Death of the Dawkins forum – The world’s busiest atheist forum closes
Yesterday, I was celebrating. The House of Commons advised that the government should stop NHS funding of homeopathy. I was on a high all day, what a result! But by the end of the day, I was brought back down to Earth as I discovered that the world’s busiest atheist forum was being closed down, and that the disgusting evening was to be filled with lies, censorship and cowardice.
Please note that the following post comes from me personally, and not from the ex-staff of RichardDawkins.Net. Any individual opinions are my own, and cannot possibly represent the opinion of the whole team. Only I am accountable for the thoughts expressed in this post.
If you visit the forum at www.richarddawkins.net now, you will find that you can still view threads but no longer post. All explanations seem a little vague and there is talk of misbehaving moderators. If you’ve come to the forum after all the drama, it all seems very confusing. I hope that this blog entry will allow confused forum members to understand what happened behind the scenes. It’s important that the truth is told, since the individuals behind this incident have worked hard to cover up what really happened.
To make sense of this mess, we need to look back into the history of the forum and the structure of the management. Richard Dawkins isn’t directly involved in the running of the forum. He pays a man named Josh Timonen to run the official website. Along with Josh, there are various tech guys such as Andrew Chalkley. They keep the “front page” of the website ticking over, and deal with any forum problems regarding servers or software issues. But they have nothing to do with the running of the forum. The daily running of the forum is all down to the moderation team, consisting of moderators and admins that sit under Josh in the staff structure. They handle countless reports, spammers and trolls everyday. The moderation team has made the forum what it is, and helped foster one of the most successful atheist communities online. The moderation team developed the rules of the forum, they worked to bring improvements and incentives for members to join stimulating debate and discussions. The team held all the formal debates, they even held science writing competitions. Josh Timonen had nothing to do with any of this. In fact, he would usually ignore communications from staff, and didn’t offer any respect. He made it abundantly clear time and time again that the forum isn’t important. He was difficult to work with, but the staff were dedicated. We had been through all sorts of drama in the past, and stood by the community, and that was all that mattered. We could put up with being treated like shit if it meant we could continue to offer a fantastic oasis for clear-thinking individuals. It should also be made clear that Josh Timonen is paid for his work, while the team that really runs the forum does so voluntarily. Our team consisted of caring people working for what we felt was a great cause. The team was multi-cultured, and highly skilled, including scientists, teachers, authors… These professionals offered their private time to help maintain what was arguably the best atheist forum on the internet, and the satisfaction it brought and the chance to be involved in such a community was the only payment.
Last year, the forum ran into major technical problems due to extremely high volumes of traffic, and the servers couldn’t cope. There were issues with archived posts. The search function was removed from the forum in an attempt to ease the stress on the database, and this obviously affected the functionality of the forum. Things gradually got worse and the forum was often unusable. Sometimes the forum would be incredibly slow, sometimes it would grind to a halt. Regular members were frustrated by the functionality, and moderator actions were severely disrupted. Simple tasks like moving and merging threads could take half an hour due to the technical problems. Despite these issues, traffic increased and members were as active as ever. Why? Because of the community. Moderators were pulling their hair out over the speed of simple tasks, but worked for hours everyday to keep the forum running as normally as possible. Why? Because of the community they had helped build. This will make immediate sense to members of the forum, but may seem alien to others. 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. Firstly, it provided a very valuable service for rational thinkers and anyone wanting to learn more about the world. Secondly, the forum generated connections and relationships. For many members, some of their best friends had been discovered on the forum. People would use the forum for different reasons, but it was undeniable that it had become a second home to many, and that thousands were emotionally tied to this prospering oasis of freethought and rationality and the individuals who resided there. We would watch new friendships emerge, we saw members become engaged and married… we even experienced tragic deaths within the membership. But to Josh Timonen, the forum was a collection of users posting text and nothing else.
