One of the many potential benefits of the web and social media is how it can make niche communities accessible and less exclusive. Here’s an example: a couple years ago, I decided it would be cool to learn to shave with a straight razor. So I did. Entirely from the Internet. Three years later, it’s the only way I shave. (Those who have met me can confirm that my face bears no scars nor do I wear a beard.) Here’s the interesting thing: I have never had a person-to-person interaction with another straight-razor shaver. I learned all I know and procured all the necessary supplies entirely from lurking on the web in the surprisingly active community of “wet shaving” enthusiasts. Twenty years ago, cracking this community would have been more effort than I would have been willing to put into it, and I’d still be giving Gillette hundreds of dollars a year.
More recently, I’ve become interested in photography (no, that’s not my camera), and I consciously decided to follow a similar track—making online sources my primary ones (though I’m also reading books this time and I have a lot of photog friends, too). The online photography community is in many ways like an eerie parallel universe to the book blogosphere, except they’re farther along in their digital revolution. Like book creators, photographers are carving out all sorts of exotic existences in their new digital world, and it’s interesting to see how they’re succeeding (poke around this photographer’s site for a while to see an interesting example). I don’t pretend to be fluent in their language yet, but I feel like I can get by, and I also feel like it’s giving me valuable perspective on the analogous world of books. It’s a lot like how learning German made me understand English grammar better.
My point here isn’t to say that you should all go learn to shave with a straight razor or get into photography. You should follow a genuine interest of your own. I think we should take advantage of what are now low-to-nonexistent barriers into other creator and enthusiast communities and use those communities to help us understand the book world better.