Remembering ThoughtCafé

In early 2000, while learning about web development, I built a simple website for people to post stories to. The site began with a few pieces of writing of my own, and I then invited a few friends from the internet to contribute. It was like rolling a snowball down a snowy mountain-side. The site became known as “ThoughtCafe”.

The first version was built using ASP (or “ASP Classic” as it is now known), and taught me all sorts of lessons – perhaps the most important one being that you should never write a website with ASP, because it’s rubbish. Our little website brought the entire server farm down about once a week, mainly because Microsoft didn’t “get” the internet, and their webserver was awful (it still is, funnily enough).

By 2001 the Linux domination of web had gathered quite some momentum. Version 4 of the PHP scripting language had been released, and I saw the desperately needed re-build of the ThoughtCafe website as a perfect excuse to learn all about “LAMP” (I could tell you what it means, but I sense you might fall asleep, which would be a shame). I bought several very thick O’Reilly books with drawings of unlikely animals on the front, and spent several weeks buried in code during evenings and weekends. I ended up with perhaps the most fully featured writing website on the internet at the time – certainly the fastest – and visitors began arriving in their thousands.

Visitors meant bandwidth, and this was before the days of Google Adsense to offset your hosting fees. We (I had enlisted the help of my other half) implemented paid memberships to cover costs, and for several years the site did really well. A wonderful community atmosphere grew up among the membership, with many becoming successful published authors – standing on each others shoulders to learn, and to improve each other’s writing skills. We ran monthly online writing workshops and even sent out a newsletter to the thousands of members with news about the site, online writing events, interviews, and special interest articles. The site even got mentioned in print magazines and newspapers.

Then it all went wrong.

A small and very vocal minority happened to enter the site at the same time as our life away from ThoughtCafe was changing. The free time that had once been spent creating harmony within the site was no longer available – and chaos soon followed – culminating in the eventual closing of “ThoughtCafe” in April 2004.

I have kept quiet for a very long time about the reason ThoughtCafe shut down – but given a single post I saw on Twitter attacking a journalist a couple of days ago, the whole story came flooding back to me (see footnote).

We discovered that one or two members of the site had created multiple accounts, and were using them to start arguments with themselves in order to draw others in, and then feeding the flames as the trouble escalated. It didn’t take long to figure out what was going on, and to give one of the members a modicum of credit – they held their hands up, and claimed they had been doing it as a “social experiment”. The other member threatened my entire family with violence, lawsuits, and all manner of other idiocy. I was prepared to ignore it – but my other half couldn’t – and called me in tears one day. The site closed down at the end of that week.

Footnote – A few days ago, a user of twitter commented to the journalist he was abusing that if a precedent was set whereby people could have their accounts shut down for posting inflamatory tweets, then Twitter was no fun any more. Apparently his only reason for using Twitter (under a pseudonym of course) was to attack others “for fun”.