Salon’s TableTalk shutdown: What we can learn from the story of a pioneering online community

Table Talk home page, circa 1999Salon.com Wednesday announced plans to close Table Talk, the online discussion space and community that has operated continuously since Salon’s launch on Nov. 20, 1995. I was involved in Table Talk’s creation and management for its first several years, and when I read the news, I flashed back to my first day at Salon.

As the tech-savviest of a not-tech-savvy-at-all gang of newspaper refugees trying to build a web magazine, I got pulled over by our then-publisher. He’d been tearing his hair out trying to get a group of unruly Cornell students to write the software that would power Table Talk, which was going to be Salon’s big bid for being not just an online magazine but an “interactive” website worthy of the Salon name. Things weren’t going well. “I want you to project manage this,” the publisher said. I thought, “What do I know from ‘project manage’? I’m a critic!” Then I dove in, because, in a startup with six employees, that was what you did.

For me it was the start of a deepening engagement with and affection for the excitement, complexity and pitfalls of building software-powered websites. (Salon itself was lovingly hand-coded then and for several years after.) We got Table Talk launched, sort of, though within weeks we had to ditch the version those Cornell kids had built and start fresh. Said kids took their software and built TheGlobe.com with it, which went on to an impossibly successful IPO at the height of the dotcom bubble before a spectacular flameout.

The original idea was that every Salon article would have a link at the end to a Table Talk thread. The articles would serve, in part, as discussion-starters and then our community would kick the ideas around. It wasn’t a dumb plan — story comments are now a Web standard. But the way we built it, modeled on the experiences some of us had had as members of The WELL, Table Talk was a separate space with threaded discussions that anyone could add. The conversations weren’t tied to the stories very well, and we quickly learned that the community members — who took to the project avidly — preferred to talk about what they wanted to talk about. Salon’s editors and writers rarely hung out in TT, and it didn’t take long before the TT members developed a dysfunctional relationship with Salon’s staff — simultaneously craving our attention and resenting our presence.

So TT went its somewhat separate way from Salon-the-magazine, which soon started running a simple, hand-coded letters to the editor page to highlight actual responses to our stories. Mary Elizabeth Williams, its original and longtime host, managed the discussion space with great love and devotion for years. We all learned a lot about dealing with anonymity and trolls, personal authenticity and online performance art, technical woes and social dynamics.

What we never managed to do was find a way to knit the energy and talent of Table Talk’s remarkable community with the skills and money being invested into Salon.com itself. Instead, Salon tried over and over to find different models for tying community together with journalism. In 1999 it acquired The WELL. In 2002 it launched a blog program. In 2005 it transformed Letters to the Editor into a more web-standard comments feature. In 2008 it launched Open Salon as a modern, social blogging platform.

As a result, Table Talk became, more and more, a separate entity. When we started Salon Premium in 2001 as a paid service that let users see an ad-free site and some premium content, we rolled Table Talk into it: its pages were readable by anyone, but you needed to pay to post. That insured its survival but also assured its marginality. Over the years Salon’s management (which I was a part of until 2007) considered, over and over, whether to shut it down. It generated large numbers of page views from a relatively small number of users and advertisers were not excited by that. Its WebCrossing software was increasingly out of step with the direction the Web was moving in. Yet TT’s community remained close-knit and vibrant. In the wake of this week’s announcement, its members, unsurprisingly, are already trying to figure out ways to continue their conversations after the site’s announced June 10 shutdown date.

I don’t second-guess Salon’s leadership for deciding to end TT today — I might well do the same in their shoes. I do think there’s a lesson here, though, not just for Salon but for all the other enterprises out there today that dream of doing what we tried for so long to do at Salon. (Hi, Arianna; hi, Tina.)

The lesson is simple: Don’t think of “conversation” and “community” as subsidiaries to “content.” They aren’t after-thoughts, add-ons, or sidebars. They are the point of the Web. Here’s how I put it in Say Everything:

[Interactivity] is just a clumsy word for communication. That communication — each reader’s ability to be a writer as well — was not some bell or whistle. It was the whole point of the Web, the defining trait of the new medium — like motion in movies, or sound in radio, or narrow columns of text in newspapers.

