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.
— 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.