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A Brief History of the Skeptic Friends Network
By David Glück
Posted on: 6/24/2006
How did the Skeptic Friends Network come to exist?
Have you ever bitten the inside of your lip while eating a sandwich? I just did. While pondering how I would open this little article and what the first sentence should say, I bit my lip while eating my lunch. And it hurts too! What has this got to do with a history of the Skeptic Friends Network? Well, nothing really. That is unless I think of the self-inflicted pain on the inside of my lip as a metaphor for the pain of actually sitting down to write this thing after putting it off for more then two years. It’s the pain of having to add two more years to a history that I didn’t want to write in the first place. (I must apologize for the thinness of the above metaphor given that I really did want the sandwich.)
Don’t get me wrong. I dearly love our little corner of the Internet. (Hey, maybe the SFN can represent the sandwich, which completes the metaphor!) And there is almost nothing that I wouldn’t do for the good of the SFN. As one of the founders of this site, I am thrilled that after all of these years, we are not only still here, but that we continue to grow and get better, well after we stopped being, pretty much, the only game in town in terms of being a real forum for skeptics in this new medium. We are here without the aid of star power and without being a well-financed and well-known organization that existed long before these forums did. We are here because we really have become a Skeptic Friends Network of sorts.
And yet, when Dave, our editor, suggested that I write our history down for those who want to know us better, I immediately came up with three other projects to do. I have done several more articles since then. Clearly I was resisting writing SFN’s history. Obviously, I still am. We are well into the third paragraph and I have thus far only alluded to the fact that we even have a history.
We do have a history, and now that the bleeding in my mouth has stopped — and before I get another dig from Dave about how I still haven’t delivered — here it is…
1. America Online
Before there was a World Wide Web, there was America Online. There were other Internet Service Providers at the time, but AOL was a user friendly all in one place to go, online. Hell, when I first signed on to AOL they didn’t even have a browser yet. Oh, you could get out onto the Internet, but it was much less structured then it is today. You really had to know what you were doing. And most if us knew nothing. AOL was our introduction to a much bigger world of people and information, all at our fingertips. Sure it was lame. But what did we know? I didn’t know it yet, but from the first moment I entered that first chat room, my life would never be the same.
There I was talking in real time to complete strangers from across the country. Talking in a way that would never happen if in real life. In virtual land, you could open up to a stranger, say what was really on your mind, and do it anonymously, so that it just didn’t matter what you said, kinda. You could be truthful or be a lying sack of shit and it just didn’t matter. (Note: I was never a lying sack of shit. But I was also aware that the person I was talking to might be…)
Anyhow, just chatting got old fast. So I started looking around for a chat room that might be of some real interest to me. On the official AOL list of rooms, there were no skeptic chat rooms. No atheist or agnostic chats. No science chats. There was nothing that would hold my interest for very long. In the member’s area, members could create chat rooms dedicated to whatever subject they wanted to talk about. In there, I found a room called “Atheists.”
Now here was a subject of interest to me. I had been an atheist but my growing interest in skepticism had just lately caused me to reconsider my position on the God question, and for the sake of being more precise about what I did, or more to the point, what I didn’t know, I now call myself agnostic. I have often had a difficult time explaining my agnosticism to atheists. But here, I thought I would give it a try. I entered and started a debate that soon broke down into a discussion of favorite foods and fish ice cream flavors. Oh well. I liked this group of people and that chat room became my home at AOL. It was there that I met Iratner, Athena09, Raycrx, Tfarnon, Dawn, Snkeys and many others who were regular to that room. I met my future girlfriend there too, though I had no idea that would happen at the time. In those days she went by the name Jabberwocky.
By luring people all over the county to this odd new place, communities formed that could not exist otherwise. Sure, local groups of atheists (or whatever the interest was) could meet in person and have discussions, but being online eliminated logistical problems and greatly expanded the numbers by including people from the whole country, and soon, the world, to a chat of interest to them. The potential for bringing together real communities of those with shared interests was enormous.
2. The World Wide Web
Back in our little chat room, while we were busy baiting fundamentalists into a debate, or, more often, just chatting among ourselves, the World Wide Web was taking off. AOL introduced a browser and space for AOL members to create Websites of their own. All of the ISPs were offering space for members to create Websites. And new companies sprang up to rent Web space and maintenance on their servers all over the Internet that revolutionized commerce, and the way we seek and share information. Now, all you needed was an ISP and a browser. The World Wide Web grew so fast that it almost seemed to be an overnight event.
And that fact was not lost on Raycrx, one of the leaders of our little coven. He jumped into the Web thing headfirst. A tech at heart, he was soon designing and building sites for him, his employers and also helping members of our chat room to build sites of their own. One night during a chat he offered to build me a site. I suggested something a bit different. How about a Website that was specific to our chat room? A place where our regular chatters would contribute articles and materials of interest to non-believers?
