cover_story (2006-04)

Steve Dupree and Bill Lyons

Ian Blackburn

South Knox Bubba

Art Note: Cover and story design inspired by Pan Walker’s KnoxBlab logo

“If you don’t have the free exchange of ideas, you don’t have democracy,” Dupree later explains. “We debate, we argue, we discuss, and sometimes we disagree. That’s how we learn.”

It’s not a novel concept, but the technology that’s redefining the means by which we debate, argue, discuss and, inevitably, disagree does qualify as a fairly recent phenomenon. Online forums have made it possible for citizens to engage in public discourse that’s not necessarily predicated on real-time interaction or a clearly defined second party; if you need to get something off your chest, there’s usually someone floating around in cyberspace who can relate.

Dupree, as a former moderator of the downtown-minded cybergroup k2k, witnessed firsthand the power of these forums as a medium for public discourse on a local level. He was involved from the concept’s birth in the fall of 1999, which naturally involved a round of beer and a debate about civic engagement. Architect Buzz Goss and partner Cherie Piercy-Goss took the idea and ran with it, launching an e-group trial run with about 30 downtown denizens onboard. A few weeks later, over another beer, it was given a name—k2k, as suggested by musician/ techie Cyberflix Scott Scheinbaum—and a mission statement: “Knoxville in the 21st century—a subscription-based forum designed to facilitate discussion about the future of our city with particular emphasis on issues related to downtown.”

As word got around, k2k’s popularity swelled. At its peak, the forum boasted between 800 and 900 registered users, including then-Mayor Victor Ashe. At its core, it was about using online talk to mobilize offline action. Among its accomplishments, k2k bolstered opposition against a proposed, and ultimately rejected, maximum-security justice center/jail on State Street and, more recently, participated in the rehabilitation of Market Square via an ongoing online discussion with its developers.

Of the latter, KCDC’s Bill Lyons recalls, “It was a whole different paradigm for a public project. It allowed us to see all the concerns people had, and a lot of things got adjusted. k2k was an efficient way to test ideas and get feedback.” k2k user Rikki Hall points that it was also an effective means of soothing the community’s frustrations: For example, after Brian Conley ( MP publisher and general contractor for developer Kinsey Probasco & Associates) was admonished on k2k for the Market Square project’s delay, “he invited some of the critics to come down and meet with him and Jason [Debord], and just gave us a little tour and told us what was going on. With k2k, even when things got abrasive, there was still that vehicle of ‘let’s just get together and work this out in person.’”

The forum’s contributions to downtown redevelopment eventually earned it accolades from the International Association for Public Participation. “What k2k allowed us to do was have a constant, ongoing meeting about the future of downtown…and this was at a time when people said downtown was dead, that there was no reason not to build a prison on Gay Street,” Dupree says. 

Six years later, the same caliber of cynicism is harder to run across. And k2k, having fewer walls to knock its head against, has quieted down considerably; its original users, for the most part, have moved on to other local forums, none of which are as specific in purpose as was k2k. Several of them are now downtown residents, business owners or developers, working to implement the ideas that originated as topics of online discussion. “We have a much smaller version of that meeting still going on because we run into each other on the street,” says Dupree, who admits to not having checked his k2k e-mail in some time. “And a slew of us still show up at here at the brewpub on Wednesdays—well, and sometimes Thursdays, and Tuesdays, and Fridays….”

After all, there is no digital substitute for beer. Tonight, like most Wednesdays, Gay Street’s brewpub is a vortex of downtown dwellers, including a sampling of those who’ve participated in past and present online forums. There’s the aforementioned Dupree, who’s paused debate long enough to compare cell-phone features with his conservative archrival. k2k’s former co-administrator, musician and sometime City-Council candidate Leslie Terry is chatting at the other end of the bar. Behind her is Ian Blackburn, the bohemian techie who babysat the MP -sponsored MetroBlab from ’96 until its shutdown in 2004. And at a table in the corner is Conley, who’s seen his share of forum-based drama over the years. Users of the forum du jour , KnoxBlab, are scattered throughout the room, including Michael Haynes, an IPA-sipping web designer; Rikki Hall, database geek and managing editor of Hellbender Press ; and Toby Applegate who, with 1,864 posts since the site’s launch last July, was recently acknowledged as KnoxBlab’s no. 1 poster.

