Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Honnold Forum: A requiem

in Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
For the first year of this blog's existence, I was in the final year of moderating an online community called "The Honnold Forum," or simply, "The Forum." Honnold started out as a high school rock band me and a few friends pulled together in 1996-'97. Three years later we had a website. Then from 2001 to 2010, the most prominent and active feature of that website became the Forum, which consisted mostly of friends around my age connected to the area in which I grew up, Prairie City & Monroe, Iowa.

In my prior professional life as a web developer, the Forum was "my baby." I designed and coded the software as well as serving as the community moderator. After a few years I gained the nickname, "Lord Forum." (I always thought of it as a play on Darth Vader; as in, "Yes, Lord Vader.") The website essentially came to represent and house most forms of my creative expression: software development, songwriting, and creative writing. Not to mention the fine art of B.S. and wasting time at work, which is how the site functioned for most of its office-dweller patrons, including me.

But beginning in late 2008, my first semester of grad school at EMU, the Forum began to creep toward its demise. That the process took a full two years to complete shows how hard it was for me to finally pull the plug around this time last year. A few weeks before the end, I posted a long message announcing the site's closure along with some commentary on why I thought it had come about. That message is no longer on the website but sat on my hard drive for months. For posterity, I'm editing it only slightly and posting it here on Restorative Theology. So read on to hear my requiem for the Honnold Forum...

(Note: From this point forward, the text will appear as it did originally, in October of 2010...)

Screenshot of the Forum, courtesy of the Wayback Machine
All right, folks the long and short of it is this: the Honnold Forum is not what it used to be. Quantitatively and qualitatively, this is not the same site it once was. Traffic is down sharply from where it was two years ago. There have been a handful of people who've dropped off the face of the Forum in the past two years, and this has set me to thinking and wondering about the sustainability of this here thing I'm typing into. There are a number of factors that have brought us to where we are today, which I'll dig into in more detail below but essentially: I'm strongly entertaining the possibility of shutting down the Forum. For good.

Below I'm going to go through four factors that I've identified and carefully monitored and mulled over in the course of the past year or so. These are the things that, in my mind, have contributed to the present "state of the union" for the Forum. None of these are mutually exclusive categories but have significant overlap with each other. Here goes...

Factor 1: The role of personal interests framing our discussions...and the impact of Facebook
Since its birth in 2001, the Forum has followed an interests-based model of framing discussion. This was based on my very small target audience: my friends, mostly from Prairie City & Monroe. So I had some friends that were musicians (Honnold did start out as a band, after all) and who continued to listen to new music, and so would share this stuff with each other. Boom, the music forum. I'm a computer nerd, have been for years, played a lot of video games and knew some other nerds who liked video games. Boom: the Nerdery. A couple of these guys were/are gaga about various sports. Hey, it's not my bag, baby, but here you go: Jock Nitch. Sometimes we'd like to have some conversation about "serious" stuff like politics and religion so I took the name of an e-mail newsletter my brother used to send out after he'd had a few beers: the Gumat Coast. And for all other manner of crap, the Everything Else forum acted as a catch-all.

But here's what's happened since 2001:

  • Message board sites that focus on special interests are now ALL OVER the internet. An informal poll I conducted here in July supports that this has had an impact on the Honnold Forum. We used to talk to each other about a range of our interests. Now we go to other sites where all we talk about is one thing we're interested in. (And invariably, we end up talking about other stuff with people who at least like what we're most interested in.)
  • Facebook: There used to be moments on the Forum where we'd stop talking about our various interests and get personal. People wished each other happy birthday. When kids were born we'd say something quick about it. When people lost their jobs, they'd start blogs about it. I created ways to post pictures to share. We had internet-initiated events, e.g. the mustachio growing contests and parties. I don't have any hard data to back this one up, but have had some informal conversation with Forumites past and present (and this is true for me, too): Facebook has filled in some of this need for those who use it (not all of you do).

