Growing Pains; or, does a blogging community get smaller as it gets bigger?

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I’ve seen many book blogs come and go in the almost four years (as of next week!) that I’ve been here. Some have made a big impact, and some have just quietly kept going. Some have formally called a halt to things, while others have simply drifted away, disappearing without leaving a forwarding address. Some have become nurturers and leaders of the community, while some cheerfully court controversy. Some thrive on lengthy, thoughtful analysis of the books they read and the issues they raise, while some keep things pithy and brief.

Ultimately, though, I’ve seen a lot more blogs come than I’ve seen go. Book Blogger Appreciation Week was first celebrated in 2008, and I think I recall hearing that about 400 or so bloggers signed up for it; that seemed huge, but by 2010 it was probably at least twice that big, maybe more. There are many, many of us blogging about what we read and what we think about it, and we do it in many different ways. Considering that, it’s a challenge to hold together as a single “book-blogging community;” once a group reaches a certain size, some sub-grouping tends to occur naturally as those with more in common seek each other out.

In a “state of the blogosphere” post last month, Melissa Ford addressed this phenomenon in her own blogging niche, but noted it probably occurs in others as well:

“A really interesting comment … questioned whether we’re really a cohesive community or whether we divide ourselves into small groups usually based on experience… 

“I see it from where I stand as sort of both truths at the exact same time — we’re a cohesive group (especially in comparison to other online communities) yet we’re also very much divided into small cliques… 

“By virtue of size, we have had to become fragmented. No one can keep 2700+ blogs in their mind when blogging is a hobby; not a job. It’s supposed to be enjoyable… It is not supposed to be a huge guilt trip of what you’re not doing or not getting or not achieving — at least, that is how I see it… People break down into cliques not with the desire to exclude, but instead, with the desire to have an enjoyable online experience that brings something missing to their world.”

There’s more, and I really recommend you read it all and see whether you think some of it applies to the book-blog community. I don’t think I’d use the word “cliques” to describe the sub-groups among book bloggers, but I do think the sub-groups – by favored reading genre, by participation in memes and blog hops, by geography, by some intangible common thread – exist.

Michelle and I recently discussed this in the comment section of one of her “Trends in Book Blogging” posts:

Me: …Just as the number of book blogs keeps growing, the number of events grows too. I’m not sure this is detrimental to the community in and of itself; however, growth may lead to its subdividing in different ways.

Michelle: If growth means subdividing the group, is this what we need? Does it make book bloggers less effective for the publishing industry if there are sub-segments? Is this something we should try to prevent or encourage?

As I mentioned, I think that subdivision occurs naturally as the whole becomes overwhelmingly large; we break it down to what’s manageable for us. I don’t know what publishers and book marketers think of that, but I can imagine mixed feelings: a better-targeted audience on the one hand, but potentially less exposure outside that target group on the other.

There’s also the possible hazard that your target group really isn’t talking to anyone except each other, which touches on the question Jamie recently asked: “Who are book bloggers catering to?”:

“Are we catering to other book bloggers? To readers (non book bloggers) who are searching for good books and might read book blogs for recommendations? Or are we just writing about books for ourselves and anyone else who might want to listen?…It seem that most of the interaction on book blogs is between book bloggers (and this isn’t a bad thing) but I always wonder if non-bloggers read my blog and find it helpful. I also notice that much content on book blogs (aside from book reviews) is really geared towards other book bloggers. Again I’m not saying this is a bad thing or is wrong.. it’s just an observation. But I do wonder if readers (non-bloggers) feel out of place sometimes on book blogs?”

I’ve always hoped that non-book-blogging readers feel welcome here:

“*Books and reading should be shared beyond book-blogging circles. 

*I want people who aren’t avidly-reading book bloggers to be inspired to read a book. 

I am pleased to identify as a book blogger…But I think it’s important to reach beyond that circle, too.”

(Having said that, I’d be surprised if this post accomplishes it, unless it gets someone thinking about the idea of “community” generally…)

However, as the book-blogger community continues to expand, even reaching everyone within that circle becomes less likely to happen, I think. Many still come together for events like BBAW and Dewey’s 24-Hour Read-a-thon (over 150 people are already signed up to participate in the next one, on April 9 – including me! Are you in, too?), but there are just too many things going on for everyone to participate in everything.

And so we fragment. Some will seek out their tribes and be content to stay within them. Some may find that they just prefer the company of old friends. Some will continue to wander, but choose to limit their range. And some will just take their community as they find it. For some of us, this will still be one big book-blogger community, if an increasingly big and diversified one where many neighbors will stay strangers. For some of us, a sub-community within that big diversified community will be all the community we want or need. Each of us ends up defining “the community” in a way that works for us.

I don’t necessarily see this as good or bad – it just happens. It’s growing pains. As I try to adapt, I find myself defining my book-blogger community in more flexible – but perhaps less encompassing – terms. Do you see the community restructuring and re-defining itself, and how does that affect the way you see your place in it?

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