Monday, June 13, 2011

The end of the Ouch! forum, and thoughts about online community

The news has recently been announced that the BBC Ouch! messageboard will be closing next month, as part of a wider reorganisation of the BBC website (which in turn appears to be motivated primarily by cuts to BBC funding). I have very mixed feelings about this - the BBC Ouch! site was my first real point of entry to the disabled people's community, and directly instrumental in both my development of a "legitimate" political identity as a disabled person and in connecting me with people involved - and thus enabling me to get actively involved myself - in disability rights activism, including the Disabled People's Direct Action Network. When the Ouch! forum first started, it felt like an incredibly vital and vibrant community of (mostly, but not exclusively, UK-based) disabled people and allies, discussing political issues, analysing TV and other pop culture through a disability lens, and forming community that extended (although i didn't get involved to that great an extent in that part of it) well beyond the internet and into the "real world" - many lasting friendships, and possibly even long-term relationships, were forged through it, despite the BBC-imposed restrictions on posting any sort of personally identifying data (which people often managed to get round through posting links to their blogs or other sites, or arranging "Ouch meet-ups" at "real-world" disability-related events (such as London's Liberty Festival, which i believe was founded around the same time as the Ouch! website).

(Lisybabe, lilwatchergirl and The Goldfish are among those other (ex-)Ouchers whose blogs i'm aware of. I believe that Screw Bronze, Rolling Around My Head (formerly Chewing the Fat) and the now inactive, but still online, Gimp Parade are all other blogs that i discovered through the Ouch site, all of which in turn led me to many other disability blogs that i read and follow now. There are also several other people who i now count as friends in "real life" who i originally met, directly or indirectly, through Ouch.)

However, there were a lot of very problematic things about the Ouch forum - as well as the BBC-imposed restrictions, which steadily got harder to get round over the years as moderation policies became stricter, there were many posters with strongly regressive views (some of whom were probably just trolling, others of whom seemed genuinely politically opposed to the idea of disabled people's community), and an anti-intellectual and anti-political community attitude which, while never universal, was present to some extent from the beginning, and gradually got stronger and stronger over the years, particularly in the form of opposition to "argument" or discussion of disagreements and the idea that, as a community, the forum ought to be "supportive" of its members to the point of refusing to problematise anything, but to play a "support group"-like role of "listening without criticism" - which is something i've never got on with in pretty much any context, and found particularly frustrating and irritating in this context. Over the 5 years or so that i regularly read the Ouch forums, most (though not all) of the more politically/analytically-inclined posters drifted away, and (at least from my perspective) the quality of the discussion - or at least my interest in it - declined to the point where i found attempting to seriously express my opinions there impossible (which, incidentally, was one of the things that led to me starting this blog). There was also rampant abuse of the "report post" system (by which anyone could click on a button to report a post by someone else as "offensive" and get it automatically "hidden" until it was reviewed by the BBC moderators, who often permanently removed even posts that had no "offensive" content).

I think the "last straw" that made me decisively stop actively participating in the Ouch! forum was the increasingly patronising "concern for welfare" attitude of the BBC moderators increasing to the extent that any frank discussion of issues like depression, suicide or mental health impairments became pretty much impossible, as any mention of certain "keywords" would result in automatic posts from the moderators appearing and urging people to contact "professional" helplines rather than discuss such things online - even if the discussion was a political one about (e.g.) the legalisation of assisted suicide. I think (although here i *might* be getting confused with another forum) that a regular poster was banned for talking frankly about suicidal feelings, and another had a post censored for quoting a disablist term of abuse that was shouted at hir, and was so upset by the censorship that they never came back. I also remember great anger at the boards being closed over the Christmas and New Year holidays - a time when many disabled people are at their most isolated and in need of online contact with others - due to the unavailability of BBC staff to moderate them, and despite claims on the website that the boards were open "24 hours a day, 365 days a year".

There were various attempts during the lifetime of the Ouch messageboards to set up alternative online communities not subject to BBC moderation, often by people who were unfairly censored on the Ouch messageboards, but, as far as i'm aware, none of them lasted very long. I don't know if any of these have been or will be revived now in light of the Ouch boards' closure, but i do think that the Ouch boards, flawed and imperfect as they were, filled a niche not adequately filled by anywhere else on the web, and will leave a vacuum that could do with being filled by something else (and preferably something not subject to the same sort of paternalistic restrictions as a BBC-hosted site).

