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Some Reflections on Managing an Orthodox Christian Discussion Forum
Written by Anastasios Hudson Thursday, 02 October 2014 18:53
I originally wrote this reflection in 2005, but never published it for a variety of reasons. A recent resurgence in broad-brushed criticism of Internet forums, (such as this piece) not directed at our site in particular, but criticism which nevertheless could apply to it, prompted me to edit, update, and publish it for consideration in the debate.
Brief History of the Site
For twelve years now, I have had the pleasure of working with a great team of people to host the world’s largest English-language Orthodox Christian Discussion Forum, OrthodoxChristianity.net (often referred to coloquially as OC.net, located at http://www.orthodoxchristianity.net. It has truly been a blessing but it has also presented a challenge. It seemed to me that some might be curious about my experience running such a site, and would like to know what some of the perils are as well as some of the positives.
I co-founded the site with my two friends Robert and Philip. Robert and I first conceived of running an Orthodox Christian message board in October of 2001. We weren’t Orthodox then, but were both excited about all that we were learning about the Orthodox faith and wanted to create a high-tech place for Orthodox to converge and share experiences. Robert was a technological whiz, and so we toyed with a few ideas. However, due to us both working full-time jobs, nothing much came of “Byzantines.org,” our first URL, until May 2002.
That May, Robert and I were sitting in a car in the parking lot of Crabtree Mall in Raleigh, North Carolina. I looked at him and said, “You know, there are no modern Orthodox message boards out there.” There was a message board dedicated to all that follow the Eastern tradition, both Catholic and Orthodox, which was run by a Byzantine Catholic layman, but what of a board specifically for Orthodox concerns, using the newest technologies? Robert was excited about the idea and knew of some software. He also knew that Philip would be interested in being a part of the idea, so he chatted with him about it. Philip and I vaguely knew each other from another message board, the one mentioned above, and so I agreed and the three of us got to work.
On May 12, 2002, “Byzantines.org” went online, and quickly attracted a moderate following. Some were refugees from the Byzantine Catholic site mentioned above, while others were friends of ours. Still others were entirely new. The start was slow, but we steadily increased. Robert had dreams of studying in Italy, and left in September 2002. The site went down for a month while I tried to find a host. Robert sent me a corrupted database by accident, so all of the old posts were lost. But on October 2, 2002, I set up the site on a new server, located at the new URL of http://www.orthodoxchristianity.net, which better expressed its Orthodox orientation. Robert returned unexpectedly from Italy and Phil and I were glad for that, as we had no idea how to run the software. We added for a time Nicholas as an administrator, and he helped us with our portal page and other matters. We had to let him go as an administrator when our personal differences became too great, but he remained a friend of us all and continued to post for some time.
Throughout the years, we have continued to grow and add on new members. We currently have 8,907 registered members (not all of whom are active now, of course), who have written 1,191,840 posts in 54,761 topics. Each month, we get about 3 million hits, from all over the world. We are the largest Orthodox Christian forum in the world, and may be one of the largest Orthodox websites, period.
As we grew, we added on a great team of administrators and moderators. I stepped back from active moderating, leaving the site in the hands first of Fr. Chris Harner, and later Fr. George Callos, who is at the helm presently. He oversees a team of about 15 moderators, who include both clergy and laity, from a variety of jurisdictions. It takes a lot of work for these folks to do what they do, and they do it as volunteers.
Positive Results of the Site
It was partly due to my own exposure to Orthodoxy on-line that I discovered the Church. Of course, such on-line contact cannot replace the exposure that only comes from contact in the “real world.” However, I have noted several interesting trends. Sometimes, people discover Orthodoxy and have no parish near them—some live hundreds of miles away—and for them, a website such as ours provides a convenient place to begin to learn about the faith. It is a fact that numerous—perhaps hundreds—of individuals have converted as a result of finding our forum.
For others, there is no difficulty in attending their local parish, but the priest is too busy to answer every detail of their many questions, or they feel uncomfortable talking to him at first without getting a handle on the situation. Also, the relative anonymity of a website allows shy persons to express themselves in a bolder fashion. This empowers people to have educated discussions in real life, after being able to do some research.
