Once upon an SP time, there were three awesome articles detailing the history of SummitPost (up until 2008 or 2009, I think).
Sadly, the author, a fine writer and once a highly prominent member of the site, deleted those submissions when he became angry with the site and deleted many of his pages and transferred some others. While most deleted pages here are no great loss in the grand scheme since they can be replaced or may not have had much value to begin with, the deletion of those articles was a real loss to SP because they were informative, well-written, and balanced. Newcomers have no good way now to learn the rich history of SummitPost, along with some of its greatest controversies, from its 2001 founding up until about 2008.
Update-- Fortunately, the author of those articles decided to resubmit them. Please read them in order:
This article, and the one that follows it, is not an attempt to recreate those previous ones. As someone who joined in 2004 and didn't really become active until the fall of 2006, I just do not have the firsthand knowledge to document what those articles covered. Also, this article is not going to go into every significant change and event on SP since the times those articles spanned. Instead, its focus is on one of two questions I and many others have asked many times:
What happened to the forums?
As someone who was a witness to and a participant in many of the events involved with exploring those questions, I am trying to be as objective as possible but realize there may be sharply different viewpoints. I encourage readers to read the comments as well, for there they may see some of those different perspectives.
From here on out, I will write from a third-person perspective. Additionally, I will not use the actual SP names of relevant members unless I know they are okay with my doing so. This means I also will not name but rather will only vaguely describe ex-members.
So here is "The History of SummitPost, Part 4: The Fate of the Forums":
This article's publication date is the fifth anniversary of what was simultaneously one of SP's most-praised and most-reviled moments in its forum history.
Once, SP had a lively forum with a cast of characters ranging from respected to quirky to beloved to detested. The years 2007-2009 seemed to be the heyday of the forums here, and in addition to many good climbing threads, there were also classically fun spectacles such as Mel Torino's brilliant troll seeking advice for climbing Everest, "Has REI Gone Soft?" and the one about whether using goose down equated to animal cruelty, a thread that saw two of SP's hardest-headed climbers get into a fantastic flame war that drove the values of popcorn stocks to record highs.
Today, the forums are a ghost town in comparison. What happened?
There are some easy, indisputable answers that partially answer the question:
Facebook and other social media sites
Getting bored or busy and moving on
Regional sites that attract more locals and have more up-to-date beta
Voluntary departures by high-profile members
A few obnoxious members who intimidated others (sometimes the same high-profile members, meaning their eventual departures did double the damage)
But there is more to it than that, much more, and here is where this article is probably going to generate some widely different points of view. There were, in this author's eyes, a series of events, with many members involved, that had a cumulative effect of all but killing off the life of the forum.
The factors involved:
Poor behavior by members
Bad decisions by moderators
Refusal to back off and take a deep breath
To this day, it remains true that only a few admit that both the first and second were in play; too many on either side still just want to point the finger the other way. The author of this article, who was a "regular" member until September 2010 and has been an Elf since then, will admit some of his mistakes and hopes that at least some others will admit theirs.
If you joined after the spring of 2010, you probably have never heard of PnP. Many would say you're lucky; others would say you're not.
PnP was a forum officially called Prate and Prattle. It was described thus under its title:
Politics, religion, movies, and stamp collecting all belong here. This is SP's septic tank. What goes on in this forum stays in this forum.
Some called it the Sewer. Some loved it. Some hated it. Most ignored it.
It was always off-topic. It was frequently vulgar. It sometimes was ugly, sometimes very ugly. But it was damn fun most of the time, and sometimes it was beautiful (the "I believe" thread, now moved to Off-Route). With the only formal rules for most of the forum's life being not to post anything illegal, not to post pictures of full-frontal nudity, and not to make attacks on people’s family members, almost anything went. And it did.
Mind you, it was not all garbage. Some of SP's smartest members posted there on a regular basis, and one could learn a great deal about history and science, for example, even if no one's mind ever changed.
Only a relatively minuscule handful of SP members participated, but they were passionate about it. With a few very notable exceptions, the players, as strongly as they sometimes disagreed with each other, and as heated as some conversations sometimes got, basically liked each other. Again, with a few very notable exceptions, members agreed that they'd be happy to climb together and happy to get a beer together.
But those notable exceptions turned into the thorns that overtook the garden. The forum became a battleground for them, and some of them, whether through calculation or desperation, had to take it outside that forum.
It really came down to five or six people, three in particular. One against two. Even though it was the Internet and none of them were using their real names, they hated each other. And that hate became virulent.
