“Shall we salon?” That’s the question we asked you–our readers–in a 1991 cover story, “Salons: How to Revive the Endangered Art of Conversation and Start a Revolution in Your Living Room.” Almost as an afterthought, we included a little note offering to introduce readers to one another so you might launch salons in your community. We were blindsided by the response. We expected a few hundred, maybe even a thousand. But more than 8,000 of you took us up on the offer, and the neighborhood salon movement was born.
Word spread, and soon our readers had started more than 500 salons across North America. Some of these groups emphasized talk. Others evolved into book clubs, writing groups, study circles, musical jams, activist brigades, and creative play groups. Eventually we discontinued our formal salon-support organization, the Neighborhood Salon Association, but many of these groups–along with others influenced by our cover story but never connected to us–are still meeting today.
In 1995, when the fledgling World Wide Web had transformed the Internet from academic curiosity into mass medium, we decided to explore the potential of online salons with Café Utne. Billed as “a place in cyberspace where ideas and community intersect,” the café was one of the first free virtual communities, and it quickly developed a reputation for thoughtfulness and depth. Over the past seven years, more than 125,000 people have registered for membership. Two to three thousand users log on each week to participate in thousands of conversations in more than 80 discussion forums ranging from spirituality to sports, politics to parenting, education, literature, food, humor, terrorism–you name it. In 2000, the Café won the new media industry’s Webby Award for Best Community Site.
Many Café users have met face-to-face in regional gatherings around the country. And I know of at least six married couples who met at the Café. This “virtual” community has become a very real part of many people’s social and civic lives.
Today, a decade after launching the neighborhood salon movement, we want to explore more ways to foster conversation, connection, engagement, and community involvement, both online and face-to-face. We’re asking you to help us.
Leif Utne is managing editor of Utne Reader Online.