Written by Gary Glass Sunday, 07 June 2009 15:35
This week, after nine years, Readerville closed its doors. Long before MySpace and Facebook and Twitter, Readerville was one of the earliest social networking sites on the Internet. Its tag line perfectly captured its spirit: “The social life of the mind.” Readerville’s design was years ahead of its time — attractive, usable, and yet feature-rich. MySpace will never look as good as Readerville did five years before MySpace began. I don’t think Readerville’s departure leaves a void that cannot be filled, but I do think that there are very few other offerings of its kind.
Karen Templer, Readerville’s proprietor, in her announcement about the site’s shutdown, did not go into the reasons behind the decision, but she did say this:
These days, I’m thrilled at the vast assortment of tools for people to connect online — from blogs to Facebook and Twitter, to the many social book cataloging sites, and beyond. Readers have resources nobody could have imagined nine years ago…. I like to think Readerville helped set the stage for that in some small way.
I suspect that sites like Facebook and Twitter have claimed a lot of the social networking traffic that sites like Readerville offered, and that the explosion of the blogosphere and online content and commenting has taken a lot of the discussion traffic. Readerville’s focus was books (hence the name), and it was always a great place to learn about new books, but a large percentage of the day-to-day postings on the site had little to do with reading. It was really an online community of people with common (but varied) interests — united largely by a passion for books, yes, but I think there was more to it than that.
Readerville was something of a spin-off from Salon’s Table Talk (Ms Templer formerly worked for Salon), and BookBalloon is something of a spin-off from Readerville (where I was a long-time member). And over the past couple of days since learning of Readerville’s shutdown, I’ve been asking myself what did it offer, and what does BookBalloon still offer, that Facebook and the blogs do not. Here’s my answer:
BookBalloon offers an opportunity to have substantive discussion in a respectful atmosphere. Not that there aren't other good reasons to participate here, but to me, that is the real differentiator. It seems to me that for people who want to have real discussions about ideas, books, and current events, in an atmosphere free of abuse and ridicule, our online options are limited. Facebook is a great way to stay in touch with friends and reconnect with old flames. Blogs are an unparalleled resource for staying current on particular topics. But if you want to have serious discussions about issues that you care about, and you want to do so without enduring the ridicule of dozens of anonymous blockheads, or if you just want to be able to follow a discussion without filtering through reams of silly babble, then you’re going to need something else. It’s the rare blog writer who has the time or the inclination to police the swarms of trolls that infect them.
As Readerville veterans will understand, there’s a distinction to be made between the kind of social interactions one has on Facebook and Twitter, and the sense of community and engagement that grows out of discussions that take place over an extended period. Facebook and Twitter encourage a sound-bite culture. They’re good for chitchat. “What’s on your mind?” But seriously engaging with people in a discussion group, whether by trying to express your appreciation for or your objection to something you’ve all read, or challenging one another’s ideas about current events, or sharing your first-hand account of the latest California wildfires — over time you get to know people to a degree you can’t on Facebook. And you get to know and even to appreciate people that you don’t necessarily agree with, and that’s always good for the soul.
And did I mention books? And movies? And music? And writers? These are things the people on BookBalloon engage about. From what I’ve seen, there’s no better place online to do that. But I, of course, am biased.