StrangeNotions Update and Feedback
Update on Strange Notions
It's been an amazing seven months here at StrangeNotions.com. Since launching on May 6, thousands of contributors, readers, and commenters have joined to make this project a huge success. In fact, as far as I can tell, it's become the largest dialogue between Catholics and atheists in the last two thousand years. In just seven months we've garnered:
- 257,000 unique visitors
- 468,000 visits
- 926,000 pageviews
- 39,000 comments
- 195 posts
Before I say anything else, I want to just say THANK YOU to everyone involved. If you've ever read an article or left a comment, you're a big reason this dialogue has taken off.
I thought now would be a good time to offer a few updates on the site and to solicit some feedback. First, a little news:
News and Announcements
1. Strange Notions now operates under Word on Fire. Some of you may know that I recently made a huge career transition, leaving my mechanical engineering job and accepting a new position with Fr. Robert Barron (one of our contributors here) and his Word on Fire Catholic Ministries. I'm the group's new Content Director which, among other things, puts me in charge of Fr. Barron's digital, print, and film content. It's a dream job and I couldn't be more thrilled.
Part of the transition includes bringing StrangeNotions.com under the aegis of Word on Fire. What does that mean for you? Not much. There won't be any changes to the content or commenting—no ads, fees, or shift in focus. It's mainly a brand association. Word on Fire has a similar mission to Strange Notions—to engage contemporary culture with the Big Questions of life—so they wanted to link themselves to the site. A side benefit is that the association will allow me to work on Strange Notions a little during the day, as part of my job (amazing, right?). Finally, the change will hopefully lead to more original articles here from Fr. Barron while improving the dialogue, too (more on that below.)
2. Strange Notions will now move to three articles per week. My original goal when I launched the site was to create new posts every weekday, which I've done since the beginning. But after seven months I think it's time to adjust the frequency. The more posts we have, the shallower the conversation on each post. Many times I've felt that just as conversations get going we're forced to turn our attention to the next post; it spreads our discussion too thin. Featuring only three posts per week will give us a couple days to focus on each topic. So starting this week, I'll be posting new articles on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
In addition to these news items, I'd like to share a little feedback. Even with the site's success, I think it still faces three problems:
Three Issues to Address
1. Imbalance among commenters. When I first started Strange Notions, I expected to attract thousands of Catholics but have difficulty drawing many atheist commenters, especially the high-minded, respectful sort I was looking for. But just the opposite has been true. We've had no problem attracting non-Catholics. In fact, roughly 80% of our 39,000 comments have come from atheists (and I imagine the pageview and visitor percentages follow suit.) If you scroll down any of the most recent posts, you'll see the volume of comments skews way more toward atheists.
Now, this isn't inherently bad. In fact, I'm excited about it; I don't want to decrease the number of atheist commenters. But I am afraid it hurts the conversation in some ways. Many atheists ask good questions that go unanswered simply because there are no Catholics to respond. Similarly, we have several atheist commenters well-versed in science and philosophy but not many Catholics with similar credentials. Even worse, I've heard from Catholic commenters who no longer comment because when they do, they feel "ganged up on" since each comment draws criticism from several atheists. (This is apart from their concerns with the tone, which I'll get to in a minute.)
The good news, though, is that I think we're about to make some big headway in solving this issue. A few months back I connected with Mundelein Seminary, the Chicago school where Fr. Robert Barron and others prepare young men for the priesthood, and we've agreed to launch a new partnership between Mundelein and Strange Notions. The goal is to create a practicum course which requires seminarians to engage commenters at Strange Notions several times each semester. Though it probably won't take off for a few more months, when it does we should see a new influx of smart, charitable, philosophically-minded Catholic commenters. So be on the lookout for that!
2. Uncharitable tone and complaining. We're still having a serious problem with tone, on the part of both Catholics and atheists. A large percentage of comments are laced with smugness, sarcasm, name-calling, complaining, cynicism, rhetorical zingers, and subtle insults. None of that does anything to produce fruitful dialogue. It only fuels the culprit's ego and leaves interlocutors demeaned and disrespected.
I've done my best to weed out the negative tone by adding a couple new moderators, issuing warnings, and banning repeat offenders. We've only had to remove a small handful of commenters over the last seven months—roughly the same number of Catholics and atheists—but it's still something that plagues the site.
I'm aware that some commenters think we're too heavy-handed when it comes to enforcing our commenting policy, and that's OK. I hope everyone appreciates the charitable tone we're trying to inculcate. The sort of dialogue we're pursuing is incredibly rare in religious discussions online, and it's a main reason the site has been so successful thus far. To maintain that level, though, we have to be a little tighter with moderation than some other sites.
As we move forward, we'll continue to warn those who violate our commenting policy, regardless of their worldview, and we'll unfortunately have to ban those who repeatedly transgress.
3. Lack of guest posts. Finally, I've tried to maintain a good balance betwene posting new articles written specifically for Strange Notions and adapting articles which originally appeared elsewhere. Yet still, I continue to hear complaints about the quality of our content.
I'd love to post exclusively new content and I'd also like to feature more guest posts (especially from atheists.) But right now we just don't have a stable of capable Catholics or atheists willing to write new stuff on a consistent basis. If you'd like to submit a guest post for consideration, please send it to me via contact(at)strangenotions(dot)com.
Also, and I don't mean this harshly, if you're upset about the quality of articles or dialogue, you have two options: you can either stop visiting the site (which we'd hate, but nobody is stopping you from leaving) or you can help make it better. The best way to help is by posting smart, respectful comments and by submitting your own guest articles. But relentless complaining doesn't help anyone.
Strange Notions will only be as fruitful as the contributors and commenters make it. Together, let's be part of the solution.
So there's my update about what's been going on and where I think we can improve. I'd love to hear your own feedback, though, so please leave your thoughts in the comment box!
Thanks for being a part of this exciting adventure!
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