Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Eulogy for Pearl Soup

In 2001, the website PearlSoup.com was launched as an unjuried forum for any user to post true, personal stories that taught them something or inspired some new insight. It was a place for sharing something deeper than what is revealed by routine chit-chat, with the aim of building a better world one story at a time, as the website's motto stated.

The website was designed rather well. It was visually appealing and easy to use, and for a while the two site owners, Jeff and Alex, were on hand to fix bugs and add new features, like an "author of the month" and a discussion area for conversation or debate on any topics members chose.

It was a good idea, sort of an interactive version of those Chicken Soup for the Soul books, promoting casual literacy in an era when hardly anyone writes personal letters anymore beyond the Christmas thank-you note. Soon, however, issues arose that the owners perhaps had not anticipated. It began with comments left on people's stories.

Any registered user could leave a comment on a story, and there was some confusion and argument over the purpose of these comments. Some commenters left writing feedback, something that would be inoffensive and even welcomed by an ambitious writer learning the craft, but some felt hurt and defensive. Other comments intruded on a writer's personal life, assuming an attitude of seniority that could be overbearing. Since you had no way of editing these comments, like you do on a blog, you might see your work become a forum for other members to snipe at you or at each other, perhaps on subjects unrelated to what you wrote.

New friendships were established, even romantic relationships, through PearlSoup. As with all internet socializing, however, there were also abuses. One member, in particular, sent me two emails a few years ago that were deranged and threatening, at which point I guarded all details of my private life and location, and became mostly a reader. This member knew the internet well and used it to research other members of the site and play "gotcha" games with them, exposing unwelcome personal details about them and making up incriminating or embarrassing "facts."

There was also a rating system, whereby you had the option of rating pearls one through five stars. It amazed me what a serious issue this became. It became a commonplace on PearlSoup for people to research ratings and accuse other individuals of "downrating" their pearls. This and other distractions soon established a schoolyardish tone at PearlSoup. Far from being a haven for conversation, it became turf. Opposing alliances would gather around one or another personality, accusing the other group of being cliquish, and that sort of thing.

Its unjuried nature, and the quiet disappearance of the site's owners, made PearlSoup a wall on which layers and layers of graffitti were scribbled. Contributors started posting fiction. There were occasional racist or homophobic posts. The discussion area got to be like a middle school playground.

Less than seven years after launch, the website went away this fall. I cherish the few friendly people with whom I have stayed in touch, several of whom sent gifts when my baby was born and all of whom have expressed the requisite adoration of His Royal Cuteness. I remember fondly the earliest days of PearlSoup, when there were fewer members, a delightful mix of people from around the world who found each other's differences interesting rather than annoying. It was inevitable, I suppose, that when membership got into the hundreds and then the thousands, with no consistent enforcement of any ground rules, things would degrade.

At its best, PearlSoup was like the kind of party where nice, smart people start exchanging personal anecdotes sharing their notions and memories in an atmosphere of trust and affection. With face to face contact in a real place, perhaps in the presence of food and drink, you may bring together people who are quite different in their outlook, yet everyone feels valued while they learn more about other people.

Parties like that tend to be small, not in the thousands of people. And if someone has a bit too much to drink or gets a little aggressive for whatever reason, there are ways to contain that problem and move things along. More importantly, the party ends at some point so people can go home and digest the experience.

Inevitably, PearlSoup got out of hand, the party hosts left the building, and the place got trashed. At its worst, it could feel like the closing act of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, with people's tenderest places being eagerly sought and scratched at. Finally, the lights went out. Party over.

Despite what happened there, I saw users demonstrate that people can discuss religion, politics, and anything else, quite amiably provided their attitude was amiable. It's a good time to bring that lesson back from the internet into our real neighborhood.

11 comments:

Kelly said...

My sister encouraged me to join PearlSoup early on. At that time it was, as you stated, a fun place to write, read and interact with others. However, it didn't take long for things to get out of hand and my participation was sporadic from that point on.

I never thought the rating system was a good idea. It was used too often to be mean and petty rather than seriously evaluating one's writing. When used properly, I enjoyed the comments.

It's been months since I visited PS, but I always counted on it to be there when I wanted to go back. I'm sorry to learn that's it's truly met its demise. At least I still have my "Souper friends" I met there!

raven said...

Algernon,

I agree with you and Kelly. Originally, the Soup was a great place to be. A place where we could share with- and learn from each other's life experiences. By doing so all Soupers made themselves very vulnerable. I appreciated the idea of the Soup as a place to build bridges between people and I have found friends there from whom I have learned and I have shared my experiences with them.

I think that the ColdFusion program provided the Soup with a beautiful lay out and the site was easy to navigate. Further, I also agree with Kelly about the ratings system.

I do not know if the Soup has permanently shut down now, but I will miss it.

Raven

Adam said...

I never knew Pearl Soup. For me, my Pearl Soup has been the WELL www.well.com. The WELL was one of the first online communities. I joined in 1991, back before the internet was prevalent, and you had to dial in. I have been a member there ever since.It's not pretty, but the membership and the writing and the online community there has really been strong for me. And the fact that you can do it all from the terminal really puts the focus on the words (although there is a web version)

The well costs money, but I have found it to be worth it.

If anyone is interested, I can send more information to you. I believe I can extend a free 2 month offer to check it out. email me at kafclown@well.com

Algernon said...

Adam is a friend of mine, so I know his comment is a personal recommendation and not commercial spam. Hi, Adam! How's your puppy?

Adam said...

Puppy is good! Not yet box trained, (probably 3 more years! Couple of photos at our blog www.yonked.com

Hal Johnson said...

After years of signing in to PearlSoup nearly every day, my visits had dwindled down to a couple of times a week at its demise. And yet, I miss the place. Some people there were a real pain in the ass, but damn, I miss it.

quid said...

I would like to say that I don't miss it at all, but that's not true. From inspired writings to a veritable melting pot of interesting people, from wild and slanderous "discussions" to aching moments of joining a writer's thoughts at his/her most vulnerable, Pearlsoup meant so much to me.

A damn shame to have the curtain go down so abruptly.

I love the Virginia Woolf analogy, Alg...it is so visual, and alas, so close to the truth.

quid

Victor Bloom said...

I wrote a comment, but it disappeared.

Victor Bloom said...

Am I allowed to publish my thoughts on my experiences with PearlSoup? I wrote something and it was not published.

John A. Johnson said...

It's a real shame that this site went under. It was relevant to two psychology courses I teach. The relevance to my course on positive psychology is obvious. Also, in an upper-level personality class, we used to analyze stories in terms of underlying motives for achievement, power, and intimacy--for class purposes only, not as comments on the site! I had not taught the personality course in a while and was unaware that Pearl Soup had disappeared. Again, I miss it.

John E. Meredith said...

I thought Pearl Soup was still archived somewhere online, but I've been unable to find it. It would be interesting to read those things again. It was a fun place to go then, in the immediate moments after a few life-changing turns. Look me up on Facebook if you've got any info.