ChristianForums, 2002-2003

2006-11-09 00:37

It’s funny to imagine that this was the good old days. (And given how far back it is, and that no one realized back then how crucial it was to save everything in case it got deleted, I may have some subtle errors. Feel free to submit corrections, ideally with documentation. Alleged corrections submitted without supporting evidence will be remarked on, but not necessarily accepted as truth.) Throughout this article, there’s some references to “Erwin” — that’s Erwin Loh, founder of “Loh Enterprises”, which is the company that actually owns CF legally. Erwin is an Australian member of a Willow Creek church. His management of CF is often influenced by his lack of involvement with a lot of American politics.

In 2002, when I first signed up, ChristianForums was a very odd bulletin board, with a lot of weird features tacked on. The forum was fairly loosely policed, but there was some policing. Users were asked to enter various profile information, such as gender, or marital status, but there was very little enforcement. There were some forums identified as “for Christians only”, with the understanding that this was understood to mean acceptance of the Nicene Creed. Users accumulated “blessings”, which could be given to other users, or used to buy items from a selection of “armor of God”, which were tiny icons that would show up by your account when you posted. Blessings were originally handed out by staff, but eventually Erwin added a feature where you got blessings for posting or starting threads.

The forum was run by moderators, who were picked from the user base primarily based on perceived devotion to Christian ideals, and on whether or not they were believed to make good moderators. The selection process was a bit ambiguous. There was a staff hierarchy, running from moderators to senior moderators, administrators, and senior administrators. Erwin had absolute authority, but in practice, a huge number of decisions were made by a user who went by “AngelAmidala”; AngelAmidala was originally just a Senior Administrator, but was later assigned the unique title “Senator”.

One of the then-staff, who posted under the name LouisBooth, deleted a post of mine on the grounds that a particular forum was only for Christians, and he personally didn’t feel I was Christian. Not much came of this at the time, but I do have some saved messages from around that period. One staffer wrote me, out of the blue, to ask whether I accepted the Nicene Creed. (Back in 2002, there were no footnotes or modifications to the Creed.) I received the following very interesting message:

Thank you seebs! Just bear in mind your posts will be watched to see if you will post in contradiction of your claim.

But you must know I encourage free thought and if you feel these beliefs do not reflect your own in the future or whatever then that is your choice and there are plenty of forums for you to debate in! So don’t feel obligated to please anyone.

Now, you might take this as a sort of threatening thing, but it’s not really anything like the modern efforts. Still, it was interesting.

In 2002, there was a section called “Congregation” which contained a couple of discussion forums; one for Catholics, and one for Protestant, Reformed, and Evangelical Christians. This was, frankly, one of the most impressive things about ChristianForums. In a world where some bulletin boards have emoticons like “smiley face puking on consecrated Host”, it was interesting to see a predominately Protestant board that was generally willing to accept Catholics.

That said, even back then, some of the early signs of trouble were in the air. Threads on homosexuality often got closed by staff for being long and disruptive, and some staff members had a pronounced tendency to edit posts they didn’t like.

Back in 2002, there was a rule against “questioning” moderator decisions in-thread. For instance, if a moderator posted stating that a given topic should not be pursued in a particular thread, you weren’t allowed to argue with the moderator in that thread, although you could start discussions of that in the support forums.

From the beginning of the forum, staff were encouraged to maintain separate accounts to debate with, so their moderating would be viewed as separate from their posting habits. This is, of course, inherently deceptive, but it highlights an early policy decision of CF: Favor the appearance of justice over the practice. Rather than trying to confront the inevitable reality of bias, try to hide any evidence.

2003 is a hard time to write about, because of the Great Crash. Due to a large and nasty series of hardware and software problems, a few months of forum records were permanently lost. Posts from this period are simply gone, except in the rare case where someone happens to have saved some.

I have one example thread from this period. The original thread is long gone, but this summarizes the reasons for which many people viewed LouisBooth as a problematic administrator; the account “Outspoken” was his sock puppet:

The Belief-O-Matic Thread

The interesting stuff starts at post #32 (in 43508-4.html), where I point out that many Orthodox Jews believe in reincarnation. Outspoken (aka LouisBooth) then goes absolutely nuts. It’s a wonder to behold. Note that, while LouisBooth often had a reputation for fairness, this did not survive once people noticed that Outspoken tended to bait and troll (this thread is fairly typical), so that other staff, or even LouisBooth, could warn and ban the people he picked fights with. A public comment linking Outspoken to LouisBooth was attacked by staff on the grounds that revealing staff sock puppet names was considered problematic.

One of the biggest events of 2003 was the “no promotion of sin” rule. This rule stated, in essence, that it was forbidden to “promote sin” in the Christians-only forums of CF. There were a number of examples offered, every last one of them having to do with modern American sexual morality. Other things (such as usury, or violence) were not covered. The rule was very broad, and it was used very badly. Users who were perceived to be violating the rules were in some cases told that they were no longer allowed to post in the Christians-only section. One girl, who was sleeping with her boyfriend, tearfully begged and pleaded that she’d shut up, she’d never mention her personal life again, if only she could be Christian again, because she’d just converted a couple of weeks earlier.

After much fuss, the rule was turned into a don’t-ask-don’t-tell policy; if you didn’t specifically mention premarital or extramarital sex, you were okay, as long as you didn’t bring it up. At this point, Erwin made an interesting policy ruling. “Marriage” had to be a legal marriage between a man and a woman. In the specific case of, say, missionaries in a country that does not recognize Christian marriages, they would be prohibited from stating that they felt it was morally acceptable for them to have sex, because that would be promoting premarital sex.

After the Great Crash, a whole lot of features which had gradually accumulated on the site were removed; the software modifications in question were gone, and the board became a lot simpler. Briefly. Erwin loves hacking on the vBulletin code, and his bulletin board is constantly acquiring innovative new features.

One feature which began to be more prominent over time is the Warning system. (vBulletin now has a similar feature built in, but at the time, it was a local hack.) Warnings were issued by staff for alleged violations of forum rules. Users who accumulated 7 warnings were banned. Additional rules were added, such as a rule stating that a user who received three warnings in one week would receive a permanent ban. Staff also handed out “unofficial warnings”, which did not count for a ban, and were in effect warnings that you might be about to receive a warning. Warnings were tracked on a user’s account, and for quite a while, staff would see, in any user’s posts, a big red number indicating how many warnings the user had received, if the user had any warnings. (This was eventually removed on the grounds that it seemed to make users into targets. Duh.)

So, that’s some of the backdrop. Up next, some of the wild and crazy stories of the 2003 era, in which we find out just how “moderation” is handled.

Peter Seebach

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Comments

  1. Ah, I can feel the xian hatred oozing from this post....

    But it has no effect on me. Because, you see, we won and you lost. You people are out of touch with American values.


    — Goliath · 2006-11-09 18:50 · #

  2. Do you ever wonder why so many others question your really being a Christian, Peter?

    — tubby · 2007-02-07 19:06 · #

  3. dude, you are preaching to the choir here. edwin loh is nothing more than a heretic, and his site is garbage. what would you expect from an australian lawyer?

    — GEN · 2007-02-17 22:39 · #

 
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