Requiem For A J-Blog

Protocols
12-08-2002 – 12-08-2004

With this final post, the Protocols era comes to a close. Despite its humble beginnings in late 2002, Protocols quickly became the one of the Jewish community’s widest read and influential publications – in print or online. Its eclectic Elders frequently posted updates and summaries on topics including politics (American, Israeli, and global), religion, academia – and basically anything else they felt like. They uncovered and confronted scandals, occasionally created them when none existed, and even started getting mainstream media recognition. Though well short of its goal to “totally dominate the blogosphere,” Protocols clearly became the center for Jewish news on the internet.
Today on YUTOPIA, we look back at Protocols meteoric rise, its internal technical and personal struggles, and its eventual descent into cultural irrelevance and its unfortunate demise.

The Golden Year

The success of Protocols is relatively easy to explain. First and foremost, they were the forerunners in the world of Jewish blogging. Indeed, many of the Jewish bloggers today exist either directly or indirectly because of Protocols. It gave people the opportunity to give themselves their own voice and be part of a dialog. Thanks to free services, anyone with internet access could join the new budding society.

Starting early is one thing, maintaining and increasing an audience is something else. Any publication may start with buzz or hype, but if there is no quality or substance, the audience will simply fade away.

In this respect, Protocols exceeded all expectations. Steven I Weiss (SIW) intelligently assembled a diverse group of YU intellectual-types which automatically gave Protocols a qualitative and quantitative advantage. First, this provided multiple voices within the orthodox world. Each Elder has his own experiences and outlook and was able to contribute with his specialties, thus giving Protocols a wide enough range to appeal to many different types of people. Furthermore, the Elders themselves benefited from this diversity as they were personally exposed to new fields and new opinions through the writings of their colleagues.

In addition to presenting a range of topics, the Elders also presented several different types of writing. Some were serious, some were snark, most were a combination of the two. Still, each Elder had his own nuanced approach which lent the site to a variety and kept the writing fresh. With several authors, any one (or several) could have an off day without a noticeable drop-off in quality. In these ways Protocols was able to provide insight and entertainment, and updated regularly.

As Protocols grew in importance, several readers started doing their work for them. They would find obscure site, IM or e-mail links all in the hopes of having their name mentioned – or ideally a link back to one’s own site. Indeed, a link on Protocols often directed traffic to otherwise unknown or unpopular blogs. They sorted out stuff so you didn’t have to. If it was on there, it was worth reading.

Getting Technical

Though unnoticed by most, Blogger’s system contributed heavily to the character of what Protocols would become. For example, SIW chose a layout which didn’t lend itself to longer posts, but to a few paragraphs at most. The Elders easily adapted to this limitation by writing tersely, getting their point across as quickly as possible, and then moving on. For the quick reader of Protocols, this was invaluable.

Archiving was still a problem – each week was saved as one page – but at the time, no one could have guessed what the need would be to continuously cross reference. Furthermore, searching Protocols is next to impossible (and why my links back to specific articles are non-existent).

The biggest technical problem Protocols faced was not in the Blogging part, but in the comments. Of the free commenting tools available, none gave much space to write and the pages were (and still are) difficult to browse. This made the discussion part of the blog cumbersome to say the least. More importantly, there was no way to moderate the comments. Anyone could post anything and there was no sorting mechanism for readers to filter out the trolls and flamers. While programs like Slash exist to allow for such moderation, Protocols lacked the technical (and perhaps financial) resources to implement them.

Protocols – Behind The Blog

Of course, we must remember that despite its technical nature, blogs are products of people. Since Protocols consisted of eclectic individuals, it should not be surprising to find conflicts over issues ranging from the technical aspects to the posts themselves.

Note: I consider myself to be friendly with almost all of the people listed below. My assessment is based on my conversations with the people as the events progressed. Since I was in Chicago at the time, I cannot say for certain more than what is a matter of public record or direct private communications. Not being present I could not have observed any of the interpersonal reactions from any side.
I have no stake in any of this, I don’t stand to gain from taking one side or the other, and I have no interest in starting or perpetuating a flame war. If you’re interested or feel I have misrepresented, you can contact the people directly for their side or leave a comment.

Despite the multiplicity of voices, the major policy decisions were made by its creator Steven I. Weiss (SIW). For SIW, the blog was about freedom of expression and perhaps more importantly, freedom from an intellectually repressive society. Each comment was valuable in its own way. In fact, when I had discussed with SIW options for Protocols moving, he declined any possibility which would have involved losing the comments.

SIW was also unconcerned with the lack of moderation. In an interview, SIW said:

Protocols was about the only completely unmoderated forum for discussion of Jewish issues, and there’s a lot of value in that. If you don’t like the discussion there, you can fix it. People tend to know when they can’t hold up their end of the argument against an expert, when they are at a conversational disadvantage. If you set yourself to raising the level of discussion, those people will self-censor, in deference to you.

To say that this was an error in judgment would be an understatement. Flames continued and trolls took up permanent residence in the comments underneath the posts. Thanks to the ability to post anonymously, posters had no accountability for any of their comments and could “argue” or insult without any repercussions. With no way to police itself, the Protocols community found most of the dialog to be useless at best, with limited possibilities for intelligent discussion.