Coincidentally, the idea of starting an online discussion community around disability and related issues (not necessarily filling *exactly* the same conceptual space as the Ouch site) is one that i have been toying with again recently. My partner and i (i've just realised i don't think i've really said anything on this blog about the fact that i've been in a relationship for around 8 months now - which is part, though certainly not all, of the reason i've not been blogging much in that time period) attempted, with a couple of other people, to set up a discussion group called dis-connection, which met monthly in Manchester, with the aim of bridging the divide between activism and academic discourse in the fields of disability and mental health, but have semi-given up on the project after difficulties with finding accessible venues, few people coming, and discussions not really evolving in the way we originally hoped they would - at the last meeting, we discussed possible strategies for relaunching/reinventing the idea, including an online discussion community (either in the form of a forum or a mailing list/listserv type structure). Considering this, i'm seriously thinking about taking the opportunity of the void left behind by Ouch and setting up a forum - but i'm wondering about whether, given how the internet has evolved and changed over the last near-decade (if memory serves me rightly, the Ouch forum was started in 2002 or 2003), the forum/messageboard format is still one that people are interested in...

Forums - including Ouch as well as several others, such as various anarchist/anti-capitalist/DIY culture and music-related sites - were a very major part, if not pretty much the centre, of my online life for several years - from when i first gained access to the net in 2001 until at least 2005, although it's harder to say when they stopped being so central because the transition from spending most of my time online posting on forums to spending it (or aiming to spend it) mostly blogging and reading blogs was a drawn-out and gradual one - there were definitely still a few forums that i was regularly checking, if not actively posting on, around 2008, but i haven't really posted on forums as a personal/social thing for at least 2 years now. My perception of how the web has shifted its focus has been first from forums/messageboards to blogs, probably some time around 2006-7, and then over the last few years from blogs to "social media" like Facebook and Twitter (with Facebook in particular seeming to have taken over the role that many of the more social/chat-oriented forums used to for a lot of people who spend a lot of time online) - but that may simply be my perception based on my own journeys through cyberspace, and not have much relationship to how many other people have perceived the evolution of the internet. (I'm also vaguely aware that there was a shift to messageboards/forums themselves from things like chat rooms and listservs, that mostly occurred before i got online - although listservs seem to have had a kind of renaissance in the form of things like Google and Yahoo groups, which work kind of like a hybrid between forums and mailing lists.) Certainly, many people on the Ouch messageboards seem to be strongly expressing a dislike for Facebook/Twitter-style social media and a preference for the messageboard format - but i don't know whether that's reflective of the wider online public...

(this xkcd comic from 2007, and its updated version from 2010, are interesting viewing here...)

So - i welcome comments (even though i'm not sure, given how little i've posted here in the last year or so, if i even have any readers any more - all the comments i ever get seem to be spam nowadays...) - if you're reading this, would you welcome, and would you post on, a discussion forum about disability, covering both theoretical and practical issues? How would you suggest it should be structured? And are you aware of any existing "replacements" for Ouch, or any other active disability forums out there in the Web? (Debates about the nature of online community, and whether it ought to be "supportive" or "argumentative", and experiences of setting up and maintaining forum/messageboard communities, are also very welcome...) Are messageboards still a major part of the internet (if indeed they ever were), or are they now hopelessly antiquated - and, if they are, what has replaced them?

(I note that the "Disability News" page, the other part of the Ouch! site that i continued to check regularly even after i stopped reading, let alone posting on, the messageboard, and which was one of my main sources for news items about disability (from the BBC and elsewhere), has already disappeared, seemingly without much discussion of its passing and presumably as part of the same BBC reorganisation. If anyone knows of any other disability news aggregators out there, i'd be very happy to know about them. Thinking about it, gathering disability-related news stories could also be part of the role of a messageboard/forum type of site...)


missdennisqueen said...

the disability news service.. run by John Pring (a DAN supporter and previous editor of DIsability Now)


lilwatchergirl said...