Two of the three are gone, both by request although one had been permanently banned from the forums by the time he requested account deletion. The third, also deleted once upon request, came back but rarely posts these days.
An early draft of this article discussed who the people were and went into specifics about a chain of events that began late in 2009, but a person who read the draft thought it might be seen as talking trash about people no longer around to give their accounts. Since that was never the intent, this article now relates the events in less detail.
There was a familiar pattern: someone would post, and another would attack. Or one would make a post not mentioning the other but trying to provoke that person nonetheless. Sometimes the attacks were unfair and unwarranted; other times they were retaliatory.
This got to be a massive headache for the Elves because there was constant complaining by one side about the other.
Yes, it was supposed to be a minimally moderated forum and what happened there was supposed to stay there, but it didn't work that way. Sometimes offended members complained to the Elves through PM, and sometimes they violated the principles of the forum by airing their grievances in the Site Feedback forum, perhaps trying to shame the Elves into acting or perhaps trying to rile up other members against their enemies. To be fair, only one of the two sides ever took its gripes into other parts of the site (between 2007 and January 2010).
Meaning well, the Elves came up with what they hoped would be a solution: PnP Moderated. This was to be a nicer version of PnP, where personal attacks were not allowed and where certain members were not allowed to post. One view was that this was a good-faith attempt to provide a pleasant playground. Another was that it was an attempt to protect people perceived as whiners who would instigate controversies and then cry for the adults.
There is a cliche that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. PnP Mod, or PnP Lite (the other became PnP Dark), became divisive. It was civil, but it could be dreadfully dull, leading Bob Sihler to call it PnP Yawn, which led a former Elf, not then an Elf, to call PnP PnP Trailer Park, which the PnPers found funny instead of insulting. A few people went back and forth between the forums and got along well with everyone, but most picked a PnP and stuck with it.
Because everyone could see what was being said in the different forums, everyone could see the swipes people took at the other forum and its members. Most of the swipes were by PnP Dark because the members there knew the PnP Lite members had thinner skin and might be goaded into reacting, but there were deviations from that norm, such as the "Suck It" thread started by a member (also now gone) who was hounded out of PnP Dark and went to Lite for the main purpose of safely attacking the PnP Dark regulars. To the Elves' credit, he was banned for a while for that move.
From November 2009 into early 2010, things got uglier and uglier, and some members were banned or deleted.
On Tuesday, January 12, 2010, PnP disappeared. The Elves finally got sick and tired of all the forum warfare, and they hid both Drivel forums from view. In an ensuing Site Feedback thread that turned into one of the greatest forum train wrecks in SP history, one of the Elves involved in the decision shared this email from another Elf as a basic explanation of what happened:
Increasingly, we think we have a hopelessly unworkable mess on our hands. As we see it, both PnPs have basically become battle zones. It's been building for awhile but during the last 3 or 4 months it has really crystallized. We have basically two warring camps, the P and P mods and the P and P darks. A few members cross over rather seamlessly but in each camp there are half a dozen or so folks who are constantly throwing rocks to the other side. The Darks bitch about any moderation and even seem to bitch about the existence of P and P mod itself: they are free to avoid it but seem to enjoy bitching about it or going over there and stirring the pot. The Mods bitch about P and P and how horrible it is. They could avoid it too but many don't. The problem is that a lot of time stuff happens in dark that directly mentions Mods, or people use mod as a way to “safely” take shots at the Mods so the battles begin. And those half a dozen rock throwers on each side have many other supporters who piss and moan about any perceived slight suffered by the activists. And right now, sensitivities have really become heightened. If things sound polarized, that's because we really think things are quite polarized and the soap operaish bullshit is quite deep and getting deeper.
This shit is taking way too much of our time and energy and we don't think anyone is really happy. Most of the folks who are enjoying themselves there at all are drama-philes who like to see the pot stirred. We don't feel like catering to their juevinile needs: It's a climbing site, they can pack up and go elsewhere for their kicks. And I think the bad blood has reached a boiling point. We're in a no-win situation: we've tried moderating P and P heavily; we've tried multiple bannings, deletions etc. (but that often antagonizes things more, as shown by the countless "Why was ___ banned?" threads that pop up); we've tried wild west with few to no rules. We're in the same mess as before, except that the bitching has increased, and most of the threads seem to degenerate into attacking the other side. We've always joked that it's a cesspool, but that truly is its only value now. And all sides are pissed at us.
