The Salon du Tapis d'Orient is a moderated discussion group in the manner of the 19th century salon devoted to oriental rugs and textiles and all aspects of their appreciation. Please include your full name and e-mail address in your posting.
Turkotek: A Five Year Retrospective
by Steve Price
In 1998, eight collectors formed an e-mail rug discussion group. We exchanged thoughts and photos for mutual education and recreation. About one year earlier (in February 1997), Turkotek had been founded by Tom Stacy. Tom had some personal distractions, and by mid 1998 the site was nearly inactive. He generously agreed to turn it over to us for the purpose of expanding our discussion group to the general public.
We began with objectives that flowed from the existence of our e-mail group. We wanted reasonably focussed discussions between people who knew each other's names, in a constructive and cordial atmosphere. Our e-mail group already met those criteria. That was its appeal to us, and we didn't want to lose it in the course of enlarging the number of readers and participants. We also hoped that some of the discussions would be of sufficient value to be worth preserving for future reference. We thought we might be able to generate something like a continuously-in-session convention for rug collectors.
We were very aware of the major advantages the web offers with regard to discussion when compared to live presentations or articles in written media. Some of these include the ability for many people to participate simultaneously, elimination of the restrictions that live discussions have with regard to participants being able to consult reference material before commenting, reducing the time between the appearance of an article and the appearance of comments on it, and eliminating the unavoidable time constraints on discussions at live sessions. An internet discussion forum combines most of the advantages of face to face conversation with the ability to access and present resource materials very quickly. For example, I can take a photo with my digital camera or scan a page from a book or periodical and have it on line in less than 15 minutes. Needless to say, we hoped to attract a large number of participants; we believed that there was a valuable, mostly untapped resource in the form of specialized expertises that could be brought to bear in novel and unexpected ways on what is known about rugs.
There were, perhaps, half a dozen public discussion boards for rugs at the time, but we found them unsatisfying for a number of reasons. One was the general lack of civility. Another was the obvious dishonesty with which some vendors promoted their goods and themselves and attacked their competitors. Finally, we noticed an overall lack of focus and continuity in the discussions. None of them included a substantial corpus of informed conversation about antique "collectible" textiles. We attributed this mostly to the incivility and dishonesty driving away many potential contributors.
We tossed around ideas about how we might avoid those problems in our new enterprise, and hoped we could promote civility by having rules about personal attacks and the use of pseudonyms. We also decided to forbid promotional and commercial posts, reducing the motivation for the dishonesty that afflicted other forums. In order to remain free of the pressures from sponsors, we have never solicited or accepted any financial support from outside our group of managers. The only commercial content on Turkotek is the page of links, which we maintain as a service to the readers. We do not pretend to have insight into the business practices of most of the linked dealers and a link is not an endorsement from Turkotek, although some rug-related sites are excluded for various reasons. The site descriptions on our links page are all edited to avoid evaluative statements.
In an attempt to provide focus, we introduced the Salon format that's now familiar to our readers. The first Salon went public in November 1998, five years ago this month. It seems appropriate to engage in self-examination from time to time, and five years from launching seems reasonable for a website.
Activity and Participation: Quantity
Here are some numbers that relate to the general level of participation and activity that Turkotek enjoys.
Our archive includes 102 Salons and the discussions that they generated, plus 14 archived discussions that were not part of Salons. We didn't keep track of how many discussions were not archived. We didn't hold discussions outside the Salons until February 1999, and didn't begin archiving any of them until two years later. Since then, we've archived less than 10% of the freestanding discussions. I'd guess that there have been between 300 and 500 Show and Tell topics since we initiated that feature nearly 4 years ago.
We changed message board software 22 months ago (in January of 2002). The new package, vBulletin, tracks the number of posts and of discussion topics (threads) that have appeared on it. As of October 27, 2003, there had been 658 threads and 5,300 posts. In round numbers, that's an average of one new thread and eight new posts every day.
As this is being written, there are 37 active threads in our Discussion Forums, with 192 messages posted by 26 different people. We don't keep data on the number of different people who have posted messages, but 249 have registered as members in the past 22 months, most of them have posted at least one message, and there are many more who post without registering as members. Our Archive page shows the names of 36 different people who have authored Salon essays or introduced topics that were archived. The rest of the contributors to the discussions are not listed on our Archive page, but I think it would be conservative to estimate that we have had posts from 400 different people during the past five years.
Our server logs show an average of 315 "unique visitors" per day during October, 2002. Since a "unique visitor" is simply an IP (a web address), and most people's IP changes every time they open a browser program, the 315 figure represents the upper limit to the number of different daily visitors. About 150 different people visiting the site on any given day is probably a realistic estimate. It seems likely that the number who look in on Turkotek's goings-on more or less regularly (say, once a week or more) is between 250 and 1,000.