Editors and publishers keep crossing their fingers and hoping to find some new platform that reverses this principle and puts them back in the comfortable realm of piping content out to consumers. They think this stuff will finally settle down. But change keeps accelerating instead. Today we are feeding one another stories, passing links around, telling friends what we’re fascinated by or excited about or steamed over. My Flipboard is more useful and interesting to me than the front page of the New York Times (sorry, Bill Keller). The conversation isn’t an after-thought. It’s interesting in itself, and it’s how we inform one another.

So Table Talk is dead: RIP. But Table Talk is everywhere, too — on Facebook and Twitter, all over the blogosphere, and in a billion comment threads. Table talk is what we do online. It’s not what comes after a publication’s stories. It’s what comes before.

BONUS LINK: If you haven’t already, go read Paul Ford’s wonderful essay on the nature of the Web and its fundamental question — “Why wasn’t I consulted?”

Post Revisions:

  • 12 May, 2011 @ 10:28 [Current Revision] by Scott Rosenberg
  • 12 May, 2011 @ 10:22 by Scott Rosenberg

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Comments

  1. Pat

    TableTalk is one of the few committed, erudite and respectful online communities where discussion outranks flames, and information and truth (and wit and clever writing) trump attitude. It was the place we found out what was really happening when there were earthquakes and floods and massacres and 9-11. It was a place to make friends you would never otherwise meet, in cities and professions we would otherwise not have access.

    There are many of us who only subscribed to Salon because we were forced to, in order to access TT. We don’t visit Salon and have no interest in The Well (at an outrageous monthly rate for not even an iota of the quality and community!)

    I wish there was something we cd do to stop this travesty. TT connected and informed us in crises, joined us in grief and joy, taught us lessons and helped us laugh. It is a true international community of respect and friendship, that rare entity in this day that makes us closer rather than splitting us apart. It must be saved!

  2. Another Pat

    I’ll second the post from Pat at 2:45pm. Table Talk is not replaceable by Twitter or Face Book. Table Talk is a community comprised of some very bright individuals. It is a conversation, and a place to go where you will find the news you can use in this changing and somewhat frightening world. Salon could have and should have done all they could to retain and perhaps use Table Talk to lift their own boat.

    As the internet gets more and more corralled by fewer “managers”, the loss of Table Talk diminishes the ability of people to gather and discuss world and personal events. That is a very important loss.

  3. MollyDunlop

    I think the simple fact is that Salon never figured out how to monetize Table Talk. Lord knows, they tried, and I still wonder if they realize how many Salon subscriptions were really Table Talk subscriptions; I know mine was.

    The feature that Table Talk offers that is lacking from, say, the Salon letter section or Open Salon is that it the threads become conversations. Letters are letters. The only difference between the Salon letters section and the letters page of a newspaper is the medium, and the medium really is not the message any more.

    Open Salon is a different thing again. I find most of the posters there to be mediocre writers (at best) who are heavily into mutual admiration. Maybe Salon saw it as a source of free content, who knows.

    Conversational platforms like Table talk will survive, independent of news sites like Salon. The question is: how much longer will Salon survive?

  4. flo chapgier

    I used to be on TT a few years ago, I staid for a while when it became a subscription to Salon. I left since I was starting to work so much I had no time to visit. I think TT is one of the brightest place on the Internet. I made friends there I shall never lose, we still e-mail privately together.

    It’s a shame. It was a magnificent site of hilarious erudite persons. but as was said above, TT will reappear somewhere. Neither Twitter or Facebook come close…

    Clinck clinck to a new TT !

  5. Nondescripta

    Very well put! Letters sections below articles are fleeting, while TT threads go on for years. Salon / TT cut threads off after 10,000 posts, so versions II, III, IV would spring up. The conversations were always lively so before you knew it we got to:

    White House Bar & Grill XXXI
    OGABP (On Getting and Being Pregnant) XI: Great Expectations
    True Tales of the Office Chapter IV: The Drone Wars

    Those are just a few of the hundreds of thread on any imaginable topic. It’s a shame Salon never managed to monetize TT, as there was a great balance between old regulars and new influx from the Salon readership. That, you just won’t get on a spinoff forum somewhere out there.

  6. MollyDunlop

    I think the influx of new TTers from Salon pretty much dried up when they stopped linking Salon articles to TT threads. I joined TT by following a link from one of Cary Tennis’s pieces. There was an entire thread devoted to anatomizing Cary’s articles, and it was very active for a while. Then they removed the link–in favour of letters, I think–and the thread died.

