This is how much I like “The Fray,” Slate’s reader discussion board: During my two and a half years as its editor, I was several times offered other opportunities at Slate but could never bring myself to abandon the board.
I am now leaving the job (only because I am leaving the country), turning it over to new Fray editor J.D. Connor. And yes, I am really going to miss it: the good and the bad. I once got a dismaying compliment from a reader, an e-mail that said something like, “How come you make The Fray sound so great and funny and interesting when you write about it, and then when I go and visit it, it’s awful?”
I can see what he meant. Pick the wrong moment, and you’ll find The Fray full of white noise: posts that say “you suck” or “why don’t you rename yourself Slant” or “I hated/loved this article eom.” It can be depressing for me too (I always liked the post that read, “Going into Chatterbox Fray every day is like Groundhog Day“)—but I have never visited The Fray without finding a post that made the job seem worthwhile, that made up for the others. On other Web sites, there are letters pages and bulletin boards where you can read only selected, filtered messages. But I find them dull and lacking the excitement and interest of the wide-open Fray, a place with a lot of latitude and a lot of attitude. To me, it is always worth scrolling past half a dozen pieces of noise saying, “I invented Slate—Al Gore” to catch some unexpected treat, an original thought, a wonderful joke, an honest confession. And that great post could easily be made by someone calling himself Satan, or Bill Clinton, or any of a hundred other ridiculous Fray names. And when you see the great posters who are not put off by the poorer posts, it gives you faith in The Fray. In the end, if we invite people to post, then they can say (almost) whatever they want: The First Amendment applies even to those with not much to say.
Who are the Fray posters? Well, these days there are more than 230,000 posts a month, and I’d divide them into three groups: Regular Fray posters, regular Slate readers (and no, those two groups are not the same), and strangers—hit-and-run posters. The Fray regulars rarely read the articles but use the board to communicate with their friends and enemies, to flirt, to feud, and to insult each other. The regular readers pay close attention to what is going on in the magazine, read the articles, and make (usually) intelligent, interesting, on-topic posts—normally within hours of any given article appearing. The strangers typically arrive when a Slate article is promoted on the MSN home page—this can increase Fray postings by a factor of 20. Many of the new readers will not be familiar with Slate—they may not even know of its existence—and they have been lured to the article by a short, snappy headline. They may not be prepared for the complexities of a typical Slate article. It is indisputably true that Slate regulars (for example you, yes, discerning you reading this) make much better posts than random Internet users, partly because they know the magazine and know their audience—but we do recruit new readers through MSN.
When I started the job I was told to find good Fray posts and write about them. Oh, they added, and while you’re in there, just keep tabs on the board, make sure it’s running smoothly. I assumed the writing would take most of my time, the discipline hardly any time. Sadly, I was wrong. We do remove posts that are very obscene or extremely offensive, or contain over-the-line personal abuse of other posters, or threats. We don’t normally remove posts because of the views expressed. There is room for unpopular opinions on The Fray, views that some will find reprehensible and offensive. No one gets deleted just for being an idiot. I would think it insulting to our readers to assume that they need to be protected from certain views, that they can’t make up their own minds or defend their own positions. One thing that confirms my decision to leave up posts that sometimes contain fairly weird views is that other posters will do a very good job of arguing out the issues.
One poster compared me to a single ranger patrolling an entire national park, and that seems accurate some days. Sometimes posters get so annoyed with my editing that they threaten me with complaints to the Slate management. I was always only too delighted to pass these complaints on: I had this great hope that someone important would decide that this matter was far too serious to be dealt with by me, and that I could no longer handle these complaints. Sadly, no one at Slate ever showed the slightest sign of wanting to take over dealing with the troubles of The Fray. Strangely, other posters, far from complaining, really like the nanny aspect of an editor looking over their shoulder: If I’ve been particularly bossy or firm with someone, or with a group of people, I often end up receiving mildly flirtatious e-mails and posts.
A Slate reader once posted in The Fray his perceived list of everything I had done at work that week. It was a remarkably accurate summary, although a couple of other posters made minor corrections. I was startled and impressed, and then had a disconcerting thought: No one who works at Slate could do that, nor would any Slatester know whether it was a “good” list from a busy week or not—the readers knew. And I like it that the readers know that I am not there just to push the Slate line: They write to me about controversial articles saying, “Hey Moira, we’re waiting for you to come and do comments and excerpts on this article, we want you to write about why we hated it.”
I never expected that the job would become so personal—that I would feel I knew so many posters and that they would know me. Hey, I banned 12 Chatterbox Fray regulars recently for language issues, and someone was saying that couldn’t be true as there would be nobody left … as if. I estimate 50-70 regulars in the Chatter Fray, 100 at least in Ballot Box, 50 or so in Today’s Papers. Poem and Prudie have very distinctive groups of Fraygrants. The “Best of the Fray” thread—which was a very quiet place when I took it over—now has a huge regular community, with long intricate exchanges. The regulars fight, form alliances, tease each other, form relationships (!), even meet up (!!). It’s possible that if I was starting all over again I would use a Frayname (like everyone else does)—yes, that is my real name; yes, it is just coincidence; and, no, I have no connection with the British actress with the same name.
I can still be surprised by readers’ reactions: Often I can predict what the majority view will be, but I am pleased to be taken aback now and again. (This stops me from writing my commentary before I’ve read some posts.) Skimming the unfiltered Fray tells you what Americans with computers think about current news items. It is often surprising and not what you would guess from the media: This is the single most fascinating facet of my job and gives me invaluable material for real life—great dinner-party conversation. My job has kept me moderately well-informed about current affairs but uniquely well-informed on what Internet users are talking about. This is where I think Slate under-uses The Fray: currents of thought appear there before they hit media consciousness.
I do find it surprising how little automatic respect Fray posters have for the writers: They think the writers are no different from any poster. This I found—after many years as a journalist—quite shocking. I believed we had some credibility, some trustworthiness. Wrong. That’s why the rise of blogs came as no surprise: If no one is any better than anyone else, why not look at blogs, why distinguish between professional writers and nonprofessionals? (One of our proudest graduates is InstaPundit, who always says he got his start in The Fray. We also gave his blog one of its very earliest plugs.)
And yet there is still a distinction between writers and posters. When I announced that I was leaving, I was not prepared for the huge number of e-mails, messages, cards, poems, and even gifts from readers. I was overwhelmed by how many of the messages contained some variant of this: “You made me feel important. You made me feel that what I had to say mattered. You helped me find my voice. You made me feel someone was reading my posts.” At Slate we are professional writers: We have somewhere to say our piece, and we will even get paid. Working in The Fray made me realize how privileged we are and that we can provide a valuable service: offering a voice and a home to our readers. I hope they will long continue to make the most of it.