Disclaimer: This is a parable, not a history. The characters are not only badly written, they are not meant to represent any specific persons living, dead, or even writing blogs; they have been fashioned out of whole pixels solely for the purpose of demonstrating general patterns of group behavior, their personalities and motivations stolen from an old Garrison Keillor monologue, and their names made up to amuse those who are gluttons for pun-ishment. Similarly, the organizations and events described in this illustration are not real, and are not intended to represent anything other than a random slice of life on the Internet. Nothing like anything described here ever took place, even in my own tiny little mind, not even on 4Chan.

Most importantly, no pancakes, waffles, or baked goods of any kind were harmed in the process of writing this blog. We shall be offering a gluten-free version just as soon as we can do the spelt-check.

A Sticky Situation in the Waffle House, or, That’s The Way the Kooky Crumbles

There’s been a question on the lips of every cult-watcher recently, that is, whether or not a certain newsblog turned discussion forum has turned into a cyber-cult.

I refer, of course, to that extremely popular, edgy, and completely fictitious newsblog and chat forum, Auntie Bertha’s Waffle House, which started out as a simple daily blog reporting various news items relating to the actions and abuses of Church of the Holy Pancake (CotHP), a “new” religious group that some people were calling a cult (in fact, it is an offshoot of a much older destructive cult, the Jemima’s Witnesses).

After a shaky start, where the survivors of this heinous group accused Auntie Bertha of being a member of the Syrup Squad (an undercover organization run by the CotHP), the comments section was soon filled with hundreds of ex-Pancakers: folks who had been banned from any Temple for questioning the Batter-Master, people who were gluten-intolerant and dared to follow modern medicine by foregoing the Traditional Recipe, people who hadn’t spoken to their families in years because their faith told them that to share syrup with those on the Back Coil would lead their own Milk of Faith to be Curdled.

The comments section started to boom, as new commenters came in to comment on the original commenters. These folks, who called themselves “free-range,” had never been in the cult, and although most of them were curious and sympathetic, some were nasty, and loudly said that they couldn’t believe how anyone would be foolish enough to follow a stupid cult like that, especially when everybody knows that the Bird is the Word. Then, more people commented on the commenters commenting on the commenters, saying that the Blue Twinkie was the only Way. And then people began getting really crazy.

But, pretty soon, a new discussion forum had accreted around Auntie Bertha and her newsblog – and the Bertha-Boosters were born.

Now, the day after Bertha sponsored her first annual Bertha-Boosters Blueberry Biscotti Bakeoff, a well-known commenter on the blog, Mason Fortnum, who had not only been a Batter-Master but even once held a high-ranking position in the Syrup Squad, began remarking that he felt quashed and even “censored,” because “Flap” Jack Johnson and several of the other Boosters had disagreed with him – and quite sharply – about how he didn’t think Bertha’s choice to use blueberries was appropriate, especially considering the CotHP’s infamous Blueberry Ban of ’87.

Granted, Jack could have been much more polite when arguing with Mason; he tends to be protective of Aunt Bertha, and has appointed himself a “watchdog” of the forum. So, things got heated, and for days later there were individual e-mails, long, contentious threads with everyone expressing a differing opinion, and lots and lots and lots of insults thrown around, on both “sides.” The threads became unmanageable, two moderators quit in disgust, and even Auntie herself, in the heat of anger, said a few things in private that she probably should have kept to herself.

You must know, of course, that Bertha “Auntie” Daye had never been in the CotHP herself, but only got interested in reporting on the cult when she married Hugh Kaek, a banned Pancaker from the church’s Dutch congregation (where the meeting houses are called Bakoven). Her husband doesn’t discuss his years in the church much, so she had never heard of the cult’s tragic blueberry ban; chastened and quickly filled in by some old-time exes, she issued a full apology, and then researched and wrote a full story on the facts of one of the first schisms to split the then relatively new organization.

Still, the damage had been done, and Mason Fortnum started his own blog, Boosters Go Bust, and invited people to join him instead – many people did join him: the Fortnum Crumble, as it came to be known, had created many hard feelings and completely polarized the Waffle House’s readership.