It became clear to the staff that something big was going to have to happen. The forum needed a big fix, and it needed to happen quick. We asked for updates, but Josh and the tech gurus would only offer vague excuses and claim that something would be coming along soon. Months passed with no search facility and the slow speeds persisted. When I got no response from Josh Timonen, I got in touch directly with the tech team. I learned what needed to be done to get things back to normal. It was possible but it wasn’t an easy task, and it was clear that creating a whole new forum may actually be an easier option. Josh Timonen continued to ignore my emails. I was a forum admin at the time, which gives you an idea of how much respect Josh offered the moderation team.
Eventually, they approached us with a vague plan. We would have a new forum created for us using completely different software that would make all our technical headaches vanish. They also said that all the content from current forum could be transferred to the new system. This would be extremely important to us and the whole community. But after this information, it became difficult to get answers again. Josh and Andrew became vague as usual and simply promised that the changes would be coming soon and that we would be first to know. The staff began to realize that designing a new system without considering the community could ruin the whole website. They may be talented web designers, but Josh and his people always made it clear that they thought nothing of the community of members and that the culture wasn’t something they considered worth keeping. All their communications seemed to ignore the fact that so many members remained active because of the community they had become a part of. The moderation team stressed to Josh and Andrew how important the culture of the forum was, only to be met with silence. Nearly every decision Josh and Andrew made would fail to take the members or the hard work of the moderators into account. They even suggested removing the Tech Support area of the forum and replacing it with a simple FAQ, not understanding that the staff work with the regular members to dispute warnings, consider improvements for the forum and discuss changes to the rules. If they were left to design the new system themselves, we could potentially lose everything that we had worked so hard to build. Eventually, we got some better news though. Josh said that when the time came for a new system, the staff would be involved and would be able to provide input. We would be able to offer advice on categories of discussion in the system, and they promised that we could test-run the new system before anyone else got to see it. Still no timeframe, but at least they promised to keep us in the loop. I was skeptical. Even more so when I saw this tweet by Josh Timonen earlier this month:
“Using a forum as a substitute for a real website is sloppy and lazy.”
This caused me to panic slightly, but at least the staff would be involved and even able to test-run the software that they would go on to moderate.
Throughout this month, Andrew Chalkley popped into the staff area of the forum a few times to ask some questions and give some vague answers. It became increasingly clear that the new system was to be very different from a standard forum, and more like the comment system we already have on the “front page”, but to allow discussions on various categories. On the 20th of February, Andrew posted the following information to the moderators:
“I have had some discussions with Josh and Richard on the site and I think we’re closer to nailing the requirements for the discussion area – I am working on other things at the moment.
Thanks for your understanding.”
The staff obviously wanted to know more, and as usual they had to ask:
“Thanks for the update Andrew.
Is there anything Josh and Richard said about the requirements that you could pass on to us?
Also, is there any decision about whether we can still call it the forum and keep most of the same categories?”
The staff went on to explain how the forum structure helps the cause. Specific examples included how the highly successful RDFRS folding@home team coordinate their efforts and recruiting from the forum. We had to explain that the forum gets 8-10 times the traffic that the front page gets, and that they had to take this into account when deciding on a new system.
All the moderators still felt that there was time to discuss these issues since the new system must still be quite early in development. After all, the team hadn’t been offered much involvement and nobody had been allowed to test any replacement system, so it must be far away. We were ignored for two days before Andrew reappeared with a short message:
“Josh and I are writing something up and we’ll let you know shortly.”
The staff thanked Andrew for keeping them in the loop. A few hours later, Josh Timonen posted the following information in the staff area of the forum:
“Dear forum moderators,
We know that this is a big decision. We know some of you moderators will be against this change. We ask that you respect our decision and help make this transition as smooth as possible. These decisions have all been approved by our organization, and we ask that you don’t add to our work by causing trouble.
We will not be migrating moderator roles to the new discussion site. Again, we’re sure this might come as a shock, and we hope you don’t take it personally. We can’t thank you enough for your contributions to the old forum. The new system will not require a large team of moderators, as the discussion area will be more focused. We encourage you to contribute to the new discussions area, and are welcome to flag inappropriate activity for review.
