Freethought, freedom and blogs

So, there are a lot of things happening at the Freethought blogs network recently. Both Ed Brayton and Ophelia Benson are leaving the network. Ophelia Benson is leaving over a scrap between the bloggers on the network, where many of them called her out for being transphobic in pretty much the same way — and sometimes actually in a nicer way — than they called out people like Tim Hunt and Richard Dawkins for being misogynist, and Benson has not liked that treatment and has explicitly said that she thought that colleagues would have her back … and they didn’t. Ed Brayton is leaving because the controversy of being one of if not the most visible person on the network is getting to be too much for him, both in terms of his health and in his activist work.

People have commented in various places about what this means for the network. P.Z. Myers has decided to try to address those comments in his own inimitable way. He starts with this:

I’ve been reading the obituaries. So many people, friends and foes alike, have expressed their confidence that Freethoughtblogs is dooooooomed, because Ed Brayton has left. It’s all going to fall apart without his iron hand ruling this motley crew! Without him, no one could possibly be interested in reading anything on this network! They only ever read the old white men here anyway, so losing one is an irreparable loss!

Let me quote Jason Thibeault, the Lousy Canuck to explain what the actual concern is:

Another is that I had a few extra days’ lead time on knowing that Ed was leaving. Traffic-wise, Ed and Ophelia both are about a third of this network. Without them, it’s now PZ and The Also-Blogs, at about a 90/10 split. We’re taking a big hit traffic-wise, which results in a big hit money-wise. That big hit money-wise means the server we’re paying for is slightly overprovisioned (which means more stable, yay!) but also means a larger slice of the ad revenue and more likely to result in shortfalls (boo). Shortfalls that will probably be paid out of PZ’s pocket. Shortfalls that probably mean if anything goes sour, we’ll have lean months, maybe even where bloggers get $0 revenue, where even now we’re lucky to get double digits.

They’ve lost a third of their network traffic. One of the things that seems to appeal to both Brayton and Benson is that with their new blogs they will make more money, as Patheos pays more than FTB did and Benson is using this to launch a Patreon drive. As Thibeault notes, the bloggers stand to lose a bit of money on this, with Myers likely being the one to absorb cost overruns like Brayton did to keep things going. FTB was, by its own admission, started to provide a bigger stage to some bloggers of the appropriate stripes and to also potentially make it so that they could earn some money to help them with their causes. If the attention they end up getting is too negative — note that Brayton commented in his post that he felt that the negative attention the network got hurt his activism because some people didn’t want to work with him for reasons varying, I presume, from “We don’t like the people you’re on the network with” to “The attention means that anything we do with you ends up with complaints from others” — then they might want to leave to avoid that, and if it doesn’t pay enough anymore they may have to pursue better paying options. So losing that much traffic with a network designed to generate more traffic for everyone isn’t a good thing at all, and could indeed run the risk of killing the network.

So let’s see how Myers tries to assuage concerns that the network might be having issues:

– Ed never actually “ran” this place — no one did, or does. This is one of those pinko commie anarchies. He managed the books, arranged for the ad services, that sort of thing, but all of the blogs here are autonomous. No boss. Get it? If you’re an authoritarian, maybe not.

– The kind of minimal, managerial oversight needed to keep the lights on has fallen into the hands of the executive committee, a small subset of the people here who handle mundane issues that affect the whole network. Just to let you know how busy the executive committee is, we initially proposed to meet once a month. I don’t think we’ve met in over a year.

It’s not about control. But if you look at what Brayton did, these are things that you do, indeed, need someone to do, and that it works a lot better if you have one person doing that than a committee. About the only thing that the committee would do as well or even better is managing the bloggers: dealing with requests to remove bloggers or add new ones. But it isn’t a better way to manage the books, or to arrange for ad services. That’s better done by one person, with perhaps some oversight. So, no, it doesn’t look like that’s an effective way to replace the things that Brayton did that still need to be done, and no one should be reassured with Myers’ vague “We’ve replaced it with a committee!” response.

– The network is not a vanity project for the white men who set it up. It’s an anti-vanity project. The whole purpose of the network was to leverage our traffic into creating a space for a diverse group of bloggers. They’re still here! Ed and I could drop dead on the spot, and it’ll still keep ticking along.

– Building a diverse network also produces a robust network. There is no single point of failure. By design and by diffusing the leadership all along, there’s no way to take it out with loss of a single blogger (we’ve lost and gained bloggers all along, you know).

Yes, but FTB was started by Myers and Brayton who were, in fact, already known and relatively popular as a way to use their traffic to draw attention to those who were good bloggers but merely need more exposure. To put it in Social Justice terms, Myers and Brayton used their privilege to provide a forum for those who were disadvantaged. With two big draws leaving the network, that doesn’t work out so well. And considering that it was in-fighting that actually caused at least one of them to leave, it’s also not a given that they’ll support each other. You may indeed see posts that either directly or indirectly encourage people to not read a particular fellow blogger. Without the big draws and without them staying mostly neutral, you don’t have enough of a guaranteed push to generate views from other people. This is not a good thing, no matter how Myers spins it.

– We do have to worry about maintaining a volume of traffic to maintain ad rates. But this is a group that does not prioritize making money off their writing (although it sure would be nice…) but on maintaining independence. I’d be writing for free — I was writing for free years ago — and what money we do make is distributed among the bloggers by traffic. There is no central authority skimming off the profits.

