Purges and politics in cyberspace

Alex Walker talks through the fallout of the Open Oxford controversy with those involved

Photo: StartBloggingOnline.com

It seems a commonly held view that the principles of free speech and open discussion now flourish only on the internet. Of late all has not been well in this cyberspace land of supposedly unrestricted expression. Open Oxford, the original Facebook group founded with these ideals in mind, has been racked by internal strife, culminating in a series of controversies last Thursday and Friday. Jacob Williams, of No Offence notoriety, removed a selection of prolific posters from the group, a move which many saw as a contravention of the very principles the group was set up to defend.

We asked those invested in the issue their views and, in the spirit of the free debates they all hold dear, there was little agreement to be found.

What is Open Oxford? In the words of its current administrators, Williams, Ash MQ and Alex McGann the group was “established as a forum for the free discussion of ideas, in response to what we felt was a university environment increasingly hostile to the expression of thought that didn’t conform to certain viewpoints.” Regular user Harry Walton described it as emerging in “reaction to the perceived view that Oxford University was limiting itself to certain ideas and that the boundaries of discourse were being made increasingly narrow due to the actions of a particular student sect which said that certain ideas should not be able to be put forward due to their perceived damage.” Eleanor Sharman, administrator of splinter groups Open Rebellion and Openest Oxford, told us that the importance of these forums of discussion lay in the “free exchange of ideas, openness to new arguments and the pursuit of Truth.”

These similar starting points were not enough to avoid fracture. It seems that a universal commitment to free speech is not a precursor to universal agreement on the topic of ‘shitposting’. ‘Shitposting’ according to the Open Oxford administrators Ash MQ & co involves “a small coterie of members posting in-jokes, diary entries, and pictures of excrement’ which meant that “discussions were derailed, serious threads became lost amongst the nonsense, and most of the group’s over 4000 members were put off ever getting involved.”

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It was in response to the scourge of ‘shitposting’ that Thursday’s bans were implemented. The Open Oxford admins have defended their actions, stating, “as of the time of writing no-one has been permanently banned from the group for shitposting. But now modest rule-changes have been made, such that chronic shitposters can be removed at the admins’ discretion after the issuance of a formal warning. Of course there will be some degree of arbitrariness involved in the enforcement of these rules, but this is impossible to avoid – and regardless, we think it is better than having no such rules at all.”

However, Walton interpreted the phenomenon differently saying that “friendly banter, a much maligned phrase, was common and people had fun. A lot of this fun was described as shitposting where jokes that people had established were posted.” Rather than pictures of excrement for Walton supposed ‘shitposting’ actually orientated around the presentation of ideas, he gave the example of smearing, “a joke word that came about due to someone posting someone else’s comments elsewhere on the board to remind them of the views that they put forward earlier.”

It is fair to say that the Open Oxford admins’ call for members to “support the rule changes” if they “share our desire for a space within the university for meaningful, free discussion of ideas” has not been enough to patch up the controversy and save the group’s reputation. In fact many see the initial bans and the rule changes that followed as fundamentally undermining the group, leaving it lacking credibility as a free forum for discussion. Walton argued that “what the recent bans have done… is to copy what made Open Oxford a necessity. The boundaries of discourse have been narrowed down again through the policing of the style in which one puts forward one’s ideas.” Open Oxford was set up, in part, as a response to the heavy handed admin action on other groups; many now feel it has irrevocably gone their way. Sharman said that although she did not speak on behalf of the groups she moderates, her personal view was that ‘the Purge’, as the removals from the group have become affectionately called, was “the worst thing since Stalin” and that she thought the admins should resign.

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The groups Sharman moderates, Openest Oxford and Open Rebellion, have seen a growth in members in response to this furore. The admins of Original Open Oxford (as it is now referred to) use these groups as an example of why they see their new rules as so vital, saying “one look at any of the small rival groups set up in response to recent events demonstrates exactly the type of forum it is imperative to prevent Open Oxford becoming.”

Funnily enough not everyone agrees. Walton thinks Open Oxford have alienated many original posters leading to an exodus to other groups “because people feel like they’ve lost a place where they could genuinely communicate with one another without the boundaries of discourse closing in on them.” According to Sharma “Original Open Oxford is faltering somewhat, owing to the fact that all its best, most active members have fucked off to Openest Oxford. Discussion is foundering in Original Open Oxford.” Unsurprisingly, she says she’s not unduly distressed about this. In fact her, and the newly established Openest Oxford community, have taken action, recently set up a Kickstarter page to fund a ‘zine, the amusingly titled ‘The Shitposting Forecast’. The self-stated aim of the publication is to show “that ‘shitposting’ is an arbitrary and stupid designation – and to show how much ingenuity, creativity, and nuance is required to succeed at what others write off as ‘nonsense’.” The Kickstarter page, at the time of writing, had exceeded its £300 target by £189.

It remains to be seen whether the original Open Oxford will weather the storm. Its troubles are not unique, similar difficulties have befallen other monolithic Facebook communities. The question is raised as to whether all groups that reach a certain size inevitably collapse in on themselves, their original purpose drowned in a sea of off-topic memes.