Comic Book Resources (CBR) is a large, long-running and influential comic book website, featuring news, reviews, blogs and an active community. Created by Jonah Weiland and launched in 1996, the site’s media kit reports that they receive more than 24 million pageviews per month from over 6 million unique visitors.
On Wednesday, Weiland announced that CBR’s current forums would be closing and would remain online for 14 days, in order to allow members to retrieve old content they wanted to save. The old forums have 12.9 million posts, with public discussions going all the way back to 2006. In their place, a new community was launched. None of the old content, nor membership information, was preserved. I learned of this story through Mark Wilkin.
Weiland explained that the community had been neglected in his efforts to grow CBR into a credible outlet for comic book news and info, rather than just a community website, which is what it originated as. Because of this, the community had turned into a place that he was not proud of, where “hateful and ugly comments were allowed to be posted in the interest of ‘free speech,’ which made the forums a place that wasn’t accepting or inviting.”
Though the change was due to an overall trend that Weiland suggests has been developing for sometime, the catalyst was a recent incident where a guest contributor to CBR was viciously and inappropriately attacked, because she criticized a comic book cover.
While still promising a community where conversation and debate will occur, Weiland pledged that the new forums would “show zero tolerance for intimidation or abuse of all members of the community, regardless of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation and gender identification.” This would be accomplished by starting from square one with no content, new rules and stricter moderation.
I Applaud the Effort
First and foremost, before I get into anything else, I want to say that I applaud the effort in general – especially the motivation behind it. I believe it does take courage to make a change like this and I hope they are successful.
It’s not without risk. I am sure there are many people who are turned off by this change, who will never go back to the community. Many of them may be people Weiland no longer wants, which is fair. Not all of them will be bad people, though. A move like this can turn good people away – people who were part of the solution, not part of the problem (I’ll explain why in a moment).
Some might suggest that Weiland can afford to do this now that he has a successful outlet that doesn’t rely solely on community activity. There have certainly been cases where people are happy to have their forums be full of less than savory content, as long as traffic continued to grow, supporting their wider effort. And yet, there are also cases where forum owners have hid behind “free speech” as a justification for allowing heinous acts to occur.
At the end of the day, I credit Weiland for taking the stance and making big changes to back it. I really do support his efforts and want him to succeed.
Did the Content Really Have to Go?
One of my first thoughts, when I read about this story, was if it was truly necessary to nuke the old community. Surely, there was a ton of great content and many conversations and memories for members of the community. Conversations that had nothing to do with the reasons that CBR made this change.
“Please understand – I am aware that there was a lot of quality conversation in these forums from a lot of great fans,” Weiland said. “But the louder, vulgar elements, that weren’t adequately moderated and/or eliminated from this community have corrupted the Forums. I don’t want my name or CBR’s name to in any way be associated with that kind of poison.”
It is completely possible to announce that things change now and draw a totally new line in the sand, while preserving the content that you have. If you feel like no one will take notice, to make your point, you can even close the forums for a week or two and make it big and bold. After you re-open, things will be different.
I visited the old forums and clicked on the first forum that caught my eye: the Batman forum. I then clicked on the first thread that I saw, titled, “Where to start with Batman?” Because that could be me. I like the Batman movies, but ever got into the comics. Maybe one day I’d like to. And I saw a good, helpful conversation. Nothing bad at all. I am sure there are plenty more like this. Did they really have to go?
Dealing with Bad Content from Your Past
I am sure there is something posted on one of my communities that I am not proud of. If you think this isn’t true for you, I would say your community is either too small, you are forgetting something or you are lying to yourself, thinking you’ve read and remember every single word posted.
That doesn’t mean that I’m happy about it because I’m not. If I see it, I’ll make sure it is taken care of. Even if you made the change that CBR is making, if harmful words from old posts are left in public – they can continue to do damage. For that reason, if I had preserved the content, that doesn’t mean I would simply leave it as is. I would remove any bad posts I was aware of and encourage people to report anything they see.
Your community guidelines are a living document. It is perfectly reasonable that they change over time. Each time they change, you don’t necessarily go back and read every single post ever made to make sure they comply. You fix what you know about, focus on the posts made after the change and deal with old ones as they pop up on your radar.