But the easiest way to maintain your independence is … to be independent. I, for example, am completely and totally free because my blog is on my own and not part of any network. The only standards I have to follow are the basic ones from WordPress. I owe no one anything. If people like my blog and link to it, I appreciate it but have no obligation to them. If I want to criticize Crude harshly for something he said, either here or on his blog, I can do so and even if he decides to unlink my blog all that means is that I lose some traffic, and since I’m blogging for free that’s all an “Oh, well”.

Look, there’s a reason for bloggers who want to be independent to choose to join a network where, by necessity, they give up some of that independence. The only reasons I can think of to do that — money or exposure — are hurt by two of the biggest draws leaving. What stops others from leaving and perhaps going to Patheos or independent? Considering, for example, and both Miri and Ashley Miller, for example, almost certainly make more through Patreon than the ad revenue from FTB (and it’s mostly stable), and that that comes from their own work and doesn’t depend on and isn’t shared with anyone, why wouldn’t they open up their own site, run their own ads, and make money that way? What does being in the network give them? Especially if they might run afoul of their fellow network bloggers and have being in the network work against them instead of for them.

– do have one serious worry about an ongoing failure. That’s all you people who say you only came here for the PZ and Ed show. You’re doing it wrong — I’m not going to object to you reading my stuff, but the whole point of the network is to give all those other voices a platform. You should go read them.

Maybe they have, and found them wanting. Maybe they aren’t updating enough to make that worthwhile (I can attest to how much of a difference updating can make, as my traffic, miniscule though it is, halved when I went to posting three times a week from posting every day, and I’m still on pace for my best year ever). There may well be reasons why they really don’t want to read the other bloggers, even if it’s something as simple as “They all say the same things as you do, mostly, so there’s no real reason to read them.” And if the in-fighting starts up again, there may indeed be more and more issues with this.

But Myers doesn’t get what the problem actually was here, as he says:

you may have heard, Ed Brayton is leaving FtB. His health has suffered, because he is the point man here, and one of the defining features of the current atheist movement is that it is populated with assholes who hate the idea of any kind of social justice movement, so they’ve been making life hellish for a guy who has had more than enough work trying to keep the lights on and the engines running.

And elsewhere:

This is a network that happily embraces the social justice cause. We select our bloggers from people who are clearly on that side of the cultural divide, and we’re going to kick out anyone who opposes equality for all (we’ve done it once before, and we can do it again). If you do not respect people’s choices, if you try to impose negative views on people’s identities, if you will not tolerate other people’s autonomy, if you think your arbitrary definitions of the ‘right’ sexual orientation, ‘right’ skin color, ‘right’ class, ‘right’ social behavior allow you to judge others, than nope, you really don’t belong here.

On the other hand, this is a freethought network. If you look at that set of boxes and question why society is labeling one set one way and another set a different way, that is appropriate and reasonable. Questioning assumptions and criticizing labels is a good thing; we should be wondering why anyone would even want to dictate the identities of others, and it’s worthwhile to try and puzzle out what criteria others are using to make that decision.

But this latest kerfuffle isn’t from atheists who are opposed to Social Justice. It’s been between those who support Social Justice, or at least claim to. Myers has had to shut down his social threads twice in the past little while, and both times it was because his “cliquish” commentariat were treating someone he liked the same way they treat anyone he didn’t like and who he also saw as “opposes equality for all”. It is certainly the case that those going after Benson saw her as that, and there is reason to think that some of the trans philosophies espoused do that if evaluated in the light of feminist philosophy (in short, feminist philosophy rejects defining what it means to be a woman by the traditional feminine trappings of the patriarchy, but many trans women seem to, in fact, do just that, choosing to identify as a woman because they prefer those trappings to the ones traditionally assigned to men, but if that’s enough to be called a woman then a woman who rejects those trappings but who still wants to be seen as a woman is facing a potential contradiction). The issue isn’t so much with what philosophy or worldview one is fighting for, but with how one is fighting for it. There is no reason to think that with the executive committee in place the FTB bloggers are going to stop fighting with each other, and they will fight with each other over what it really means to oppose equality. It’s harder to figure that out than Myers thinks, as this latest mess demonstrates. So if the blog is going to kick people out who oppose that and make that a stated principle — as Myers just did — then they are indeed going to get calls to kick someone out who seems to some to step over that line, and there’s really no good way to say to someone who thinks that that they’re wrong (if you accept the Social Justice line that those not of a group can’t say what ought to bother that group).

But if FTB really was a Freethought blog, then what it ought to say is that, outside of incredibly egregious and obvious cases, their bloggers can say what they want. If it’s deemed anti-feminist or anti-trans or whatever, then the other bloggers and those concerned about it can then write about that too, free of interference. That their bloggers might disagree sometimes could then be seen as a positive and not a negative, especially if they all disagreed respectfully (which would be difficult for them I admit). The only rule they should have is that you don’t get to say that no one should read a fellow blogger on the network because of that (which you wouldn’t think would be that difficult a rule) and can’t call for their removal on that basis, at least not publicly. So no comments that their view means that they shouldn’t be a part of the network because they “oppose equality”.

Do I think that FTB will die? Not really. It has some momentum and so will likely keep going for a while, up until the point, at least, that Myers leaves. But Myers is clearly clueless about the problems it faces and what is, in fact, responsible for them, and that should not fill those who want the network to succeed with confidence.



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