How Self-Publishing Evolved into an Online "Cafe"
by A.D. Coleman
The Nearby Cafe is an online site coupling a cafe ambience and the sort of content with which you might be whiling away the hours at La Coupole.

To the question posed as the premise for this dialogue--"What is virtual community and what's at stake in its many contradictory formulations?"- I have to reply, simply, that I don't know. Perhaps that's because I'm no longer sure I could answer that query in regard to real community. Yet I've become involved in a project whose motive could probably be described as "community-minded," and whose ambition is to further something that might at least resemble what we imagine (or remember) community to look and feel like.

Simply put, that venture is a content-heavy electronic magazine of which I'm the editor. It offers an international mix of material--images and texts--about art, photography, music, and other subjects, provided by a consortium of people and organizations active in those fields. Formerly called The B.Y.O. Cafe, it will shortly re-emerge under a new rubric, The Nearby Cafe.

In her recent book, Approaching Eye Level, Vivian Gornick writes, "I have endured the loss of three salvation romances--the idea of love, the idea of community, the idea of work." I would not go so far as to say that I've entirely "lost" any of those ideas, but I do agree that they are romances. I've also consciously opted, in a sense, to behave as a romantic. One can go about one's life blindly, as what we call an "incurable" or "hopeless" romantic. Or one can choose, quixotically, to live as a romantic, knowing full well that the windmills are nothing more than windmills, yet tilting at them nonetheless, in the belief that symbolic action and extravagance of gesture have value, if only to oneself.

At this juncture in my life, I cannot say that I feel myself truly part of any community, either in my personal or my public life. Yet my work as a writer and teacher assumes various commonalities among constituencies --shared language, shared symbol systems, shared interests, shared (or negotiable) values. Asked recently to define the public function of criticism, I heard myself explain, "It's the activity of responsible citizenship within a given community." If I did not think that my professional activities mattered to others--to specific, living others, to some generalized, contemporary Other, and to those who may come after us and find some value to the existence of an historical record--I'd be doing something else entirely.

But affecting others, even positively, does not of course necessarily define or produce community. Nor does wishing for community, or acting as if it existed, necessarily actualize that "salvation romance" and make it real. The various microcosms in which I function professionally--the art/photo/publishing/higher-education milieus--seem more like sprawling dysfunctional families than communities to me. Authentic community emerges and develops organically; it may very well depend on physical proximity and is certainly enhanced by it. Certainly it's not something that can be create overnight, by throwing a bunch of people together either in a physical- or cyber-location, or by temporarily bringing together those who have common interests.

In this culture, our capacity for community has been under concerted attack from many sources: Real-estate developers who physically uproot and disperse us; Mad Ave. hucksters who fragment us into target markets; mass-media entrepreneurs who commercialize and thus trivialize the very imagery of community. The blame does not automatically fall on technology--the telephone (especially the party line) enhanced community--but human beings, and not their tools, generate community. Or fail to. It takes long-term commitment to a specific cluster of others to make a village.

I haven't felt myself part of a functioning community--in either my personal or professional life--since sometime back in the early 1970s. And I seem to encounter less and less genuine communitarian energy in my travels than I used to. Yet I refuse to succumb to the tempting assumption that it has vanished for good. Which is perhaps a way of saying that while I'm not sure that "community" now exists in American culture, if it ever did, I believe that maintaining the idea of community, and trying to exemplify some of its possibilities, remains a useful project. So I choose to act as if I were a responsible member of a community I could identify and describe, though I have not a single shred of evidence that, if my house burned down, anyone--in either the art/photo or cyber- worlds--would send me a can of peas, much less join a roof-raising party.

The Internet project of which I'm the organizer and (still) primary sponsor began as a simple act of self-publishing. In mid-1995, finding my writing opportunites diminishing due to the protracted economic recession, I decided to establish a dependable outlet for my work that was entirely under my control. The then-recent emergence of the World Wide Web as a technology and communications system allowed me to begin producing what I thought of as a newsletter--"C: the Speed of Light"--in the form of a personal home page. The cost--under $500 per year, aside from a modest initial investment in equipment--proved irresistibly low. This went online in mid-1995 and was an enormously empowering step to take.

Soon after, other individuals and organizations with whom I was in contact grew interested in this new medium. This prompted me to enlarge the site considerably, adding approximately a dozen more content providers whose material would be organized and made Web-viable by myself and several part-time assistants. I thought a certain synergy might result that would benefit all of us and attract a wider mix of visitors. Dubbed "The B.Y.O. Cafe" (for bring your own), this project went online in October of 1995. (A year later, it's temporarily off-line, in the shop for retooling. By December 1, we will go back online at a new ISP, with a new URL and a new name: The Nearby Cafe. The "we" to which I refer includes our site designer, Ralph Mastrangelo, and our assistant manager, Nina Sederholm.)

The ultimate aim, on my part, is to create a cyberplace that has the ambiance of the classic international cafe with an Internet spin, a venue in which those who (like myself) think of themselves as citizens of the world can feel comfortable, meet kindred spirits, and engage in provocative dialogue. Others seem to share my vision. We get lots of E mail from folks who tell us they've spent hours browsing through our site. It comes from people and places around the world that none of us--neither we who run the site nor our various content providers--had previously reached with our activities.

Does this constitute the creation of community? I'm not sure it does, but that neither impeaches it nor renders it meaningless. The image that comes to mind for me is that of the "pen pal." I remember how, in elementary school, we were offered the chance to correspond with someone from another country--someone we'd probably never meet, from a different culture, who we'd know only from what could be transmitted through the postal system. That didn't exactly breed community, but it engendered an increased openness to cultural difference and the experience of communication across national borders. If that proved to be all the Internet achieved, I'd still consider it a major force for good.

Separately and collectively, we at the Cafe haven't yet figured out how to make this venture economically self-sufficient, but it's getting there. I sell copies of my books through the site, and have been commissioned to lecture and write about the know-how I've developed running it, while a European program drew one-third of its student body for a workshop from those who discovered its existence through this site. And so on. Thus, at least for now, it may be more realistic to think of such ventures less as for-profit endeavors and more as a kind of loss-leader or--perhaps--a give-back to one's community, something akin to the religious practice of tithing.

I have always tithed to my constituencies, in various ways: Visiting colleagues' classes and even giving public lectures in return for travel expenses, offering essays to "little" journals that pay a pittance, serving on the boards of non-profit ventures. Tithing--which, broadly construed, represents the return of a portion of one's income to the common pot- strikes me as one of the fundamental acts underpinning the idea of community. At present, this Website is my primary form of tithe.

Yet if something we'd agree to call community results from my activities in general, or from this Cafe, or from the Internet and the Web and their evolution, I don't expect it to be a tribal form of community--people bonded for life, living side by side, intimately involved, standing back-to back against their enemies. I predict it'll be more like the looser community that the agora encourages: A varied mix of people from all over, a context for the barter and exchange of goods, ideas, skills, energies. And, somewhere in the middle of that marketplace, a few fires with kettles kept boiling for the making and sharing of stone soup. For the foreseeable future, you'll find me tending one of them, at The Nearby Cafe.

A. D. Coleman is the photography critic for the New York Observer, and a contributor to a wide variety of periodicals throughout the world. As soon as it's available, the new URL of The Nearby Cafe will be posted here.

© Copyright 1996 by A. D. Coleman. All rights reserved. By permission of the author and Image/World Syndication Services, P.O.B. 040078, Staten Island, New York 10304-0002 USA.

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