Please understand that this transition is going to be a lot of work for us. I’m sure as you read this, you will have a lot of questions and concerns. We also know that this is a change from what we had been discussing previously. This announcement does not require a response, but we wanted you to be aware. Please do not email Richard with complaints, we have discussed this transition thoroughly with him, and he is currently on tour in Australia and New Zealand. Please do not attempt to inflame the users, start any petitions, or “relocate” groups of users to a separate forum. Do not use any of the data held by the foundation (such as email addresses) through the control panel to cause any trouble. Any behavior of this kind will not be tolerated. We don’t expect you to do these things, but we say all of this only to discourage any well-intentioned moves that would only frustrate the situation.
Many thanks again.
The Richard Dawkins Foundation”
Understandably, we were shocked, and we knew that all the regular members would be equally shocked.
Here are some of the immediate responses from moderators:
“Congratulations, you killed the forum.”
“Not just the forum, but the community as well. I’ll stay on until the new site and continue with my mod duties. But not with the format you propose. What you have proposed is going to kill the community, and many people will leave. Opening threads and speaking our mind freely is why we are here. Not being able to do that, not being able to talk about different things, not being able to debunk bad ideas, and more… those are some of the things that we are here for.
Some posts we make take hours even to write, take a look at Calilasseia’s posts, at hackenslash, at Spearthrower, at theropod and many many other contributors. You are going to lose that, and that is a huge crime.”
“Ok. How did any of this add up to either consultation, or more importantly showing even a little respect for the Forum community as a whole, or the staff in particular.
Have they not understood how the forum represents the aims of the Foundation in general – that the network of interconnections generated here supports the work of countless individuals and groups around the world, giving them a core identity under the banner of our patron. I am not being melodramatic for effect here – have they considered the membership in any way other than as a customer base?”
“I’m surprised at the way the staff have been treated. I can’t believe the staff had to be told not to cause trouble, and that they aren’t allowed to start another forum somewhere. Unbelievable. The amount of time I put into moderating this place over the years was unreal, and I know that many staff members worked a lot harder than I did. People have left, angry with decisions and the way things have been dealt with, but collectively the current staff are the people who have stayed through it all. These people are dedicated, and have done great work for the cause. I am very insulted at being told to behave.
The complete lack of respect is what I’m extremely disappointed by. I’ve moderated in several other forums, including smaller ones and one with as big an audience. No other web team would keep staff out of the loop for as long, then thank them by telling them not to try any funny business.”
“The secretive way this has been handled and the exclusion of the hard working staff is an insult. We were promised input into the new site and to be able to test its functionality. We were led to believe that we were going to be included in the process and aid in the transition.
Now it’s presented as a done deal, and we’re condescendingly told to shut up about it and not cause trouble ? To not dare contact Richard Dawkins about it ?
I devote several hours a day to this forum, have been stressed at time, have copped abuse from members for doing the right thing and even caused friction in my family because of the time I devote here, but I persevered as I thought that this forum was worthwhile helping to run. It is not only educational and promotes reason, but has a lovely commmunity feel about it and we’ve all made good friends with other members.
I’m NOT HAPPY with how this whole process has come about and with the demise of one of the best Atheist discussion boards on the Internet.”
One moderator told me he felt like putting on his pajamas and lying in front of a bulldozer. On the subject of Vogons, the behaviour of Josh Timonen does seem familiar. Quoted from the Hitchhikers’s Guide To The Galaxy:
“There’s no point in acting all surprised about it. All the planning charts and demolition orders have been on display in your local planning department on Alpha Centauri for fifty of your Earth years, so you’ve had plenty of time to lodge any formal complaint and it’s far too late to start making a fuss about it now.”
Regular forum members were treated to a different announcement:
“Dear forum members,
We wanted you all to know at the earliest opportunity about our new website currently in development. RichardDawkins.net will have a new look and feel, improved security, and much more. Visits to the site have really grown over the past 3 1/2 years, and this update gives us an opportunity to address several issues. Over the years we’ve become one of the world’s leading resources for breaking rational and scientific news and original content. We are focusing on quality content distribution, and will be bringing more original articles, video and other content as we grow.