We are tired of it. We're being asked to do the impossible, to make P and P and P and P mod something for everyone. Frankly, the owners are probably making a fair amount of ad revenue from P and P visitors: that's really the only value we see.
Read the thread, if you dare, to get a sense of who some of the principal players were and where they stood. Unfortunately, some of the members are gone now, and their posts are gone as well, so there are gaps. Some of their posts remain in posts where remaining members quoted them. What was a 100-page thread is now 83 pages because of the missing posts; among the missing is one of the biggest thread hijacks ever on SP, wherein a former member posted several pages’ worth of climbing pictures, ostensibly to remind everyone what the site was about but more likely to hasten the thread to its announced 100-page limit. In this, PnP Dark members saw a concerted effort to break up the flow of dialogue and to take away opportunities for them to express their views. (Note-- the author of this article posted in this thread, and keep in mind that although his posts identify him as a forum moderator, he was not one then.)
In general, PnP Lite members were thrilled and PnP Dark members were furious. Soon, there was a replacement forum: Off-Route. But it was far from the same. Members could not start new threads, and Elves peopled the forum with popular but harmless threads from the PnP forums. Members occasionally started threads in the regular forums that they knew or hoped would get moved to Off-Route, and it was not until September of that year, when some new Elves had come aboard and decided to try opening things back up a bit, that members could again post new threads in Off-Route, which had more rules and clearer ones that nevertheless proved just as difficult to enforce.
And that’s in the next chapter.
Much of the rest is really an illustration of the Law of Unintended Consequences.
In the aftermath of PnP’s demise, there were many predictions. Chief among them:
The site would die.
The grudge matches, without a place to contain them, would spill into the other parts of the site.
Members would leave.
The first obviously did not happen. SP is a content-based site, and the vast majority of the site's traffic is directed at the content. For as long as SP has had forums, there have always been forum participants who grossly overvalue the role of the forums here. There are other climbing sites that would be virtually nothing without their forums, but SP would be nothing without its content.
Still, some forum members are very passionate, and thus the other two predictions proved true.
But no one predicted VCF.
Something about the disappearance of PnP jolted into action the trollish genes of one Toxoplasmosis. Shortly after the departure of PnP, she started trolling hard, and some of the trolls were hilarious even if they were a little cruel since they often targeted a man who probably was mentally ill. One of the Elves who had helped kill PnP actually called her a “breath of fresh air” after all the repetitive PnP drama, and he would sometimes let her posts stay for a bit before another Elf came along and nuked them.
She got banned and deleted, and her IP address was banned as well. Her husband, an SP member who participated in the forums, ended up banned and deleted also, not because he did anything wrong but because the Elves wanted to block Toxoplasmosis from the site.
(It didn’t take her long to learn how to use proxy IP addresses.)
At the same time, another website was growing. It began almost right after PnP vanished and was started by a member who was more PnP Lite than Dark but who was deeply unhappy over the lost forums. To that site went the PnP outcasts; they were like the fallen angels regrouping in hell after being cast from heaven. Soon, most called the site PnP Alternate or Alternative PnP.
For reasons those members still don’t really understand, the site creator shut it down, but Toxoplasmosis stepped up and brought Virtual Campfire (VCF) online in April 2010, and the outcasts headed there. (For the record, the author of this article was a member of both of those sites.)
Although there was more to VCF than just trolling, its strongest appeal early on was, for many, as a safe place to complain about SP and its members. In a way, this was therapeutic, but it also kept the bad feelings going and at times spilled back onto SP.
By this point, most people referred to Toxoplasmosis as Toxo, and thus she will be for the rest of this article.
Back in the post-PnP world, the forums had not instantly died. Actually, they stayed fairly lively that spring and summer and into the new year, but something of the life of the site was sorely missing, and some popular members had departed or drastically reduced their presence in the forums. Even so, there were times that PnP-style forum activity enjoyed a brief resurgence, such as the time a thread intended to honor veterans at Memorial Day went to hell after a polarizing member made a comment that many found highly offensive.
But over that spring and summer, things that would have a wide-ranging impact were going on behind the scenes. Essentially, there was a war of sorts between two SP Elves and two VCF members. Some of it played out through trolling in the forums, but other parts played out in email and PM. And it got very personal and the animosity became deep, just as deep as the animosity that had poisoned PnP.
Most of the details about this, and about its resolution, have to remain private, so the focus here is on the fallout.
Come September 2010, three Elves wanted to step aside or at least drastically curtail their involvement. Two of them were fed up with dealing with the VCF members; one was fed up to the point that he wanted to step down as an Elf entirely and had come to see the position as a curse.
