Up until recently, the name Anouska Kock was probably not well known in the Caribbean literary community. Not any more! Six months ago she was thrust into the spotlight following the launch of Caribbean Literary Salon, the first online community and networking tool designed for fans of Caribbean literature, and Anouska’s brainchild.
As the founder of the Caribbean’s first Ning Network for book fans and writers, Anouska has earned a place in the annals of the region’s literary/social networking history, even though this was never her aim in trying to bring book lovers together. A freelance journalist from Aruba, she is an avid reader and very supportive of Caribbean writers. Like many book lovers in the region, she felt a need to reach out and connect with readers and writers across the islands in a way that allows them to discuss the literary creations of the Caribbean, share stories, news, insights and make friends. The difference with Anouska is that she went a step further and set out to make that dream a reality. Thereby, Caribbean Literary Salon was born.
Six months later nearly 300 members have joined the CLS family and the site has evolved into a dynamic platform featuring group discussions, author interviews, book reviews, regional news, book excerpts and listings, links to Caribbean blogs, websites and magazines, plus a whole lot more.
I had the pleasure of chatting with Anouska via email about CLS and how the experience has been for her since she launched the site back in March.
How does it feel to know that you have successfully launched the first Ning Network for Caribbean fans of literature and writers and poets?
Anouska: It feels great to know that I have found a group of writers and readers whose backgrounds are as culturally diverse as mine, and whose interests are accordingly so. When I laid the groundwork for the network, I honestly knew only one person there: Indian-Surinamese writer Usha Marhe, with whom I had been corresponding beforehand on my desire to start a network (she lives in the Netherlands, I’m in Aruba). Within the first two weeks of CLS, I had the pleasure of welcoming about one hundred complete strangers, and that’s how the ball started rolling. CLS would not be where it is today without the support of everyone who has signed up so far. Some people demonstrate their involvement through actively posting content and participating in discussions. Others are more reserved, but meanwhile do tell their friends about the site. At 6 months old, CLS has yet to grow a lot, but it seems that we’re on the right track.
Did you have difficulties getting the site up and running?
Anouska: Technically, no. The Ning system is very easy to use. I did have to familiarize myself a bit more with html-codes (the coding you need to do certain stuff, such as create images with links, etc). But Google proved a great teacher in that area. Nor was it very difficult to get the word around. Caribbean Book Blog and Geoffrey Philp immediately posted news releases as soon as CLS was live, which is how the majority of the first 100 or so members found us. And almost instantly, a small group of members started to enthusiastically share, interact and post content.
After 6 months the CLS network is approaching 300 members, including some well known writers and poets from the region. In terms of numbers, has it met your expectations?
Anouska: Actually, I had no idea what to expect in terms of member quantities. I found it hard to apply estimates at the start, because I could not find any other sites to compare CLS with. In other words, it was impossible for me to know what was ‘normal’. Although I sense that we could have better numbers, I am not dissatisfied. Most of our current 300 members signed up at the time of the first buzz. That is, within the first month. Since then, new members have been trickling in at a steady pace of about 5 per week. At this early stage of the site, I prefer not to stress numbers too much, but rather focus on consolidating membership. To me, that means managing expectations and attempting to give members what they want. I believe that if current members remain satisfied, new members will automatically follow.
Overall, has the experience been what you expected?
Anouska: Yes and no. I expected that people would want a network for Caribbean literature. There’s a trend in the region, largely due to the Internet, of people reaching out to similar minds within various disciplines (art, music, politics, and so forth). I assumed that there would be such a desire among readers and writers as well. That expectation proved correct. I notice that in the comments posted on the site and comments addressed to me personally. People are generally happy with the existence of CLS. What I did not expect is that I would make friends so quickly and easy through the network. That has been the biggest – and most satisfying – surprise. I have made meaningful contacts with quite a number of people from corners of the Caribbean that I knew very little of just a few months ago. And it’s equally satisfying to see that I’m not alone here. CLS has certainly come through on its promise to connect.
What does it take to run a Ning Network?
Anouska: To bring CLS where it stands now has required time and dedication. ‘Time’ to observe member behaviour and to experiment with new features aimed at facilitating members’ interaction. ‘Dedication’ to address questions, suggestions and problems and to study other networks in order to learn from them. The biggest challenge has been to keep people interested in the site, and to motivate them to actively participate. Up till now, my strategy for this has been mostly focused on featuring posts by members and adding content myself (such as interviews). However, to take CLS to another level (that is, more members interaction and more quality content), I may have to create a staff of co-moderators. Not so much because of the amount of work that goes into moderating, but simply to ensure growth. I am only one head, so to speak, whereas CLS deserves the full potential of creative minds that the network possesses.
What about CLS do you enjoy the most?
Anouska: Member interaction, both through private messaging as well as through public discussions. It’s through the interactions that you learn about authors, books and places that you may have never heard of before. It’s wonderful to discover similarities in culture among members from different countries in the Caribbean. It continues to strike me how alike we are in so many respects. But I am equally thrilled at discovering differences and unique peculiarities. It’s what makes the Caribbean so exciting.