    I completely understand that Salon can’t support TT if it can’t make some money off it, and I can see why that was difficult. Many posters objected, and some left, when it was proposed to make the board searchable by Google, but without that, I don’t see how they could hope to attract advertisers. I am truly dismayed by the low quality of Open Salon, though, and the limited and mediocre content on the main Salon page these days. I have to wonder how much longer they can keep going.

  7. Well crap, I just resubscribed to Salon only because of TT. (and the Newsweek bonus). Just ordered two coffee cups to promote TT on my blog.

    The TT managers always seemed to be terribly afflicted with a “not invented here syndrome”. I suggested they allow TT readers to have ad space for want ads, etc. That was years before E-Bay or Craig’s list.

    They started off expecting $59 or so a year to subscribe to TT. I suggested $29.95 might be more appropriate when readers were also producing all the content. Took a year or two, but it seems to me the $29.95 was closer to what made sense.

    It has almost always been hard to find TT from Salon’s pages. Salon could have put a selection of best TT posts into Salon when authors did not object and perhaps were paid a buck or two.. or at least links with something like latest best posts. That flew like a lead balloon.

    I also suggested selling a years worth of posts on CD or DVD. That might have made a few dollars.

    All that said, I have not found anything comparable to TT anyplace else. The software backing it is convenient and mostly intuitive. I am obviously sorry to see it go and will miss the insight and wisdom, the humor, the rot, the drivel, the ideological cant, etc…warts and all.
    Doug Wiken

  8. Another Pat

    There is some awesome research buried those pages. I can only hope those that know where to look go in and save it before it is gone. I’m pretty sure it will be found nowhere else.

  9. Meredith Chace

    Back in 1998, I was interested in the right-wing opposition to Bill Clinton. I did a Yahoo search (Google wasn’t up and at ‘em then) on Richard Mellon Scaife, and through that found a Joe Conason article . Through that I found TableTalk.

    In those days, Salon Magazine, directed by David Talbot, was exploratory and investigative. I wasn’t much interested in Henry Hyde, but a whole hell of a lot of other people were. And when the news broke in Salon, scads of people signed up for TableTalk.

    Now, I know I can find zillions of places to talk about my cats and what I had for breakfast yesterday morning.

    Not my idea of a good time. What I’d like to continue is intelligent discussions of political situations. Kind of important, don’t you think?

    So maybe we can’t save TableTalk. as is Can’t we at least transplant it? Surely TableTalk’s not the only forum in the world that could use a little sanity and stability.

  10. Devil theory: Paid writers at Salon viewed a few too many of the posters in TT to be better writers than those in Salon itself. TT opened up an amazing community to people all over the country. Perhaps the realization that all talent was not in California or New York grated a bit.

    As indicated in a previous comment, TT is a storehouse of information. Perhaps it should be stored and indexed at something like Newseum or a Smithsonian section similar to their snapshot of the day on an election day a few years ago that pulled in one days posting and commenting on thousands of blogs and forums including one of mine. It was kind of a surprise to find out about it afterward.

  11. David Lettvin

    When I first subscribed to Salon, it was an excellent muckraking online journal. I subscribed for the journalism. As the years passed, the journalism became less investigative and thoughtful and (sorry about this) to my mind began to feature a lighter, more “lifestyle” form of article. So I started looking elsewhere for my news fix.

    In the meantime, I had discovered Table Talk, a thriving community of disparate voices that argued, agreed, fought, made-up, self-policed, etc. Some were excellent writers, others not, some were liberal, some conservative, some religious, others atheists, but there was something really unique about the group as a whole … it was enormously and powerfully internally supportive and it was intensely personal. Because the space was private, people felt more comfortable being themselves. They shared their lives on a much more intimate and meaningful level than you find in any other social media.

    When someone had something to say, they might write a sentence, or a paragraph or an essay, even a treatise, in the full knowledge that some of those responding would be ready to argue either side. Some of those responders would be terse, others voluble, but there would be a conversation, an exchange of ideas, not comments on a single person’s blog or a hodgepodge of responses interspersed between baby pictures and “guess what I did today” Facebook posts, or a thread of Twitter grunts.