Two new Elves came aboard. The first was dadndave. Shortly thereafter, Bob Sihler joined him.
Both were chosen because they knew the site and its members, they knew the forum history, and they had a reputation of being diplomatic and generally staying above the fray when it came to the forum wars.
Neither came without some controversy. Some saw dadndave as sympathetic to and friendly with the PnP Lite crowd, and some saw Bob Sihler as sympathetic to and friendly with the PnP Dark crowd. So there was balance, so to speak.
As one of the site’s leading content contributors, Sihler had a deep interest in site content and quality and wanted to make that the focus of his “elfing,” but he also wanted to see some of the old PnP life come back, and he had what turned out to be the naive belief that his reputation of communicating and working with people on both sides would enable him to bring back the good without the bad.
He was wrong. Not long after he and dadndave, against the advice of the other Elves, opened Off-Route to new threads and made it something between PnP Dark and Lite in the moderation, many of the old PnP headaches returned: feuds, arguments over interpreting the rules, etc.
That was frustrating but did not cause a blowup. In general, while there were always some gripes, the “new” PnP was going fairly well, even if it was a somewhat faint shadow of its predecessor.
Then, starting in October and going into November, things did blow up. Spectacularly.
Ironically, it did not start in Off-Route. Instead, it was in Site Feedback, where in actuality many of SP’s biggest forum fires have burned.
And it all began with a picture, followed by a misunderstanding.
Toxo posted a picture of a porn actress about to do something degrading. Although the picture itself was not pornographic (the actress was about to be forced to lick a toilet bowl), it was unquestionably inappropriate and designed to generate a reaction.
A reaction is what she got. Upon seeing the picture, a member took great offense and made an angry post about the picture and about Toxo’s website. While she was writing that post, the Elves had spotted and deleted the picture, so when the offended member’s post appeared, it looked like an attack on VCF members in general, and dual SP/VCF members took it that way and responded quickly and harshly.
This led to a few weeks’ worth of back-and-forth flaming during which the angry member also called out Sihler and accused him of supporting and protecting his VCF buddies and being unfit as an Elf. Her claim was that whenever she posted, a certain group would swoop down on her and that Sihler would let them get away with it, but the other side pointed out that she could never resist lashing out at them, sometimes without any provocation at all. In truth, both sides were correct to some extent but incorrect to another. (The author won’t comment more on that lest he be seen as defending himself.)
Finally, the angry member decided she wanted to quit. She asked for account deletion but then asked the Elves to wait so that she could transfer some of her pages to other members and delete her pictures. Although they were eager to see the drama end, the Elves agreed to the request, but then she started making angry forum posts during the process. After conferring, Sihler and dadndave just deleted her account.
That was not the end, though, not by any means. Sihler almost instantly regretted the deletion and the way the whole business had gone down. He felt that while the deleted member’s behavior was way overboard, she had some legitimate gripes.
Not able to undo what had happened, Sihler began talking with her through email and PM (she made a new account). Again against the advice of the other Elves, he let her come back and start posting pages again.
At the same time, he came to think that his dual membership as an SP Elf and a VCF member was untenable so long as there was such tension between members of the two sites, and so he posted on VCF that he was leaving that site.
What happened next, like what happened in the PnP days, is open to various interpretations. Believing that the trolling and antagonizing were continuing and actually ramping up, Sihler, shortly before Thanksgiving, came out hard against the VCF members in a very long locked post in Off-Route that detailed a perceived list of complaints about a set of VCF members, and in that post he threatened to delete those members from SP. One was, in fact, deleted shortly afterward. The deleted member had no content since he had angrily deleted it (just a collection of pictures, not beta pages, so no real loss to the site) after the end of PnP, and thus the deletion was more about sending a message than about wiping out someone’s time and effort.
This (the post) began a war both between the sites and on SP. Events and players were many, and the particulars don’t matter so much now. In the process, a few new Elves were recruited to fight the trolling that was almost relentless in December and January, and several dual members were banned or deleted. The Friday Night Massacre in early February 2011, during which five members were banned or deleted, was the highpoint, or lowpoint, of this war, at least in the forums. Not too long after that, some of the people involved started talking, and the talking ultimately proved productive.
Sihler had miscalculated in thinking he could bring peace to the forums. He also overcorrected (overreacted) in the wake of the November flameout. But his former friends, some of whom are now his friends again, also played their part. Everyone, mods and non-mods, dug in and got so damn stubborn that the only thing anyone was really accomplishing was damage.