3. The Truth and Other Lies
The Website, “Atheists and Agnostics,” which would soon be called “The Truth and Other Lies,” was born. Included were such things as a recipe section for the Godless, photos of our pets, articles and a forum of sorts. We even had a link back to our chat room. Most importantly to this little tale, we had a “Skeptic’s Corner” that was Dawn’s part of the site. (We actually had members in charge of content in different areas on the site. In that way the site was a true collaborative effort.) Raycrx, in pretty short order, moved the site to an outside server. He didn’t want to risk AOL’s policy of not offending members by censoring (shutting down) those sites they didn’t approve of.
By now, if you know anything about the SFN you have figured out that Raycrx is our Webmaster, designer and publisher, @tomic.
Also, while this is just a guess, I do believe that we were the first and maybe the only member-created AOL chat room with a dedicated Website that extended our room’s reach to the rest of the world. And that was only the first of many innovations that I believe makes us somewhat special.
Members come and members go. So content became a problem. Also, just how much can you talk or write about not believing? The Skeptics Corner was gaining interest and growing even as we were losing interest in making atheism and agnosticism our central theme. “We” being @tomic, Dawn and I. I had been a skeptic for years, and was far more interested in that corner of our site than I was in arguing with fundamentalist Christians. And our room was becoming less of a going concern, due in part to the troubling fact that if I or @tomic didn’t show up to chat, chat didn’t happen. Other things were going on in our lives and as time went on, our Website was beginning to become irrelevant to the room. But the Skeptics Corner was another thing.
4. The Skeptic Friends Network
@tomic, Dawn and I got together in a private chat one evening, talked, and came to a decision about the “Truth” site. We would kill it off. We would move away from our AOL roots and create out of the ashes of our old site a full-blown dedicated skeptic’s Website. We would bring articles and relevant materials over from the old site so that the new site would have content from the get-go.
The Psychic Friends Network was still in business at the time and @tomic thought it would be funny if we parodied their name by calling our new site the Skeptic Friends Network. We all agreed on the title and the SFN was born. (It was only a matter of a few months after the creation of our site that The Psychic Friends Network faltered and died a pretty horrible death, much to our amazement and glee.)
The original staff included @tomic as the Webmaster, publisher and art director, Dawn was our editor and I was designated “Random Neuron Activities Director,” which I still like because it best describes what I do. We three founded the Skeptic Friends Network.
Our goal was to create a populist skeptic site. There was CSICOP out there and The Skeptic Society. The Skeptic’s Dictionary was taking shape and the JREF was just starting up with a small Web presence at the time. But our site was to be something different. It was to be completely Web based. It was up to our members to contribute articles and essays. And while not a complete democracy, it was up to our members to help shape what we would be. If there was to be a grassroots effort to spread skepticism and critical thinking our site was a genuine reflection of that. Member-run and operated on only the cost of the server. We were, and still are, a labor of love…
Tommy and Dawn Huxley wrote articles that took on creationism and I did a kind of “whatever interested me at the time” column called “The Kil Report.” (I still do.) Other people in and out of our little group contributed articles and essays as well. We had a dedicated skeptic’s forum that again, as far as I know, was the first one on the Web.
But @tomic wasn’t done tinkering yet.
We have moved through a few looks and servers since those early days. (One server was so bad that a click on to our pages brought up a winery in Mexico.) At one point, due to Dawn and Tommy’s prolific writings, most search engines described us a skeptic site specializing in the creation/evolution debate. And that debate is probably still one of our biggest draws even though we do spread our skepticism around to many other topics…
Sometime in the late Nineties, we took on the basic look that we have now. Later, and for reasons that we were never let in on, we lost Dawn and Tommy as active contributors and as staff members. They seem to have simply saddled up and rode off into the setting sun. Wherever they are we wish them well. Their fingerprints are all over the SFN.
People come and people go. But when Dave W. came, after reading his posts and looking over his Website, it occurred to both me and @tomic that our search for a new editor might be over. That is, of course, if Dave was willing to take the job. And a big job it is too. And an even bigger job it was when he first said yes and became an administrator and the editor of the SFN. We hadn’t had an editor in quite some time and things were a bit of a mess. Not so much so that our members would notice, but there was much tidying up to do, from an editorial perspective, which continues to be done to this day. I have to say that the addition of Dave to the administrative staff was the best move we could have possibly made. Plus, he finds the time to post and he currently (and will probably forever) lead in that area. Dave Rocks! And we are back to having a full administrative staff.
We have found our groove. We have a great staff of moderators, a really smart and fun membership/community, and we continue to grow and get better while still trying out new things. So read our Summary, enjoy our articles and features and post in our forums. This is your site, kinda. I am confident that I will have to update this history from time to time because we plan to be here for a while.
So yeah, there it is. I believe that we have lived up to our mission statement: “To seek out new worlds, to…” Wait! We have that other mission statement near the bottom of this page…
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