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Thursday, December 30, 2010

Confessions of a Forumite

(I wrote this in 2006, and it seems pretty up to date to me. The numbers have changed, but Internet Forums are still going strong and people are still going crazy. I have since given up on Christian Forums, because there were too many angry people making life difficult. However, I participate in an Amatuer Astronomy Forum that is wonderful. Go Figure)

I clearly remember the first time I posted a message to an internet forum. I told whoever was out there in cyberspace that I thought believers really weren’t free in the way Americans understand freedom. We don’t do whatever we feel like doing. I argued that we choose to be held to a higher standard that limited our actions to those that our Heavenly Father would want us to do. I typed it into my word processor; spell checked it and sent it off where it was posted onto the forum for all to see. Well, those who bothered looking. Not too long afterwards I received a private message in my email box from a forum participant. In the message he ranted and raved about how wrong I was. In fact he cursed me and said that he valued freedom above everything else and that I couldn’t take it away from him. He rounded it off with several more curses and a hearty drop dead.

Welcome to the world of Christian Internet Forums. That’s right, I said Christian.

I love logging onto Internet Forums. I admit it, I love them. But they drive me crazy. They are filled with writings that aggravate me, confuse me, and bemuse me. They are populated by people who are at times loving and caring and at other times hateful and malicious. They are full of intelligent commentary but more often than not overwhelmed by inane drivel. If you have never logged onto a forum, if it has never crossed your mind to jump into the bizarre world of Internet communication just be aware that this is a world far removed from our own and yet hardly different.

Internet Forums are places that people post messages to be read by anyone who wants to take the time to read them. They are categorized by a common interest, religion being a popular one. I was not able to find out how many people currently use forums. But I did find these numbers; MSN has 11,344 different Christian forums, Yahoo has 53,591. A Google search on the words Christian Forums comes up with 6,200,000 responses in only .23 seconds. The largest site I found was the rather obviously named A hefty 113,972 members have posted over 16 million messages in 225 sub-forums. The site has a volunteer staff of 93 people who daily take the time to monitor what is being said on the site in an effort to keep the peace with this rather large and diverse community. This limited research makes it clear that forums are a very popular form of communication. More and more people are finding community in these places on the Internet.

But what kind of community is this? A wild and wacky one to say the least. All sorts of people sign on to the service get a password and jump into the fray. When a participant signs up he/she can choose a name that will appear on the screen. Some people use their real names but many don’t. I guess we are all a little nervous about privacy on the Internet. Once one is signed up posting messages can begin. Some people ask questions which are meant to start up a conversation on a particular topic. How can we reduce global poverty for instance? Some people have particular issues that they must tell others about. I know of a gentleman who cannot let an opportunity go by without talking about the global disaster about to befall the earth. Some people tell jokes, write poetry, make snide remarks, and generally act like normal people having a conversation. And just like normal people, forum participants get mad at each other. When most people join for the first time they are shocked by the anger. But we shouldn’t be, after all people are people. And even Christians don’t act like Christians all of the time. Christian Internet Forums become big extended families – just like churches. And just like churches they run into problems.

Problems? Did someone say there are problems? Yes my friends, and with them come rules. Internet Forums better have rules, or else they won’t have any members left. In an effort to keep the peace has a large list of rules which include the following; no personal attacks, no attacks against Christianity, no posting private correspondence, no selling/marketing anything, no obscenities, or anything sexually explicit. Anyone who breaks the rules can have their password suspended temporarily or even permanently. Most of these rules are the same common sense principles that guide us in everyday life. But it is shocking how often people indulge in inappropriate behavior on Internet Forums. Take the ban on personal attacks for instance. I belong to a forum where personal attacks are almost a daily occurrence. The man who monitors it must spend enormous amounts of time writing emails warning participants to keep themselves under control. When confronted do you know how most people respond? They say “he started it”. This is the same excuse that didn’t work when I was in Kindergarten. God bless Forum monitors – they need all of the help they can get.

During my time as a member of religious forums I have seen certain types of posts that come up over and over again. We all tend to fall into certain patterns. First, there is the great pronouncement. A message that informs us that God has spoken with the messenger personally and that: 1) Jesus is coming soon; or 2) the messenger is to start a mission; or 3) Jesus is coming soon. I’ve always liked reading these posts because we never know when a truly mighty prophet is going to show up and it’s good to be paying attention when he/she does. Next on the list are the political posts. The fact that these web sites are specifically focused on religion does not keep politics out of the fray. Political battles can go on for days and days. After the first couple of months I stopped looking at these kinds of posts. I’m just not interested in the same political arguments that caused me to swear off cable news. And after the fighting stops comes the tearful goodbye. Quite frequently someone gets mad and quits the forum. But before he/she goes a message is posted saying why as well as goodbye. People usually respond with supportive posts but the injured party leaves anyway. The funny thing is, many of these hurting souls end up coming back to the forum after a few months. I’ve never been able to figure that out.

Another common part of Internet Forums is the Chat Room. I’ve not been able to figure these out either. Chat Rooms are ‘real time’ – that is they are a running conversation, like a phone call. Except that anyone with a password to the Forum can join in. The people who frequent these seem to have made up their own short hand. Let me give you an example I recorded one night.

Person a) I was taking my girlfriend to a movie, and she got sick, and we had to pull over where she threw up…

Person b) yo - - - ba da boom!

Person c) how are you?

Person a) Too funny; how about a courting couple.

Person d) heeeey fly

Yes my friends, this is considered communication on some parts of this planet. But I haven’t a clue. I guess this over the hill 44 year old is just too long in the tooth to understand this new fangled style of chat-er-ate‘n.

So why do people log onto Christian Internet Forums anyway? I think I can answer that question by telling you why I log on. I have something to say that I think is important and there are people who are willing to listen. I believe that I have some thoughts and insights that can help a few of the people who are out there searching for answers life’s basic questions. This idea has been reinforced by people responding on the Forum and privately through email. Most of these have been positive, unlike the guy who cursed me out. Another important reason for belonging is the sense of shared values and beliefs that people on the Forum have. We all believe Jesus is Lord and we all want to see His Kingdom come. This gives me a sense of belonging, a sense that these people know me and accept me even though we haven’t formally met. I didn’t just join some strange electronic club, I am part of a faith community, and it feels pretty good. And finally, I must admit that I love these people. I log on day in and day out because I have grown to care for all of my fellow forumites. I love the ones who write beautiful words of faith in God, as well as the ones who don’t. I even care about the people who get angry and rant and rave. These are God’s people and I do love them very much.

Well, another day and another series of crazy posts. I don’t know what to make of some of these people and some of them don’t know what to make of me. But I just can’t resist going back again and again. Isn’t it funny – here I am sitting alone at my desk and yet, I’ve found community?

Peace, Pastor Bill

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