My conclusion is this: Online conversation that is governed primarily by personal interest is bound to kill a site like this. If you are first interested in talking about something you're really interested in, you have 1,000,000 options on the internet for doing just that. You love the Hawkeyes? (I do.) Combined, there are probably thousands of news/message board sites, blogs, Facebook pages & groups, and Twitter feeds JUST for Hawkeye fans. Sick of arguing with Cyclone fans? (Apparently Forum users are.) You don't have to put up with their bullshit! Cruise on over to HawkeyeNation.com for all the Hawk love you can handle...and you'll even have some conversation on other things like politics that you're not quite as worked up about.

Situating myself in respect to this: After two years in grad school, I've realized that the things I'm interested in really aren't all that interesting to folks on the Forum. Nobody wants to listen to me talk about things like post-Christendom, Stanley Hauerwas, and John Howard Yoder! So last fall I started my own blog, Restorative Theology. That, combined with Facebook (where I do have connections w/ a few folks who are interested in talking about this crazy theology stuff) has replaced much of my Forum use. So I place myself firmly within this phenomenon.

Factor 2: This is a "waste time at work" website
At some level I've known this for years and years, but monitoring usage with Google Analytics over the past two years has just affirmed it: The Honnold Forum has always been a "waste time at work" activity. It was actually created by me as a "waste time at work" activity. I almost got fired for the amount of time I wasted, at work, while coding for and contributing posts to this site. (This ethical dilemma took years for me to come to grips with, much less do something about. My wife has also never been a fan of how much time I sink into this site.) So I know the dynamic well, and it's proved true for almost all regular users over the years. I won't spend as much time on this point, but I do want to point out a parallel: The daily office-dwellers' e-mail fiesta. For almost as long as there's been a Forum, there's been a back-channel e-mail chain that starts up every single day of the work week, with most of the same people who were originally targeted by the Forum. I used to be on this list, but asked to be taken off when I stopped working in an office five days a week.

Being removed from that list, but periodically getting put back on it by mistake, has helped me see something fairly clearly: Many of the personal conversations that sometimes happened on the Forum have mostly shifted onto the daily e-mail chain. Not being on it, for instance, meant that I wasn't aware of the engagement of one of my friends! That was the only place it was announced, and I wasn't on it. I'm not trying to bellyache about not feeling included anymore but rather pointing out that the "waste time at work" function is where some of the personal/connecting of the small group I was initially reaching out to with the Forum now persists in this e-mail list. That's great, and I'm glad it's going on, but it has changed the Forum.

Factor 3: We started talking to each other like enemies and not friends
This one really makes my heart ache. It's the factor I've spent the most time personally worrying about. Based on e-mail conversations with former Forum regulars, this was the biggest factor that led them to leaving the Forum. I want to state right off the bat, too: I personally generated some of the bad energy that drove a few folks away. So I can claim no moral high ground here, but am just trying to describe the situation as best I can.

The quick test case of this is the Iowa/ISU argument. Long the mainstay of early September chatter in the Jock Nitch, this year's incarnation was dead. Hawkeye/Cyclone bickering that is done in the context of close, personal relationships is often good-natured, done in good fun. But as personal relationships with flesh-and-blood face time began to dissolve over time (people move away, get married, have kids, jobs, etc.), then the allegiance to the team starts to take center stage. It's no longer good-natured ribbing. It becomes bitter. So why engage in conversation like that on a "waste time at work" website? Good question. You don't have to, so *poof*, a few folks drop out.

The other instance of this, and the one that I had more of a personal stake in, was pretty much any topic in the Gumat Coast from the summer of 2008 until earlier this year. Topics political and religious on the Gumat often had a bit of an edge to them, but things really started to get nasty around the time of the presidential elections. What made Gumat discussion unique is that the tone of rhetoric started to sound eerily similar to what you'd here on the highly polarized cable "news" channels, e.g. MSNBC and its mirror FOX News. The rhetorical criteria on these channels is primarily this: Who can scream the loudest to drown out the voices of opposition? Who can hijack language and force it into an ideological box, then string together and repeat buzzwords over and over again, until you've indoctrinated that group of people who happens to agree with you. Like in section one above, the ethic of consumer choice comes into play here. You have countless choices for who you agree with/listen to/read when it comes to "politics."

