting viewpoint, posting for the sake of re-entrenching their opinions and hearing themselves speak.

Most amusing of all is when said denizens rail against people who have a poor opinion of a particular release or band, and then turn around do exactly the same thing themselves. One of the moderators on the Mostly Autumn board has been caught several times saying very unfortunate things about one band in particular. Since Mostly Autumn currently features at least two people from said band, one can only wonder if said blabbermouth is aware of the irony of their unthinking caterwauling.

What can save the Mostly Autumn forum? An immediate lift on the anticipatory moderation, for one thing. Moderation should never be used to prevent a conversation: how then should the members trust the forum to be a true community? True communities largely police themselves. Moderation should only ever be necessary after the fact (i.e. in cases where blatantly offensive comments can be removed, or when there are problems with spam, etc). Misusing the ability to moderate people’s posts to prevent comments being made in the first place is akin to telling someone to be honest and then holding a gun to their head.

Once the pre-emptive moderation is lifted, things should start to improve. The next step would be to stop the ‘Flash Mobs’ bullying people to the extent that they don’t see the point in trying to post their honest opinions. Bands shouldn’t be afraid of honest opinions: it’s impossible that everyone will like everything, and I’m sure we’re all fans of bands who’ve released a few duffers in their time but who we still love dearly. As long as opinions are expressed clearly and with respect, no-one should take offence – and if they do, those who choose to take offence should probably take a good, long hard look at themselves and find out why they’ve become so socially incompetent. Persistent offenders should be banned – if people don’t learn from their mistakes (or even understand why they are mistakes!) then there’s no good reason to continue to allow them to contribute.

That’s all it would take. But does anyone over at the Mostly Autumn forum have the courage to do this?

I feel sorry for the band, really. After all these years making (largely, but let’s not get into that) quality music, they should have a thriving online community. However, because this issue has been allowed to fester, the Mostly Autumn ‘family’ is anything but. The forum should be alive with chatter and have many more members than it does. I know several big Mostly Autumn fans who aren’t members of their forum, despite being members of other band’s forums: why should this be the case? Clearly there is a problem there somewhere, and I’m convinced after talking to them that the above issues contribute in no small way to these fans not contributing to the forum.

If the band and their support system don’t want that kind of forum, then that’s fair enough. Unfortunately, the band have started to be portrayed negatively because of the actions and attitudes of some of their more outspoken fans, and that’s a real shame.

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5 Responses to When An Online Community Isn’t

  1. Tim Hall says:

    That’s a lot more reasoned and measured than your earlier post that kicked all this off, and I find myself agreeing with almost all of it.

    Especially since I’d been hounded off the forum by the “flash mob” of whom you speak, and have only recently started contributing there again. I’m still not convinced it’s a good use of my time and energy.

    As for the “flash mob”, some of the same individuals are responsible for wrecking Heather Findlay’s forum before any community had time to form. What part of “You don’t shoot first time posters down in flames for making innocent and perfectly sensible suggestions” do these people not understand?

    • HippyDave says:

      I had time to think about what I’d said, and whilst I stand by it, I felt that to those who hadn’t heard or didn’t understand my feelings on the matter, it might have been difficult to swallow. It deserved backing up with something more substantive, hence this blog. I did wonder about whether I should bother, but so many people are unhappy about the forum that I felt not bothering was a bit like taking off in the plane, donning the parachute, and then refusing to jump.

      A hearty amen to what you say about the situation on Heather’s forum – as a not-particularly huge fan anyway who is also unsure about what sort of music she’ll be serving up, I haven’t joined up – and after seeing the shit that you, Weety and others have had to put with from certain quarters, I’m actually glad that I haven’t. As you say, a clear instance of the ‘Flash Mob’ destroying a community before it can be built.

      • Tim Hall says:

        That whole episode left a really nasty taste in the mouth, and left me feeling that the whole thing was somehow my own fault for being a disruptive influence on the forums.

        I gather those feelings are common in abusive relationships.

  2. Tim Hall says:

    And when did one of the mods slag off Breathing Space or Panic Room? Don’t remember that at all.

    • HippyDave says:

      Well, they’d be foolish to do it on a forum where everyone could see it… 😉

      I did wonder whether to bring that up at all, but screw it, I’m sick of the bullshit. The person involved has been heard several times by different people (which is why I give it credence) known to me being extraordinarily unkind about members of a particular band. Whilst everyone’s going to like different things musically, the comments being made weren’t so much about the music as about the capabilities of those playing it. All rather unkind, given the circumstances. I’ll say no more lest it result in a witch hunt or other unpleasantness, but for me this typifies the unpleasant nature of some of the people involved.

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