A social network for poetry

Update: Read Write Poem ceased publication and dissolved its social network on May 1, 2010.

Back when I started this series, Dana Guthrie Martin volunteered to do a piece about sharing poetry on Facebook. Obviously she has yet to produce such an article. But instead, with the help of several friends, she’s done something far cooler: launch a Facebook alternative for poets and fans of poetry. I was one of about 15 testers for the site, which opened to the public at large yesterday: the new Read Write Poem. And based on what I’ve seen so far, I’d say there’s a good chance it will be a runaway success.

Up until Thursday, Read Write Poem had been a simple multi-author blog and weekly poetry prompt site, started by Dana in 2007 and managed for a year and a half by Deb Scott, who stays on as a member of the new managerial team. The prompts will continue, along with other great content and spin-offs, such as virtual book tours on members’ blogs and a podcast. (I’ve even volunteered to write a monthly column on topics similar to the ones I address in this series. We’re calling it “O Tech!”) But it’s the new back-end that really sets it apart.

Read Write Poem now runs on WordPress MU, the multi-user version of the blog platform, in order to take advantage of BuddyPress, “a suite of WordPress plugins and themes” designed “to let members socially interact.” BuddyPress is an official project of Automattic, the people behind WordPress.com who also comprise most of the lead developers for the open-source WordPress software, so it’s almost a sure bet that it will be around as long as WordPress itself. Dana and her technology guru Andre Tan looked at some other alternatives, such as Ning and Elgg, but ultimately decided that a BuddyPress set-up had the most flexibility for the kind of dual-purpose site they wanted. The website content is still at the front, as you’ll see, with the social network accessible via a new navigation bar at the top. The latest content from the network appears in the right-hand sidebar to help lure people in.

To me, this is a better approach than the usual social network style, which is to have one’s own activity stream take over for the index page as soon as one is logged in. I noticed that when I went to add a link to my browser bookmark bar yesterday, without really thinking about it I chose to bookmark the front page rather than my own profile page. I guess I like the tacit reminder that the site is about something bigger than just me and my network of friends and acquaintances. Facebook is still valuable because it lets me connect with virtually everyone and do some of the silly stuff I’ve never done much of at Via Negativa, such as pontificate about favorite music videos or participate in so-called memes. I can share links to poetry-related things (or whatever) with a much broader cross-section of people than just poets. But I’ve been using Facebook to connect with literary folks for close to two years now, and I can tell you that, for whatever reason, deep discussions rarely happen there. Almost all the groups I’ve joined are ghost towns — albeit ones that send out regular mailings to their members.

How does Read Write Poem compare with Facebook? The most glaring difference is the lack of a unified activity stream where I can follow all my friends’ posts to their profile pages — the equivalent of what Facebook calls status updates — in one place. Your only option for following friends at this time, short of visiting all their profiles, is to subscribe to their RSS feeds. And since most web users are unfortunately still in the dark about RSS, that’s not too good a solution. Though it’s somewhat hard to find at the moment, it turns out that there is a stream of one’s friends’ activity, similar to what’s in Facebook. Click on the “activity” link directly under the avatar on your personal page (I had thought that was merely an RSS feed link), and you can toggle between “just me” and “my friends” — and subscribe to either. [Thanks to Andre for the correction — see comments]

On the other hand Moreover, thanks to BuddyPress, Read Write Poem now has something that Facebook does not: forums. Some of these are free-standing and others are associated with groups. And if the last day and a half are any indication, the groups and forums are going to be the most active part of the site — which I feel is how it should be. Like a lot of writers and artists, I guess, I’m not a highly social person in real life because I’m not all that good at idle chit-chat, and because I’m rather zealously protective of my free time. Facebook, Twitter, etc. are fun, but what ultimately is the point? To me, the most interesting online social networks are those centered on specific hobbies or interests, such as Ravelry for knitters, Flickr for photographers, or Goodreads for book lovers. Long after Twitter and Facebook have lost their faddish appeal, people will still be trading knitting tips on Ravelry.

Then there’s the blogging connection. I’ve always been impressed by the way that the blogosphere can bring together like-minded people, and as a writing prompt site for bloggers, Read Write Poem has been helping to build such informal networks for a while now. I’ll be interested to see whether more people feel encouraged to start blogs as a result of membership in the new site. I saw one example of that yesterday, and another new member say that she had joined in part to try and work her way up to blogging. Since Read Write Poem retains a focus on weekly group writing exercises posted to members’ own blogs, there should be considerable peer pressure on non-blogging members to start blogs.