So two things happen: 1) When we adopt the rhetorical ethics (ways of talking to each other) of cable news and broader ideology-driven media (e.g. blogs), we start talking to each other like enemies. There can be no other way to talk to each other...unless of course you happen to agree with each other on "politics." 2) When the tone of our conversation has taken on this quality, the ethic of consumer choice will take over and you'll simply stop reading and/or posting on the Honnold Forum and find some place else to chatter about this stuff. Again, a "waste time at work" site is going to have to tickle some pleasure centers in the brain in order for us to keep coming back. If we're coming out more anxious/worked up then when we came in, well that simply won't do and we'll find another website out of which to get some pleasure. And again, the flesh-and-blood relationships that used to bind some of us together have lost a lot of that fleshness and bloodness, so we're more susceptible to make use of those mean, nasty ways of having a conversation.

I'm suspicious that serious conversation can ever be had on a leisure time-only website like this. Serious conversation and leisure only work for intellectual nerds like me. Most people just aren't interested in taking the time, especially if the conversation is going to be only framed in a way that results in nastiness. Also, I have serious questions about a website that operates at this "pleasure" level, but...that's probably taking the conversation another direction.

Factor 4: $$$
This post is getting long, so I'll try to keep this section simple: This website costs money to operate. $250/year to be exact. For the past three years or so, I've done a beg-a-thon via Paypal to raise money to cover costs. This worked pretty well when there was a small, loyal donor base. Well...a decent chunk of that loyal donor base are amongst the people who have left the Honnold Forum. So this puts me in a bit of a bind. We have our bills for last year covered, but are going to be billed $250 for services rendered in the year 2010...which has been the Forum's low-point. This is the danger of paying our bills "in the rears." So we'll have to pay our bills for this year, and we'll do that somehow, but what about 2011? If everything that I've said above, trying to describe the situation of the Forum, is true: Is it wise to even continue operating a $250/year website? My gut says, No, it's not wise at all.

So then...Now what?
Here is my proposal in bullet-list form:

  • Shut down the Honnold Forum at the end of this year, 2010
  • Let www.honnold.org live, but only list the music (This is much cheaper to do than operate a "dynamic" site that allows things like the Forum.)
  • Keep the dream alive by doing the periodic music projects we've done for the past 10 years.

The reason I'm not offering any other options is simple: I don't have the capacity. From a technical and visioning perspective, this website has always been "my baby." Let me quickly follow that up by saying that the content of the Forum has always been a community co-creation. Together, we've made this site what it is (for better, and as you can see above...for worse). In order to pull off a "revival" on the Honnold site, significant resources would have to poured into matters both technical and visionary. I have the ability to exercise such resources, and believe me I have the interest in doing so...but what I do not have is the capacity in my life to do so.

The phrase that sometimes you have to "kill your darlings" is attributed a few different writers, including Faulkner (I thought it was Virginia Woolf), but regardless of who said it, there is truth in those words. Perhaps this is the time to kill my little darling, the Forum, age 9 this year. Pardon the morbid analogy...

Lastly (I should have said this firstly), THANK YOU for helping me experiment with this crazy website for 9 years (9 years!!). Most of the first members of this site were a small group of buddies from PCM, and that friendship remains. Through the Forum, I even picked up a few friends that I wouldn't have otherwise met in a million years! There are even a few Forum ex-pats who met on the Forum, left the Forum, but are now friends on Facebook. I think that's pretty cool. The ties of virtual community on the internet are tenuous, but meaningful bonds are not impossible to form in venues like this or Facebook.

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