Thoughts on Online Community

This is webby meta stuff. If you’re not interested in that, why not read Eva Holland’s new piece on Vela Mag instead. It’s a great read.

“Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member.”
— Groucho Marx

There was a bit of a flap amongst some travel bloggers last week. The issue? A post by John O’Nolan at a site called Travelllll.  (I’ll call the site T5 going forward, I can’t bear typing that name over and over.) O’Nolan blasted bloggers who are selling links, telling them “If you sell paid links, you are less than worthless as a travel blogger, and you should be ashamed of yourself.”  The post also threatened to expose link selling bloggers to T5’s readership. O’Nolan revised the remarks later, generating further ire over T5’s revisions policy. There was a swift reaction from bloggers, many were insulted and defensive. Others agreed with the post and in the comments thread, there’s some serious outing going on. It’s ugly. I found it an awful “can’t look away situation.” (Here’s the original, unrevised post.) There’s also quite an elegant apology, make of that what you will.

That’s the back story. The bit that interests me is the reaction from a number of different bloggers who have written response posts (guess I’m jumping on that bandwagon) or left comments along the line of “I thought this was supposed to be a supportive community! I thought travelbloggers were supposed to help each other out! WTF?” I’ve also seen “What’s with all the hating, travelbloggers? I thought we were a community!”  I’m simplistically interpreting this as “You’re tearing us apart!” and “I thought we were friends!”

Defining online community is tricky. I went looking; I found interesting stuff from some terrific web nerds, but nothing that suggested we all agreed or offered carte blanche support for our collective practices. Here’s Jeremiah Owyang:

An online community is: Where a group of people with similar goals or interests connect and exchange information using web tools.

Nancy White has a great compilation of definitions of online community but perhaps my favorite is this from an unnamed FCC judge:

 Community is like pornography, I don’t know how to define it, but I sure know it when I see it.

I’m a fan of community building initiatives. I think it’s extremely valuable for people who share their interests to work together, to exchange ideas and information, and, if it works out, to build things. These can be things like TBEX, the Travelblog Exchange conference, or forums where issues are discussed, or the project founded here in Seattle, Passports with Purpose, the travelblogger’s fundraiser. Once or twice a year we gather the Seattle Consortium of Online Travel and there’s the Seattle Travel Bloggers Happy Hour group on Facebook. I like all of these things, a lot, they build excellent communities.

But I’m also extremely opinionated and critical.  I tend to respect those that share that quality a lot more than the “can’t we all get along” types. I don’t want or need to get along with everyone, and furthermore, that sounds dead boring. If I wanted everyone to agree with my practices or opinions, I’d never leave the house. Or turn on my computer.

I think the mess at T5 was caused by poor writing. It’s never a good idea to insult or threaten your audience. T5’s “You suck and I’m going to tell on you” rhetoric was amateurish and kind of embarrassing. This is where I respond to another common complaint I’ve seen as a result of the T5 flap. “When did this community get so judge-y?” Guess what? I judge your work all the time. I judge your photographs and your writing and the things you link to and define as interesting or valuable. I’m your reader, dammit, I get to judge the quality of what you’re putting in front of me.

I suspect you judge my work as well. And I admit it: I like it when you say nice things, I like it less when you don’t. But I never expect you to agree with me, nor do I expect you to support me if I engage in practices you find offensive. The fact that we’re both travelbloggers implies one thing to me: We both blog about travel. That’s all it implies by way of commonality. We’re going to have to go deeper if you want to draw a circle around us and declare we’re a community.

I was peripherally involved with “the mommy-blogging community” some time back, oh, that was a contentious place, boy howdy. Have you ever looked at “the political blogging community”? Bare knuckle boxing, you’d better be ready.

On the positive side, I love the community we’ve built for Passports with Purpose — we strive towards a common goal and set aside our style and editorial differences while we capitalize on a platform we all use to do good work. I loved the Book Passages community, a group of people who gathered because of their common love for creating beautiful work about travel. These are smaller, well defined communities that share a common goal. Raising money for a good cause. Making good work.

We build our own communities. We define them ourselves. We gather people whose work we respect, whose opinions we trust and we build our communities with them, around them. There’s my travelblogging community and your travelblogging community, and odds are quite good that they are not the same thing. Before we start taking shots at how the travelblogging community behaves, I think we need to define, in specific detail, who we mean.

What do you mean when you say “the travelblogging community”?

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21 thoughts on “Thoughts on Online Community

    • Heh. Point taken, but you should see the back room brawls between me, Debbie, Meg, Michelle, and Beth. We try to keep that stuff out of the public eye. 🙂

      Actually, we could pick a potentially contentious cause. And true story, one year a blogger said they wouldn’t participate because I’d been mean to them. No, I’m not telling you who it was.

  1. Well, ultimately, this was my beef with the whole thing. I see a community falling apart only if the people within it choose to let it fall apart. My community — that is, the people who I really love talking to about travel, blogging, photography, etc. — is just as strong as it was before this whole T5 uproar. (And, yes, can I just say that T5 is the MOST ANNOYING blog name EVER. It amazes me that a website about blogging could choose a domain name that makes absolutely no sense.)

    In the immortal rhetoric of one of the greatest parables ever written, the sky doesn’t fall just because one loudmouth (and maybe two or three more) claim that it’s falling.

  2. Well said, Pam. Travel blogging is a public endeavor and that leaves it subject to the same forms of criticism as other such enterprises. Restaurants, theater productions, television shows, movies and, yes, even mainstream media journalism are all reviewed and evaluated by critics, audiences and consumers.

