A few days ago writer Jason Sanford published an investigative report into what was happening on the discussion boards known as “Baen’s Bar,” run by the fantasy and science fiction publisher Baen Books, specifically in its Politics group, where people were posting in support of the Jan 6 coup attempt and suggesting ways it could be better organized and executed. Baen, as well as some authors, replied. Others replied to them. Now I’m weighing in too.
To put this in context, let me say: I have decades of experience with online moderation. I have been a moderator on three lively BBSes, a game discussion board, and was for a good time the head moderator of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s private discussion forums, including during the period the organization’s board ejected Vox Day. I may have spent more words discussing moderation policy with Jerry Pournelle than any other human being (I understand some ARPANET administrators might also be in the running.) In trying to navigate all that, I’ve done a lot of reading about online culture, communication, and how text works. My friends tell me I have good people skills.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m technically a Baen author. I have a story in a couple of Baen anthologies and another in an upcoming one. I also was the main decider in the choice to give Toni Weisskopf a Kate Wilhelm Solstice award in 2016 in acknowledgment of how much she has shaped the field. I have never been on their discussion boards, as far as I can remember.
As such, I have a Lot of Opinions, and a few observations.
1) Boards have to have moderators and rules, and superloose ones like “no hitting” are dangerous. One person’s affectionate verbal love tap of greeting may be someone else’s roundhouse swing. This is why moderation is exhausting, usually thankless, and involves a lot of arguing with people about why their posts needed to be amended or removed. I salute anyone who tries to run one, let alone successfully. One thing that makes the SFWA ones work nowadays is patient moderation plus a willingness of the overall administration to back the moderators up.
SFWA does this because such moderation is important for an organization. If you want a board to be useful to all of your users, you keep it a place where if someone posts a question, they get an answer, rather than a series of insults and a Tubgirl shot. Otherwise, why are you putting money into maintaining those boards? For a company like Baen, they are an extension of the business and should represent it in a way that serves all, rather than a small vocal portion, of your customer base.
2) Those moderators create and sustain the culture of a discussion board. I read Eric Flint’s essay up to the point where he said “a never-heard-of-him who uses the monicker of Theoryman”. And then I started thinking maybe he’d read a different piece, because while I respect Eric and his opinion, the difference between Theoryman being some rando and the fact that Theoryman is actually a board moderator is such a big one that it feels like Eric went into Sanford’s piece already angry and determined what he would find, to the point where he skimmed for stuff to corroborate that and skipped everything else. [Later edit: I corrected this passage to note that I did, in fact, read the entirety of Flint’s essay and also learned that the moderator was a longtime member but had only two months earlier become a moderator.]
There is a pattern where authors defending these posts all take the stance of “oh, they were so awful I personally stopped reading them but I am still sure they couldn’t have held anything harmful.” My first reaction to the observation, “I stopped visiting “Politics” about… oh, I dunno. Twenty-three years ago?” is that perhaps what he says about it 23 years ago will be somewhat more informed than “here’s what’s happening 23 years later as people with a certain amount invested in this argument have described it to me.” (And it seems contradictory doing that when also maintaining Mercedes Lackey/Larry Dixon’s experience of getting driven off the boards 23 years ago was so long ago that it’s meaningless.)
3) Talking about politics has always been fraught. Nowadays even more so. In 2020, I tried adding a politics channel to my Discord server, and shattered one of my most valued friendships in the process. We no longer have that channel. And it cannot be ignored that this year’s attempt to take our country by force was organized on electronic message boards and coordinated in the same way.
There are plenty of places online where people can talk politics. So many of them, in such a variety of flavors. Saying “this can’t happen here” is very different than “This can’t happen everywhere.” Take that cigarette outside and smoke it, but you can’t do it here in the bar. I would be heartily surprised if multiple alternative places for the regular posters to talk about the best way to take down American cities haven’t already sprung up, and of course the meta-discussion of all of this “cancel culture” is freely taking place online.
4) Free speech is a great ideal, up to the point where it’s being used to promote killing people. Popper’s Paradox applies.
Speech can also hurt people. The effect on a person’s physical — not to mention mental — health from verbal abuse has been documented over and over again. And, as we have seen, speech can incite riots that kill people. Want more? Search on “online trolls drove to suicide” but prepare yourself. For some, it’s their victory condition. Or was that just a joke, hee hee, they say, denying their own words in the middle of saying them.
5) What “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” aka “people who are too weak should avoid this discourse” says is “only certain people get to speak here.” And that’s shitty, no matter how many noble words you try to dress it up with. As an analogy, we make things wheelchair accessible so those folks can enjoy them, rather than declaring everything off-limits to them.
Or maybe that’s just a stance some folks are simply incapable of comprehending. The reaction to the idea of a character in a wheelchair in D&D 5E was overall positive, but it got heartily derided by some people who didn’t take a minute to think about how much that might matter to another player.
I am so tired of this argument, which so often gets used by people who have, indeed, fought the good fight but somewhere along the line also acquired the idea that only people who’ve gotten punched in the face for speaking get to talk. That’s what underlies someone talking about “swooning” or “pearl-clutching” and don’t even get me started on some of the gender stuff that gets draped onto that rhetoric like a six year old putting tinsel on a Christmas tree.
But I also want to point out that some people are getting pretty hot under the collar about an attack on the publisher, when it’s an article that talks specifically about the message boards and the behavior happening on them. Info about the publisher hosting those boards is provided for context. It does seem possible for a publisher to be both publishing left-wing and right-wing stuff at the same time, so maybe we can abandon that question and look at what Sanford’s actually talking about: not what’s happening on the publication list, but on the message boards.
If that discussion is so upsetting for them that they can’t undertake it without saying things like “you should be thrown from a plane for saying this,” then perhaps that portion of the audience might could wanna take their own advice regarding the temperature in this particular kitchen, because at this party there’s a bunch of people talking in there already without threatening to defenestrate anyone.
6) Online harassment is used by a number of folks to silence other people and it includes tactics like SWATting, contacting one’s employer, doxxing, and worse. Jason Sanford is experiencing some of this right now, to the point where he’s had to take his Twitter and Patreon private, but he’s not the first, nor will he be the last. It is shitty and invasive, and it’s something that can constantly ambush you.
Moreover, stochastic terrorism is a thing, and it’s one that some of the “my wishing you were dead wasn’t really a death threat because I didn’t say I’d do it personally” yahoos are hoping for. That hope that someone will be hurt as a result of their rhetoric flickers dimly in the depths of their creepy little souls, even when they claim otherwise, because here in America, it’s a possibility every time they stir up an audience to think of their opponents as NPCs rather than people. And it’s something that is particularly hard on the vulnerable. If you’re a white male experiencing harassment, know that if you were a woman of color, you’d be getting it a hundred times worse, whether you acknowledge that or not.
So… I don’t know what will happen with Baen’s discussion boards. I hope that they’ll do what sometimes happens as a result of these challenges: emerge as something better and more useful, something that creates more community ties than eroding them. Because it’s a time and place when we need more kind, brave words and less hateful, thoughtless rhetoric, and I feel any efforts to establish that is where true heroism lies. Thank you for issuing the challenge, Jason. I hope people rise to meet it.
March 18 addendum: An organized campaign to smear and harass Sanford, including threats against people at his workplace and doxxing people associated with him, is still ongoing a month later and shows no sign of ceasing.