13 October 2008

Death of a Forum

A frequent reader directed me to this URL

as a sad example of how online recovery groups can be targeted and savaged by predators.

I never knew this group or its participants, but it seems clear to me, from the following account, that something of great value has been destroyed -

- by abusers -

- yet again.
Grief Group
In Memoriam
June 10, 2001 – June 1, 2008

Grief Group and its planned successor, Grief Chat, have been closed permanently.

Since its inception in 2001, Grief Group has had more than 269,000 visits from grieving people all over the world. We became the Number One grief website on Google. We have helped hundreds of people weather and survive the storm of grief caused by the loss of a loved one and other traumatic life experiences. We offered a safe haven to those who couldn't find any other website where they could feel safe from bashing, flaming and attack. No other website offered such sympathetic and understanding advice, offered by those who "had been there". Members helped each other and could present their problems without being judged. Those who were with us for a while and who had recovered from their grief to some degree, turned around and helped newcomers through the same tortuous path to recovery.

GG offered diversions, such as games, a humor message board, dog chases, chats with a robot and other activities enabling grievers to take a break from their problems. Many times, we would see posts from newcomers saying, "This is the first time I've laughed in months. Thank you!"

There was more — much more — but I won't go into that because GG is now closed...forever.

I created GG when my wife passed away in 2000. I couldn't find a decent grief website anywhere on the Internet, so I built one. I clearly remember opening it on June 10, 2001, and wondering if anyone would ever visit. Seven years and a quarter million visits later, GG has answered that question.

Shutting down GG was not an easy decision. I have invested seven years of my life in it. Days, nights, often around the clock, weekdays, weekends, and holidays, I supervised GG and continually improved website programing, while blocking destructive visitors and those who meant us harm. I estimate that I have devoted 30,660 hours to actively managing our website — 30,660 hours — wow, that's a lot of work!

GG has been shut down because, although I could protect it from enemies without, I couldn't protect it from enemies within. Some of our members had hidden agendas, instigated by a few vindictive people who had left in the past because they couldn't dictate website policy for their own selfish ends. One of our members became a target when she saw through their smoke screen. Behind the scenes, they worked secretly to have that member banned so they could return in triumph. When that didn't work, the disgruntled instigators influenced easily swayed members, directly and indirectly, to continue a campaign of harassment until the targeted member finally resigned in disgust.

After that upsetting event, I closed GG temporarily while I evaluated the situation. I could not, in any good conscience, allow the continuance of harassment whose long-term goal was to force out everyone who stood in the way of a few former members' plan to return. Such an insidious power play is more characteristic of Washington politics than a social website devoted to helping grieving people.

The only sensible approach was to remove members of the "secret society" that had caused trouble in the past, and planned to continue it in the future. After doing so, I would have to closely monitor GG to make sure they didn't sneak back in with different identities and entrench themselves while they renewed their efforts at destruction. I could have cleaned house and followed that with close monitoring, but I had serious doubts as to whether I had the time available. As Webmaster, I already had my hands full managing GG. With the additional task of playing security guard, my available time would have been quickly exhausted. No — although theoretically possible, it was not a realistic option. I have a business to run and a personal life, both of which had been seriously compromised by the continuous attention GG required. Devoting more time to GG was an unworkable solution.

After much thought, I finally decided to close Grief Group permanently. That was the only realistic answer I could see. Any other route would have been doomed to failure. Grief Chat, a planned successor to Grief Group, has also been closed permanently.

I've received numerous emails pleading for GG to reopen. As much as I'd like to accommodate you, the facts just won't allow it...my decision is final.

As an accommodation, I'm leaving our automatic Email Forwarding Service online for a while. You can send a message to any member, including myself (please don't contact me to discuss this matter). Our Email Forwarding Service will remain online until July 1, 2008. To send a message to a GG member, Click Here. You do not need their email address.

To the loyal members who have stood by me and were instrumental in helping others and improving GG: I thank you from the bottom of my heart. You deserve all the success that life can offer. I sincerely apologize for having to remove Grief Group from your lives.

To those members and ex-members who have worked so vehemently to destroy others on GG in order to further their secret agendas: you have succeeded...but not with the result you anticipated. Your poison has destroyed a safe haven and irreplaceable source of support for grievers everywhere. Your toxic behavior has made it impossible for GG to continue its mission. You have killed the goose that laid the golden egg. Camelot is gone.

----- ------, Webmaster
Grief Group/Grief Chat
June 1, 2008


I hold it true, whate'er befall;
I feel it when I sorrow most;
'Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

— Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1849

Edit in, March 8, 2009:

While roving the Net this past weekend, I discovered - to my delight - the net-fossil ;-) of a very candid discussion among Webmasters/site administrators who DO understand this dynamic.

You can find the details here, and I've pasted a choice excerpt from the leading post below:

Similarities between trolls and bullies:

1. Both trolls and bullies can cause enormous damage to a forum by their behaviour.

2. Both trolls and bullies usually have excellent communication skills using which they attack their opponents unmercifully.