Usually the comments didn’t matter and could simply be ignored by the reader. However one time the comments managed to magnify an issue to the point where a respected and prolific Elder resigned.

I am of course referring to the controversial Beis Yitzchak article(s) written by Rabbi Daniel Stein. Soon after a book came out of Lakewood which touted the spiritual superiority of the Jews, R. Stein published an article in Yeshiva University’s torah journal which allegedly claimed that the biblical prohibition of “thou shall not murder” did not apply to Jews killing non-Jews. Protocols immediately picked up the story and the comments soon followed. Many people commented with a righteous indignation, despite never having read the article, and perhaps not being able to as it was written in Hebrew. At any rate, Protocols generated such a furor over the article that the scandal was covered by the Forward and was met with harsh response by R. Adam Schwartz urging to keep the comments “in house.” The exposure caused significant embarrassment to Yeshiva University, its rabbinical school, and especially its highly touted Kollel Elyon, of which R. Stein was a member.

Elder Avraham Bronstein was in Rabbinical school at the time, and a member of the school’s kollel (The smikha kollel is for students. The Kollel Elyon is for those who have completed smikha). It’s possible he resigned because he saw his school taking such a publicity beating. Though not personally responsible, Avraham was still affiliated with Protocols such that his name was still attached to the scandalizing website. I’m certain Avraham was hassled by many of his colleagues in smikha and kollel, and I would guess that he had some conversations with his father, one of the administrators of the rabbinical school. Be it because from conflicting personal allegiances, external pressure, or a combination of both, Avraham resigned.

Despite the intellectual void left by Avraham, Protocols continued well for a few months. SIW introduced guest bloggers such as Miriam Shaviv and Uri Goldstein who, like the Elders before them, contributed their unique perspectives and writing styles to the blog. Though Avraham’s absence was felt, Protocols was essentially the same as it always was.

Then everything changed.

For reasons known only to him, SIW brought on board an “orthodox” porn journalist by the name of Luke Ford.
Almost immediately, Luke Ford had a negative impact. Serious or intellectual discussions were replaced by glorified trolls. Topics of politics were now mixed with graphic sex talk. The significant Orthodox readership understandably became alienated with the new content. Longtime readers, including myself, stopped reading protocols on a regular basis. The sex posts were lurid, the news posts were irrelevant and poorly written. Eventually, SIW himself backed away from posting leaving Protocols to being a one-man show.
Furthermore, there was a noticeable change in tone. Instead of the light-hearted sarcasm of S.L.O.W., Protocols engaged in personal warfare. In one instance, SIW and ChayeiSarah engaged in a pointless flamewar over the merits and rights of blogging anonymously.

Behind the blog, things became increasingly personal. Rumors circulated that Avraham left not because personal convictions, but from the undue influence of his girlfriend/fiancee/wife Dani. Several people inferred as much from SIW’s comment in the referenced interview, “There were various people leaning on him who really changed him as a person and a blogger. I’m not going to get into the specifics, but suffice it to say that some people gained some new-found influence on him as a person.”

Or as DovBear put it, Dani played “Yoko” to the Protocols band. Avraham and Dani both deny this accusation.

Regardless of the motivations of the individuals, it’s clear that Protocols did lose something when Avraham left, and his departure directly led to the emergence of Luke Ford and the ultimate irrelevance of Protocols.

Conclusions

Before we attempt to explain Protocols, we should ask why we should do so in the first place. After all, it is still only a website – and a relatively minor one at that.
Still, no one can deny the influence Protocols did have in its prime. It was one of if not the major Jewish online community. People checked the site religiously and discussed its contents in and out of the forums. People interacted with each other based on the shared experience of following Protocols. Therefore, Protocols is significant for in a short period of time, we saw the rise and fall of not only a website, but a microcosm of a society.

In describing the phenomenon of online communities, I find Peter Berger’s analysis in “The Sacred Canopy” to be extremely useful. For Berger, society is really an exercise creating and maintaining a “world” as a “construction of reality.” This exercise is comprised of three steps. The first, externalization, is the projecting of man’s productions – physical or mental – into the world. Once a person creates any work in a distributable medium, it is no longer part of him or her, but it now exists as its own entity. This second step is called “objectification,” since the creation is now independent of its maker. After the creation exists on its own, its creator must now redefine his relationship to it in the process Berger calls “internalization.”

This phenomenon is evident in all aspects of Protocols. SIW started a site and his co-authors contributed towards it. Over time, the website became an entity unto itself as evidenced by the fact that people reference “Protocols” as opposed to any individual. The initial object was palatable to thousands of readers. However once Luke took over, Protocols was no longer what it once was and the audience had difficulty re-internalizing the new product.
Despite the abstraction of the community, the Protocols saga reminds us that websites are still run by people. People are not always predictable, and in the case of websites, the decisions and actions of one (or a few) can have a drastic impact on the many.

I can only assume that someone will take up the position that Protocols once had, but they have fairly large shoes to fill. Its impact was undeniable and SIW deserves much credit for his creation and the impact he had on the Jewish community.

Salut.

Posted in Jewish Culture.

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