How important is it to you to receive feedback and comments from members and have you been getting much of it?
Anouska: It ranks number one. CLS is a social network. It breathes and grows through its members. Members’ experience is what makes CLS work. Lately, more members have voluntarily submitted comments and feedback and I’ve also recently sought specific feedback through a small scaled survey among the most active members. It’s through this, and only this, that I am able to steer the site. Of course, I also go by my own hunches – the first set up of the site was entirely based on my own ideas and intuition, but as time passes, CLS is acquiring more and more an identity of its own, based on member involvement. Currently, the site is at a crossroads. The small survey I conducted indicates that our members are, overall, satisfied, but they want ‘more’. More of many things. My next step will be to conduct a larger scaled survey that explores the comments generated by the small survey. I need to know what the rest of the group thinks, in order to move things forward.
Any indication as what about the site gives members the most satisfaction? Generally, what do they find most disappointing?
Anouska: The small scaled survey I recently did indicates that people are most satisfied with the scope of content and the look and feel of the site (it’s a tie between those two aspects). In additional commentary, people have mentioned that they appreciate the personal ambiance, the focus on Caribbean literature and the user friendliness of the site.
Most disappointed are they with the level of interaction (nearly all survey participants say this). In the additional commentary, people have brought forward that most interaction takes place only among a small group of members, while the majority of members remain passive.
Is there anything you, personally, would like to see more of?
Anouska: I agree with people who lament the low frequency of member interaction. I too would like to see people posting more, and participating more actively in discussions. But I also do realize that ‘something’ needs to trigger them to do so. At various other social networks, I too am a lurker. I have my own personal reasons not to participate actively on every network that I’m a member of, and I’m sure others also have their reasons. One reason could be that most areas of the site are publicly viewable. Everything you say in those areas can be read by all visitors. One option to solve this would be to make the site fully private (only viewable for members), but that does not feel right to me. We’ll see. For now, I think I will simply include this as a question in the upcoming survey (why people do or do not interact). Hopefully, enough members will respond so as to make a reliable analysis. And then we’ll look for a solution.
Do you plan to make any more improvements to the site?
Anouska: For sure. Any social network should continuously seek new ways to engage its members. Stagnation is death. Therefore, CLS will continue to undergo improvements. The recent survey revealed some interesting ideas proposed by members. Such as more educational articles for writers, and more articles that explore Caribbean literature in comparison to other world literature. However, some of these suggestions go beyond the scope that I had originally envisioned for the network. It means that I need to re-evaluate our focus and direction. I would have liked to tell you exactly what changes await the site, but I can’t because I don’t know yet. I hope to be able to determine this with the help of all CLS members, in the upcoming survey.
From what you’ve seen and experienced so far, how vibrant is the Caribbean literary community?
Anouska: It’s super vibrant. There are things happening everywhere. In all countries. New books, literary festivals, reading projects aimed at youngsters, you name it. It’s a very exciting thing to notice. The Caribbean has long been characterised, by its own people, as a region ‘where people don’t read’. But I think that is changing. There’s a growing movement of cultural awareness that includes attention to the written word. Although I am not well suited to provide a trustworthy analysis of this trend, I can say that as a casual observer I sense that the general public in the Caribbean and its Diaspora is finally discovering the joys and benefits of poetry and stories that reflect West Indian realities. I see this not only in the number of books that are produced by Caribbean writers and poets, but also in the contents and themes of these publications. They are very specifically aimed at a West Indian audience. In comparison, up until not so long ago, writing about the Caribbean has been the almost exclusive terrain of writers who were not always Caribbean and/or whose works were published outside of the Caribbean, targeted at a largely non-Caribbean audience. The digital revolution, often featured in articles on Caribbean Book Blog, seems to cater well to the growing demand for ‘authentic Caribbeanness’. As of late, more publications have taken off from publishers based in our region, including works from self-published authors. So far, CLS has just been able to capture a fragment of all that activity. Hopefully, we’ll seize more of it in the future.
What has the response been to CLS from the Caribbean Diaspora outside of the region?
Anouska: Interesting question. Most of our members are actually based in the Diaspora, that is, in the USA, UK or Canada. However, these are usually not the most active members. I don’t know why that is, to be honest. What I do get from these Diaspora members (from comments made to me personally) is that they appreciate the sense of familiarity and belonging they get from the site. As it stands now, our most active members are writers who live in the Caribbean.
Do you believe Caribbean Literary Salon can make a meaningful contribution to the development of Caribbean literature and help writers build an audience for their books?
Anouska: Yes, no doubt about it. That is why the current group of active members, including myself, continues to be actively involved. We believe that CLS can make a difference. But we also know that the site needs to be further developed to make it so. I hope that we can significantly improve the level of member interaction in the next 6 months, because member interaction is the key to our success.