Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Reviews of Baha'i Cyberspace forums

The oldest type of cyberspace forum, I believe, is Usenet. I can't say for certain that Usenet forums pre-date email lists, since email was one of the first things to arise on the Internet, but I do know that it significantly predates the creation of the World Wide Web. I've run into old geeks who recall the days when a person could keep up with all groups on Usenet. Of course, back then, the online community was almost entirely composed of people who knew something about computers, and it was all a foreign language to the rest of us. Usenet is still relatively inconvenient -- you have to sign up for it through your ISP, which may not offer the group you are looking for. Newsreaders are of variable quality, and online posting to Usenet has historically been even worse. I have noted that Google Groups has updated its online format, and that messages appear there more quickly, although navigating through the archives can still be a bit tricky. All three of the Baha'i Usenet groups I'm talking about can be found there.

The oldest Usenet Baha'i forum, and maybe one of the oldest Baha'i forums of any kind is soc.religion.bahai, which is moderated and mainstream/conservative. I got very familiar with its archives when I was doing research for my paper on Baha'i attitudes about the exclusion of women from the UHJ. This topic was discussed virtually non-stop from 1992-98, when it gradually began to appear less often, and finally, after a few years, disappeared altogether. I thought this might be a matter of it being "talked out"; the issue is nowhere near as "hot" as it once was, anywhere in cyberspace. But also, around the same time, one begins to see complaints about censorship and very strict moderating, compared with the days when my old cyberfriend Alma Engles was there. I have posted there very seldom, and the fact that I've had posts, even ones I thought were pretty noncontroversial, just disappear without explanation. By the time I got active in cyberspace, srb had become a pretty boring place. One wag quipped, when one of their discussions came up, that he thought interesting topics were banned there. However, I have noted this last year that heated debate has returned, particularly between Baha'is and Muslims. I suspect that the moderators are more tolerant of external criticisms than internal ones. In any case, I think the group has improved somewhat lately.

The current top three most active threads are titled: "Mendacity", "The Mahdi and the Return of Christ", and "Unrealistic About Morality?".

The first unmoderated Baha'i Usenet group was alt.religion.bahai, created, as I understand it, by a non-Baha'i in 1997. It has now become a rather useless adjunct to talk.religion.bahai, with most of the posts on arb being simply crossposted from there, when folks remember to do it. The top three topics there are: "One Area where Liberty in Limited in the Baha'i Community" (a years-old thread that has been bumped up by a recent post); "Jacques Soghomonian is the Rightful Successor to Mason Remey"; and "Pro-Choice Baha'is and the Racist Origins of the Pro-Choice Movement". There really aren't many discussions there, just billboard sort of posting by folks that have a particular issue to harp on.

Talk.religion.bahai was controversial from its birth, with IIRC, three elections to get it going because conservative Baha'is fought its creation so hard. I'm not sure why it was so controversial, since one unmoderated forum, alt.religion.bahai, was already there, and rendered redundant by the new group. But then, I wasn't there at the time. The story about the creation of trb is on Fred Glaysher's website, but I was never interested enough to get all the ins and outs of that. There also seems to be quite a bit about it in the alt.religion.bahai archives.

Talk.religion.bahai has become a byword for all that is worst in Baha'i cyberspace: the nastiest sorts of flame wars, some of which have been going on constantly between the principles for the last couple of years, repetitive posting, posters that are just plain crazy. There are some decent posters who dislike moderated forums as a matter of principle, and who manage to pretty much ignore the excrement flying around. Other regulars are people who just couldn't function even with the lightest type of moderation because everything they want to do is against the rules of just about every forum that exists. At one time, trb was the place for the conservative/liberal conflict within the Baha'i Faith to play out, but the fundies mostly left, and posters who are just plain anti-Baha'i have been prominent. Every once in a while some naive soul wonders in there looking for information, or some brave fundamentalist puts his toe in the water. And there are still a couple of diehard AO-defenders there doing their thing. A lot of the time, the arguments aren't even about any issue at all -- just personal accusations that end up being a variation on the theme of "Yes, you are" and "No, I'm not." It is virtually a case study about what happens to unmoderated forums in Baha'i cyberspace, and probably unmoderated cyberspace in general. The archives are worth a look though, at least prior to about 2002.

The current most active threads on trb are titled: "The Truth About Joel Marangella's Accession to the Guardianship"; "Susan Maneck Lies"; and "Doug et. al. at SRB".

Next time, I'll talk about Baha'i email lists, which is a much cheerier subject.

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