The controversy caused by our decision to close the forums on RichardDawkins.net has greatly upset me. It has been raging for several days now and I have spent that time – frustratingly hampered by long haul flights, jet lag and the need to consult people in several different time zones – talking to colleagues and trustees, and reading a multitude of emails as well as open letters, blogs, internet comments and even newspaper articles, and I am now finally in a position to respond publicly. Please forgive me for replying collectively rather than individually. I am engaged in a strenuous book promotion tour of Australia and it would take too long to write separately to everybody who has written to me.
I would like to start by apologising for our handling of this situation. We have not communicated well with our forum volunteers and users (for example in my insensitive 'Outrage' post, which was written in the heat of the moment). In the process we have caused unintended hurt and offence, and I am very sorry about that. In a classic case of a vicious circle, some of the responses to our announcement also caused considerable hurt and distress to us, and in the atmosphere of heightened emotion that followed, some of our subsequent actions went too far. I hope you will understand the human impulses that led to this, and accept my apology for them. I take full personal responsibility.
One thing in particular, in my ‘Outrage’ post, has caused some confusion, which I must dispel. It is clear to me now that people were expecting me to post my explanation of why the forum had been closed, and read my piece in that light. My purpose in writing at that time, however, was rather different: it was simply to express my full support for Josh and my horror at some of the truly appalling personal abuse he had been subjected to during the day. I still stand by that. Josh is a personal friend of mine, one of the most talented people I have ever met, and a vital and highly valued member of our team. The character assassination inflicted on him and other team members was beyond reason. In my passionate haste to defend them, I evidently did not express myself as clearly as I would have liked. OF COURSE the vile comments I quoted were not made on our forum, and it was never my intention to suggest that they were, or that it was these comments that had led to its closure. The connection with our forum was simply that the comments – of necessity now made elsewhere – had been written by a few individuals who had previously used our forum, and revealed a disturbing sense of territorialism, entitlement, and extremism of language; and that this reinforced our determination to ensure that the whole of RichardDawkins.net should more closely serve the purposes for which we set it up.
I believe that the new RichardDawkins.net, which will be launched in the next few weeks will make this possible. The new Discussion area will still permit users to start their own threads, and to post comments. The only significant difference between this and the old forum will be that new threads (note: not the comments) will have to be approved before they appear. This is purely and simply to ensure that all new threads are on subjects relevant to reason and science. It is akin to the editor of a specialist magazine accepting only articles that are relevant to the topic of that magazine. Our old forum contained many excellent discussions on reason and science and related topics, and we certainly don’t want to lose the facility for those. However, it also contained some threads that were potentially harmful to the website’s (and therefore the Foundation’s) reputation. Our goal is to retain the valuable aspects of the old forum, the parts that actively promote the causes for which the website was set up; whilst losing those parts that do not. There will be no pre-publication moderation of comments on our new site: we will just be ensuring that all new, user-instigated discussion threads are on subjects relevant to reason and science.
While I stand by the original decision to close the forum in its current form and move to the new Discussion section instead, I want to take a slightly different course based on the feedback we have received over the last few days. It is clear that many of you greatly value some of the discussions that have already taken place and that you see it as a valuable resource. The prospect of this archive being lost to the future has clearly distressed many people, and I should have foreseen this. We will therefore not, after all, remove the old forum altogether, but will continue to make it available in a read-only form: it will not be possible to post new comments on it and it may not (after the originally promised period of 30 days) contain resource-hungry (for these things cost money) elements such as avatars and photographs. But it will preserve an easy-to-access and searchable archive of the knowledge contained in it. I think this is a reasonable and constructive compromise, and I hope it will remove any anxiety and pressure on people to archive favourite material for themselves.
I also want to take this opportunity to do something I should have done much earlier, and that is personally to thank all of you who used and contributed to our forums – especially, of course, the volunteer moderators and administrators who worked so tirelessly to keep them running smoothly. I greatly appreciate the time, commitment and sheer dedication you devoted to the cause of reason and science, and the support you have shown me personally. Thank you. I am sorry that over this unfortunate episode it came to such a painful falling-out with some of you, and would like to think that we could all learn from this sorry saga, and then put it behind us and move on.
I want to end on a positive note. The forum is not being destroyed. Users will still be able to initiate and contribute to the new Disussion section. There will be still be an online community here. You will be able to re-post items from the old forum on the new site if you want to continue discussions that had already been started. There never have been plans to make RichardDawkins.net a fully moderated site with all comments having to be approved before they appear. And although any new software is always likely to experience a few teething problems, overall the changes will result in a site that runs more smoothly, has better performance, is easier to manage, has a better look and feel, and will have a clearer focus on what we are all aiming for: the promotion of reason and science. Away from the website, we will be continuing with initiatives such as the RDF TV vignettes, an educational series of videos on evolution, a feature-length documentary on the conflict between reason and superstition, Non-Believers Giving Aid, The Out Campaign and more.
The last few days have been difficult and painful for all of us, but I hope we can begin to put them behind us now: there is lots to look forward to. It would mean a great deal to me to have your support as we do so. Speaking personally, I hope now to enter fully into the spirit of my Australian tour, which has hitherto been marred by a black cloud of despond and enervating anxiety. I hope now to be free to report on some of my experiences in this amazing and wonderfully friendly country over the next few weeks. Once again, I apologise for our mistakes and take full responsibility for them.