The new RichardDawkins.net will have a fully-integrated discussion section. This will be a new feature for the site, similar to the current forum, but not identical. We feel the new system will be much cleaner and easier to use, and hopefully this will encourage participation from a wider variety of users.
We will leave the current forum up for 30 days, giving regular users an opportunity to locally archive any content they value. When the new website goes live, you are welcome to submit these posts as new discussions. The forum will then be taken down from the web. You will not loose your username on the new system.
The new discussion area will not be a new forum. It will be different. We will be using a system of tags to categorize items, instead of sub-forums. Discussions can have multiple tags, such as “Education”, “Children”, and “Critical Thinking”. Starting a new discussion will require approval, so we ask that you only submit new discussions that are truly relevant to reason and science. Subsequent responses on the thread will not need approval—however anything off topic or violating the new terms of service will be removed. The approval process will be there to ensure the quality of posts on the site. This is purely an editorial exercise to help new visitors find quality content quickly. We hope this discussion area will reflect the foundation’s goals and values.
We know that this is a big decision. We know some of you will be against this change. We ask that you respect our decision and help make this transition as smooth as possible.
We’re confident that these changes will improve the site experience and we look forward to seeing what you do with the new system.
Many thanks again.
The Richard Dawkins Foundation”
As you can guess, the regular members were furious. A complaints thread appeared in Tech Support and quickly filled with countless users all expressing the same disappointment, sadness and anger at what was happening. Some even blamed the moderation team at first, since not all members are aware of how the staff are structured. It wasn’t clear that the moderation team had nothing to do with this. To help explain, one moderator posted Josh’s message to the mods, telling the staff that they are no longer needed, that they must not contact Richard Dawkins and that they must not cause any trouble. Every single member I’ve personally spoken to since the incident (hundreds!) all feel the same way. All members of the community have been treated like garbage, especially the hard-working moderators who were kept out of the loop and shoved aside in a rude and offensive way with no warning. The moderators and the regular members were explaining how they felt, and that it was a bad idea letting the number 1 atheist community on the internet be killed. Regular members were also angered by the fact that Josh had used and lied to the moderating team. Many members had come to the forum to speak freely, and were upset that they would need to seek approval to discuss very specific topics on the new system. Everything about the news was a disaster. Not a single post was made claiming this was a good idea. Then the drama really began.
In response to the unanimous criticisms, Josh started playing with the settings in the forum. First he deactivated private messaging. This caused a major problem, as members were starting to share personal details so that they can keep in touch with good friends if the forum really did end up closing. Members also filled their signatures with details and where to find members after the forum had closed. Josh went on to lock viewable access to the forum. For a while, nobody could do anything. With the forum all to themselves, Josh and Andrew deleted any posts that criticised the decision. Next, they removed signatures so that other forums and meeting places could not be advertised. When all of this was done, Josh and Andrew reopened the forum in a read-only state. Nobody could post anymore, and the complaints thread had been completely deleted. They had added the following information to the original announcement:
“Update: We had intended to leave the forum fully-funtioning for 30 days, but due to the inappropriate posts by some users and moderators, we have decided to leave the forum in a read-only state. You can still download and archive your posts and private messages, but the ability to enter new posts has been disabled. It’s unfortunate that it had to come to this. We know that change can be difficult and sometimes frightening, but we are all very excited about the direction of the website and the future.”
I’m sure he intended to leave it open for 30 days, the same way he intended the staff to be involved in the new system. Any users who visited the forum for the first time in days were left thinking that the moderators and some members have been causing trouble and got the forum locked, when really Josh couldn’t handle the criticism. Blocking discussion and stifling communication channels took real cowardice and stupidity. This action has only resulted in enraging the members even more. Josh’s actions towards staff and all members couldn’t have been any more heavy-handed. Josh has done more damage to the website’s reputation than any other person could ever have done. To make things worse, Josh and Andrew started deleting members. The moderator who explained that the staff were innocent and treated so disrespectfully, Mazille, had his entire account deleted. This isn’t like a ban where you can no longer access the forum. When an account is deleted, all the user’s posts are deleted too. Mazille had thousands of posts that he was hoping to archive over the next 30 days. All gone, forever. They aren’t in a Recycle Bin of sorts. Next was CJ, a member who had been posting on the front page to explain what Josh was up to and that he was hiding the criticisms and the evidence that the moderating team were lied to and censored. Tens of thousands of posts lost forever. Josh and Andrew permanently deleted several users before starting to remove moderating permissions from the loyal staff.
