If you aren’t a CBR regular, you may have forgotten this bit of news already — some months ago, Jonah Weiland elected to shut down the Comic Book Resources forums, move the archives to a vBulletin board, and then reopen a new CBR Community, with stringent rules and new standards for moderation.
This was good news. Great news if you were a CBR regular being bullied or silenced, but good news for the online comics community as a whole. Although the comics community has increasingly moved away from message boards and central hubs to the vast, dispersed networks of Tumblr and Twitter, communities as large as the ones that sprung up around CBR, IGN, and ye olde Newsarama, can still set the tone and limits of the conversation, particularly as they appear to be sanctioned by the sites to which they are attached.
That tone and those limits have traditionally been politically and ideologically narrow, and they have been ruthlessly guarded by mundane exclusions and microaggressions, and harassment campaigns (such as the disturbingly coordinated attacks Janelle Asselin faced after criticizing a Teen Titans cover, or Anita Sarkeesian after launching her Tropes vs Games Kickstarter). If you frequent DC Women Kicking Ass, you’re familiar with the daily microaggressions Sue puts up with, everything from gaslighting, to sandwich jokes, to dudes playing Devil’s Advocate until they run out of cards and are forced to invent a whole new deck.
My experience with the CBR forums is long, sometimes pleasant but often strange. One of my periods of superhero-love coincided with the publication of Marvel’s Civil War, and although I was posting at other boards, and later moderating a forum, during this time, I was starved for comics talk, and decided to check out CBR. It was a mistake. Imagine months of defending yourself from “liberals” harassing you for your apparently fascistic appreciation of characters on the wrong side, and from sexists who are convinced that Ms. Marvel (now Captain Marvel) and She-Hulk are lady-conspiracies, meant to chip away at a bastion of natural and normative male privilege (I mean, kind of?). “I’m not a fascist, but-” “I don’t hate men, but-” “I don’t think senior editors are devils walking the earth, but-” ad nauseum, until eight pages later, you can’t even remember your own name.
How can I describe the culture of CBR for those of you who’ve never experienced it? There are a lot of RPG and wrestling fans, a lot of people interested in comparing characters for hit points and dump stats, and there are a lot of older fans who are invested in a nostalgic, reflexively racist and sexist vision of what superhero comics can and should be. To be sure, there were progressive posters and feminist posters, and even a Gail Simone-moderated subforum, but there was a reason the community found itself with a bad reputation. The combination of retrograde political views and an obsession with statistics, be they character comparisons, sales charts, or provable incidences of male privilege, lead to a brotastic culture and adulation of “the numbers.” Why was She-Hulk cancelled so many times? The numbers. Why did Dwayne McDuffie get shortchanged so often? The numbers. Why would we never see a Black Panther movie? The numbers. And the obvious lack of readiness of the American people — grab your bug-out bag, a black superhero is leading a summer blockbuster. Oh my good gosh, solicits have dropped! Let’s discuss Superman’s haircut for thirty pages.
CBR’s culture, though, wasn’t just the result of poster personalities just happening to come together to form a mansplainy, gatekeepy whole, but the result of conscious choices about moderation and rule structure. Online communities, be they confined to a single forum like CBR or dispersed like the comics community on Tumblr, don’t just happen — they’re shaped by the platform they exist on, and the governing rules and bodies of the community. In the case of CBR, the culture was shaped by it being a message board and by the rules and policies that shaped how posters could use the board.
Message boards, no matter how diversified internally, exist in a narrow space with clear limits — in contrast to conversation on a social network, message boards have an almost physical sense of space, a static place on the web, within which the whole of the conversation takes place. The place is more important than the person — you don’t have a homepage or a feed of your own — and territory is staked out by starting threads and then guarding them. The logic of message boards is containment: forums, subforums, threads, some of which go on for years and have long since become impenetrable to new readers. And although message boards are fantastic at organizing conversations, they are effectively gated communities, albeit communities where the fence is seemingly quite low, (but you should always “lurk more” than you think, lest you violate some unspoken rule of behaviour). As in all communities, there is a tremendous amount of social management — norms and even rules are enforced peer to peer, but moderators, almost always voluntary or low paid, are the final arbiters of justice.