In his opening salvo, entitled The Kaek Is A Liar, he declared that he had not been allowed to express his opinion freely at Bertha’s site. In a scathing review of recent unfortunate events, Mason told his own followers that the Bertha Boosters are, in fact, every bit as much a cult as the Church of the Pancake, with Auntie Bertha, as their leader, just as proud and vain as any Batter-Master.

But is Auntie Bertha’s Waffle House a cult? Are the Bertha-Boosters?

Obviously, one doesn’t try to figure out if a group is a cult by asking the leadership, but if you did ask Bertha, she would confidently say “no,” but she would not be able to argue the point, certainly not with Fortnum Mason, as she finds herself just slightly at a loss for explanation, especially in the heat of the chat thread.

Bertha will freely admit that she’s no expert in cults in general, or at least hadn’t been until she started covering the Church of the Holy Pancake. Granted, she’s learned a lot from the ex-Pancakers over the years, but so far she’s only looked at the group as a continuing news story, the ultimate scoop that never dies; she’s never actually had to sit down and ask herself what makes a cult before this. She’s not even sure such a thing as a “cyber-cult” exists.

Now, I can quite confidently tell you that yes, such a creature does, sadly, exist; undue influence is pervasive and indeed can be easily used at a distance, even over the Internet. However, not all groups are malign organizations, and not every discussion forum is a cyber-cult, and when questions arise like this, it’s important to look at the facts and decide based on fixed criteria, rather than whether or not we like the people involved.

Cult or not? Fortunately, there are ways to tell whether or not a given group is, or is not, destructively coercive in its nature.

First, let’s step back and address a certain primary error many of us make when assessing any online forum: that is, mistaking the loudmouths, the characters, and the trolls for the forum as a whole. We often forget that even the most stringent of forum moderators simply cannot be held responsible for every nasty, petty, stupid and ignorant thing the “peanut gallery” of their comment section comes up with. Most people play nicely, but just as the squeaky wheel gets the grease, we notice the nasties more often.

It’s also evident that the semi-anonymous interaction of our participation in these forums creates a certain mental freedom, and, unfortunately, this leads to a culture where venting spleen has become easier – and where respecting the feelings of others is often the first casualty in the battle of words and (attempts at) wit. So people who wouldn’t squash an ant in real life sometimes forget that they are dealing with another person at the other end of that chat box: occasionally all of us slip in our manners.

Usually, the people commenting are ordinary human beings, blowing off steam, sometimes acting perhaps just a little less kindly toward each other than they ought, but sometimes the problem is a matter of SBKAC – Sociopath Between Keyboard and Chair. These individuals, the small fraction of the population without a sense of empathy, are in it for the bullying, and it doesn’t matter where they end up, be it a YouTube video or a cult survivor message board, they will end up hurting someone.

Simply put, people bullying each other online – and behaving in a bullying fashion to people who aren’t in that forum – is going to happen wherever bullies are allowed to post – in other words, everywhere.

It’s important to note that we humans are a gregarious species with a natural “troupe” instinct: any group, be it a soccer team, a pottery class, or an online forum, will inevitably start thinking in terms of “them vs. us.” This is a cultic trait, but it’s also a human trait: a trait that we ignore at our peril, a trait which assures our continued evolution and adaptability as a species. Simply put, it’s good to belong.

But when does the group stop being a good thing and start becoming a controlling cult? Are the arguments at the Waffle House a sign that it’s a coercive cyber-cult, or is this just or a common kerfuffle?

In order to see whether or not the Bertha Boosters are acting as a cult, or, indeed, if Mrs. Daye-Kaek, career journalist, has turned into a cult leader, we must first look at what comprises a cult.

So, let’s take a closer look at Mason Fortnum’s primary reason for calling the Boosters a cult: under Jack’s withering insults, he came away feeling censored, unable to express his own opinion. Far from being a supporter of free speech, he claims, Auntie is suppressing people’s opinions. His case in point, the infamous “Crumble” thread, especially when “Flap” Jack had called Mason “kooky.”

