Welcome back for the conclusion of this interview with moderators from the Great Steampunk Debate – Amanda Stock, John Sondericker III, and Tome Wilson.
AA: Welcome back everyone. Continuing our discussion about the Great Steampunk Debate, there were several contentious and very heated discussions once the debate started. One thread was temporarily locked, another was deleted and restarted. What happened behind the scenes in moderator discussions about how to handle those types of situations?
AS: There were threads dedicated to each one of these issues for discussion of how to deal with it. Temporary thread locking was used to prevent things spiraling out of control before we could come to an agreement on how to handle the situation. All possible courses of action were discussed and the best one was chosen as soon as possible in order to help keep things on track.
JS: I missed this. I think I was traveling.
TW: Behind the scenes, we really wanted to let everyone to voice their opinion, regardless of viewpoint. This was made very clear. No matter how negative the opinion, it was still protected.
However, halfway through the event, we noticed a trend. A handful of very vocal participants were consistently using personal attacks to make their arguments, and were creating an uncomfortable environment for the other participants. While their viewpoints were as valid as any other, their debate styles lead to moderation of their threads and eventually of their accounts.
Like any organized event, there are usually a few rotten apples who would rather stay and spoil the bunch than leave in peace. So, after multiple warnings and a ton of behind the scenes discussions by the mods, those accounts were disciplined by being temporarily suspended.
AA: There were several postings in GSD and elsewhere that a handful of participants were intense enough in their postings so as to dissuade many others from participating and posting their own thoughts. At least one of them commented a few times that he was prohibited from replying, commenting, or responding. Was this situation discussed beforehand as a possibility, especially by those who operate their own forums?
AS: It was discussed very briefly before the debate, and especially once some familiar names of people known to have caused trouble on forums in the past had registered. We didn’t want to stop anyone from sharing their opinions outright, so everyone was allowed to register and join the debate, but there was a warning system in place to deal with anyone who repeatedly caused problems.
JS: I expected this.
TW: While the existence of internet trolls is an unfortunate truth, we truly wanted the Debate to be as open as possible. However, when some of the debates turned into personal attacks, we needed to get the debate back on the rails in the best way possible.
AA: Was it a surprise in an online forum for some people to be aggressive, vociferous, even relentless, in their mode of expressing their opinions?
AS: It wasn’t really surprising. Thankfully this seems to be less common in the steampunk community than some other places online, though.
JS: Not at all.
TW: In general, the members of Dieselpunks and most other retrofuturist sites I frequent are extremely genial and friendly, regardless of personality or differenced opinion, so it was a minor surprise that this kind of childish activity would pop up on a similar website. As a matter of fact, the only person that I’ve had to ban from Dieselpunks since we started the website was a member of the same group who was temporarily banned from The Great Steampunk Debate.
AA: In retrospect, some people seemed to be anti-steampunk, felt that what steampunk is today isn’t the way they want it to be, or defined steampunk in an unusual way. Valid or invalid, honestly questioning or intentionally provocative, what value do you think those critiques presented to other participants?
AS: Those critiques were of value, no matter how inflammatory they sometimes were. They often showed how steampunk had grown and changed over the years, and helped members new to the community see what sort of divisions were present within it.
JS: There is a lot of this out there. Steampunk has been around for a while and some people are pretty tired of it. Look at the comments on most anypost for steampunk and you’ll see a string of complaints of the coverage Cory [Doctorow] gives steampunk, and you’ll see a fair number of people just saying, “Steampunk is gay.”
TW: I think it brought a sense of history to those unfamiliar with the genre previous to its current incarnation as an arts & crafts movement. However, when presented with an orthodox viewpoint, most members of the Debate expressed that they enjoyed the personal freedom and artistic flexibility of the genre, which heated some topics to the point of flame wars.
AA: Heated rhetoric aside, there were several other (calmer) threads discussing things like manners, role play, music, and literature. Do you think these topics had easier agreement, or people had less strong opinions to voice, or something else?
AS: Well, those topics are by nature less personal. Things like politics and social theory have important ramifications for members of different groups and can be intensely important to many people. On the other hand, everyone has different music taste, but that’s fine because we don’t all have to agree to listen to the same thing.
JS: Those topics allow people to talk about what they like, rather than state their opinions, so it was automatically easier to agree on the content.
TW: The Debate in general became a sharing ground for ideas rather than a “you must feel this way or that way, because of XYZ reason.” While this helped us gather an opinion about the current state of steampunk, not many black-and-white questions were hotly debated. Rather, many people stepped in and said, “it’s okay to live in a world where grey exists.”
AA: What are your thoughts in review about the event, the process, the discussions, and any outcomes?