As unlikely as the combination of technology and happy hour may seem, it’s a tradition that many forum-users have been honoring for years. And some would argue that the forum’s success hinges on its continuation—not the continuance of beer consumption, per se, but on the live interaction that it entails.

Wednesday night at the brewpub is a weekly reminder that disagreement can be healthy, and that every forum user—no matter the popularity of his or her opinion—is united by a shared passion for Knoxville and, of course, for locally brewed beer. But perhaps most importantly, it’s a reminder that no matter what you say behind a computer screen, you may eventually have to own up to it face-to-face.

Broader scope, however, has brought with it a variety of issues that challenge fixed ideals of discussion and change. For all its progressive attributes, online discourse is fundamentally different from face-to-face interaction, a reality that’s severed more than its share of offline relationships. Pseudonyms and heat-of-the-moment mudslinging give people an excuse to forget their manners; it’s not uncommon for a controversial discussion to dissolve into name-calling and personal attacks. As Hall observes, “With Internet communication, in all its forms, it’s much easier to attack somebody when they’re just an e-mail address, when you know nothing about them and you’re not sitting in front of them.” But such behavior isn’t new. It’s a quirk of e-sociology that can be traced back to Knoxville’s earliest online community forums.

It didn’t take long for Blackburn to discover the ugly side of the community discussion board he’d set up on when the website launched in 1996. MetroBlab was a lightning rod for negative feedback about the paper, but Blackburn reasons that it was better to meet the criticism head-on than pretend that it didn’t exist. He explains, “I’d be out somewhere and hear someone say that MP was conspiring with (fill in the blank) to do (fill in some nefarious goal), and I’d think, jeez, do people really believe that? If things like that are being said, I’d rather they get said on a message board where we’d have the chance to rebut it, or at least have an awareness of the public perception of what we were doing…. And on a number of occasions, we were able to clear up misconceptions that would’ve continued unabated otherwise.”

Anonymity, or participating in an online forum without identifying oneself, was another issue that began rearing its head in the early days of MetroBlab. Unlike k2k, which frowned upon anonymous posts, the only information required to register on the Blab was a screen name and a password. Blackburn reasoned that, even if the anonymous posts were frustrating, there was no point in collecting additional information since there was no practical means of verifying its validity.

Former MP editor Jesse Fox Mayshark, who now works for the New York Times but still checks in on Knoxville via its forums, verifies the fact that his staff, himself included, caught plenty of grief online. But, Mayshark explains, he respected Blackburn’s emphasis on keeping the Blab as unrestricted as possible: “The only times I suggested he remove things (were) if there was actionable libel, which was pretty rare—most insults, even nasty ones, aren’t actually actionable.”

Moderators, who more or less function as forum referees, vary with regard to their definitions of appropriate online behavior. Dupree occasionally posted “netiquette” tips for k2k’s users, though he describes himself as lenient when it came to actually stepping in and intercepting posts. “Vigorous argument isn’t a personal attack as long as people are just yelling at each other,” he explains. Rob Levering, who co-owns KnoxBlab with Derek Senter, says that their site’s users do a commendable job of policing themselves. “When something does come up, they’ll stick together. Someone will usually just jump in and say, ‘Hey, kill it.’” He also notes that in order to register, users must agree to a set of terms and conditions, including: “You agree not to post any abusive, obscene, vulgar, slanderous, hateful, threatening, sexually-oriented or any other material that may violate these applicable laws.” In addition, Levering keeps a record of the IP addresses of whoever posts, so theoretically, he can ban rule-breakers from the site.

