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.