|The future of community?
Photo from smh.com.au (Sydney Morning Herald)
Writing, by its nature, is a solitary undertaking. Reading, too, is done mostly on one’s own. So why not bring writers together with readers in a virtual community?
Redroom.com is the one of several social networks devoted to the love of literature. Yet, it is pulling ahead in the race by attracting big names. Maya Angelou, Amy Tan, Jon Stewart, Salman Rushdie, and even Barack Obama are Redroom.com members. So are lesser known writers such as Belle Yang, author of The Odyssey of a Manchurian and Baba: A Return to China Upon My Father’s Shoulders; Bill Hayes, author of The Anatomist: A True Story of Gray’s Anatomy; and Peter Coyote, best known as an actor but also the author of Sleeping Where I Lie.
Redroom went live in December of 2007, and so far, Redroom’s CEO, Ivory Madison, has raised more than $1.8 million from such investors as Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist, and Nion McEvoy of Chronicle Books. Madison mentioned that the site has also nabbed for its advisory board Norman Pearlstine, a media mogul who was The Wall Street Journal’s publisher for many years before moving to Time Inc. and then to The Carlyle Group, where he helps spot new media opportunities. Ivory also mentioned that just this week she convinced chef and food entrepreneur Thomas Keller, of French Laundry fame, to invest.
Madison is publishing her first book next month (a graphic novel called Huntress: Year One, from D.C. Comics). She’s also working hard to raise the next round of financing for Redroom.com. Her goal: another $1.2 million.
Last night Yang, Hayes, Coyote, Ishmael Reed, and Madison discussed their experiences with Redroom.com in a panel at the Commonwealth Club. Expertly moderated by David Ewing Duncan, a member of The Grotto and an NPR host, the evening’s discussion touched on the ways in which writers and artists have sought to build communities over the years.
Duncan asked Peter Coyote to reflect on his experience in the 1960s as one of the Diggers and talk about how this new, online community fit in with that. The Diggers, a three-year guerilla theater project, was based in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury district. (You can learn more by visiting the Digger Archives.)
“The continuum is West Coast culture,” answered Coyote. “We were creating events to raise questions about who owns what. In a sense, I think Redroom is in the same tradition. The existing technology – the internet – is democratizing media. Anyone can jump in. If the writing is meritorious, it will find an audience.”
Duncan then asked another provocative question: Is there anything that could go wrong with this? He noted that he’d banned his own kids from their family computer because otherwise they’d spend all day on it. Is that what, in effect, a social networking site such as Redroom.com is encouraging among writers and readers?
Coyote acknowledged there is a potential problem. “There is a fundamental distinction between the 1960s and now, and that is that (back in the 1960s) thousands of bodies would show up, get educated at a teach-in, and then go to the munitions plants to protest the war.”
“There is something misleading about cyber-community,” he argued. “A real community brings you soup when you’re sick, takes care of your children, and buries you when you die.”
There aren’t protests in the street against this war, as there were against the Vietnam War – and that, he said, was the “shadow side of the internet.”
Applause broke out, which Coyote self-deprecatingly attributed to “the two people who agree with me.”
Yet the club office where the panel was held was packed with perhaps a hundred or so writers, editors, and agents, including Litquake founder Jane Ganahl, San Francisco magazine’s Pamela Feinsilber, Soma Lit editor and author Kemble Scott, and literary agent Michael Larsen. After ignoring Redroom’s first invitation to join last fall, I finally jumped on the bandwagon earlier this year, as I prepared for the paperback edition of my book, The House of Mondavi, to be published in May.
That, itself, proved the exact opposite of Coyote’s point about the alienating nature of the Internet: on a Monday evening, a hundred or so people making the trek – after work and during dinnertime for most families — to the Commonwealth Club to explore the evolving nature of community.
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