I felt a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.

Last Friday was a horrible day.

First, I came downstairs to find my aquarium had suffered a catastrophe, when the heater cover shattered leaving the element exposed underwater. Overnight, we’d lost two of the lovely playful danios and three mature apple snails (real characters I used to chat to while I worked, whose trick of hitching rides on ascending bubble clouds and parachuting back to the bottom always made me chuckle), leaving four orphaned baby snails and a single surviving danio being bullied mercilessly by three silvertips. We put a new heater in that morning and cleaned the aquarium as gently as possible, but all the survivors were subdued and some seemed traumatised.

Then, at 5.30 in the evening UK time, my favourite online community was destroyed.

In 1999 the Guardian newspaper opened a talkboard (called Guardian Unlimited Talk and known as GUT or GU) which grew with hardly any input from its owners into a fabulous community of thousands.

It’s huge and I doubt any individual knows all of it, but most people are like me, frequenting several different parts of the board, getting to know a few hundred posters and making some genuine friendships. I know of several marriages and births that have come from people meeting on GU. Someone told me yesterday she knows twenty couples. People attended each other’s weddings and many couples chose other GUers as godparents for their kids.

People from all walks of life are there. We’ve helped each other through dark times (I know of two GUers for certain who wouldn’t be around now if it hadn’t been for the support given unreservedly by others during their respective times of crisis, and I believe there are more than those two), celebrated each other’s joys, and grieved together when GUers died.

GU is the wittiest, cleverest, most outrageously and delightfully anarchic community I ever have and probably ever will be part of.

There are some nutters in the mix, of course. There always are. But the vast majority are normal articulate people, and many are brilliant. Truly brilliant. I’ve read thousands of posts by many different people who are experts in various disciplines, and interviewed several of them while researching my novels.

It was a fantastic resource, including thousands of book and film reviews and masses of real time responses to moments in history, but more than that it was a vibrant community the size of a small town.

Until last Friday evening, when the Guardian killed it.

It wasn’t making them any money directly (although I expect they’ve lost several thousand sales per day as a result of their stupid callousness) and they did own the place, so although I question their judgement I can’t argue with their right to pull the plug. But what was so horrible is that they did it without giving us any notice. One minute it was there – the next it no longer existed. Twelve years of strong community feeling and many thousands of posts, essays, reports, reviews… all gone in a single puff of cruelty.

Dribs and drabs of us started finding each other immediately on Twitter and other places. The sense of shared outrage was strong, but I think the word I saw repeated most often was bereft.

Over the weekend a number of hubs surfaced and bunches of people gathered in them. One of them grew quickest and became more of a beach than a lifeboat. By Sunday evening 800 of us were there, but we know that place is only a temporary home. It was already scheduled for demolition before we got there and will disappear in a few weeks. Fortunately – unsurprisingly – our numbers include all sorts of geeks, including several who are more than capable of building us a permanent home, so we’ll be okay.

No thanks to the Guardian though. On Monday morning they opened a thread on the newspaper site, ostensibly to let GUers find each other but actually, I believe, to provide a pressure valve that would dissipate the strong and very vocal outrage.

It didn’t work. If anything, for many of us, it solidified our anger. Particularly stupid was their insistence that they (a)had no choice about killing GU; (b)had no choice about doing so without giving us any notice; and (c)are not able to tell us why or discuss it in any way. The implication is that it’s a legal thing, and it might be. That’s certainly one of the more sensible options among the many theories being banded about.

(Personally, I think it’s bullshit. The Guardian never appreciated what they had in GU. Certainly they never appreciated its potential. They always treated us like the difficult stepchild. My best guess is that a combination of external factors offered the opportunity to get rid of us once and for all, and some big name made the decision to pull the plug.)

But what became very clear for me on Monday is the snow-blindness of the minions sent to pacify us. Oh, they can spout buzzwords with the best. The phrase social networking never had to work so hard before. But, apart from their understandable dedication to saying nothing that might endanger their own jobs, their gaze seems to be fixed on the platform and infrastructure of what we’d lost. Not the community. I don’t think they have a clue.

All of which brings me to the earworm I’ve had since Friday: People, from the film Funny Girl.

It’s people who make communities. People matter. That’s what it’s all about.

  • Want to get notification of my blog posts by email?