    Maybe it is a factor of age or maturity that I would prefer to read someone explain their position in detail then slap me in the face with a single sentence, that I prefer long reasoned conversations to sound bites.

    And that’s the problem with your comment about Table Talk being everywhere. It just isn’t true. When Table Talk shuts down, a unique community of intelligent conversationalists will be dispossessed. The pity of it is, that this community is the most lasting and durable thing that Salon created. For more than 15 years Table Talkers have dealt with the loss of data, the imposition of subscriptions, all the all the woes the Web is heir to, and kept right on going. People came, people left, but a core remained. For a while Salon even seemed proud of us. Our articles were often linked on the front page. There was a feature called “The Best of Table Talk.” I had the honor of appearing there a half dozen times or more.

    It is not certain that TT will survive. Some of the members of the community are trying to rescue the libraries of conversations, some are migrating to other communities while trying to retain their TT identities, but all of us feel as if we are being evicted.

    I can’t help but think that TT is being closed, not because Salon has been unable to figure out how to monetize it, but because it reminds those who run the magazine of the strong viewpoints and skeptical attitude that were part of the strong beginnings of the zine and seem to have drifted away. We succeeded … and now we are an embarrassment.

  12. Scott Rosenberg

    Let me just be clear that by saying “Table Talk is everywhere” I didn’t mean that, literally, the existing TT community at Salon is now everywhere, or that Facebook and Twitter are the same as TT. Of course what Salon is doing is disruptive to the specific community of TTers. I meant that the principle of an online space driven by “let’s talk about what we want to talk about” rather than “let’s let editors set our agenda” is now something that happens all over our online universe.

    Also, I find it strange to read the comment that “the space was private.” Nearly everything posted on TT is and always was readable by anyone on the Web. At one point you had to be logged in to view threads. For a long time now that hasn’t been the case. You had to have an account to post, true. And there were small bits of TT carved out for private “members only” discussions. But on the public/private spectrum TT was pretty far over on the public side. (Compare this to the Well, which is a lot more private…)

  13. David Lettvin

    That’s true Scott, I misspoke. I should have said comparatively private. If the general public knew what they were looking for, and what thread it was in, they could view 90% of the material. But they had to know it was there to find. Google and other external search engines would not help.

  14. Guess what, conversation havers. You can’t rely on corporate support to build community. we are not in the equation. you have to do it yourself. punkrock.net has been chugging along in one form or another for more than 10 years now, internal support only. metafilter.com is another success.

    The other lesson is AIY–archive it yourself, so you can port the threads onto another platform.

  15. David Lettvin

    Sorry Scott, but you put yourself in the equation by providing the space and keeping it going. People bought access and you profited. It was similar to share-cropping. The argument that you failed to figure out how to profit enough is certainly valid, and it is certainly Salon’s right to throw the sharecroppers off the land and lease it to an agricorp.

    It is, however, a little disingenuous for you to suggest that we should have archived for ourselves. You provided no tools and a faulty search engine. Were it not for the fact that some of the subscribers were competent to design software to extract the threads, your subscribers, like sharecroppers, would have been, not just evicted, but dispossessed and stripped. *Cue Tennessee Ernie Ford singing, “I posted my soul on the TableTalk board.”*

    As I said, it is Salon’s right to close TT, and I don’t intend to try to make you change that decision. The decision is a financial one and everybody has to earn a living, even landlords.

    I mentioned in my previous post that I originally came to Salon for the incisive reporting. For some time it has seemed to me that Salon’s advertising is more aggressive than its journalism. I remember sadly a time when it was a source of news stories rather than a feed or rehash. I know that there were others, like me, who eventually subscribed to Salon just for TT, But our tithes are, no doubt, a negligible part of your revenues, and, who knows, perhaps being able to abandon the WebX license will be a windfall, a bump upwards on your bottom line. I hope it helps.

  16. Scott Rosenberg

    David, the “scott” who suggested that people archive it themselves etc. is not me, Scott Rosenberg, but somebody else. It sounds from your comment like you were (understandably) confused.

    I haven’t been a part of Salon’s management since 2007.

    And while I think that “scott”‘s suggestion not to rely on corporations to shape a good home for communities has some bitter real-world experience to back it, I think Salon has generally been a well-meaning, if not always far-seeing, steward of its communities. Personally, I’m sad to see the end of TT. It was definitely a part of my life for a long time.