If so, it will be very positive outcome — and will further differentiate RWP from Facebook, where people are encouraged to upload photos and compose lengthy notes on-site. One result is that Facebook ends up with too much power over your content, and if your account gets suspended for some reason, you lose it. Dana and her co-conspirators have wisely decided not to try and turn Read Write Poem into a hosted blogging platform at this time, even though that is what WordPress-MU was designed for. It would mean a lot more time, money, hassle, and responsibility, and it’s not as if plenty of good blog hosting options don’t already exist. Still, it’s nice to have the freedom to spin off a few more blogs any time they feel the need without having to set up a new database with a fresh WordPress install, as would otherwise be the case. I gather they may do this down the road if the need arises for more narrowly targeted sub-sites.

So far BuddyPress has proved fairly intuitive to use — much more so than Facebook, for example. A few things still frustrate me, such as the lack of nesting throughout the network: whether in my personal news feed, a group “wire,” or a forum topic, I can’t reply to an earlier post in a thread and start a new branch, which seems to me a pretty basic need for a social network — even Identi.ca has that now (though Twitter and Facebook still don’t). I also don’t like the lack of RSS feeds or other opt-in subscription options for conversations. BuddyPress does offer group administrators the option to have members notified every time someone posts something, as happens on Facebook with every discussion in which one participates. But there’s no way for members to opt out, so none of the groups I’ve joined so far have enabled the feature. You can’t assume that everyone wants to get that much email.

Some people might be bothered by the lack of provision for private profiles, but for this kind of network I’m not sure there’d be any point in that. There are provisions for private, invitation-only groups, as well as for completely hidden groups, which should prove important for people who want to share poems and get critiques from just a few trusted friends.

Building a social network for poets is a risky business: we’re a notoriously fractious bunch. The managers have posted a code of conduct which contains a helpful list of “do’s,” such as:

  • Have fun (not “poke-the-skinny-kid-on-the-playground” fun, but “find-joy-in-expressing-yourself-and-reading-the-work-of-others” fun).
  • Make everyone feel safe and welcome.
  • Be generous with your enthusiasm and encouragement. And sincere. Always sincere.
  • Be respectful in comments sections on this site and on members’ sites. (In other words, our interactions are electronic dialogues; don’t spit on anyone or pull their hair.)

If most members follow these rules, and moderators and community managers are prompt in barring flagrant violators, it could turn into a really interesting place. In addition to Dana, Andre, and Deb, Nathan Moore and Dave Jarecki have also contributed considerable energy to building the site, and it appears to be a really active team overall. So far, the level of general excitement is high and discussions have taken off at many of the groups. The trouble is, I may have a hard time now going anywhere else! Though Dana & Co. may have thought they were creating a Facebook for poets, I fear that what they’ve actually created is flypaper for poets. You can hear the buzz from here.

23 Replies to “A social network for poetry”

  1. Hey, this post is fantastic. A super-huge round of applause should also go out to Nathan Moore, Dave Jarecki and Deb Scott, who worked (and are working) so hard it’s impossible to even measure the collective output of their efforts. (I know you mentioned Deb, but I brought her up again because she has been hugely important in the launch process.)

    And all the cheers in the world to Andre, who worked his ass off so hard on this project that he no longer has an ass. (This makes sitting painful, or so he tells me.) And shouts and whistles to the senior contributors (of which you are one) and the contributing writers, whose content makes the site go ’round. And to all the members, new and old, who make the community what it is — which is, in a word, bitchin’.

    1. Yeah, and a good measure of the success of their efforts, ironically, is that they are nearly invisible to the casual visitor, except as eager fellow participants. But I’ve noticed how active they are in personally welcoming almost every new member, joining discussions, and feeding the hamsters. You’re all to be congratulated.

      1. I have a thing to say! I have a thing to say!

        Make that two things:

        1. Nathan and I *are* in the process of replying to your request for articles about poetry and blogging/poetry and Facebook. We’re responding with a collaborative poem that will — I can assure you — be of absolutely no use to your readers.

