A Letter to the Community
4 months ago I made my last comment at the OT. The topic of the conversation doesn’t really matter, but what does matter is that I found myself angry enough that I needed to walk away for a bit. At 40, I find I am too old to go to bed mad at the internet. So I promised myself a month off. I put a reminder on my calendar to rejoin the conversation in 30 days. When the day rolled around I wasn’t even close to ready. So I extended my hiatus another 60 days. That became four months and even as I write this post I am wondering if I should have waited longer.
During my hiatus, I asked myself repeatedly, “How did I get to this point?” Like many of you, I first started offering my thoughts to the internet on political chat boards. In that format, someone would write a post, and then people would continue the discussion with additional comments. Everyone had aliases and strong opinions and it could be a toxic place at times. Terms like ‘trolling’ and ‘flame bait’ were coined in that environment. Eventually, I tired of the fighting and began to look for a medium where I would have more control over the conversation. I discovered blogging and eventually I joined the League of Ordinary Gentleman, first as a frequent commenter and then as a regular contributor. Seeing my name on the masthead for the first time was a proud day.
As most of you know, in its early days the League was a place where writers from different backgrounds would write essays and then others responded with essays of their own. Those exchanges, among writers who are nearly all gone now, felt a little like the Founding Fathers writing letters to one another and helping to mold the attitudes of our country. The comment section was important, but it existed in the margins of the main conversation. At some point things changed. The post-to-post format became unsustainable and the site started to shatter into smaller conversations and sub-blogs. Posts simply became conversation starters and the comment sections became the main event. At the same time, more and more of the commenters were getting front page privileges and the writing staff were regular commenters and, well, you see where I am going with this. We became a closed community and it started feeling a lot like a chat board around here.
Despite that negative comparison, the two things that still make this community attractive to me are what separate the site from true chat boards. The first is the commitment to a diversity of ideas. While the overall tone of the site has its natural ebb and flow, I have no doubt that our editorial staff is committed to hearing all types of voices. Not once have they ever made me feel like my opinion was unwelcome and at times they have even gone one step further by propping me up when I started feeling like I had nothing to offer. The second thing that makes this place better than most is the insistence on civil conversation. I think we do a pretty good job in that department but there is always room for improvement.
Tod’s recent post about the lack of civility on the internet hit home with me because of its brutal honesty about this community. Tod said,
“The group that meets face-to-face has been forced to deal with their counterparts as people rather than symbols in a way that people here have not. Residents of OT have largely spent the past four years focusing on the differences (and often the perceived shortcomings) of those who hold disparate beliefs; people in the local group, however, have gone in the opposite direction. The lesson from the second group, which is almost anathema to OT, is this: Conservative or Liberal, Atheist or Active Church Member, Christian or Muslim, there is infinitely more that binds us together than separates us.”
During my time off my friend Dennis Sanders reached out to me and we started talking about the state of things. He and I knew each other before the League/OT and our opinions often run very close. We discussed that it didn’t seem as satisfying here as it once was. We weren’t saying this as two grumpy old men that missed the good old days, but as two writers who felt a little lost in the current world of Ordinary Times.
Ultimately, it just feels like we have gotten lazy. We once had visions of the site becoming a real online magazine, but in order to achieve that our editorial staff, all capable folks, have to take a more active role in shaping the content. Quite frankly, I don’t think The Atlantic would do very well if they gave writers access to their printing presses and let them write about whatever they felt like with little oversight. I realize it is a conscious choice here at OT to give us more freedom to explore our interests, but in that environment, coupled with a comment section that has the partisan problems Tod spoke about, I don’t see how we expand our community beyond our current membership, assuming that is a goal we still have.
I know this sounds like I am criticizing folks like Tod and Burt, who have so graciously put their free time into keeping this place humming along. That is not my intent. Those fine people will always hold a special place in my heart, no matter where my path takes me. We just seem to have a different vision of how this place should look and ultimately, they are the ones that make the decisions. My choice is to either bow out or figure out a way to participate on my own terms.
As of this writing, I feel like I still have a lot to say as a writer and as a person who is not afraid to take hard looks in the mirror. Writing under my full name and putting my thoughts out there for strangers to criticize, allows all of you to hold that mirror up and point out my flaws…and I have been okay with that for a long time. This community has given me far more than I have given it, because I have always tried to keep an open mind and I benefitted from the exchange of ideas with intelligent people. I know I am a better person for having that experience, even though I am sure that some will say I still have a long way to go,
While I still have a lot to figure out, the one thing I know is that I have earned the right to expect others to challenge me on equal footing and to that end I will listen to the wisdom of Reinhold Niebuhr and control what I can. My decision for now is to close comments on every major post that I write. If you want to challenge me, I am ready to hear your thoughts, but I ask that you do it the way we used to. Write a post of your own and let’s have a real conversation. Likewise, I won’t be participating in the comment sections of major posts from other writers but I am committed to long-form responses when something moves me. If what we have to say doesn’t merit that level of effort on both our parts, then I’ll find out quickly if my time at the OT has passed.
I don’t know when I will post again after this, but I hope the right topic will present itself to me soon, either from the direction of our editors or because it reveals itself in some other way. In the meantime, I remain honestly and thoughtfully, yours.