Remembering the Horde

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

If you’re not familiar with The Horde, Ta-Nehisi’s community of commenters, this short history by Eva Holland will give you an excellent idea. It begins:

Ta-Nehisi Coates started blogging for The Atlantic on August 4, 2008. His first post was titled “Sullivan… McArdle… Fallows… Coates???” and it laid down his terms from the start: “My only rule, really, is simple,” he wrote. “Don’t be a jerk to people you disagree with.”

The first recorded comment came from “8th Level Barbarian”:


For genius commentary on the D&D lifestyle, search for “Fear of Girls” on YouTube. The original is classic, but the sequel is pretty awesome, too.

One of the most prolific commenters became Jim Elliott, better known to The Horde as “Erik Vanderhoff.” Last month, just before Notes launched, I was emailing with Jim about how the new bloggy section will try to rekindle some of the lost magic of The Horde. Over the past few years, as traffic to Ta-Nehisi’s posts grew and grew, his ability to moderate a civil atmosphere among his readers became nearly impossible. Finally, about a month ago, all of his posts were automatically closed to comments, joining Fallows and Goldberg.

Jim mentioned that he had been writing a retrospective of The Horde, so I offered to post it as a clarion call to other members of The Horde within Notes. Given today’s news of Ta-Nehisi garnering a MacArthur grant, prompting this poignant appreciation from Yoni (known to The Horde as “Cynic”), now seems like the perfect time to post. So here’s Erik Vanderhoff:

Mere happenstance brought me to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ virtual door: A quoted paragraph at Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish arrested my eye. Was there a link to follow? Why, yes there was! And follow it I did, to The Atlantic’s collection of bloggers, and I never turned back.

Since that day in 2008, rarely a day went by that I didn’t navigate back to Coates’s page, enamored as I was—and largely still am—with the wordplay of the man I consider the finest prose writer working in the American tongue. Coates has the ability to string words together to form passages that make other lovers of language throw their hands up in despair.

A mild despair—and, if I’m honest, something of a fanboy-ish obsession—were born, and I demanded constant sustenance in the form of blog posts or articles. Other than his Twitter stream, I think it’s fair to say I haven’t missed something Coates has written since. His openness and inquisitiveness attracted me, and dozens more like me. Comment threads were opened and a torrent commenced. Discussing the topics he raised, from the continued salience of Spider-Man to the foofaraw of Ron Paul to the immensity of the first black president, a community formed. I still remember many of those avatars with great fondness: Emily L. Hauser, Sandy Young (Corkingiron), Baiskeli, petefrombaltimore, exitr, JBColo, Craig, and on and on.

The commenters—dubbed the Horde by our host and Khan—were special to me, distinct online personalities that I came to know and enjoy, all the more so because the Khan did not hold himself aloof or apart from his people. No, he waded into the muck and wrestled and laughed and cried with us. (I’ll never forget the day he opened an Open Thread at Noon just to commiserate over the fact that my dog had died the night before.) Coates mustered a digital army, and his unwillingness to hold himself as a leader to that community made us love it, and him, all the more.

And that, I think, ultimately gave us the opportunity to become our own undoing.

Coates was a reluctant sheriff, but I think he came to see that the topics that interested him, and interested us, were contentious ones, topics that made the id—so enabled by online anonymity—come to the fore. Lacking the inhibitions of face-to-face conduct, acrimony was easy, casual, and woe to the pixelated foe who challenged us.

And so Coates had to take up arms, the fabled Ban-hammer used to exile the impolite and repeatedly off-topic, against not just invading demons but occasionally his own legionnaires.

But none of that diminished what made the Horde special. A good comment board—or “salon,” as Coates called it—attracts people who are, at heart, essayists. I think that’s why there were, and are, so many journalists and academics who remain stalwart fans, who without fail crop up whenever one of his pieces has an open thread. At heart, we wanted to talk about the issues Coates raised, and he wanted us to “treat me like I’m stupid” and further his education.

And, yes, we wanted each other’s praise and validation, none more so than from the Khan himself. As with any like-minded community, a certain tendency developed into yes-man-ism and insular validation. But I always found the Horde to be honest and generous to a fault, even when it voiced dissent. I dismissed the complaints among some other Atlantic commenters that Coates only banned those who disagreed with him. (This was most certainly not true, as I myself was reminded of the decorum required under threat of exile.)

So it was with some shock when I recently read Benjamin Wallace-Wells refer to the Horde as “a community of a particular type: liberal, wide-eyed, pining for moral authority — and redemption.” Wells’s reference to another critique by Freddie deBoer, calling us “Coates’s creepshow commenters asking him to forgive their sins” was, if anything, more jarring.

The more I thought about the waning days of the Horde, the more I realized that it wasn’t simply the ravening throngs of unrepentant bigots, jerks, and recidivist “what-about-ists” who demanded Coates accept and discuss their interpretations and axioms that drove him away from leaving comments open on a piece. Coates was on a mission to learn, to educate himself and others, and a certain degree of fawning that we, as a community, were developing resulted in a great degree of mob-like acrimony towards those who disagreed with us. It drove away valued, wise warriors of the Horde, like petefrombaltimore, willallen2, and amichel. We became less because of it, but we also became less useful to our Khan and ourselves.

Thoughts, like opinions, are a common enough currency. It is only those that withstand the rigors of trial-by-fire who establish any real value. Once the Horde stopped providing that to Coates, to ourselves, to The Atlantic, we became, if not creepshow commenters pining for a messiah (Screw you, Freddie!), a somewhat more erudite version of the plebeian boards we had fled for the promised land of OTANs, Spider Man, and socio-political criticism.

I miss those early days something fierce. I miss interacting with Coates, with my fellow Hordelings, and, yes, in locking shields and raising spears against the trolls roaring up the pass. Some of us still linger here at The Atlantic, wrestling with the enemies of truth, because the obsession still lingers. But I think I’m at peace with the fact that those days are gone. Should they ever reappear, I can see myself saddling up for another ride.