The SP vs. VCF chapter finally ended in the late spring of 2011. Events got so personal between certain people that they spilled into real life and found their resolutions there (no violence, sorry). Finally, the sites all but completely parted ways.
Today, Toxo freely posts on SP under that name. Who let her in? Sihler (well, there really was no keeping her out, but he ended the deletion campaign). She and Sihler are friends again, and he is a member on her new site: Mountains'n'Stuff. Two years ago, she and Sihler, along with Toxo’s husband and another SP member, got together to climb Clyde Minaret in the Sierra Nevada. No one killed anyone else, though Sihler was reportedly a little embarrassed by the females’ butt-bumping on the summit. And Toxo is friendly with dadndave even though the two used to detest each other.
A former VCF member who was on the infamous “Douchebag 8” list (the VCF members threatened with deletion) is an elf now. Some formerly banned VCF members post regularly.Not everyone is all kumbaya, but things are a hell of a lot better than they were.
People took a step back and talked. They laughed. They realized it was a website. They moved on.
Often, this author wonders how much damage could have been avoided if people had done the same in January 2010 or November 2011. No blame assigned…he just wonders.
Back to first-person voice…
Sometime after the fall of 2010-- I’m not sure exactly when-- forum activity on SP virtually died.
I’m still not exactly sure about why that happened.
Clearly, I made some new-mod mistakes that may have driven some people off, and the Elves probably did moderate too much at that time, but most serious posters in Off-Route are not serious posters in the other forums. So it can’t all, or even mostly, be about my overreaction to some events back then or about the role of the Elves.
Quite clearly as well, a few members drove others off with their belligerence. This was confirmed not only through PM conversations but in real life as well; I've actually hiked or climbed with SP members who named other members whose forum behavior deterred them from posting. Still, it can't be all or even mostly about them, either.
One of the key participants in the PnP wars left shortly after I became an Elf. I’ve always believed, through some comments he made, that he felt that his enemies had been given the keys to the site and would run rampant. He was wrong, as it turned out, but he probably had no faith in that then, and he had quite a following here on SP. When he left, his followers gradually stopped paying attention. Few noticed this, or at least few noted it publicly, but I noticed.
Another key participant in PnP had a real following as well. To this day, many miss him and wish he would return. Most who really liked him did not leave the site, but they have scaled back their activity since he left. For them, he was more or less the life of the forum.
I also think some members just lost interest in SP after PnP went, and they went their separate ways. In addition, PnP had a lot of lurkers who rarely posted in PnP but did sometimes post in the other forums; maybe they had less interest in the site after PnP disappeared.
And then there are those other reasons listed way back. They probably explain why the forums still don’t have much life when new members don’t know the history and when there really is not much moderation in the regular forums these days. SP has a huge membership, spread across the world although concentrated in the U.S. and Europe, and it can’t compete with regional forums that make it easier for interested people to find partners and information about current conditions. People seem to like asking a question, getting a few responses, and moving along; lost to oblivion are the days when a simple question about what size gear to use on a route might explode into a multi-page shit-slinging contest over ethics or style.
There is no question that we have lost some colorful characters who did drive some away but also pulled others in.
And there is little question that the sordid history of the PnP and VCF days turned off some who thought it degraded the site and some who thought the mods were degrading it in response.
In a way, the last part of this article is my own apology for mistakes I made early on as an Elf. To those I may have alienated, even if I didn’t much like you, I sincerely apologize. Now, through experience, my style is much different. You still wouldn’t agree with me all the time, but you would respect my approach more.
I know that some of you erstwhile members still lurk here. If you see this article and want to make an account and post a comment, you’re welcome to. My advice is to stay out of the forums in case one of the new Elves deletes you and thus erases your comments.
So...those nuked at the whim of an elf or upon your own, you’re welcome back, at least for this article, as far as I’m concerned. If you want to tell your side of the story, you can, as long as you tell your side instead of slinging shit. I've tried very hard to be neutral, have all but kept names out, and have pointed some fingers my own way. Try to post in the same spirit.
And I’d still be glad to climb with you or have a beer with you. After all, this is just the damn Internet, not serious business. It’s a website that’s free for members to use, and most of us don’t even use our real names.
Those of you who are reading this and never knew or cared about any of this must be stunned to learn that so much drama among so few caused so much fallout. Well, it did. Even though it’s the Internet and not serious business, some nevertheless take it very, very seriously, and those folks tend to make a lot of noise.