3. Both trolls and bullies can be intimidating to any normal forum user.

4. Both trolls and bullies have the effect of creating bad blood.

5. Both trolls and bullies are hard to control without intervention right from the top - the forum administrator(s) or owner(s) because even moderators might find it hard to control them without support from others.

Differences

1. Trolls are usually isolated. They are generally short-lived in a forum. A person who signs up on a forum specifically to troll doesn't hang around in other parts of the forum and leaves as soon as the damage is done.

Bullies are more or less regular forum members who might have a huge post count and a following.

2. Trolls usually hit and run. A successful troll needs only a couple of posts in a single thread to turn it into a raging tornado.

Bullies stay on and intimidate other members by throwing their weight around and using their group of yes-people to lend force to their powerful attacks.

3. Trolls are usually identified for what they are.

Bullies rarely get identified for what they are, because they are regular members and nobody can suggest that they are ordinary trolls because they have a huge post count.

4. Trolls hardly respond to challenges. Instead they enjoy watching others fight.

Bullies enjoy fighting and run around bashing everybody who dares oppose them.

5. The potential damage done by trolls is limited to a particular topic of discussion or at most a forum.

The potential damage done by bullies is forum-wide and not related to topics, but to the personality of the bully and the kind of "respect" and "influence" s/he wields.

[Edits to qualify 'respect' and 'influence' and to be gender inclusive - Stormchild]

8 Comments:

Anonymous Meg said...

Thanks for this Stormchild..

I really appreciate knowing that others have been through the same thing I did.

I tried running a forum for abuse survivors and only lasted 3 months. It closed also because of problems from within. You simply cannot believe what people get up to behind the scenes of a forum, and the amount of abuse which goes on when members cannot dictate the terms to the person who runs the forum.

The way forum software works, the buck has to stop with one person, and they are the ones who get the pointy end of the stick when others disagree with their decisions. Its a horrible job, and my sympathies and thanks to all those who have spent huge amount of their time devoting themselves to others in the hope that they can provide a service to those who are suffering.

I have come to the conclusion that the internet and the highway have alot in common. People act in dangerous and offensive ways because they don't usually get caught, and because everyone is anonymous. You see people in cars flaunting traffic rules and acting with no accountability because nobody knows who they are and they will never be punished for it.

The same goes for the internet. Pseudonyms are like tinted windows in cars, they both create a persona that the individual would like to be, and at the same time become an extension of their true natures.

I guess that's a subject for another post...

13 October, 2008 22:11  
Blogger CZBZ said...

This message brings tears to my eyes, Stormchild.

I learned how to use a computer in 2002 and immediately joined a new message board that only had a few members at the time. After working diligently as an assistant manager, I created a public and private forum in 2005.

We are still alive, miracle of miracles.

I could write a book about my experiences behind-the-scenes, but then I'd be subjected to death threats, flaming and the Smear Campaign all over again. It's very difficult to gain people's trust in an online community and perhaps it works best if a few of the members know one another face-to-face.

When people are in crisis or recovering from a traumatic experience, it's easy for the mal-intent to use new members’ distrust as a platform to destroy the community. Smear Campaigns (and some folks are so proficient at smearing reputations, they offer detailed instructions on how it's done); Planting Seeds of Distrust; Innuendo; Subtle questioning of a leader’s character; Accusations of one another's Intent; Power Games; Projection; Pitting Games; Pathologizing one another; etc. etc. etc. That's just s short list of behaviors I've seen over the past six years.

Anyone who is in process of healing is subject to making mistakes in an uncertain situation like an anonymous group writing messages to one another. But Time Tells the Tale---if a community has enough time to get to know one another, that is. From my experience, it takes about six months before people relax their defenses enough to ‘create’ community with one another. But as this Grief Webmaster has proven, even six or seven years of effort is no guarantee a community will remain a safe and supportive environment.

I’ve joined new groups and offered my support to see if they could survive the initial onslaught of ‘the harpies’. (Ya gotta joke about this stuff though it’s traumatic when people’s altruistic hopes are being crushed). But as some of us old-timers are beginning to believe, “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished.”

Hugs,
CZ

14 October, 2008 11:01  
Blogger CZBZ said...

I've been thinking about your recent blogs on "spotting troublemakers" in online support groups. I think this is a GREAT idea!

I started writing a couple of articles about Group Management about a year ago. Each time I felt competent enough to finish the articles, something unexpected happened on a message board and I figured there was more for me to learn before offering advice to anyone.

I have served as a leader in face-to-face groups and experienced the typical problems all groups experience: jealousy, control, criticism, hurt feelings, misunderstandings, etc.

But managing an anonymous group is very different. For one thing, people become more aggressive when their faces are hidden from view. An online flamer robbing a healing forum's trust is like a chicken-shite bandit wearing a mask to rob the bank.

