Wednesday, February 25, 2009

"Discussion" Groups

Most people who pay attention to Civil War news are aware of the recent controversy at Gettysburg concerning Dr. Latschar. He was apparently resigning from a prominent job with the National Park Service to become head of a large local group supporting the park. There was some discussion of ethics and a possible conflict of interest, and Dr. Latschar withdrew from consideration. I'm being deliberately vague here, because my point doesn't concern the details of the matter or my opinion.

To my mind, however, a "discussion" group by its very nature implies that everyone does not share the same opinion. On such a group or forum, I would expect that people with opposing views could respectfully disagree and state their opposing views, preferably with some evidence supporting their arguments. This does not necessarily imply agreement being reached, as sometimes those with strong differing views simply have to state their case and agree to disagree. It's one of those great things about this country, you have the right to your opinion and the right to state it as long as it doesn't endanger others or infringe on their right to do so.

This could be confusion on my part, but my perception to this point is that moderators in such areas exist to ensure the rules of the discussion group are followed, that people are decent to one another, and that things don't get out of hand. When wearing their moderator hat, they're neutral and objective. I fully admit that this view may be overly simplified or even naive, but other groups that I've participated in such as the Civil War Discussion Group seem to follow this model. I think Joe Avalon at Civil War Interactive's forums does this particularly well. Maybe he's just spoiled me -- as I've stated numerous times I'm fairly new to this game.

I recently joined the Gettysburg Discussion Group. My thinking was that the group would probably have lots of great information and discussions about various aspects of the battle which I find interesting. If there's one battle upon which people have an opinion in the Civil War, it's usually Gettysburg (with no offense to those western theater afficionados out there). And I must say that it appears to be a group of very learned folks who know a great deal about the battle.

This issue with Dr. Latschar has stirred some pretty strong sentiment on both sides. Given the group's focus, it was no surprise to me when it drew a good deal of discussion on GDG. Two opposing views were stated, somewhat strongly but not to my mind offensively. Opposing arguments were stated, levels of experience were compared, and the two individuals agreed to disagree. Respectfully, it seemed to me. At this point, a moderator stepped in with a long, somewhat emotional tirade about the view he didn't support, questioned its relevance, and stated that anyone who didn't agree with him wasn't "for" Gettysburg preservation.

This gave me pause. So if anyone who doesn't agree is against the entire park and its preservation? I'm not a big fan of all or nothing arguments. Maybe I'm just not rigid enough in my thinking. Discussion, as long as it doesn't descend into personal attacks and such, is the point of such groups. So if we can't have differing opinions, what's the point? Is it a discussion group or a fan site?

It wasn't, however, my site, and the owner/ moderator of each site can run it as he/ she/ they choose. So I quietly unsubscribed from the group. Their site, their rules. But it bothered me enough that I felt I needed to post about it. Not as an attack on the GDG. There have been other good discussions there where I learned a good bit. As I said, it seems to be a place where some very smart folks can discuss the battle. I've seen the same "problem" (my view, others may not have an issue with such an approach) in other places, this is simply the most recent example which prompted me to write about it.

I think discussion groups are a valuable resource, and excellent source of inquiry into historical events. Cases are often made, and not always agreed with. But the evidence behind the arguments and the discussion of sources from which they came is more than worth the price (generally free) of admission. And that's not even mentioning the eloquence oftentimes expressed by "amateur" historians.

Just my two cents. And for the sake of the comments, please note that my topic is discussion groups, not the Latschar situation. That lies close enough to politics that I'll keep my opinion to myself.


Nick said...

Moderation in these groups does vary quite a bit from group to group. I think this Gettysburg situation does rival politics and probably should have been quashed early on as there was probably never going to be a real discussion on the merits of the case. I'm still a member of the GDG I just skim or delete most of those messages.

Eric Wittenberg said...


As the moderator of a couple of these groups, and as one of the people who agreed to disagree, I found the comment you're referring to to be terribly offensive, so much so that I really had to bite my tongue to keep from saying what I really wanted to say in response.

Being a moderator is a thankless job.

I want to invite you to come and check out my forum boards, I've trained the members to obey the rules, and they know that if I step in, I really mean it and that the objectionable conduct needs to stop immediately. They obey the rules, and I try very hard to be even-handed in enforcing the rules.

Thanks for noticing the offensive response to my e-mail. I really appreciate it.


c_hope said...

I have a Civil War group and I understand the Civil War can be a hot topic so there will be some heated exchanges from time to time. There are people who just get caught up in the moment and others who just like to start trouble.


Anonymous said...

I did a lot of that "moderation" stuff back when the internet was young. There will always be those who disagree, and there will always be a subset of those folks who perceive any enforcement of standards as the "powers that be" tipping to one side or the other.

However in the case you mention, I've read through the posts and you are right. That was a rather partisan thing to do. It probably should have been posted under a different account. If for nothing else to preserve the sense of impartiality of the moderators.

Over the years, I've just flat stopped looking at discussion boards. I still find some value on the old Usenet newsgroups, when looking at the archives. Just seems that there is too much chaff with the wheat.

The blog format seems to bring out more useful content, IMO. Maybe it is because a "blogger" is a bit more committed to produce a body of content (not as much as say the writer of a book). And there is little opportunity to hide behind the keyboard on a blog. Lastly, blogs offer more flexibility in presentation.

I understand, not everyone wants to, or can, build and maintain a blog. Heck I'll be the first to say I struggle with it myself. But then again, maybe there are some like me who should simply avoid posting in the discussion threads too!


Don said...

I definitely don't want to come out against discussion boards and groups. Reasonable disagreement is good. It encourages discussion, and presents different points of view and frames of reference. Any discussion where everyone agress all the time gets boring pretty quickly.

I would agree that there's often a great deal of chaff with the wheat on them, but you never know when you're going to come across that kernel of information or that comment that makes you think of something in a different way.

Thanks for the thoughts, gents.

Anonymous said...

I am I believe, the "moderator" in question. I just came across this post.
I am not a " moderator".
Nor do I wish to be.
I am one of the moderated masses and I apologize for the confusion.
Jack Lawrence