    For example, as an avid sports fan, I watch a tremendous amount of sports programming on television and read about it online and in print. There are good sports journalists, there a bad sports journalists. Sports journalism, like travel blogging, is a genre or writing. There are critics who offer opinions specifically on sports journalism (Richard Deitsch of Sports Illustrated is one of the best but there are others, such as Phil Mushnick at the New York Post). They offer criticism (good, bad and in between) on sports media.

    Travel blogging should not be exempt from criticism. There is no need for the “community” to protect its own from any and all types of peer review. You write a blog post, you want people to read it, you need to accept that they might not like it.

    Disable your comments section if you don’t care about what other people think. But readers will just go on Twitter or Facebook to share their opinions. If you don’t want criticism, don’t write publicly. It’s that simple.

    The travel blogging community exists insomuch as we all write about travel. Beyond that, we don’t owe each other much beyond trying to maintain a respectful dialogue. We need to be mature enough to accept that the dialogue will include opinions different from our own, critics of our work and people with whom we don’t agree.

    Those contrary opinions are not wrong because they are contrary. They are simply opinions. If we want to grow as writers (and people, for that matter), we need to be open to opinions that differ from our own.

  3. I don’t see travel blogging, or in my case cultural travel blogging, as a community. It’s frakking work. Period.

    As usual, I agree with everything you say in your post. I am very critical of other people’s work, as I am with my own – and in the vein of whether I am objective or subjective in my critique, I will say that I do not suffer hacks lightly.

    The community bit can be defined as going out for a pint when the work day is done. Yeah.

  4. The conflicts and controversies I’ve seen in the world of travel blogging are small potatoes compared to what I’ve seen elsewhere.

    I think some people simply do not want any conflict or argument regardless what it is about.

    Pam, you and I have argued about some things in the past, but in the big scheme of things it isn’t a big deal. Blogging and travel is not religion and politics. People can have different opinions and still get along.

    Sincerely yours,

    Homeless and unemployed blogger

  5. For me it wasn’t so much about a “community” falling apart, or about a disagreement or contentious discussion. Heaven knows I love a good debate and discussion.

    What bothered me was the childish, bullying behavior. I don’t like to be around it in my personal life or my business life, and the unprofessional behavior (there was lots of it to go around) reflect upon all of us – whether we consider the offenders part of our own personal community or not.

    Let’s debate issues, disagree, come to terms with our own definitions of ethics and acceptable behavior. But FTLOG, let’s do it like adults, not like bullies and spoiled children on the playground.

    • Witness. I thought the remarks made in the original post set a really unfortunate tone for the conversation. Editorial oversight, input, I tell you what, would have got a Really Long Way towards creating a valuable discussion about an important topic. Yeah, that didn’t happen. You can’t expect a reasonable discussion to follow the statement, “You’re worthless.” Not gonna happen.

  6. Isn’t the root of judgement, the ability to make a decision? “Do I agree or not with what is being said/written.” It happens automatically. As you said, we do this every single day in practically every single one of our interactions. We are constantly being faced with the task of what to say and how to say it. Maybe the fellow at T% truly felt the need to say what he said, but talk about blundering on the method…

    • Fair point. It’s in everything. I don’t understand the negative reaction to the idea of judging things. Let’s use a different term, say, “evaluation.” We’re evaluating things All The Time, and that’s not a negative quality.

      What you said about the blundering.

      Also, Lia, I LOVE that you’re still here reading. I just wanted to say that.

  7. I think that this is an excellent analysis of the community and of this fiasco. While I am all in favor of expressing your opinion even if you know it’s controversial, I also think that you have to be very careful when you do so, because it can really blow up in your face.

  8. Your post is the first I’m hearing of the T5 flap (since kerfluffle has already been taken). I’ve been very out of touch with the Travelblogging community for a while now. I’m not sure I’d even consider myself a travel blogger, but I do see a lot of overlap with my life, my work and with travel blogging.

    This particular community is a way for me to stay in touch with other people who are doing similar things to what I’m doing. It’s a support system for me since I live in a place where there aren’t many expats or travelers. I have enough chaos in my life as it is, the last thing I want is to have that in my work and online life.

    Like any community, there will be those with whom I am thrilled to sit and have a drink and a discussion in which we don’t necessarily agree. And then there are others who, well, it’s ok if we don’t.

  9. Yeah, I read a few of the “Why can’t we all just get along” posts and had to wonder, “What? Since when did we all get along? I disagree with you people all the time!”
    But, that’s not to say I don’t value disagreements. Heck, my favorite posts have come out of me totally disagreeing with something someone said on the internets.If I agreed with everyone all the time I’d never have anything to write about!
    And, yeah, judging is totally the best! Frankly, I wish more people would assume they’re being judged before pushing the publish button on their blog… maybe, then, I’d see a lot more quality writing and a lot less spelling and grammar mistakes. (Not that I ever make those. Ever. Ahem.)

  10. Interestingly, selling links is actually against Google’s code of conduct – they’ll find and bust people doing it. So in the end, there’s no need to actually turn people in because they’ll get found out and penalized on their own (whether or not Google should be penalizing them is another point altogether).

    But as for community, Pam, I have to say this: to me, you are one of the most important people in the travel community, particularly in Seattle. And the reason why is that you keep trying to bring more people into that community, and keep elevating the level of conversation within it. Kudos to you.

    • Pshaw, G. I’m just tryna find people to fight with. 🙂

      Seriuosly, you flatter me to no end. It’s weird for someone to be a “community leader” when really, they’d rather be in their backyard alone. But I like to be around people who are doing good work — we have a lot to learn from each other, and that’s what makes a community interesting.

  11. It is indeed against Google’s code of conduct to sell links, which is the main reason I don’t do it myself. However, I consider what other people are doing with their sites to be none on my business!

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