Josh and Andrew have ruined the reputation of the Richard Dawkins website to a point that I honestly believe is beyond repair. People took pride in being part of a community that promoted freedom of speech and the tackling of issues without censorship. Now the community is lost forever, and if you are unhappy then you are expected to be quiet, behave, and don’t tell Professor Dawkins. I’m not sure what is worse… Showing such disrespect to the mods who helped make the forum what it was, or using censorship and lies in such a way that makes it seem there was no criticism and that the staff were causing trouble!
The reasons I have provided for keeping the forum all focus on the community spirit. But even if you ignore that, Josh’s decision is terrible. It’s a bad idea in every possible way. Even forgetting the relationships and friendships that have been destroyed, the forum provides services and opportunities that are close to the heart of what Dawkins himself stands for, a place where people suffering from religious abuse can find support, and rational thinkers can engage with each other in what was supposedly a “clear-thinking oasis”. The creationists must be celebrating!
Even if you make yourself a robot, and completely forget that we are real people, it’s an awful decision to leave the forum model and elect something like the front page with a more advanced commenting system. I’ve said several times that the forum was the busiest atheist forum on the internet, and I wasn’t lying. Another fact is that the forum generates far more traffic than the front page. If anything, the front page is merely a doorway that attracts some people with articles, but the forum is where the heart of the website existed. Take a look at the stats over the last three weeks:
No. of comments / posts made
31/01/10 – 22/02/10————6204—————62,367
(average posts per day)———-282—————-2,834
It isn’t only about ruining the top online community for atheists online. These decisions make no sense even when considering only traffic. People do visit the front page and read interesting articles that are snapped up from various places. But most activity at RichardDawkins.Net occurs within the forum. This is where people are learning new things, discovering new ways to tackle superstition and religion, making new friends, and being involved in something special. Taking it all away is bad in itself, but I could never have imagined it would be handled so unprofessionally. If anyone reads this and has the opportunity to work with Josh Timonen or Andrew Chalkley in the future, please think twice. Laughable communication skills, dishonest tactics when covering up their own mess, shifting the blame onto others, and not understanding the website they apparently work on.
This leaves us with the fact that they are currently employed by Richard Dawkins. Josh and Andrew have brought about a PR disaster for Dawkins and his Foundation. Thousands of now-silenced members already announced that they will not be coming back and will no longer donate to the Foundation after this mess. We are left wondering how much Richard Dawkins actually knows about all this. Did he want things to be handled this way. If so, why are Josh and Andrew so desperate to threaten that contacting Dawkins will not be tolerated? The Professor certainly trusts Josh’s judgement, and even dedicated his latest book to him. If he has a good idea for a new website, I personally believe that Richard will roll with it. But it wouldn’t surprise me if Richard has no idea how disrespectful, rude and offensive Josh has been during this whole incident. I’m sure Richard will be thrilled to know that thousands of previously happy members no longer want to have any connection with the website or the Foundation. People are unhappy about what they have lost, and equally unhappy about what they are apparently to gain in the future. Who wants to use a website where community spirit is discouraged, where admins deliberately refrain from website maintenance, where voluntary staff are kept out of the loop and treated like crap?
Who wants to be part of a website that simply doesn’t care about the users?
In 2008, this is what Dawkins himself had to say about our community:
“It is a community, and that is a valuable part of it. Many of our forum threads have an atmosphere of friends going out for a drink and chatting. I think that is valuable, and I don’t think we should insist on sticking to serious topics. That would be a good way to stifle the sense of community, and that would be a real shame.”
If you used the forum and are now wanting a new haunt with some familiar faces, you will find some at RationalSkepticism. Feel free to use the comments here to share details if you need to.