What is the consequence of elevating community members to moderators, when the community is attached to a money-making enterprise? These super users are extensions of the site and its policies — you cannot take the CBR out of the CBR forums because it is embodied in the moderators and their interventions, or lack thereof, come to represent the views of the site itself. That is, the CBR forums reflected so strongly on CBR proper, both in the culture of the community and the action and inaction of moderators who are its voice, that the forums “owned” the CBR brand as much as the site did itself. As the reputation of the forums worsened, this had dire consequences for CBR — there is an argument to be made that Weiland nuking the forums was the only choice he had left. But it’s also the case that attaching a fan community to a for-profit site involves a measure of extraction of labour, either low paid or unpaid, both from the moderators who maintain the forums and enforce its rules, and from the members who are generators of content and community. The hard work of gatekeeping and stat-debating helped to ensure that CBR had an in-built audience for its content, one that while not always positive, could be counted on to put eyes to page, and lead others to do the same. Even when CBR was wrong on the internet, there was a whole, huge forum of fans devoted to talking about them and where exactly they went wrong — and right.
Comic Book Resources was founded in 1996 and by now it’s an institution of the comics industry and community. It grew from a Kingdom Come themed message board to a general comics board, to a comics blog, and then later to the comics media behemoth it is today. It hosts numerous columns, a news team, podcasts and web series, and even a comics competition dubbed Comic Book Idol. What’s a message board in all of that? I don’t know the what CBR’s books look like, but a message board is a drain on the servers, and even with unpaid monitors it requires regular PR and customer service work. I moderated much smaller forums and communities, but even those necessitated staff meetings, late night administrative TLC, and regular email correspondence with publishers, journalists, and even lawyers — forums are not exactly free publicity, though they may provide sure publicity.
Weiland’s decision to nuke the forums came as a surprise to most — they, along with several other long-running communities, had become almost the bedrock of online superhero comics culture — but it was far from an unpleasant one. Only days before, Janelle Asselin complained about being harassed in IGN comments and a senior editor there made the surprising move of shutting down the thread. But little was done there or on CBR where Asselin was also being harassed, thanks to that Teen Titans criticism again, to make substantive, long term change. Many had given up hope of ever seeing the trolls and almost-trolls reined in, in any meaningful way. The usual responses to criticism held constant at, “it’s free speech, man,” and “don’t read the comments.” The truth is, the seemingly Herculean task of reining in posters isn’t all that hard–sites as diverse as Something Awful and Shakesville can do it–but it requires effort.
What’s the secret? As Weiland put it in his statement, the new CBR Community will, “show zero tolerance for intimidation or abuse of all members of the community, regardless of gender, race, religion, sexual orientation and gender identification. CBR and all areas of its website and operations will be a safe space for all people, of all levels of involvement. We’re starting from scratch, providing everyone with the opportunity to build a new community, together. Rules will be explicit, and once again — we will not tolerate anyone who doesn’t want to abide by them.” Whether you believe in the ability of CBR staff and moderators to effect this kind of change is up to you — a safe space is a tall order and not something I’ve ever felt up to fostering — but believe in the basic plan. The secret to a healthy, rules-abiding community is simply to moderate with a light touch when rules are being obeyed, and with a heavy hand when they are not.
I’ll admit to being surprised that the forums returned at all — message boards are going the way of Geocities, or as my production prof likes to say, the way of all flesh — but they seem healthy, with over 9,500 members registered in a month and great big comment counts in many of those threads. After almost twenty years though, it would be hard for Weiland and other long time CBR staffers to let go, and hard too, for the comics community as a whole. They are a part of the living history of comics culture, whatever your opinion on the content they generate, and it would be strange to see them go. But still the same old Rumbles forum. Still many of the same old posters. Although the harassment has been curbed, there’s nothing to be done about the inherent limitations of message boards, and little to do about the culture of the place — which may be fine if you’re into that sort of thing, but I’m not. So CBR Community, it’s time to prove you’re worth a damn.
Next time we’ll look at practical solutions to community management problems!