The basket case that is Cloudy Nights

Any hobby that is enjoyed by more than one person will have its own magazines, clubs, trade shows, and venues of discussion and flame wars online. From sewing to snooker, there is usually quite a menu of places to find like-minded people both in-person and virtually, to chat with or to learn from. Amateur astronomy and astrophotography is certainly no different in this regard, and one of its largest online communities is the topic of this post.

The Cloudy Nights forum has been around for quite a long time. It certainly predates my entry into the world of amateur astronomy and I would certainly be the wrong person to ask about any details regarding its history. What I do understand is that it started in the early days of web forums, grew in membership and staff, and eventually came to be sponsored by the astronomy gear company Astronomics. The only thing I can figure about this relationship is that Astronomics pays the bills and gets an administrative seat on the forum in return. Beyond that, the company’s role in the day-to-day running of the forum is a bit of an enigma.

Although I joined the forum in 2007, I have never been exceedingly active on it if you average my activity over the years. There was a stretch of years where I never visited it due to my interests and time being out-competed by other happenings in life. But as passions go, the fire got rekindled and I found myself back online, eager to catch up on the latest and recommit to a hobby that I knew I would enjoy. Around this time I also got involved in the N.I.N.A. project and other open source astrophotography software. If you know anything about me, the Open Source ethos is something I enjoy and I will always be a booster for it. It comes from my profession in the Internet industry. This is an industry that is steeped in the use and support of open source software, much of which keeps the Internet alive and fuels the products and productivity of academia and and billion-dollar companies.

So, back to the topic of Cloudy Nights. Around the time I started getting active on Cloudy Nights again, the N.I.N.A. project cut its first major release since I started participating in it. I was excited to spread the word. In the Internet/online Open Source world, it’s not uncommon to see announcements regarding software happen in topical forums and mailing lists. With that sort of familiar expectation and a lot of exuberance, I posted a bit about the N.I.N.A. release on Cloudy Nights. It wasn’t long before a moderator admonished me for doing this. Paraphrasing, I was told that I sounded like I was promoting a product. Sure, I guess that I was promoting something, but a product? That people buy? Hardly! I presumed that the moderators were able to make the distinction between a commercial, for-profit product and an open source project that anyone can use as a free community resource. A resource that is made by volunteers, not people on a payroll. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Ultimately and because of this incident, my Cloudy Nights account was given the Vendor role, which puts a non-subtle “Vendor” title under your Cloudy Nights username. I suppose this is coveted by some, but for me this was the result of what I felt was an honest mistake and running aground on what turned out to be some pretty incongruous forum rules. It was also an affront on a personal level. The term “vendor” is very narrow and straight forward in its definition, and to bestow this upon a person who expressly does not wish to sell or vend anything in the commercial sense is a gross mischaracterization. It has given people the wrong impression about what I do and my intentions on the forum. These are impressions that I have had to actively manage and correct, despite my involuntary title that I am unable to change.

I decided that I would plead my case and try to improve the situation for myself and others who might be, or will be, in the same predicament. I understood that the Cloudy Nights staff wanted to make some kind of distinction among users. The argument I prepared to make was that making a distinction was fine, but it could be a better distinction that accurately reflects a person’s motivations. Introducing an “Open Source” or “Creator” role for people like myself would be the basis of this argument. I wanted to point out that adopting this concept would have two benefits for the Cloudy Nights community: It would strengthen the watered-down meaning of what constitutes a “Vendor” (ie, someone who has a real commercial interest) and acknowledge a rapidly growing part of the amateur astronomy hobby – that of the DIY hardware and software creator and their non-commercial, Open Source contributions to the hobby and its community.

Boy, was I ever so wrong again.

Reaching out to a bunch of admins and moderators in a forum PM, I was immediately met with skepticism and further admonishment for my earlier actions. Trying to get past that and move the topic in a more constructive direction, I found myself having to explain even the basic concepts of Open Source to people who very clearly demonstrated a tenuous grasp on the concept. At least one administrator errantly kept referring to Open Source software as shareware. I tried my best to point out that giving Cloudy Nights members such as myself a more accurate portrayal would celebrate people who give to the community in the form of free software, schematics for hardware, and other free resources that anyone can partake and not saddle them with a title that can easily carry negative connotations of dollar before honor. Despite all the angles I attempted to take, I could not get the audience to understand the basic parts of the concept. Moreover, they seemed paralyzed by the thought that they might anger actual vendors with any change.

Eventually I had to give up on the effort and, out of a bit of disgust, I took a self-imposed vacation from the forum for the better part of a year. The Vendor title would stay with me and I would just have to deal with it. The interaction with Cloudy Nights staff still leaves a bad taste and I do not consider the forum or its staff to be supportive of Open Source in the field of amateur astronomy. One moderator later went so far to label open source, via N.I.N.A., as “anarchy”. The acrimonious and hard line tone that the Cloudy Nights staff took also showed me why even some commercial vendors abstain from participating on the forum. I suppose the staff see themselves as being fair, but fair to a fault they are and in a way that says that they’re out of touch and replete with fogeyism. I’m sure it’s a habit that’s reinforced in their staff-only echo chambers.

Why am I writing about events that took place a good while ago, today? Well, certainly to get it off my chest, but also to give context to a new development. The staff at Cloudy Nights have handed down a new ham-fisted rule in their attempt to make the forum a “better” place: Vendors (that is, members who have the Vendor role) will no longer be allowed to post ads in the forum’s Classifieds section. Instead, Vendors must post their advertisements in the Vendor Announcements forum. Alright, I suppose this makes sense for actual vendors who are businesses and were using the Classifieds section to list their services and wares. But where does this leave the members like myself who aren’t actual commercial entities with no product to sell? I have a bunch of personal, used stuff that I’d like to sell like any normal member and listing these items would fit very well in the Classifieds section. Since I’ll be barred from listing this stuff in the Classifieds section, I would instead have to list my personal items in the Vendor Announcements forum as if they were a commercial product. That absolutely is a non-starter and, heck, might even be a violation of that forum’s own rules.

Back when I went through the effort to try to change how creators and community contributors were categorized or recognized, I had a feeling that something like this would eventually happen. The Cloudy Nights staff have predictably demonstrated that while they are quite ready to toss a broad swath of members into a single category, they treat this category as if everyone in it were up to the same thing. I really don’t know what goes on in the deliberations and conjuring of new rules, but it’s petty overloaded logic and will only serve to drive a growing segment of the hobby away. All the well; it seems that the younger crowd is voting with their feet and migrating to other forums or platforms such as Discord. I must say that hanging out with the younger or more forward-looking crowd is refreshing. They are places where we don’t have to endure recurring themes such as the 5000th thread on CCDs vs. CMOS or feel as if one is walking a thin line with staff because you happen to do more than passively read their forums.

Notably, these newer platforms often add resources and features, and have an easy-going nature. This contrasts strongly with Cloudy Nights which sees only more restrictions over time and no new community features. The cloistered atmosphere is stifling and stodgy. I imagine that its staff feel that they are doing something good, but it’s very plain that they see their role as governors and police, not as people who can uplift the community and progress it. I don’t think this will likely change, and the view of many reflect this.