Our rules surely prevent some people from posting - we recognize that there are many who prefer not to reveal their identities on web discussion boards. On the other hand, the conversations have been cordial and constructive even when people disagree, and we continue to believe that it is the rules that keep them this way. Only four people have been banned from posting on Turkotek. The reasons include using the site to promote their inventories, persistent dishonesty, and persistent incivility. We do not make their names public, although we generally try to keep Turkotek's workings as transparent as possible.
The scope of topics covered in the site began with little beyond woven textiles of central and western Asia. It has gradually expanded to include embroideries and patchwork textiles, and geographically into mainland southeast Asia, north Africa, and North America. We hope to see further expansion of the scope; many very interesting textile producing areas have not even been mentioned on Turkotek yet.
Clearly, the level of activity and participation far exceeds anything our original group could have achieved by e-mail discussion. We'd like to see it grow, but it already reaches a substantial audience and contributes significantly to our enjoyment and knowledge of rugs. This is very important to us.
Activity and Participation: Quality
What is the quality level of our content? The answer to this question will, obviously, be subjective. But there are some generally accepted criteria that we can apply. For example, publication in an external medium (as opposed to publication through a vanity press) is an indication that something has been judged to be of high quality by a professional editor. A number of our Salons and discussions (I can think of at least 6, and I haven't gone through our archives looking for them) have been the basis of publications in respected print periodicals (HALI and GHEREH), and/or of talks accepted for presentation at major conventions (ICOC and ACOR). This fact alone, I believe, separates Turkotek from nearly every other rug-related website. Perhaps I've missed some, but I'm unaware of any articles or letters in HALI or GHEREH, or presentations at ICOC or ACOR that originated anywhere else on the internet.
My personal opinion is that the average quality level of our Salon essays is about equal to, perhaps above, the average levels at ACOR or ICOC academic sessions. The most consistent criticisms both conferences get is the poor quality of those sessions. In fairness, I should add that much of that criticism has to do with intelligibility of the speaker rather than with the content per se.
The discussions that we archive far exceed the quality of discussions that occur at academic sessions of conferences or in print, for reasons mostly related to the medium itself. The time between the appearance of an article in print and any written commentary on it is, unavoidably, measured in months. Most articles in HALI or GHEREH result in no printed comments at all. There can never be a vigorous exchange of ideas or opinions in any medium in which the interval between statements and responses to them is more than a few days. At conferences like ACOR and ICOC, the discussion quality is limited by the available time (usually no more than 5 or 10 minutes per presentation), the lack of access to resource material, and the fact that the audience is limited to those who attend that session of that conference. Internet discussions have none of these limitations, and our message board software is especially well suited to a visual art because images can be displayed within each message.
Our archive includes material that is probably the best source of information anywhere (on the internet or in print) on certain topics of interest to rug collectors. In fact, some (like the internal elem concept and the rationales for some museum practices that are poorly understood by collectors) exist noplace else.
Another measure of quality could be the credentials of those who contribute to the site. I don't want to embarass anyone by naming names, but our contributors include authors of highly respected books on rugs, contributors to rug-related periodicals, museum curators, members of the groups responsible for organizing ICOC and ACOR, people very close to the sources of modern rug production, anthropologists with professional interests in rug producing areas, artists, weavers, experts on dyes, rug repairers, and people with considerable firsthand experience in interacting with rug producing cultures. Some are dealers, of course, but the dealers who have contributed have graciously maintained a separation between their business activities and their Turkotek presences. Adding to the mix is an ever growing cadre of intelligent, well educated collectors with professional expertise outside of what we normally think of as rug related areas, but which they effectively bring to bear on the discussions. That group includes linguists, statisticians, scientists of various types, physicians, lawyers, at least one serious playwrite/composer, historians, political scientists, and people in a number of other intellectually demanding professions. There is a synergism in their interaction that, in my opinion, is the major source for the progress that our discussions often make, frequently in unexpected directions and occasionally generating new knowledge.
Some Concluding Remarks
If accused of putting a positive spin on Turkotek's first five years, I plead guilty. I am not a disinterested third party, and it would be disingenuous to pretend to be impartial. There are surely a number of negative aspects that I have overlooked, and you are invited to raise them in the discussion. Suggestions for improvement are also welcome, as are any comments and questions about how we operate this site. We probably won't do another public soul-search until 2008, so this is the ideal time to say what you think ought to be said.
The members of the Turkotek management group saw a draft of this essay before it went public, and I thank them for their constructive criticisms. If there are mistakes in it, they are mine.
Thanks to all.