At play in the fields of Google

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 17 of 20 in the series Poetics and technology


UPDATE (9/1/11): I’ve decided to end my use of Google+ due to Google’s intransigence over its identity policy. One Facebook is enough! See you over at the other corporate soul-stealer.

Cory Doctorow sums up the issues better than I could.


So I’ve joined Google+, the fantastic new social network for talking about Google+. (It’s still in private beta, but I have invitations if anyone wants one.) Enthusiasm for the still-developing service has been balanced by skepticism that we actually need another general-purpose social network — see for example what Lorianne DiSabato and Beth Adams have blogged about it. Here are my initial reactions.

1) Facebook has had a “lists” feature for quite some time, supposedly allowing one to keep up with subsets of one’s contacts — family, close friends, blogger buddies, etc. Unfortunately, it never shows me more than the most recent day or two of posts from the lists I’ve set up, and even then doesn’t seem to include everything. Facebook is good at suggesting people I should add to each semi-functional list, which makes me suspect it’s really all about data-mining with advertisers in mind: figure out how specifically we network so they can better target us in coordinated advertising campaigns. Now, there’s no guarantee that Google+’s ballyhooed “circles” won’t have the same ultimate purpose. But the interface for screening one’s data-stream by subset of contacts is much smoother, it’s not three clicks away, and (so far at least) it works.

2) Data portability is a critical issue for me. Google+ lets you download and save all your posts at any time. I like that. Despite my very liberal views on copyright and content-sharing, I don’t like the feeling I get over at Facebook that my content isn’t really my own.

3) Much as I like the 140-character limit at Twitter and as an enforcer of concision and spur to creativity for my microblogging at The Morning Porch, I don’t otherwise see the point, and I resent Facebook limiting the length of status updates. Google+ lets you go on as long as you like. It’s bloggish.

4) While it would be nice to have a “Facebook for grown-ups,” and I’ll be happy if Google+ becomes that and gets mass adoption, at this point I’m most interested in social networking around specific interests or for specific purposes. (Just look at the success of Goodreads among book-readers and Ravelry among knitters.) It’s not clear to me yet whether Google+, with its circles and video-chat “hangouts,” represents a major step forward in this regard. I am considering getting a webcam, though — the possibilities for small-group readings and workshops are very tantalizing. I’ve always hesitated to organize conference calls on Skype due to the sometimes intermittent nature of our internet connection here; far better if it were hosted in the cloud, as Google+ hangouts are. Also, spontaneous get-togethers are often the best kind, and creative types in particular are hard to herd, as would be necessary if I ever tried the Skype approach.

5) Like Beth and Lorianne, I’m a blogger first and foremost. I think that anyone who really has anything to say on a regular basis should have their own blog, and that we should preferentially leave comments about blog posts at the point of origin and stop letting discussions fragment and dissipate at a half-dozen different places where the link might be shared.

6) A link-sharing culture, regardless of its host (Google+, Reddit, Tumblr, StumbleUpon, etc.) is fundamentally about enthusiasm for things that others have written, captured or made. This is both good and bad. I like the enthusiasm (and the frequent displays of wit), but I get frustrated after a while and want to say, O.K., but what have you made? Where are your poems? Hang out too much with professional writers or artists, though, and you’ll notice that we tend to go in the opposite direction, rarely sharing anything we didn’t make ourselves. Is it possible that our participation in social networks has helped mitigate this tendency a little? Or for those of us who were already blogging before Facebook and Twitter got big, has it actually shrunk our blogs, diminishing the emphasis we once placed on linking out, assembling sidebar linkrolls, and being social, because hey, we’re doing enough of that elsewhere? Self-centered and often anti-social as I am, I do try to strike a balance between self-promotion and other-promotion, but it’s not always easy. I like to think my use of Facebook has forced me to at least stay focused on the problem.

7) Email is still the “killer app” for me and I think for almost everyone over the age of 30. Unlike phone calls or (god help us) instant messaging, it doesn’t interrupt whatever I’m doing and destroy my concentration. We need less distraction, not more. What keeps me involved in online social interactions are email notifications, and the more customizable those notifications are, the happier I am. Facebook has recently gotten pretty good in this regard, letting me decide on a page-by-page and group-by-group basis how I want to be notified. It would be nice if I could do this for each comment thread as well, because some discussions you really want to follow and others, not so much. (I’ve seen participants in Facebook conversations go back and delete their comments just to stop the flood of notifications when the conversation goes on too long!)

It is in this regard that the older blogging platforms are really falling behind WordPress. I’m much less likely to leave a comment anymore if can’t keep track of follow-up discussion via email. I’ll actually be surprised if Blogger doesn’t overhaul its archaic commenting system soon, and introduce a “subscribe to other comments in this thread” feature when it does so. Typepad is probably a lost cause. (Incidentally, for self-hosted WordPress bloggers, I recommend the plugin I’m using, Subscribe to Comments Reloaded, rather than the original Subscribe to Comments, which hasn’t been updated since 2007. Previously I used a different plugin with a double opt-in feature — in other words, the subscriber had to not only check a box, but reply to an email in order to confirm each and every subscription. That’s too many hoops to jump through, I think.)

The point is that for me and I presume most other email-oriented people who want to participate in online conversations, it’s important that we have the option to follow discussions via email — and that we have fine-grained controls, including the option to unsubscribe from any discussion at any time. currently leads the social media field in this regard, which may seem ironic, since WordPress is all about traditional, long-form blogging and website creation rather than social networking. The highlight of the latest version of the software is a distraction-free writing option, which shows what the developers prioritize. At the same time, they have more — and, I gather, better — mobile phone applications than any other blogging platform. But I think it only makes sense that those who most value thoughtful communication would build the best tools for discussion and response.

A social network for poetry

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

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 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 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.