Can digital community support writing, really?

Can digital community support writing, really?

Not unlike climate change, it's something that digital-age writers worry about, but can't nail down.

I'm not sure what effect the accepting warmth of digital communities has on our literature. I don't think encouraging people can make bad writing suddenly appeal to the masses. Are the communities going to start getting the same blame that self-publishing used to get all the time? "Because anyone can publish a book, there's no good writing anymore."

That's the author Lara Schiffbauer in a comment on my piece from earlier this week, Digital writing: If only community weren't so communal. In her comment, Schiffbauer — one of my most faithful readers over the years — talks of her own tour-sans-Virgil through the writerly maze of communities now shuffling around on the ether.

I can only speak for myself, but I do think when I was trying so hard to interact in a gazillion communities and find people to be my "platform," my writing did suffer, because I didn't have as much time to write. However, I also found some great writer friends who helped me grow as a writer, and who were awesome beta-readers/critique partners for my first book. So, like much in life, there's positive and negative in writer communities.

Such ambiguity is well known to many writers. It's not just the question of time and how you spend it. There's also the issue of the authorial voice. Is it compromised when every chapter and paragraph may be discussed and debated among communal chums? Is this the writing we've known in the past? Or is it something else? That place, such community, did not exist as anything like the moody modus it does for so many now, prior to the advent of the digital dynamic. 

So, hey, come join our community — you like irony, right? — us for a #FutureChat on the topic.

Can community support writing, really? Or does it just make everybody feel lots better?

You have to admit, if the digital publishing community we recognize here at The FutureBook gets together on Fridays for these live chats, we do then, at least, disperse and send each other off to get on with it. We don't float around in cyberspace, whiling away the days and nights with our musings at some pixilated water cooler. Yet.

Going in, let's try to define a few forms of community we're talking about. And just to get a fix on why the question is important, let's try the ham-handed but useful gambit: What might Hemingway have written — and how much of it would we have today — if he'd had a big ScribesInSpace.com community to sit around with under the ceiling fans in Key West?


This article was written as the walkup to our #FutureChat of 7th August. Join us every Friday for #FutureChat live on Twitter at 4:00 p.m. London (BST), 3:00 p.m. GMT, 5:00 p.m. Rome (CEST), 11:00 a.m. New York (ET), 10:00 a.m. Chicago (CT), 9:00 a.m. Denver (MT), 8:00 a.m. Los Angeles (PT), 5:00 a.m. Honolulu (HAST).


My own aria on the topic came about as a result of a panel appearance last weekend at Writer's Digest's Annual Conference (WD, and #WDC15 describes the community of its hashtag). Eight of us from the Writer Unboxed community were moderated by WD's Jessica Strawser in a discussion of what makes Writer Unboxed an unusual entry on the communal stage.

There are two faces, Eve, of community at WU. One is the key site on which you can read a single essay each day from one of our contributors, add a comment if you like, and then leave. The other part of WU is a Facebook gathering of more than 5,000. 

As you can see from the carefully composed guidelines for the Facebook group, even that element of Writer Unboxed is unusual for its structured, considered approach. One way to think of Writer Unboxed is as a professionals-underway center rather than as a lounge for aspirationals. That's certainly the pedestal of the main site. The parameters are different at the Facebook site, but even there the rules of no-self-promotion are carefully monitored — as is tone. Those "dragons in St. George's clothing" I talk about, the crusading bullies of publishing, get little traction at WU. The reason that Writer Unboxed is a good entry point for this discussion is its position as something less social than work oriented. 

But on the wider scale, community for authors: can we count the ways?

The Grand Community Of Writers — This one is less a single place, not even on the Web, than a new attitude enabled by digital. As long as it's possible for writers to be in touch with each other on the Internet, they're automatically part of an unprecedented capability. The "isolation of the author," almost mythic in its stony remove from "normal" life, simply no longer exists except during power outages and and your Internet service provider's flakier moments. 

Just for the record, I'm a fan of the author Jonathan Maberry's tireless campaign for mutual support among authors. He writes me today to say that when he offered a sample query letter and other useful files to attendees of the Writer's Digest conference, he got, so far, 361 takers. That's great, and it's one of the ways he's working to encourage positive give-and-take among writers over competitive melodrama. If this is community, bring it on.

The Church of Inspi-Vation — By far the biggest lure, in my opinion, is that of the "support group." What the digital age seems to tell us is that not one single writer ever wanted to work in solitude, and in fact they're all out there crying, crying, I tell you, for fellowship. I don't believe this for a moment. I think that the best writers are temperamentally suited for the genius of creativity uncoloured by others' personalities and that most of the would-be writers who flock to these congregations aren't the real thing. They're our hobbyists in their thousands. You may challenge me severely on this in #FutureChat, but I don't think our best literary producers are hanging around bragging about today's word count at TearsOfHappiness.com. Kumbaya yourself.

Informational Exchanges — Probably the most effective communities, these may not be about writing at all, but about topics various writers focus on for a living. And of course this category can include the job-posting, work-opportunity sharing function that becomes a reality as soon as the diodes hook up everybody online. Again, you may want to argue with this, but to me the best chance of a healthy communal experience for writers is one that kicks them right back out the door to go write, not hang around. And to the degree that one of these hubs can hand you the info you needed and send you on your way, this is the promise of the Net's usefulness in action. Great.

Gossip Valley — For my money, these forums and sites do us a big favour: they corral all the faux writers into one convenient spot so the rest of us can avoid them. These are the sites that frequently masquerade as information exchanges but are actually hotbeds of bad, misleading, fact-less opinion. The gripe sessions. The pile-ons. The carping and whining and assaultive criticism that fuels these settings are what Schiffbauer is referencing in her good comment when she writes:

The internet is not very nice, and the communities could easily turn to the dark side.

She's right, and too many people, guised as writers, are so angry about God knows what that they basically never emerge from these sites. Addictive, destructive, damaging. Again, while these things might be referred to as writerly places online, I don't think much going on in them is really about writing. They're animated by hostilities that have no place in creative or professional exchanges, and I'm very happy to let them chew each other's legs off in there.

Social Writing Sites — Here's one of the most intriguing forms of writerly community, and it's best represented by Wattpad's 40 million users. (Yes, it has roughly the same size population as Argentina or Ukraine or Algeria. Study Wattpad Nation carefully before casting aspersions on it.) What's happening there is writing-in-public, authors producing chunks of their work for the inspection and interaction by "helpful" readers who then offer their opinions, guidance, likes and dislikes, even "casting" ideas as to which actors might play which roles in the work. The site's folks make the point that it is not a publishing platform. It's social. Lots of people like to overlook that. The question is what kind of writing does this produce? It's about as far from that stereotypical splendid (or not) isolation of the author as we can get.

Does this make art?

Has writing-by-committee come of age?

Tell us in #FutureChat. Where we're always cordial if not wildly...communal.


Join us every Friday for #FutureChat live on Twitter at 4:00 p.m. London (BST), 3:00 p.m. GMT, 5:00 p.m. Rome (CEST), 11:00 a.m. New York (ET), 10:00 a.m. Chicago (CT), 9:00 a.m. Denver (MT), 8:00 a.m. Los Angeles (PT), 5:00 a.m. Honolulu (HAST).

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