Commenters on Achenblog, Haxville and other sites take their conversations offline

Writer Joel Achenbach, right, hits a happy hour with online commenters Tim Livengood (whose online handle is ScienceTim), left, and Scott Burnell (ScottyNuke), center.
Writer Joel Achenbach, right, hits a happy hour with online commenters Tim Livengood (whose online handle is ScienceTim), left, and Scott Burnell (ScottyNuke), center.

A happy hour for Internet commenters seems like it wouldn’t be all that happy. These are, after all, people known for filling the space beneath blog posts and news stories with personal attacks and the occasional xenophobic screed.

So as I searched for a real-world meeting of online commenters at a D.C. bar one recent evening, I was on the lookout for people hurling insults and perhaps even drinks.

Instead, I found about two-dozen somewhat nerdy, mostly middle-aged adults cracking each other up.

“We have a lot of Ph.D.s and other well-educated people,” says information technology manager Bill Cuttitta, 50, who has been commenting on Washington Post writer Joel Achenbach’s Achenblog since shortly after it launched in 2005. That same year, a frequent poster suggested a commenter happy hour.

Cuttitta and other so-called Boodlers (Achenbach once referred to his blog posts as “the kit” and comments as “the caboodle” — hence the name) are drawn to Achenbach’s wide-ranging reporting and his sense of humor. Their online conversations tend to be funny and leap from topic to topic, often paying little mind to Achenbach’s original post.

Their real-life chats turned out to be similarly eclectic. At the Boodle meetup I attended, I eavesdropped on a debate about the heat death of the universe, which collided with a conversation about ferrets at urinals.

“It’s like going to the bar on the corner, where you know everyone,” says Scott Burnell, 46, a longtime Boodler who is also spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

There’s at least one clear difference between the Boodle happy hour and Cheers, though: When commenters meet, everybody doesn’t know your name, or even your gender, before you show up. What people do know is your handle and any other information you’ve shared online. When Snarky Squirrel arrived, several people were surprised she’s a woman. But most everyone knew to congratulate her on her new Ph.D.

Achenblog fans may be a particularly tight-knit group, but they aren’t the only local commenter community that’s spilled into the real world.

For Greater Greater Washington, which covers D.C.-area urban planning, the trick to friendly in-person relationships is a commenting policy that maintains civility while also encouraging lively discussions, says site comment moderator Matt Johnson. That’s why he’s always on the lookout for comments that stymie discussion with harsh criticism or name-calling.

“People know that when they make comments [on Greater Greater Washington], they aren’t going to get ripped apart by people who are being mean,” he says.

As a result, the blog is a place for high-level discussions about topics like zoning and public transportation, says regular commenter and planning consultant Richard Layman, 53.

“I don’t read DCist or Prince of Petworth because most of the comments there are drivel, and it just bugs me that people say so much stupid stuff,” he says.

Uncivil comments are common on most blogs and websites. One study found that 53 percent of comments on sites that allowed anonymity included language that was vulgar, racist, profane or hateful — though that dropped to 29 percent when users were required to give their real names.

Using your real face may inspire even greater civility. Johnson can’t remember a single raised voice at Greater Greater Washington-organized happy hours, which happen every few months and attract upward of 50 people. As on the blog, real-life conversation tends to be “very wonky and very geeky,” focusing almost exclusively on urban planning.

At Haxville happy hours, on the other hand, people don’t generally talk about Washington Post columnist Carolyn Hax’s previous advice columns, says frequent commenter and web designer Holly Russo. Instead, they discuss their personal lives, sometimes asking one another for guidance.

Conversations tend to bypass mundane pleasantries.

“When someone says, ‘How are you doing?’ you don’t have to say, ‘Oh, I’m fine,’ ” Russo says. “You can say, ‘I’m not so great, because I’m going through a divorce,’ or whatever.”

The community’s support isn’t just emotional. Last year, they raised $975 for a commenter who was undergoing chemotherapy. The Boodlers are similarly generous — every Christmas they buy presents for fellow commenters who have lost jobs or might otherwise be in need of some holiday cheer, says veteran Boodler Tina Gibson, 56, an editor and designer.

Gibson is as surprised as anyone that the Achenblog spurred such a tight group. When she was invited to the first Boodle happy hour, in 2005, she skipped it because it seemed “weird” to meet up with strangers. Since then, she’s attended one Boodler’s wedding reception and two Boodlers’ funerals.

When Gibson went college hunting with her son in Charlotte, N.C., they even stayed with a Boodler. Gibson’s son didn’t end up going to school there, but he did meet his future wife on a subsequent trip. Neither of the newlyweds spend time on the Achenblog, but Gibson has laid claim to any future progeny.

“If they have children,” she says, “they will be Boodle children.”

Four local sites with offline appeal

Online communities have a long history of crossing over into the real world, says Colorado State University communication professor Ashley Anderson. “When people are regularly talking online, they often want to meet in person and continue that conversation,” she says. Here are a few local discussion groups that can help you make the leap.

DC Urban Moms and Dads

This discussion board is perhaps best known for flame wars about pricey strollers, but it’s also a great place to meet other parents. Looking for a Lebanese-speaking playgroup? Or maybe you want to commiserate with other dads of twins over drinks? This is the site for you.

DonRockwell.com

Washington-area diners flock to this site, created by shy computer consultant Don Rockwell, for restaurant news and reviews. It’s also a great place to find others who want to explore hole-in-the-wall restaurants, as well as people who are willing to drop serious cash on dinner.

Washington Area Bike Forum

Even when it’s cold and icy, the zealots on this biking discussion board plan group rides throughout the D.C. area and beyond. Join them, or just wear your bike helmet to one of their happy hours. You’ll fit right in and stay warm and dry.

DC Theatre Scene

After you’re done complaining about how D.C.’s high-profile stages import all their talent from New York, make a date with your fellow thespians to check out the area’s flourishing community-theater scene.

This story originally appeared in Express Sunday, a new weekend publication. Sign up now for free home delivery.

Sadie Dingfelder is a features writer for the Washington Post Express.
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