Other forum administrators have felt compelled to employ a more heavy-handed approach. When Conley acquired MP in 2003, he grew frustrated with its affiliated MetroBlab, citing the argument that its discussions, by that time, had very little if anything to do with the paper itself, and that some posters were using the forum to voice anonymous personal attacks against Conley, his family members and others. “The problem with Internet dialogue is that it tends to dissolve into a food fight,” he says. “I’ve always had a problem with the anonymous personal attacks. It’s always been something that I really don’t understand, people who attack other people personally and don’t have the courage to put their names on it.”

He shut the Blab down for a day in September 2004 and then Associate Publisher John Wright shut it down for good on that Dec. 13. In the meantime, a new community forum called Bubba Blab surfaced, and most MetroBlab users gravitated toward the new site. By the following summer, however, personal attack-oriented controversy had surfaced again in response to a recently published MP story. The drama snowballed until R. Neal, the blogger formerly known as South Knox Bubba who owned BubbaBlab and founded the loose-knit coalition of Tennessee bloggers known as the Rocky Top Brigade, shut the forum down on July 19, 2005 (Neal declined comment).

Within hours, an effort coagulated to launch a “home for ‘blab’ refugees” that would be called, upon Blackburn’s suggestion, KnoxBlab. According to co-owner Levering, the first few weeks of the forum’s existence—immediately following the closure of Bubba Blab—were trying, but it’s been uphill from there. “I didn’t want people to come over here with an axe to grind,” he explains, referring to the forum’s initial users, many of whom felt disillusioned by the BubbaBlab fiasco. Today, however, KnoxBlab receives between 1 and 1.2 million hits per month and has between 350 and 400 registered users, although Levering maintains that more unregistered users “lurk” (slang for browsing the forum) than actually post.

Topics of discussion range from national politics to local music, and many of the posts contain links to interesting news stories or websites. It’s not uncommon, however, for breaking news to show up on the Blab before it shows up in other media. For example, the results of City Council’s vote to sell the Candy Factory a couple weeks ago—a hotly contested issue—were posted almost immediately after the meeting, at 9:37 p.m. “It’s almost like you see people posting from the meeting itself,” Levering remarks. “I’m amazed at how fast they sneak it on there. If you need to know what’s going on, it’s the place to go.”

Which explains why a growing number of media outlets have been turning to online forums and blogs (typically authored by one writer but usually open to reader response) as a supplement to traditional methods of reportage. Several members of the local media are active on local online forums, including entertainment writers Randall Brown of the News Sentinel and Steve Wildsmith from The (Maryville) Daily Times . Levering says he can tell from tracing IP addresses that others regularly lurk.

WBIR’s online producer, author and freelance writer Katie Allison Granju says she’s come to recognize the advantages of using forums as a journalistic tool. A few weeks back, for instance, Granju was gathering contacts for a segment on the Candy Factory, and she put up a post on KnoxBlab seeking key players’ contact info. “It’s like a town square, an electronic town square. Within literally half an hour, one of the Save The Candy Factory spokespeople had responded,” she says.

Granju has also been experimenting with a blog on the website called The Pop Culturephile, which, judging from the site’s increase in visitors, has proven itself as a successful addition. “I think that television stations are finally realizing what newspapers have known for a long time regarding the popularity of op-ed pages,” she says.

Several of the News Sentinel ’s writers also maintain on-site blogs. A notable example is Michael Silence’s No Silence Here, which is, in essence, a blog on blogs. In the context of journalism, Silence describes blogs as “great listening posts,” and notes that bloggers have actually e-mailed him story tips in the past. “I’ve done several print stories on what bloggers are doing and talking about, the Iraq war being one example.”

Glen Reynolds, a UT Internet law professor and columnist whose political blog, Instapundit, was named the world’s most popular blog by Wired magazine, notes the Web’s capacity for time-sensitive publication. “Big media organizations just find it hard to move fast. My blog essentially entails writing stuff and hitting publish.” He warns, however, that Internet users must discern for themselves the veracity of what they read. “Ninety percent of everything out there is crap,” he says. “There are good blogs and there are bad blogs, and you’ve just got to be able to tell the difference. Blogs develop reputations, and you tend to learn who you can trust.”

