SHANNONDALE – It’s been 10 years since Willis Nowell started talking about all things Shannondale and he isn’t finished yet.
This month, Nowell will celebrate a decade as moderator of Shannondale and Beyond at shannondale.org. The online discussion forum focuses on all things about the sprawling Blue Ridge Mountain community.
Shannondale.org has become a vibrant center for civic, community and political discussion in what is the most densely populated unincorporated area in the region. Nowell attributes much of the site’s success to the light hand its moderators use, allowing a variety of sometime-opinionated discussion to proceed without too much interference.
“That’s to me the only way to run a forum,” Nowell said. “To have a serious conversation you need to have some give and take, some back and forth.”
Shannondale and Beyond was the successor to a series of smaller Internet message boards and discussion forums dating to the late 1990s that sought to bring an increased sense of community to the thousands of residents spread across the slopes of “the Mountain.”
Nowell said the site’s leadership first met as participants on one of these forums, Shannondale.tv.
But after that site’s owner left to take a job in New Mexico, Nowell says the group of four – which also included Tony Barther, Chip Gallo and Tony Rosati – decided they should run their own site.
“There were four of us that had been contributing to the conversations on the forum, and were asked if we would be interested in moderating,” he said. “We said, ‘Sure.’ We wanted to keep it going because it was getting pretty interesting. We decided that the four of us might as well start our own so we could be the administrators rather than just the moderators.”
The forums have become a place where community members come together to understand policies and events that affect their lives. It isn’t uncommon for a group of users to come together to investigate a story, often turning up important information along the way, he said.
“You start a topic, and someone will research one part of it,” he said. “Another person will research some other part, and all of a sudden you’ve got a wealth of information on a particular topic.
“It’s a collaborative effort. There’s synergy. You get a few people together, and they equal more than the sum of their parts.”
Established as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the forum’s expenses are supported through sponsored web ads that are donated by area businesses. The site has some 30,000 unique visits per day and also accepts donations.
The forum does have a few rules. Users are asked to refrain from directly attacking each other, using racist language and to limit profanity to “no more than one or two cuss words per day.”
But administrators rarely have to take action to enforce these rules, he said.
“We’re fortunate to have a good group of forum users that behave themselves,” Nowell said. “It defuses things. It gives people an outlet to vent and expound on their views.”
Nowell says the forum also tries to draw in users from beyond the Blue Ridge, and has had some users sign up from as far away as California.
“We’re an open forum,” he said. “We accept membership from all comers, Shannondale and beyond.”