In the years that I ran WhatsOnStage, the site’s Discussion Forum, a.k.a. “The Board”, was often the bane of my life.
Producers would pull me aside on press nights to complain about it – insiders were revealing secrets about their shows that they shouldn’t be, they lamented; competitors were dishing dirt on their shows and manipulating public opinion; punters were bashing their shows while still in previews.
I heard it all – and more than once, rather than via a word in my ear, I heard it via a slew of legal letters.
The Board had a reputation for being bitchy. I can understand how this reputation was earned. If, as a producer, you only ever looked at the Forum when someone pointed out that something untoward was being said about your production, I don’t blame you for having only negative feelings of association.
I believed that, if we prided ourselves on giving audiences a voice, it would be hypocritical to try to silence or censor that voice
And, yes, the Board could be very bitchy. Users certainly never held back from having a go at WhatsOnStage or indeed, me personally. I remember one user who, for months, used the Board to pick apart every news item and review that I wrote. Another would comment on “Terri sightings” at hosted theatre Outings and comment on, amongst other things, my breasts (the irony!) and how well they filled out the WhatsOnStage company t-shirts that we all wore while on hosting duty.
And, yet, I always staunchly defended the Board. I believed that, if we were a website that prided itself on giving audiences a voice, it would be hypocritical to try to silence or censor that voice. Even when, especially when, they were giving feedback about my company.
At the same time, I took producers concerns seriously. Many years ago, we introduced full registration for the board and appointed a team of (excellent and highly dedicated) moderators to police dodgy postings and keep the peace.
Positive, open discussion
Despite its reputation, I would estimate that 90% of the discussion on the board was positive and considered, fuelled by a regular community of serious theatregoers who used the platform to comment, argue and debate all manner of plays, musicals, performers and theatrical happenings. A large portion of whom, by the way, were far more knowledgeable on their subject matter than I could ever hope to be.
All of that said, on leaving WhatsOnStage, I felt certain I would never again consider running a theatre discussion forum. Never say never, eh? That’s what I also believed about theatre awards, and now this week, I’ve gone and launched the Also Recognised Awards, resurrecting categories that were once staples of the annual WhatsOnStage Awards. (Get VOTING by Friday 17 April 2015 please!)
Now something funny is happening on the WhatsOnStage Discussion Forum, and forces are pulling me back into its orbit.
Since I was unfairly dismissed by the new owners of WhatsOnStage, I’ve tried to avoid going on the website as much as possible.
I only learned through a third party that they’d jettisoned the Board at some point last year (when did that happen? Was it announced?), detaching it from the main site, removing any WhatsOnStage branding and renaming it www.theatreforum.com.
After news of my employment tribunal win was reported last week, a friend told me to check out a thread on the Forum about me (or rather, about my case, not my breasts this time).
Other people picked up on this too and were avidly reading what Forum users were saying, including my MyTheatreMates co-founder Mark Shenton, who also tweeted about it.
Am also enjoying the commentary on the @Whatsonstage owned THEATRE FORUM on former employee @TerriPaddock here: http://t.co/5wYXXTtdoe
— Mark Shenton (@ShentonStage) March 13, 2015
At the weekend, my partner Peter wanted to respond to a comment on the Forum (under his own name, he had no interest in stirring anonymously – apart from anything to do with integrity, which he has a boundless supply of, we are both digitally aware enough to know that you always leave an IP footprint). He attempted to register, but his every attempt failed or timed out. So he was unable to take part in the conversation.
Shortly after that, the WhatsOnStage board, for the first time since it was established in 2000 quietly became – like something out of the deep dark web of The Nether – a “protected forum”. It’s now hidden away from the rest of the outside world, with only members able to either contribute or read anything on it.
Interesting: The Theatre Forum, formerly the @Whatsonstage Bulletin Board, is now a ‘protected forum’ & new registrations ‘time out’.
— Mark Shenton (@ShentonStage) March 17, 2015
What are visitors being ‘protected’ from? This is not a porn or S&M site. This is people talking about theatre. And talking about me – which, under data protection laws, by the way, is material that I have a right to have access to. (I’ve had to gen up on all sorts of legal matters over the past 15 months!)
Still, though, I wasn’t going to get involved. But in the past 24 hours, numerous “Theatre Forum” users and mods have been in touch with me – via this site, email, Twitter, Facebook. The question they’re all asking is: Do Mark Shenton and I plan to set up a discussion board on our newly launched MyTheatreMates.com?
Short answer: until yesterday, no, we had zero plans to do this.
But never say never. We can’t make any promises. However, what we can do – as with all good propositions that are about supporting theatre and independent voices – is properly consider it.
This is a sorry state of affairs. Theatreforum.com is effectively closed because if you can’t read the posts before you register who would want to? The mods of whom I am one are disgusted. We were not consulted after many years of dedicated monitoring of the Board and I think we did it fairly and with good humour. The admin have made the excuse that there was some nastiness but it was nothing we could not deal with and we did deal with it. If they have closed it down to hide the support for Terri, well, the mind boggles. Some murmurings of how expensive it is to run have been heard but funny how this should be now after Terri’s case is finished and in her favour. I hope your new site Terri is splendid. I shall be following it of course and I do hope you incorporate some form of Discussion. I have enjoyed engaging with my Board mates who consider a week without a visit to the theatre at least once a bad week!
Thanks for your kind remarks, Lynette. As soon as I have a proper chance to review the options, I’ll definitely let you know.
That would be great, Terri. I had no idea some people on the old forum (and producers) gave you such grief, but it’s clearly not a proper discussion forum now it’s “protected” and it is a great resource despite the occasional hiccup, so if the moderators are willing, it would be wonderful to transfer the thing lock stock and barrel over to your new site. And many congratulations on your victory and your dignified handling of the whole thing.
Thanks for your support, Alexandra. I have always been in awe of the immense knowledge and passion of the folks on the forum. You all put me to shame! Keep flying the flag for theatre, wherever you are. x
Very interesting look at the pros and cons of running the forum! I presume that once registration and mods were introduced there were fewer problems?
As the other two comments say, the current theatreforum situation doesn’t seem tenable – we have no idea what the current owners plan to do (there’s been no communication about any of this), and with no public read access the forum will inevitably wither away over time. So many of us would certainly welcome an alternative, particularly on a site dedicated to building the theatre community (as opposed to a site which is “a service provider to the theatre business”!)
Thanks, Xander. If anyone else has views, do please ask them to post here. If people are happy where they are or with other options, I won’t be the least bit offended!
(Fyi, though, I have always considered myself and the work I do as part of the theatre community and industry – and I would not have it any other way. I feel privileged and honoured to be part of this wonderful, crazy, gorgeous world!)