Ideas are easily accessible online, and that is a major strength of websites such as OrthodoxChristianity.net. My favorite use of such discussion forums is to compare sources with fellow posters. One can suggest books, articles, and websites of a more scholarly nature in order to inquire further. Sometimes, when several educated persons converge on the same topic, conversation of a stimulating and higher intellectual nature does occur. One common accusation against websites is that they promote the idiot to the level of the scholar, but generally, the community knows how to police itself.
Persons who post over long periods of time and have more balanced posting styles inevitably garner more attention and credibility than novices. Persons with academic credentials in the “real world” also hold a higher esteem as well. There are numerous clergy that post on the forum, and while no bishops post openly, several have admitted to me that they read the forum; finally, the site is regularly accessed from clergy working at the Phanar. This is an invaluable form of cross-pollination, and a fantastic chance to interact with new people from across the world!
Real and lasting friendships can be made online. After meeting Philip in the virtual world, I moved to New York to pursue my academic interests and met him in person. From that point on we became very close friends, and if it weren’t for the Internet, I can honestly say I might not have met him. This has occurred repeatedly and has had tremendous personal benefits in my life. Posters on the site have often met in “real life” and had get-togethers in person. For those isolated for whatever reason, the forum is a nice way to keep in touch with other like-minded individuals.
Certainly the above-mentioned positives are not without negatives—and sometimes negatives are increased online. While previously I have spoken of a type of general self-policing on discussion forums, it is true that there are Internet “kooks” who spread their unproven and even disproven doctrines and theories with an air of truth. Sometimes a novice poster can be swayed by such individuals, and perhaps even the experienced can be swayed. Peer-reviewed journals and books reduce the risk, and can never be replaced by online discourse. Returning to the subject of self-policing, however, oftentimes such kooks are chased away from a forum by members who feel pride in their forum and who want to preserve it from any error. A respectable forum will also have adequate moderatorship to prevent or reduce such occurrences.
A much graver danger of web forums is the temptation to sin from anger or pride. Anger in that disagreements, removed from the framework of live human interaction where non-verbal clues give context to words, often escalate to outrageous levels. One might argue that letter-writers in the past did without non-verbal clues, but I would venture that the more restrained attitude of the past and the sheer length of time one would put into letter-writing (not having an ability to easily erase what one wrote surely contributed to more thinking before writing) would have reduced such a risk in that medium. Pride enters the foray when a poster through long posts, large posting volume, or through overzealous correction, proves himself to be intelligent while failing to be humble. A “know it all” attitude is common on web forums. This attitude leads to a lack of charity as well, as sins are often interrelated.
An Internet poster can also develop the idea that he knows more than his priest, which is a strong temptation. Sometimes, priests actually are more ignorant than a layman, but they are still to be accorded respect, and insofar as they serve as a spiritual father to the individual, they are to be obeyed. Be he convert or cradle, a poster who always second-guesses his priest by posting online does irreparable harm to his spiritual life. However, there are times when priests who are not well attuned to Orthodoxy and orthopraxis (it happens, believe me) may give unsatisfactory answers and recourse to a forum might be desirable. This must be seen as a last step, though; recourse to other priests or one's godparent, not to mention other pious and respected laymen in the parish should first be attempted. In a case of a priest who is teaching something gravely erroneous, it may even be the case that the individual might take his case to the bishop—all of these steps should be taken before one spills his soul on a forum.
A final grave danger of Internet forums is the tendency to waste time. Time is not ours but the Lord’s; on Internet forums persons are known to spend ten, twenty, and even thirty or more hours a week typing. Had such persons put their thoughts on paper, they could have furthered perhaps Orthodoxy in an academic circle, or earned money to support their family. As such, overzealous posting can take away income and time from family. However, it is also the case that print media is on the decline, and oftentimes does not reach as great an audience as do web sites in general.
Being an administrator of a forum, I would also like to go beyond the general problems and observations and mention a few things about what I feel individually as a result of this endeavor. The job of administering such a site is difficult, and requires a great deal of time. Sometimes, I am torn between attending to a problem on-line and completing an obligation in “real life.” The choice may seem simple to those not invested in on-line mediums of communication, but whenever there is a problem on the site, real people suffer and our witness is impacted. Thankfully, we now have several able moderators assisting us.