AS: I’d have to thank the rest of the team, especially Nick and Allegra for their dedication to the event and their vision of what it could be. The process of organizing it was so smooth with them at the helm.
I wish we could have had the actual debate run a little smoother but I think that overall it was a reasonably successful venture. It did what it set out to do; it brought members from across the online steampunk community together and gave them a structured place to discuss steampunk ideology and culture.
JS: Thanks Nick & Allegra. The whole thing was obviously a lot of work and I half suspected that it would lead to unmanageable flame-wars. Nice job.
TW: At the end, I’m disappointed that people weren’t as active, primarily because a few vocal members, while still working within the framework of our rules (by the letter if not by the spirit), made it uncomfortable to participate. Next year, we’ll have those issues ironed out and we’ll have the experience needed to anticipate the things that could be problems.
As for the process of the debate, its outline, and the organization needed to set it up, I’m very happy how that went. Plus, I have to give Nick and Allegra extra kudos for handling the website setup and programming.
AA: Was it worthwhile for you, or not, and why?
AS: The debate was certainly a worthwhile experience, for the chance to better connect with members of the steampunk community I was not previously well acquainted with as well as the chance to discuss the finer points of steampunk ideology. It certainly helped me to solidify my positions on a lot of the issues debated and really made me think about the serious side of steampunk.
JS: It was worthwhile because I got to hear from a nice cross-section of the community. That hadn’t really ever been done before.
TW: I helped because I wanted to. There was no reward other than knowledge.
AA: For each of you, what comes next? Any changes in what you are doing in your blogs, ezines and forums?
AS: I am continuing to run the Toronto Steampunk Society, planning more events and trying to promote steampunk within my city. Apart from that, I am trying to write more about steampunk in both the Gatehouse Gazette as well as the newly established publication from Steampunk Canada, The Dominion Dispatch.
JS: Steampunk Tales is charging along. Issue 8 should be out mid August and we have great things planned for the future!
TW: Not really. The Great Steampunk Debate didn’t settle any pressing issues that are going to change the world. Instead, we built a place where a community can express their views and hopefully gain an appreciation for other viewpoints within the genre. For me, I’ve always been pretty open. I don’t own the genre, no one does, and therefore I don’t take a hard line stance about what it should or shouldn’t be.
I believe it had underground roots, a solid trunk of work, and is now growing distinct branches. As it continues to grow, it will drop seeds, and something new will grow. It won’t replace the original, it will just be different. What that will be is up to the next generation.
AA: Will there be a GSD 2011, and would you reprise your role, or is it too early to tell?
AS: The debate was originally planned to be a one-time event, although it would be interesting to see this repeated with the knowledge we have now about how to keep things running smoothly. Tracking the change of opinions over the years would certainly be of value. If another debate were held, I would definitely be willing to moderate it again so long as it still seemed like a group of people I could work with running things and keeping a similar goal in mind.
TW: As far as I know, we’re opening the site up again next year. I think it would be helpful, because as steampunk continues to grow, it’s helpful to know what the new generation is doing to change it. Barring any complications, I would be glad to help again as a moderator.
AA: If there is a GSD 2011, what would you like to see people (participants) do in the next year beforehand as preparation?
AS: Stay active in the steampunk community and keep thinking about the sort of topics that were covered by the debate. Also, come up with new topics they’d like to see discussed.
Oh, and I’d like to see everyone educate themselves on feminist theory and gender studies a little more before participating in the “Gender and Steampunk” debate 🙂
JS: Can I say “learn how to spell” and get away with it? Seriously, I don’t think anyone would need to prepare.
TW: I think that it’s important to know your history and to research a topic before starting a debate with someone else. While steampunk is a freeform and individualist genre, it does have a history prior to 2005 that people should be aware of.
This would lead to less “I think it is, therefore that’s what it must be” answers that, in-turn, piss off the orthodoxs.
AA: Any final thoughts to share?
AS: Steampunk is all about the spirit of discovery, so go out and explore it!
JS: Any social movement is hard to define because it is an amalgam of so many different perspectives from so many different people. The diversity of the steampunk demographic greatly exceeds so many other social movements. Young, old, maker, costumer, fiction enthusiast, modder… we cast a very wide net and one of our strengths is in how many things people consider steampunk, not how similar our visions are.
TW: If you’re going to dance in church, make sure you know what type of church it is first.
Thank you again, everyone, for your time and efforts for the Great Steampunk Debate and for this interview!
Kevin Steil is the creator of the steampunk news and information resource website, Airship Ambassador, the annual month-long global blogathon, Steampunk Hands Around the World, and is the curator of the online Steampunk Museum. He has been a guest and speaker at a number of conventions, contributed to several books, and has consulted for national media programs and events. He can also officiate your wedding!