In early August, online magazine Salon unveiled a new platform of blogs written by the people formerly known as its audience—with one attention-grabbing feature. The platform, dubbed “Open Salon,” lets readers tip a blogger for a well-written post.
Plenty of established bloggers heaped scorn on the idea, citing concerns about whether tipping would cheapen the writing, fit with Salon’s culture, or work at all. Salon’s newest writers shared similar concerns. Some reactions were biting, some hand-wringing, some curious and enthusiastic. (One was a rather lengthy analysis that quoted Salon’s byzantine regulatory submission to the SEC.) All of the responses, however, were earnest and invested, and they cumulatively speak to what Salon is trying to create—a serious and growing community of bloggers dedicated to discussing, as a group, their shared interests and gripes, commending and condemning together, though not always at the same time.
The New York Times has called Dave Winer the “protoblogger.” Winer, who was blogging on his personal Web site, Scripting News, as early as 1997, loves to make pronouncements about the Internet and most everything technological—and not because he’s bad at it. “I’ve said it many times before, it’s worth raising again,” he wrote in September 2007. “Any newspaper or radio or TV station with a good reputation in its community could embrace the fresh ideas of the bloggers in their community by offering free blogs to members of the community, who may be new to blogging.”
“We had an existing Salon Blogs program that I’d started in 2002,” said Scott Rosenberg, Salon’s co-founder and author of Dreaming In Code. But “it had sort of fallen into suspended animation because the technology platform and company that we’d partnered with were moribund.” Back then, Rosenberg said, “My vision was of an experimental and even improvisatory sort of project; I figured we’d build something and collaborate with our users to figure out what they wanted and what worked.”
Open Salon is basically an attempt to put that philosophy into action. While the platform is based on the model of group blogs like DailyKos and Huffington Post, it takes the idea further by opening the doors to anyone, without invitation. The blogs on Open Salon “aren’t merely sidebars,” said Salon editor-in-chief Joan Walsh. “They’re the main show. And no one has to give you permission to publish or invite you in.”
That makes Open Salon something almost entirely new: an unfettered platform like Blogspot or Wordpress (which anyone can freely use), tied to a community and an established brand (which appeals to some and not to others). There is no agenda, in other words, but there is identity.
Thus far, Open Salon’s identity is a bit up-market. Its men are mostly well-mannered and feminist-minded, and its women are liberated. (Open Salon is also, unsurprisingly, more lefty than not—many of its bloggers are impassioned Obama supporters.) For the most part, they’re smart people who seem like they would be good company. They talk about personal tragedy and parenthood and sex, and sometimes they talk about all three at once, as when blogger terriblemother wrote about her mildly autistic son’s enthusiasm for lightsabers, and the time when he mistook her vibrator for one. Many of the articles are quite good—check out Michael Copperman’s post about his mournful return to the Mississippi Delta, or Gwen Cooper’s gripping “ Night of the Hunter (or, The Night My Cat Saved My Life)”.
The bloggers are surprisingly polite and courteous, a tone that Salon staffers have tried very hard to cultivate. “One of the things I’ve learned from years of experience and watching the success of the photo-sharing site Flickr and learning from its founders,” said Rosenberg, “is that the initial conditions of any online community really do set its course for years to come. Part of that comes from the really extraordinary community of readers that Salon has always had and continues to have.” And, he notes, part of that comes from “how skillfully Salon’s leadership has handled the launch” and “succeeded in setting a civilized tone.”
Unsurprisingly, the platform’s tipping feature was one of the Open Salon bloggers’ favorite early topics of civilized conversation. Contrary to what you might expect, not everybody loved the idea. “I find myself hesitant now to invite friends to visit Open Salon,” wrote blogger Donna Sandstrom. “I don’t want them confusing my invitation with an implied obligation to tip. Like going to someone’s house for dinner and finding out you were actually invited to an Amway party.”