A cult, Mason reasons quite rightly, does not allow differing opinions, and individual expression is inevitably censored.

However, disagreement is not censorship, and respectful – and even not-so-respectful – debate is not necessarily quashing. If a group truly doesn’t allow disagreement, you will not see debate at all, or you will only see small disagreements, with people rushing to agree with the leadership’ opinion, once they’ve figured out what that is. In an abusive forum, people who truly disagree with the moderators will find their comments disappearing, or they will be banned altogether.

What happened in the Waffle House was unfortunate, and not completely healthy, simply on the grounds that the human race isn’t completely healthy. Bertha’s readership of thousands would mean, statistically, that the Waffle House would be haunted by a solid base of a hundred or so bullies, sociopaths, narcissists, and grammar Nazis.

Although Bertha has often been criticized for her “laissez-faire” stance, she almost always lets the comments stand, only blocking comments or commenters when the messages grow threatening or simply obscene (“this is a family show,” she likes to remind people).  Mind, she’d been sorely tempted when Jack had gotten nasty and Mason had replied with some truly jarring comebacks. But this time, she let every single comment stand – even what Ms. Vanylla Has-Bean said about Jack’s mother.

So, there is strife, but no censorship, in the Waffle House. Was there only one opinion welcome?

Certainly not: not all those posting at the Waffle House consider themselves Bertha-Boosters, and even those who do find themselves disagreeing on a wide variety of issues. About the only thing they can agree on – especially during an election year – is that the so-called Church of the Holy Pancake ruins lives. And during the Crumble, everyone felt free to chime in with their own take on the matter, often annoyingly so. Some people tried to mend fences, others tried to break them, and some people just sat back and watched, gorging themselves on virtual popcorn as friendships went bust and the threads went boom. After a week, most people were reading and commenting on both blogs, and, for the most part, folks had mended the broken friendships, with only a few notable exceptions such as “Flap” Jack, Mason Fortnum, and a few other of the crustier leftovers.

But, simply put, most of the people who left, left of their own accord, and most returned quietly after the dust settled. Despite talk on the Boosters Go Bust blog of “a purge that would make Stalin proud,” a grand total of two people had been banned, both minor trolls who had garnered themselves many warnings before about treating others with respect. One had been banned after first announcing that he would be getting together a party to “Flip Flap Jack into the Flippin’ Fire,” and then followed that up with a post where he told Jack ominously: “I know where you live and I’m sharpening my spatula.” The other person was banned for creating and posting a regrettable ‘shoop of Herr Kaek’s head superimposed onto the body of a well-known porn actor, pictured in a provocative position on a tall stack of pancakes (an image which Bertha promptly took down, but not before it had been re-posted to Reddit, garnering a total of five hundred ninety-three thousand, four hundred fifty-two upvotes).

Hugh Kaek takes a more philosophical approach, shrugging his shoulders, his thick Dutch accent worn ever so slightly with years of living in the Lower East End of Manhattan: “just because someone invites you to an argument, it does not mean you have to accept this invitation, ja? But some people, they shall always want der kerfuffle. If, in real life, you are at party, and there is ein meshugge there, making a schmuck of himself, do you shout at him and make things worse? of course not. So why should it be the same on this Web-net thing?”

Cults are real. Cults destroy lives. But ‘cult’ is also too easy a term to throw around, and sadly, it’s become a useful label for the type of people who enjoy ‘stirring the pot’ to tag an unfavored group with. Simply put, it’s a “snarl” word, designed to bring immediate disgust, which hopefully will be associated with the target. However, when is it a cult, and when is it just a group of people behaving like, well, people? Instead of believing anyone else’s label of a group, look at the behaviors, the freedoms extended – or denied, and, finally, look at whether or not the whole thing does what it says on the back of the box.

Now will someone please pass the syrup?

Editor's Note: While we at OMF value all free expression of opinion, the views expressed by our contributing authors are their own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OMF, its board members, or trustees.

What do you think about this article? Do you agree?  Do you have a story about undue influence you’d like to share? We’d love to hear from you!