I think there are a few issues that play here, if I may remove my councillor hat and on put on my ‘forum user’ hat.
I am sympathetic to the idea that politics can rarely be separated from day-to-day civic life. Take a fairly non-controversial issue, such as the (seen by many as) inadequate pedestrian crossing on London Road. Any decision to prioritise funding for its refurbishment - the allocation of TFL funds - the extent and limits of central government’s bailout of a Covid-19 hit TFL (and the decision by a previous Mayor and Chancellor to make TFL self-funding) - these are all inherently ‘political’. Should a new traffic island prioritise the movement of pedestrians over the South Circular? That is small-p political in my opinion, like most things that shape the world around us. It is very hard for topics like this not tread into the political. But just because something is political, it does not need to cause a full-blooded culture-war discussion.
However, with this being said I had to laugh when Chris said ‘I think the most important form of diversity on a forum is diversity of opinion’.
Now, I know a couple of people on this forum who hold ‘liberal’ (for want of a better term) views who have been ground down and driven out. They’ve dropped from the forum altogether or very rarely post. It is interesting to see a few more people express this as well and judging by the likes they’ve received they are not alone.
Previously, I am told, that when Chris owned this website, people were simply blocked for repeatedly challenging him and the politicisation of debates. Under the new helm, I have not seen that but I would say that Chris is what I would call, in jest, a master of the ‘dark arts’. Chris will not use foul or abusive language or direct name-calling. However, he will challenge you, robustly, and incessantly. He will quote you with something you have not said. The outcome is to harass those with views he rejects and to signal to like-minded followers in the forum to get involved or to signal that this their place.
Example 1: Unsafe crossing for pedestrians, Honor Oak Rd and A205/London Rd
Example 2: Lockdown 3
Examples 3: Lewisham planning to use Experimental Traffic Orders?
There is a network or clique, as alluded to in a previous post, who boost each other’s posts - liking each other’s post, offer encouraging replies etc. This group shape the debate on most threads and they will target voices they don’t like, usually with Chris leading the charge. Often, it’s through a wink and a nod to encourage comments like this. Another classic tactic I’ve witnessed is to accuse someone of being divisive if they don’t like their view - which isn’t classified as an ad hominem attack by moderators…
This thread is quite illustrative and shows how legitimate concerns by those who live on the affected street are lent on, whipped up and cheered on by this group. Examples here, here. The target is usually the liberal interventionist council (60% of our funding has been cut since 2010 and our public realm has suffered the consequences, but we’re still trying to do what we can improve the borough as we sit fit, building new homes, encouraging sustainable transport, all while protecting the most vulnerable - over half our budget goes on adult and children’s social care ).
Now Chris might just see this all as winning the robust argument and that might be fair. Voices hostile to new housing, to LTNs, to School Streets, to the ULEZ-extension etc, are winning the argument on the forum and the *NIMBY-*sentiment is the prevailing sentiment on the (forum) community.
My hunch is that that isn’t necessarily the case but instead, certain voices are being drowned out by constant challenges, questioning, barbs, and are ground down by the heavy-politicisation of discussions that slide off-topic. I think frustration springs from the inability of members to effectively call out bad behaviour, including challenging those who regularly respond aggressively (in tone) to posts and who respond to fairly innocuous comments with politicised rants.
I think the rules of the forum are designed to protect Chris and other’s conduct. No ‘Ad hominem attacks’ - therefore you cannot challenge Chris (or others) behaviour because this would be seen to attack one’s character rather than the argument at hand on any given thread. ‘Responding to a post’s tone instead of its actual content’ is against the rules in this forum, protecting people from accusing Chris (or others) of being hostile or bullying in tone rather than engaging the content of his argument (I accept tone can be hard to read online, but it is down to moderators to make this call). The rules explicitly state 'criticise ideas, not people’ and therefore moderators will intervene if you challenge his behaviour. Seen even in this thread.
All in all, the effect is clear to me. The more liberal-leaning, ‘yes-in-my-back-yard’ voices, are driven from the forum and threads are dominated by not only the same accounts but the same arguments. Diversity of opinion has dwindled even in the relatively short time I’ve been following the site.
The councillors of Perry Vale ward and Crofton Park ward don’t get involved in this forum and we know why - just look at some of the replies I and Sophie get. I used to get protection from the site’s owner and moderators*, I presume because they wanted to keep me involved - a local councillor regularly engaging on the forum does give it some kudos and authority. A privileged position which isn’t afforded to most regular posters.
Some might wonder why I care and why I am posting all this? My answer is because, personally, SE23.Life is a good way for me to keep tabs on casework matters and interesting events taking place in the ward. Moreover, as a user, this is probably the most organised local forum I’ve ever come across and has an impressive and easy to use interface. The website has much potential, along with its sister site SE26.Life. I would like it to thrive, become more diverse in opinion, and be a safe space for all sections of the community.
Yet it is clear this forum has issues and many people are exasperated with its regular heated tone and same inevitable political direction debates go down.
I would like to encourage more ex-regular posters to express their thoughts here and as to why they have taken a step back.
I hope @ForestHull who now owns the site, will reflect on what those such as @PV @promofaux @Fran_487 @beatrix have said already and listen to any additional feedback that is offered. Finally, I would like @ForestHull to see this - a small minority of forum users post a large number of attacks on others, kicking off the conflict. Some relatively small changes to this forum could make a big difference.
This post will probably be hidden by the moderators but in posting this, I hope it gives the new owner some food for thought in how to stop the loss of longstanding contributors, foster a better atmosphere, and encourage a broader array of views on the site.
*Just chuckling to myself as I never got any thanks for the wooden bollards outside The Fitting Studio on Kirkdale, or the School Street trial on TA from those who demanded action. Who would ever be a councillor eh?