One of the most important lessons I’ve learned from 16 years on the Internet is the importance of reaching out to new members of whatever community you belong to.
This was best illustrated for me back when I was one of “the regulars” on a particular Usenet newsgroup. Back then, I knew a woman who had been around for years and was very popular with others who had been around a long time. However, her attitude toward new members was usually arrogant and condescending. Meanwhile, another woman I knew, who had only been around for a short time, was more outgoing and welcoming to new people.
Now, newsgroups are like most online communities in that there is a constant flow of new people checking them out and old members leaving or losing access. Over time, the arrogant woman’s friends gradually moved on to other things until there was no one left who remembered her, and she spent all her time online grousing about how vital she was to the popularity of the group and how no one seemed to appreciate that anymore. Meanwhile, the newer, more outgoing woman had become the center of a large circle of new members that made up the bulk of the community.
Understanding this — that in a dynamic community, in order to remain popular you need to actively welcome new members, and that the price of arrogance and condescension toward “newbies” is obscurity — was a major revelation for me. And it remains one of the most important lessons that I try to infuse in DargonZine.
Every month, approximately five percent of our readership leaves, and is replaced by new readers. Think about what that means for a magazine where we’re building on fifteen years of stories, and where any given story may well rely on an understanding of names and places and events depicted months earlier, or where any issue could contain “part four” of a storyline. It means we need to do a superlative job at reaching out and immediately engaging our new readers, and getting them up to speed on what they need to know in order to understand and enjoy our writing, and do that constantly.
That’s an enormous struggle, but one where we’ve made some progress in recent years. The Web site now includes a whole section called “About Dargon” that includes such features as maps of the area, a special “New Readers’ Introduction” page, and our Online Glossary, which contains encyclopedic definitions of every person, place, and thing we write about. And each time something in our Glossary appears in a story on our Web site, it is hyperlinked to its description in the Online Glossary. And when we print “part four” of a storyline, we write that chapter so that it can stand alone, and include pointers to the previous chapters.
Another way to establish familiarity with the milieu is to ensure that there’s some overlap between stories, so that readers become comfortable with the people, places, and things that are most important. Here, I must admit that we’ve done a mediocre job, which I’ll talk a little more about in a moment. But to address this problem we have recently revived our practice of using contests and organized writing exercises that incorporate communal events or themes, such as our 1997 Night of Souls stories, and our more recent comet stories. Look for more of these in the future!
We realize that making it easy for new readers to get up to speed is our biggest hurdle to overcome if we are to survive and grow. While we’ve made some progress, I’m sure there’s more we could do. If you have specific ideas on this topic, we’d love to hear them, because it will allow us to better serve you, and the readers whom we hope will follow.
Of course, new readers aren’t the only people we need to reach out to. Similarly, we need to integrate new writers and both make them feel welcome and give them sufficient understanding of what we do and how we do it so that they can immediately start producing printable fiction.
This is usually where the “commonality” I mentioned above breaks down. Usually, new writers are uncomfortable writing stories that take place within the unfamiliar confines of Dargon proper, so they strike off on their own, writing a storyline that takes place on the outskirts of known territory. By doing so, they avoid having to do much research into what’s already been written, and their stories are less constrained. On the other hand, their works may never integrate into or even overlap with the mainstream of Dargon work, and if this happens often the project may become nothing more than a shell surrounding a number of independent, unrelated storylines.
We’ve tried to address this in a number of ways, including rules that require new writers to write their first story in Dargon proper, the contests and communal events I spoke of above, and our new mentoring system, which so far is showing great promise but limited capacity. So far, we’re doing a good job making writers feel welcome and productive, but we still need to work on developing more commonality between storylines.
But through all these struggles, the unwavering goal is to make it easier for people, both readers and writers, to enjoy DargonZine, so that it can grow and continue to contribute to the value of the Internet, as it has done since 1984.