I've wondered if the next step is to put video cams on every monitor?

nah...won't work. We don't want people to watch us cry....and what a sight it would be to see a whole group of people in their pajamas long before they've had a cup of coffee.

Sometimes I'm wrong about someone and sometimes my intuition is 'right'. It would be good mental discipline for me to put my experience into words and structure an article that might help people spot problems before their group disintegrates.

Managing a support group has kept me humble, though. It's been one of the most challenging and rewarding things I've ever done.

'Course, psyche studies tell us that the more difficult it is to accomplish a goal, the more we justify the time it took to do it. Like Hazing in a fraternity. The more it hurts, the more loyal folks are.

hahaha....just lightening things up a bit because i don't want to discourage anyone from joining or creating a message board. Group support can be just as good if not better than therapy. Or so I've read in a few books criticizing our therapeutic society that has lost it's trust in friendship, family support and even religious counseling. It's all about going to a therapist now.

Kinda sad when you think about it.

Hugs,
CZ

17 October, 2008 19:41  
Blogger Stormchild said...

Meg -- you did your best, with the best of intentions. It's not your fault that survivors of abuse attract predators, any more than it's your fault that survivors of abuse sometimes, unfortunately, either become predators themselves or decide that becoming a Predator's Rah-Rah [like remoras on a shark] is the best option. Lots of us don't sell out to the bullies, after all.

But it only takes one schemer to destroy a safe place. And that's something we need to know, bone deep, and be able to defend against, in our sleep if necessary. Once they have a foot in the door, the games begin, and shutting them down is a huge and debilitating enterprise.

CZ - God forbid my post should discourage anyone from trying to either join or start a forum. My hat's off to you for keeping yours healthy and vibrant. Any discussion of how you have managed this can only help others, so please do share.

One last note. My own experience is described in allegorical form on Strange Mercy, here.

19 October, 2008 15:21  
Blogger Stormchild said...

Oopsie. Parting thought:

the more time people spend telling themselves and one another how safe and good and healthy a group or program or forum is, the less likely it is that the subject of their praise is at all healthy, or good, or safe.

People in a safe, supportive place are generally resting on that safety and support while they explore and rebuild. The safety and support are there, but they are foundational, and not usually the main focus.

CZ, your forum is a perfect demo. People there are doing their thing. going about the business of healing and re-integrating. Gratitude is there, but it's expressed - appropriately - in passing.

People in unsafe places, though, spend huge amounts of time - long after they should be familiar with a place and its personalities - praising those places and their dominant bullies for being so safe and good and wonderful and wise.

If you need to spend that much time appeasing people where you are, you probably would do far better to spend your time somewhere else.

19 October, 2008 15:31  
Blogger Cinder Ella said...

It's sad to read of the death of a support forum. I've dealt with all those secret, and not so secret, agendas. It never ceased to amaze me the variety of ways people would attempt to manipulate others in the forum to get what they wanted, or how much pleasure they could take in such "victories".

I had the honor of helping on a support forum, one in which trust was a main issue. In general, it was a safe place, but it took more than a dozen people working to keep it that way. Thankfully there were a number of geeks who knew their way around the 'net, proxy servers and ip addresses. Still, it took a lot of work.

the amount of abuse which goes on when members cannot dictate the terms to the person who runs the forum.

It is amazing. It's something I've never understood, either. Most people would never dream of visiting another person's home and insisting it be rearranged to fit their needs, yet many will do that in a forum and see nothing wrong with it. It doesn't make any sense to me.

I gained a lot from several support forums. My life is vastly better today because of it. My hat is off to people who give of themselves to create a safe place for people to give and receive support. It's not for the faint of heart.

Ella

19 October, 2008 22:08  
Blogger CZBZ said...

"People in unsafe places, though, spend huge amounts of time - long after they should be familiar with a place and its personalities - praising those places and their dominant bullies for being so safe and good and wonderful and wise."

Lightbulbs flashing in my brains, Stormchild! WOW...yes! This not only applies to online groups, but all groups. Whoah...I always thought about self-justifying, but I NEVER made the connection to how a group "Justifies" participation with each other.

I suppose there are a lot of reasons why that happens, the least of which is trying to "PLEASE" the bully!

CZ

20 October, 2008 01:18  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This group would have been exactly what I need, but it's probably a good thing I didn't come across it before it had to be shut down. There is another group that I now rarely frequent where a member was "not nice" when I was at a very vulnerable place, having lost my mother.

My M wasn't a malignant N, but we had a very difficult relationship, and it would be helpful for me to talk with other people going through grieving an ambivalent relationship. I'll bet there were those to be found on GG, but now I'll never know.

Those few on GG were illustrative of cruelty, if not outright predation. It seems that even when good men do NOT do nothing, there are places where evil can triumph. Temporarily! Because there is always that "candle against the darkness...."

Hugs,
c.

29 October, 2008 12:13  

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