This was my reply to the “Have the Richard Dawkins Forums Died?” on The Friendly Atheist’s web site. I post it here in an attempt to spread accurate information, rather than the over the top reaction from some members of the community.
I am lucky enough to chat with Andrew Chalkers (tech head at The Richard Dawkins Foundation) on many occasions, and have conversed with Josh on email. While I may not be privy to all the internal workings of the RDF web site, I do know of some of the issues and have helped diagnose and fix some.
The existing forum software is horribly written, IMHO. It does make make use of good DB schema, it has repeated calls to the database for common functions (where one JOIN would do), the indexes seem to miss the mark, etc. In short, the combination of users (250 maximum active users at a time, not the 85,000 users reported), posts and comments, ground the system to a virtual halt. The fix from the developer was “throw more hardware at it” which helped for a while, but is not a sustainable and effective solution in the long run.
Various approaches were considered to fix the existing system, but in the end the amount of work required meant writing a new system from scratch would be easier.
From what I know, Richard Dawkins wants the focus to be on science, rational thinking, and reasoned argument. Quality over quantity. Given this, the decision was made to switch the existing forums to read only, and enact the new system (migrating over the existing user accounts).
I understand the new system requires the initial thread to be approved, and then allows free discussion of the topic, so long as members stick to the terms of service rules. This seems fair and balanced to me.
I am confident that Andrew, Josh, and Richard are well aware of the community and have no desires to kill it. However, with progress comes change, and with change comes pain.
Personally, I look forward to a high quality, fast, active discussion forum on RDF that has a laser focus on interesting and challenging ideas. Bring it on!
I found this announcement on the RDF Forums, which validates my view:
The decision to revamp the forum was made by The Richard Dawkins Foundation. We are looking to make a new discussion area that is easier for people to find quality content related to our mission. We understand that for some of you it was a place to hang out and converse with like minded people but we are not looking to be a social network. There are many other sites that provide this service.
As the foundation continues to grow, there will be changes. But our focus will always be to promote reason and science. We are working to get the new site up as soon as we can, and we will keep you posted on the estimated launch date
Richard Dawkins has posted a message on the forums. Here is an excerpt:
You will notice that the forum has in fact been closed to comments (not taken down) sooner than the 30 days alluded to in the letter. This is purely and simply because of the over-the-top hostility of the comments that were immediately sent in. Note that there is no suggestion of abolishing the principle of a forum in which commenters can start their own threads. Just an editorial re-organization, which will include a change such that the choice of new threads will be subject to editorial control
Update 3 – 1 March, 2010
Richard Dawkins has now posted a full explanation and apology regarding the RDF Forums.
…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…