My PointBuzz partner Walt and I have been at this Cedar Point fan site thing for 20 years now. That still sounds weird to say out loud, because what does anyone do in their spare time for that long? In "Internet time," it might as well be a hundred years. The enthusiast crowd tends to be, let's say a little entitled, but we've tried to stay pretty realistic about where extreme fandom fits in the bigger picture. We've never expected much from the park, and we've helped them out when asked and it was appropriate, so they've been good to us. I don't think we fit into any kind of historic narrative about the park.
So imagine my surprise when Walt forwarded some text from a new book about Cedar Point that recognizes us and PointBuzz. John Hildebrandt, who worked at the park for most of his adult life, eventually retiring as its general manager, just published his memoir, Always Cedar Point. Like I said, I don't figure that we would even be on the radar as far as park history goes, but he wrote this:
Other fan sites devoted to Cedar Point cropped up over the years, some quite good and others very amateurish, but in my opinion Jeff and Walt's site has always been the gold standard.
That's high praise for something we did for fun (and a few bucks) out of love for the park. John served as the marketing boss when we started in 1998, and I/we got in trouble a few times for spilling the beans on stuff accidentally posted to the official site early or otherwise learning from leaks about plans. But the real challenge for the park, and John as a marketer in particular, is that there was this new medium with a growing audience that couldn't control the messaging about the park. John writes:
It was great seeing so much information about the park being shared with so many fans, but it had a dark side, as PointBuzz provided a forum for everyone or anyone who had any kind of beef with Cedar Point. We knew we weren't perfect, but we were surprised to find out we were that far from perfect. PointBuzz predated Facebook by several years. It was really our introduction to social media... To their credit, Jeff and Walt created guidelines for posting which discouraged bad internet behavior and have continued to refine those guidelines.
There's so much validation in that passage that I don't know what to do with it. I've told people we were social media before the term was even coined, and usually (and maybe rightfully) I get eye rolls. But the bigger validation is more that we've chosen to moderate it from the start. We don't discourage differences in opinion, and frankly let that get borderline aggressive, but we've never allowed racism, sexism, homophobia or any similarly despicable behavior. Heck, we've insisted on the use of real grammar, and the community has largely been self-policing in that regard. We don't have to bounce more than one or two people per year, generally, and we've been told literally since the start that this strategy would be our end. It's still running, two decades later.
John and I first met probably in 1999, a year or so into what was then called Guide To The Point. I was just transitioning into my software career, but I admired John because he already had a ton of experience vaguely related to my former broadcast life, and he understood writing and why it was important. Being a know-it-all 20-something with all of the answers, I wasn't always open to seeing experience for what it is or why it's important, but this was different. While I didn't always agree with John, in marketing or as a general manager, I did respect him. When he eventually took over the GM role, and I visited him in his office off of the ballroom, I felt reassured that he was the right guy to oversee the park. He literally embodied the spirit and history of the park and took it seriously.
If that weren't enough, he had on a number of occasions looked out for me as a customer. We had a rough experience one late-season weekend staying in the cottages, and when I told him about that the next year, he gave me his cell phone number and asked me to call him if anything wasn't right. We did have some housekeeping issues, so I called him, and they were taken care of right away. We were just one family, but it was important to him that we had the best experience. How can you not respect that?
People you look up to professionally, and I do consider this a quasi-professional relationship, often let you down. But I liked John and the chance to talk with him every time, right until he retired. He was always gracious with his time, and he didn't owe me that, and he certainly wasn't obligated just because I ran a goofy web site. I was honored to call him a friend, and I hope he's enjoying retirement after not having summers off for decades.