Interesting set of thoughts. I left the Ouch board for a number of reasons, including several that you listed here. It always had a 'better than nothing' feel - it was far from perfect (mainly because of how badly it was run), but it was a neutral, relatively accessible space where people could share ideas and concerns.

If you read the comments left over the last few days, it's clear that some people are not happy with the idea of using Facebook or Twitter. Personally I use very few messageboards anymore (because they can be hard to keep up with when you have low energy levels etc) and focus mainly on twitter, which is easier to pop in and out of. However, there are many people whose impairments leave them in the opposite of this situation - they are afraid of the lack of anonymity of Facebook and the lack of structure in Twitter. Messageboards are still very relevant. They just serve different purposes and audiences than social networking. If you set a board up, I would try to get as involved as I could. I think it would be great if an activist with social model views was behind such a board, although I would not have the capacity to set up such a project myself. I suspect that advertising a new messageboard on Ouch would bring you a wide and active ready-made audience. (I know that officially, other messageboards can't be advertised on Ouch - but I suspect they will drop that rule in the last month. At the very least, it could be advertised on the Facebook group, through Twitter and through word of mouth.) I also think that there are many people who would benefit from a more activist, social model resource. You'd have to decide specifically on your purpose and audience - you might not want general 'help' boards in this structure, or you might. A non-BBC board probably couldn't do everything that the Ouch board currently does. However, I imagine that a few boards with slightly different purposes will be set up over the next month. I think an activist-y one could be a great idea.

Have you thought of linking up with something that currently exists? I don't want to push Where's the Benefit too much, but that's one currently-active place that a board could potentially tie in with. There are lots of people commenting there who might find a more organised space useful. Disabled People Against Cuts could be another site to link a messageboard to. Although personally, I don't that DAN would be a good place for it - I seem to remember they've already rejected a messageboard. (I've basically given up on them because of their inability to get organised! I know they're a relatively anarchist-style group, but that just doesn't work for me.)

Re dis-connection, I'm sorry I didn't get more involved in it. I really wanted to, but as I've said, I'm very short on energy right now, and Manchester is that bit too far away when I've got no energy. When I'm feeling a bit better, I'd really like to get involved, if you re-start it. You might also do better if you could move meetings around (although I understand that could mean different participants each time). There's a small Leeds DAN group (that I tried to get involved with but failed) that might be interested if you met in Leeds once, for example.

flashsays.com said...

I did look at the Out of Hours board but the fonts were thick and blocky which I found very hard to read (in Firefox) so that was offputting right away. I didn't try to read any of the threads, just left.

Personally I would use Ouch's boards to ask a question, for example on painkillers or wheelchairs, but then while there, or while checking the answers, I'd pop through and comment on a few other things. I prefer Q&A to a social board where we all "sail on the good ship happiness" (bleurgh!)

So if there was a board where I could ask questions, knowing other disabled people would read and respond, and I in turn could help with other queries, well, that's what I need!

catherineturner said...

Interesting set of thoughts. I used the Ouch forums yonks ago but not recently, similarly with the youreable forums (what do you think of those?) I do think, despite twitter and the rest, google groups etc, forums still have a role to play. Personally I wouldn't use Twitter or anything like it to ask for help on disability issues, though I might discuss relevant news stories there. But if it's help I want about equipment etc I'd go to a forum because I want to ask disabled people, not a whole bunch of "friends" on facebook etc. As for more political discussion type stuff, I'm interested in that too, and a forum or google group etc would be fine. I tend to have those sorts of discussions with some local disabled friends but there definitely should be a space to have debate and discussion with a range of people. If Ouch was this space, I haven't used it for ages because life got in the way, but I definitely think there's a need for that type of thing - probably now more than ever for example with the economic cuts, at the same time hearing the words "personalisation" and "choice and control" coming out of the mouths of politicians - I feel changes are happening, we live in "interesting times" as they say and it's really important to monitor and discuss these things. If you set something up I'd try and get into the habit of using it.

TAZ said...

Hey there. It's "Ms. Pet," from SexAbilty Back online with a new blog. http://cripsnqueers.blogspot.com/ come say hello, and let folks know. See you haven't been on since June, so don't know what you've been up to. Hope to hear from you. *hugs*