Twenty years ago I wouldn't have predicted that on the twentieth anniversary of On Line Opinion's first edition I would be writing about a Tongan-born football player who has made critical comments about homosexuality, amongst other things.
But in retrospect it seems almost foreordained. Israel Folau, and his troubles, are a repeat of an obligato in the philosophy and history of OLO.
From the first, On Line Opinion was an exercise in freedom of speech from a classical liberal position. We believed in robust exchange and absolute truth. The idea that someone might be able to shut debate down because "I'm gay and I'm offended" was laughable then, but we could see the trends, and that they needed to be fought.
Except that gayness wasn't the heights of fashionable outrage then, it was race. We were in the twilight of Paul Keating's "Redfern Speech" and the red hot heat of Pauline Hanson's 1998 results in the Queensland state election.
There was elite opinion, and there was "wrong opinion", and the country was divided along lines of political correctness. I wrote numbers of op-eds at the time suggesting that the way to heal the country was not to try to beat your opponents senseless but to respect each other's common humanity and engage with each other. It's hard to change someone's mind by yelling at them.
A neutral space where conversation could occur seemed like a good idea.
But there was much more to it than that. I, along with co-founder Lionel Hogg, was struck by the potential of the Internet. This was a chance to take advantage of a disruptive technology and change the way that things were done, just as Gutenberg had with the printing press, arguably setting off the Protestant Reformation and modernity.
So what was special about this new medium?
The first thing was that the one-to-many broadcast medium now had a many-to-one feedback loop through the comments section so that authors could have a conversation with their audience.
The second was that it also had a many-to-many function, again through the comments section, where the audience could talk to itself.
It meant that writers were better informed about their audiences than ever before, at the same time that their power as gatekeepers and oracles was being stripped away from them.
This was revolutionary, and like all revolutions, dangerous. Louis XVI may be dead, but there is a mob stalking in his shadows containing many Robespierres and Defarges.
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