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.

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

  1. Bryn says:

    oh no! poor fishies. and poor community 🙁 that can be really traumatic.

  2. Thanks, Bryn. You're right – it really can be.

  3. Haven't lost fishies, but lost more than one decent on line community. It really bites.

  4. I'm so sorry for you! I've had aquarium trials but not like that. What a mess. And the loss of your community is something of which I've only felt the threat. That was bad enough! Best wishes.

  5. Thanks, Darla. Everything is recovering now and will be all right in the end. Maybe the community will be even better. But it's been a horrible few days.

  6. Ugh. Sometimes corporate suits don't connect with people at all. It's like they can't have an independent thought without a memo or something.
    So sorry this happened and I hope you guys are able to start again.
    Sounds like a tough day.

  7. Thanks, Jennifer. You're absolutely right. I've gone beyond anger and contempt for them now and just look forward to the future.

  8. Martin Belam says:

    As one of the Guardian minions mentioned above, I totally appreciate why it is hard to give us the benefit of the doubt and accept what we have and haven't been able to say at face value. I can only apologise. We would never have shut the community off with no notice if it hadn't been the only viable option to us on Friday afternoon. I understand why that seems unlikely from outside the building, and we didn't expect anything other than the community being outraged.

  9. I accept your apology, Martin, and I believe you when you say you had no other option. But you're only a minion. Someone higher up had plenty of options.

    We've just heard today's announcement that the Guardian has bought UnLtd World. I'm now convinced more than ever that the Guardian binned us deliberately because we're too anarchic for its tightly-controlled professional social networking wank, within which you, Martin, are an active cog. Thanks for coming.

  10. Anonymous says:

    “The next big thing will be about leveraging community, market and network dynamics to radically effect change in deeply positive ways. “

    They had us. They've got this. We still have us!

  11. amy kennedy says:

    This gave me goosebumps. And I don't know if I can articulate how I feel about this. To not be told why, makes me think government (don't know why) I'm not a conspiracy theorist…I just hate not knowing why things happen.

    I believe your fellow GUers will set up a permanent new community — never the same as before though — and like your fish, I'm sure everyone's feeling a little traumatised.

    I guess I just want to say I'm sorry for the loss of this community and sorry for your fish.

  12. Inez Kelley says:

    Sadly, this sounds awfully familiar. Sorry D, hang in there.

  13. Thanks, Amy and Inez. I appreciate your kindness.

  14. CucumberSandwich says:

    The shock and pain of the switch-off was numbing. Destroying a community which you don't belong to or understand is something people do because they are missing certain vital human senses, and are never forgiven for. We were a community of real people with a ten+ year history.However, there are two+ boards now, full of the same people and they're starting to look more and more like the real thing! You have joined up, haven't you?

  15. Yes, I'm in theGraun and NottheTalk. It's going to be all right, isn't it? Bloody unpleasant ordeal though.

  16. Stretch says:

    Spot on. Their handling of GU has been mind-buggeringly inept throughout. They've never realised the value of what they had. Does anyone doubt the hard cash value or lobbying power of Mumsnet, for instance?

    GU Talk had all that with intellect, but they just wasted it away.

  17. I honestly think this was all about control. They knew they would never have much of it over us.

  18. Kate Pearce says:

    Sounds very unGuardian-like and very likely motivated by money. What a terrible waste of a vibrant community.

  19. Yes, and yes. Fortunately the community is stronger than its old platform and we're staying together.

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