I am also an opinionated person, and at times it was difficult to be aloof as administrator while still participating in the forum as a poster. At times I seriously considered quitting posting altogether for the sake of harmony, so as not to impose my views on others. As a concrete example, I personally come to a more “traditionalist” stance on many issues, while many on the board do not share my views. At times, my frustration become apparent to posters who then feel alienated or ostracized. I had to make every attempt to keep moderating and posting separate. The use of a different text color for administrating/moderating work and a more formal tone served in part to make these two roles distinct. Eventually, however, I quit day-to-day moderating completely, focusing on behind-the-scenes administrating, and have posted a lot less frequently over the last two years as well, owing to personal difficulties.
Finally, it is admittedly frustrating when persons of ill-motive come to our forum, or a poster with a dominating personality comes and attempts to dominate the board. It is sad when posters with social difficulties use the forum as an outlet and either alienate others, or push themselves further into isolation by developing a “me vs. them” attitude. A good administrator or moderator must take this into account when dealing honestly with such people, and sometimes it is necessary for the welfare of the person’s spiritual health, mental health, and/or the general good of the community that such persons be asked to stop posting. Banning a member is one of my saddest tasks, because as a Christian I am called to see my brother as God sees him, not as he is in his defiled state. I see the potential in all of our banned members, and lament the course they chose.
One important way to improve the experience of posting online on web forums is to balance the forum with other resources on any given website. Copies of peer-reviewed works that are posted in their entirety or in excerpted form on a site should be more prevalent than the forum, or at least equally emphasized. On our own forum, this is not yet the case, and we have tried on several occasions to extend the resources section of the site, but have heretofore been unsuccessful. There are a collection of articles and photo galleries, but we do look forward to adding broader resources in the future.
A new convert should take a vacation from web posting for some time to be determined by his spiritual father; if one is truly leaving behind his former ways, the kind of doubts, debates, uncertainties and searching that dominated his previous life on-line should be put to death as well when he is baptized, and a vacation from the forum will allow the convert to come back in a new way of relating to his on-line community. For those who discover Internet forums after their conversion, or those who return to Orthodoxy from laxity, prudence and common sense should be employed. Limited use of forums for learning and making friends is acceptable, while overzealous debating in one’s nascent (or renewed) Christian life should be avoided.
Zealous moderating must be a part of any forum. To allow a thread or threads to spiral out of control is one of the greatest mistakes an administrator can make. Ignoring a problem allows it to fester, and feelings are hurt when participants are insulted or when they are moderated for an action for which they were never moderated previously. Fairness is imperative, and this is often difficult when one becomes friends with those whom he must then moderate. A dispassionate ability to correct in love is key.
In running an Orthodox forum, we also can’t take ourselves too seriously; certainly, there are real consequences to our actions, but at the same time, we are not on the level of the editors of peer-reviewed journals, nor are we faculty of universities, nor are we engaging in scholarship even if we be scholars. Instead, our job is to provide a place for interaction and convergence of persons and ideas, but always with the goal in mind of helping the person to take the knowledge or relationship beyond the limits imposed in impersonal on-line communication. One of the best compliments of an Internet forum is when someone who joined as a novice takes a break or reduces his participation after he has learned what he needs to; we should not foster chatter just for the sake of chatter (although friendly communication is not intrinsically wrong). Our participation is always geared towards growth, and expanding beyond our horizons.
Forums are routinely denigrated by those who do not regularly participate in them as useless and of no real impact to the world. However, the personal friendships and conversions which have resulted from our work temper such criticisms. Critics have valid points, but often their criticism is in an unnuanced form. This essay has openly and honestly set out the benefits and the risks of an Orthodox Christian Internet forum. May we all find salvation in Our Lord, God, and Savior Jesus Christ.
Anastasios Hudson is an Orthodox Christian author, speaker, and web developer living in Reston, Virginia. He is the co-founder of OrthodoxChristianity.net, the largest Orthodox forum in the world. He is also the author of Metropolitan Petros of Astoria: A Microcosm of the Old Calendar Movement in America (2014). His personal website is AnastasiosHudson.com.
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