        2. I think the new Read Write Poem site/community is already successful. We didn’t set out to build a huge network. We just wanted to serve the community we’ve been serving for two years better by giving them more ways to interact and connect with one another. I think we’ve done that. Even if we didn’t have any new members, if we serve the current membership as well as possible, we’ve met our goal.


        1. That’s a very good point. In some of my “O Tech!” columns, you can bet I will rail against the prevalent assumption that the goal of every blog or website is to garner as many readers and commenters as possible. Because it’s true, and also because railing against prevalent assumptions is just so much fun.

          Oh, and I’m greatly looking forward to your and Nathan’s useless poem.

          1. We’d rather be Identi.ca than Twitter in the end, if that analogy makes any sense. There are already huge poetry sites out there. We don’t need to be that. We need to, want to, build a deeply engaged community. One that rocks.

            Maybe we’ll finish the poem today. The hangup is on my end.

  2. Thanks for the shout-out Dave! I’m really glad to hear that you like what we’re doing, so far.

    One feature that I’d like to point out, in case you ARE interested in following your friends’ activity, is the “Activity” link under your profile. If you click on that, you’ll have the option to view “My Friends” which will present an aggregated activity stream (with an associated RSS feed, if anyone feels inclined to subscribe through a reader). It’s somewhat buried, but it’s there for those who want to use that feature. I might try to customize the interface to make that more obvious at some point.

    1. Hey, cool! I’m embarrassed that I didn’t notice that. I will add a correction to the article. Thanks. And thanks for all your work on the site so far.

      1. I meant that for Andre. I wouldn’t make you install a virtual hamster, Dave. I know you’d hate that. But I might task you with feeding it.

      2. Maybe a hamster icon could replace the misleading RSS icon for the Activity link under profile avatars? That would be so cool.

  3. Great post, Dave, and I couldn’t agree more. Facebook has never caught on with me; I just can’t have the in-depth discussion I’d like to there, and the chit-chat mostly bores me. But I’ve been going back to RWP all day today, and I’m excited! (Wondering if we should start a micropoetry forum there, linking to Open Micro.)

    1. Hey, I’m glad you’re sharing in the excitement! There is a micropoetry forum. John Hicks is so far the only poster, linking to openmicro.org. The forum is associated with the Micropoetry group, although at the moment the forum link isn’t displaying on the group page.

  4. Interesting site! I think you’re right about growth not being a necessary goal for an Internet group. Every community that grows beyond some certain size develops trolls and an unfortunate signal-to-noise ratio.

    I think your purposes and activities mesh more productively with this medium than those of other social networking sites, such as Ravelry, which I found, um, disappointing. If you’re writing about knitting, you’re not knitting, but if you’re writing about writing….

    1. That’s an interesting observation. But writing about writing is actually something I’ve tended to be quite wary of; it requires — and promotes — a very different frame of mind from true creative writing for me.

    1. You’re right, I won’t do it. The only way I do chain-letter-type exercises is on Facebook, and then rarely. I am a stick in the mud that way (O.K., most ways). Thanks for all the flattering things you said about me, though.

  5. I checked out RWP and love the changes. I don’t have consistent accessibility to the Net right now so it’ll be awhile until I can really explore…but I was excited to see what’s happening there. My daughter loves Ravelry and I have been wondering where to find something like that for me (when I have the opportunity)! Thanks to you and all for the efforts!

    I’ll be up your way mid-month to help her move, and taking her for a chocolate experience to celebrate her transition to grad school. Perhaps we can meet up?

    1. Hi Peg – Yeah, lack of access to the web is one limiting factor — as I’m reminded here nearly every day when our DSL connection goes down and has to be finagled back into operation through a complex, almost ritualistic series of procedures.

      I don’t have a car, but I can certainly walk down and meet you guys at Gardener’s Candies in Tyrone. That would be fun. Email me when your plans firm up.

  6. dana am a poet and i have lots of them and do not know wat to do with them.please i need some help with that,if you got the time please help me.am from ole temple poet.now i have about 3 books full of them.i would like to put them out there.am in the island called dominica west indise guy if you know wat i mean k.this is my email lucian-25@hotmail.com and this is my number 17676141725 my name is toulon that’s french bye thanks please reply.we can work as a team i have all the poems you can think about just there in books after books.

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