Online forums operate in a similar manner. Most forums have a pecking order, of sorts; over time, different users develop reputations for being reliable or unreliable, levelheaded or antagonistic, informed or impulsive. For example, several Knox Blab users have taken issue of late with an anonymous poster who goes by the pseudonym of #9; his arguably inflammatory, unsubstantiated posts have incited other users to ban him, at least informally, from certain discussions—although his provocation has also launched some long-winded and important discussions. Most notably, a thread concerning the Candy Factory he began is the longest that’s been posted on Knox Blab to date, with 380 comments and 5,749 views at press time.

Though #9 admits via e-mail that he is, on Knox Blab, the “blogger that people love to hate,” he says he feels compelled to remain anonymous out of respect for the people he works with. “It would be unfair to expose them to the fallout of my blogging. I believe the issue is what matters and the words stand for themselves.”

The infamous #9 wouldn’t be the first forum user who’s adopted such a stance, and he certainly won’t be the last. But respect for privacy is one thing; disrespect for other users, stemming from suspicions about an anonymous user’s agenda, is another—and the line between the two has been a debatable subject for years. Unlike healthy debate, however, it’s the kind of fundamental disagreement that’s caused more than one Knoxville forum to collapse beneath its weight.

The closest thing Knoxville has to a formal study on its local online forums is a 2003 Ph.D. dissertation by Gay Lyons, Bill Lyons’ wife, who’s also an MP food columnist, managing editor of Knoxville Magazine and professor of political science at Pellissippi State. Entitled “Civic Engagement in the Cyberspace Era: A study of a local cybergroup,” the 164-page paper outlines the rise of k2k and investigates the means by which its discourse was able to evolve into strategy for community action. Lyons outlines the characteristics that made the group tick during its golden age: quality of dialogue, knowledge and expertise of contributors, and the continuation of face-to-face communication in conjunction with online interaction. “It was a continuation of discussions that were already taking place in person,” she notes.

But her follow-up assessment of the group’s decline, marked by several notable participants un-subscribing, going into lurk mode, or posting very infrequently, is particularly prophetic. She noted the deleterious effects of, as she worded it in her dissertation, “superficial, emotional and highly partisan exchanges,” and the emergence of divisive issues such as the effort to recall former Mayor Ashe and three Council members in 2001 and, in 2003, the mayoral race between Madeline Rogero and Bill Haslam.

“There was always an edge to a lot of the k2k posts, but in the early days these were often leavened with humor,” Lyons says. “Over time, the tone deteriorated and became more negative. New subscribers were greeted with derision and suspicion. In the last year, the quality and quantity of posts has declined significantly.”

As Knoxville enters into yet another incarnation of online forums, it would be wise to keep the cause-and-effect life cycles of those that have come before in mind. Last week, R. Neal launched a smart-looking new site called Knox Views, whose homepage defines itself as “an open, progressive community space for citizens of Knoxville and the surrounding community to meet, organize and discuss news, events and issues affecting the community.” With links to local and national news feeds, blogs, polls and organization by topic, the new site pushes the capabilities of local online forums a step further and offers its users a clean start, a fresh focus.

After all, as the city changes, so must the spaces where Knoxvillians meet to discuss it. Like the progression of beer-sodden institutions that have housed Wednesday-night gatherings—Macleod’s, Great Southern Brewing Company and Downtown Grill & Brewery—forum users have traversed a string of electronic meeting spaces, each relevant to its own moment in time. Online forums have come a long way in the past 10 years, and while there’s no way of knowing where they’ll go from here, at least we now have the context of a past to learn from. Leslie Terry, of the original happy-hour group that founded k2k, says that while k2k will still be relevant for people who want to use it, movement is healthy, too. “The blabbing and blogging phenomenon isn’t going anywhere, but there’s transition in it. There’s motion. Ultimately, any dialogue, any big community discussion, is a really good thing.”