  17. David Lettvin

    I’ll have to remember to look for clues more carefully. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Pleas accept my apologies.

  18. Wendy Orange

    Dear Scott,

    Interesting that you haven’t been part of Salon management since 2007. Therefore you are in an excellent position to talk to us about the past of Table Talk and hear us about its demise, which is now long over. We moved, some of us, to Drivewesaid, where we discuss how we were treated and what went wrong.

    When you went for pay we lost many many great folks. But we soldiered on. I emailed directly with David Talbot and suggested in addition to pay that some of us just donate money to keep TT alive. David was THAT accessible.

    Now the editors are firing the best writers or have already done so, and Salon isn’t of interest the way it used to be. I did donate a great deal of money in my wish to keep TT alive. Now I feel a fool since learning on Drive that Salon in the years since you left STOPPED COLLECTING OUR FEES. Why ever did you/they do that?

    Some paid anyway but there was no reminder to do so, and many therefore didn’t know their year was up and kept posting without pay. I am not sure that even I paid, since without any reminder who keeps track of when was the last payment? While those who conscienciosly did pay are now asking for their money back as many paid only recently and that seems fair to me, that they get a refund.

    Joan Walsh was getting a huge salary but was untouched and untouchable and has a reputation for a slippery ethics documented on TT and now more so on Drive. I know nothing about The Well but I know a whole heap about TT. It literally saved lives in the health folder, as the type I diabetic thread was a life saver to we who developed that disease. Probably many other issues of health were dealt with in the community that was the best online imho. The politics “White House” thread was full of utterly brilliant folks, now gone.

    Salon now runs Open Salon and puts absolutely no updated format into that technology so many of the best writers have left. We who post there whether occasionaly or often, wait up until five long minutes just to post or comment or email there. So that site is doomed.

    Meanwhile Salon fired Paglia, Joe Conason, Anne Lamott ; Gary Kamiya was dumped, Garrison K is gone. Joan led the pro-Hillary group while half of TT were for Barack Obama. There is such a different feel to Salon now.

    That you left means that you know all this or maybe do not. You post on OS but you post on this site that works better. I wish you could have been more active in helping us to survive and etc. But you had books to write as did David Talbot and we were left not knowing why we were suddenly cut off. Very poorly handled in my opinion. Wish you had stayed on because you sound sane as many on Salon no longer do. As for too many wanting to befriend you on FB that is the only comment I read that had me rankled. I didn’t know anything about you. However Russell Banks, and many other famous writers are modest and accept many friendships including mine as I am an author also, if not famous. Please, since you sound like a great guy, don’t get arrogant and do realize that Salon, which has been my main home since 1998 was messed up not by the community but by others and how nefarious that feels to many of us. Surely you can understand that from someone who gave many thousands in the naive belief that it would matter and that others who could would also give. Joan Walsh is a disaster in our minds and we have tons of doumentation over at Drive as we did on TT of her shenagigans. Yet she made a huge salary over 300, 000 one year with a bonus. For what exactly. I find her writing and her whole vibe mediocre. Calling it as I see it. Never have been about popularity but about learning. Yours, Wendy

  19. Scott Rosenberg

    Wendy — I’m not going to argue with most of your criticisms of Salon — a little of it I agree with, a lot of it I don’t — but a couple of quick comments:

    * I worked with Joan Walsh for years. I know she had her ups and downs with regard to Table Talk but I can’t let your comment about her ethics go unchallenged. I had a variety of disagreements with Joan over the years, as any colleagues will, but I always had and have great respect for her and I really don’t know where you’re coming from on this. You’re free and welcome to dislike her writing and opinions or feel that she was overpaid, but I don’t like my blog to host vague, unsubstantiated charges about “slippery ethics.”

    * I wasn’t complaining about “too many” friend requests — I think my volume was probably average or low since I have never been that active an FB user. Rather I was complaining that one would get random friend requests from people who weren’t really friends, or, in some cases, acquaintances. I think this is a common experience, not limited to public figures or authors or anything like that. I don’t think this is about arrogance, but rather about the nature of Facebook — is it about who actually belongs to your real-world network of friends and colleagues, or is it a public environment for people to accumulate status and connections? FB started as the former but has evolved toward the later, leaving lots of confusion in its wake.

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