With the impending demise of Barnes & Noble, a lot of people have been writing about the role it and other bookstores play in their community. The decline of brick-and-mortar bookstores has left many people without a spiritual, intellectual, or social home. There are other places to gather, of course, but they don’t offer the same sorts of activities, aren’t always filled with like-minded people, and of course, you’re not surrounded by thousands of books.
This parallels my unease with the decline of blogs and individual websites and the rise of social media. Like bookstores, blogs used to be little sanctuaries. There were cliques of bloggers who followed one another, and who shared followers. There were communities where actual conversations took place. Occasionally there were flame wars and dust ups with trolls, but with neither the regularity nor intensity of the asshattery that happens today. We might have called one another some pretty nasty names, but I can’t recall any doxxing, swatting, or death threats of any kind.
Our communities are being shoved out of our cozy nests of fellow travelers and into shared spaces that we don’t control. No one walks into a poetry reading or author signing or children’s story time by accident, and no one reads a blog post by accident. But people go to coffee shops and libraries and other public places for a variety of reasons. People are on social media for purposes that don’t match yours. We don’t control those spaces. If someone starts acting up in a bookstore, making people uncomfortable, or behaving in a threatening matter, they get thrown out. If people on this page start leaving nasty comments, I can delete their rude, cruel, and willfully ignorant drivel and block them so the rest of us can have a civil conversation.
In public spaces with a more generic purpose, we’re at the mercy of the venue. You can have a book club meeting in a coffee shop, but you’re not going to get the same level of support that a bookstore would offer. If people sit next to you and behave obnoxiously, making passive-aggressive comments to one another about how much they hate the author you’re discussing, they have as much of a right to be there as you do. On social media, anyone can barge in on any conversation, and we have to trust that Facebook or Twitter will actually follow their own terms of service and do something about it — which neither platform has a reputation for doing consistently.
No, my analogies don’t scan perfectly, but you get the point. I’m missing curated communities, where anyone is welcome but everyone behaves. Where we’re not a handful of people standing in the middle of a mob, shouting at each other to be heard over all of the other conversations going on. We need blogs to come back for the same reason we still need bookstores.
The title of this post comes from an article in The Atlantic on The FBI’s War on Black-Owned Bookstores, which got me thinking about all of this.