Why You Should Avoid Mass Removal of Old Content
Old content is your community’s history. When you simply delete chunks of it needlessly, it’s like opening a family photo album and ripping out half of the pages. To do so is to rob yourself and your members of the opportunity to look back.
Beyond the history and legacy aspects of this, old posts offer tremendous value to people when it comes to finding answers and information. There is a reason why when you type a question into Google, you have a good chance of ending up in a forum.
This says nothing of the business aspects of keeping old content and the fact that it brings in a lot of traffic, leading to new members and increased revenue. That’s not really the point of this post, as this is more of a principled stand, but it would be incomplete if I didn’t mention it.
The Value of Rebooting from Zero
Then again, this isn’t my community. Maybe it is so bad, so overrun with garbage that it just isn’t worth saving. Starting over from scratch isn’t without some pros. I believe that it will make it slightly easier to draw that line in the sand. There is no past content you have to distance yourself from, and no old documented behaviors people can reference as how it used to be, to justify their own actions. There is simply nothing. It can allow you to set the tone a little more easily.
That said, there isn’t exactly nothing. Many people who join a forum don’t read the guidelines at all. Many of the people who will join the rebooted forums are from the old one. You’ll still have to educate a lot of people the same way that you would have educated them at the old forum: by removing what they post and letting them know why.
By clearing the deck, you clear some of the baggage and you definitely erase all of the bad posts (along with all of the good). You just have to ask: is it worth the cost? For some, it might be. For others, it won’t. Just make sure you think it through.
Still, even if that is the way to go, I still have a tough time wrapping my head around the 2 week time frame to get the content you want. The forum has 7+ years of content. It isn’t dead, it’s not like people just left. There are many active members. You close it suddenly and you give them two weeks to look back on what they’ve done over the last 7+ years?
That’s the one thing here that I can’t get behind. I don’t know if we have best practices for this type of thing in the forum world, but if we do, 2 weeks isn’t it. 3 months, 6 months, a year or more, maybe. Not 2 weeks. That’s disrespectful to the people who contributed good stuff and who have memories they look back on fondly.
If you are worried that public posts can continue to harm people if you leave them up, then make the forums private. Login only. No new registrations (so people who want to register “just to see” cannot). Not enough? You could make it so that only people with a certain post count can see it. But you can’t just kill all of their posts in 2 weeks.
Why Not Transfer the Member Information?
Even if you decided to delete all posts, I would recommend that you strongly consider transferring the membership information. The usernames, passwords and profiles. It’s hard to think of a great reason not to do this.
If you clear the member information, you are creating a land rush for usernames. Sound silly? Well, let’s say I’d been posting under the username Patrick for 7 years. You delete the forums and launch a new one with little notice and someone grabs that username before me. That would make me unhappy. If you think that is an overreaction, imagine if you suddenly lost your Facebook or Twitter username. Unless you are using remotely hosted forum software that is holding you hostage, there is no good reason to subject your members to this.
Transferring the member data over helps preserve the community. Even if their posts are gone, it’s the people who are the community and they can still be members. Making them register new accounts doesn’t really do anything. It doesn’t force them to rethink their ways. In fact, when they login for the first time, you can display a massive notice about the community’s new direction, which can help you accomplish your goals.
CBR is Big Enough to Hire a Community Manager
As I mentioned, I really want Weiland to succeed here. I wrote this piece because this is an interesting circumstance for us all to think about and learn from. Any thoughts I offer are from a desire to help, not to criticize. I actually emailed Weiland directly a few days ago.
My biggest piece of advice for him was to hire a full time community manager. CBR is more than big enough to have one and Weiland has made it clear with this announcement that this issue is a priority. He has a lot to manage and it isn’t reasonable to expect that he can manage the forums, as well as everything else.
Such a bold transition is going to require someone who is full time focused on making it happen and that means someone who is paid. A veteran who is used to being the bad guy and has deep expertise in moderation is the ideal candidate.
Some people in this profession don’t like volunteer moderators. I am very pro-volunteer. But there is a difference between a carefully selected group of closely monitored moderators (which can work well) and volunteer administrators (which I am not a huge fan of). Someone needs to lead this program and it’s too big a burden for a volunteer.
I don’t know what CBR’s financial situation is, but if the money isn’t there, then you have to make do. But if it isn’t there, I’d work toward finding it. No matter what, though, I hope it works out.