I love writing. It's the best release I know for all those overblown thoughts that churn through my head, day in and day out, whenever I fail to keep myself properly medicated with alcohol, games or someone else's writing. It's a reality check -- complete irrationality becomes easier to spot when it's written down. And it gives my friends and family the option, without being rude, to not read. That's valuable.
When I discovered thisisby.us, I thought: great, a community for bloggers. One that, by its very name, reinforces the idea that it is what its contributors make of it. One where you're not expected to show your face or bare your whole life, but stand by your writing. One where you get feedback, in the form of votes and comments from identifiable people whom in turn you can know by their writing. What a fantastic idea.
But nothing is that pure.
To me, TIBU looked like the anarchic, later Usenet communities I remember. It was easy to create an account, and easy to keep it anonymous. People posted for validation, for attention, for practice, or like me, just to relieve the internal pressure of their thoughts. There was (it seemed) no real restriction on what you could write. But there was a veneer of moderation, and although it was conducted with a light touch, it was always present in the background, like the hum of electricity.
And as is the way of such places, friendships formed. I met other online identities that I liked and respected -- still do, in fact. For their writing, their thinking, their honesty or their good nature; or in rare cases, for a combination of these qualities.
And of course, once you start thinking of people as "friends", it's not just about the writing. It becomes personal. Loyalty contends with fairness. You view and vote for what your friends write because they wrote it; and when they get into a disagreement, however petty, you side with them. Even if you try to be fair, theirs is the side you know, so that's where your sympathies will lie.
All of which is a perfectly natural and normal part of online communities. A few people railed against it, but that too is part of the natural order of such spaces -- it's happened in a million different forums. Years before TIBU was even conceived, the great Lore Sjöberg coined his Law of Public Cliquishness. Pettiness, factionalism, feuding, hatred and flaming -- TIBU could have survived all of these things. But then something terrible happened.
In the wake of one unpleasant episode -- not, it seemed to me, abnormally unpleasant, but illegal, involving as it did death threats that were not obviously in jest -- the owners, bowing to popular pressure, declared their intention to moderate the site actively, enforcing the terms and conditions.
From that moment, I believe, TIBU was doomed.
Alexa's stats show that it had been hit hard by the Great Exodus of December 2007 -- but that announcement, in July 2008, spelled the end of any chance that it could pull itself back up.
Gone was the sense that the space was ours. Now we knew: it was the Moderators', and we used it only by their sufferance. At a stroke we went from thinking of our little world as a place that we were responsible for, that we could preserve or ruin by our own actions, to thinking of an overarching, all-seeing Authority that managed it and simply would not let it come to harm.
From then on, whenever an argument flared up, we would watch agog to see whose account would be deleted. Whenever it happened, there would follow a bitter row about whether they'd deserved to be deleted and whether someone else deserved it more. When someone disappeared voluntarily for reasons of their own, we'd spend time wondering why they'd been deleted. No longer a communitarian process -- resolving differences and suppressing baser instincts to coexist -- TIBU politics had become an exercise in theology, trying to divine the motivations and anticipate the actions of an unseen, unaccountable external power. (My friend JasmineArdent once went to the lengths of asking her friends to "flag" a comment, to test whether it would get deleted.)
Even that might have worked. Moderation can work, it's worked in countless talking shops for centuries. But it requires faith in the moderator. And on the Internet at least, the only way to sustain such faith is for the moderators to take an active part in the group, so that members feel they're One Of Us.
Bill and Elle Dee may have intended to do that. They did it when they first founded the site. But by the time I'm talking about, they'd retreated into a fastness of silence. They were beings of legend and oracle, not first-hand knowledge.
They were no longer 'Us'. They were 'Them'.
And that, I think, is what finally killed TIBU. Its proprietors -- all credit to them, they did a fine job right up to the point where they started to go wrong, and that's saying more than it appears -- effectively killed the community spirit without replacing it. In the end -- We simply didn't have enough faith in Them.