I recently had the chance to talk to Mark Brereton, creator of Blurb Online, a Ning site set up as ‘the online resource and network for Staffordshire based artists and creatives’. Blurb Online was created in December 2008 to serve a group of creatives that met physically once a month. Mark felt there was a need for an online space for people who couldn’t attend the meetings to keep in touch with the creative community and what was going on. Mark has been very quickly proven right – the site has been hugely succesful to the point it is now almost self-sustainable, with 463 members:
“It was obviously right from the begining about whoever wanted to use it and what they wanted to get from it. I’m hoping it could almost run itself, so if I walked away from it tomorrow I didn’t have to constantly add content or worry about it being active. As long as there was still need for it by the people who wanted to use it.”
Mark says the site has enabled a ‘nice mix’ of online and offline activity, with some real-life artistic collaborations emerging from discussions on Blurb Online.
A great example of this is a project called Wasted Space, which grew from an online discussion between artists wanting to do something positive with barren wasteland in Burslem. From one artist’s post on the website a group was created, which artists joined and added to until it became a community arts project with dedicated space which works with local schools, making use of the abandoned land to grow fruit and vegatables. It’s a great example of how making an open website where people can come together and discuss ideas and issues can result in very real, positive changes to an area.
Blurb Online recently held a Blurb Exhibition of work by its members, which had the same open and inclusive outlook as the website. This was very probably the secret of its success:
“An artist had the idea of a collaborative exhibition of all the people who’re online, and anyone could submit work and showcase it. It was really succesful and it was really busy…we weren’t expecting that many people to turn up!”
It’s been a very busy year for Mark. Off the back of his work on Blurb Online, he has been appointed as Editor of a new creative community website for Stoke called Creative Central. However, he sees Creative Central as something that complements rather than competes against Blurb Online.
“Blurb has always been aimed at peer to peer sharing and it’s always been about the artists. Creative Central is funded through the Arts Council and local government and it has a similar sort of aim towards the creative industry sectors again – only used as a kind of showcase to actually encourage larger commissions and bids to go through. So if a company was looking for a specific artist they could hopefully find them on that website a lot easier than going through Blurb and searching through the different forums and members….I got involved in that because I thought it was something that could benefit everyone.”
Hopefully this new site, that has seemingly grown out of the groundwork Mark has put in with Blurb Online, will provide opportunities for the creative community he has helped bring together.
Blurb Online serves as a great example to anyone wanting to create a community-led website. Since the beginning Mark has let the users lead the way and use it for what they want to do, rather than try and steer the site and its members in a pre-planned direction. Mark planted the seeds and then stood well back to watch things grow and, because members feel safe and free within the space to share work and ideas, the website has thrived.
Anyone wanting to set up a community website which engages not just the readership but active participation of a large group of people would do well to learn from Mark’s work, and keep the boundary-drawing to a bare minimum – just enough to provide structure without restriction. Let the users define how they will use the site, and build it around them.
You can listen to my full interview with Mark here.