Lately, I’ve been hearing from readers who have been concerned about whether I’ve burned out or lost interest in writing this blog. I’m as interested as I ever was, but more and more of my time is now spent over at Fountain Pens Australia. FPA has evolved into one of the most interesting and active communities in the pen world and certainly one of the most rewarding projects I’ve ever participated in. This weekend is the first anniversary of FPA’s launch and for today’s post, we’ll have a look at the past, present, and future of what might be the greatest FP community in the world. Being the anniversary celebration, there’s also a very special announcement at the end of the post!
One of the really nice things about the broader pen community is how good it is at bringing people together and making them feel included. Pen shows are a prime example of this and it’s wonderful to see pictures from DC (and many others), to see lots of people meeting and having a great time together. Unfortunately, the flip side of that is that many members of the community simply aren’t able to attend pen shows — and seeing lots of other people being included can serve to emphasise one’s own feelings of exclusion. I certainly felt that way and had a feeling that other Australians would feel the same, but I didn’t really know of any local meets or clubs in which I could feel included. In fact, I doubted there were enough pen folk here to even make them feasible.
These feelings came to a head after I published a post last year about the retail FP market in Australia. Some of the local retailers are great, some are awful, but all are different to the international retailers and I thought that made it interesting. What surprised me was the number of comments and emails from Australian readers who wanted to share their own experiences. It struck me that the local community was much bigger than I thought — if two dozen people had been in touch with me, and my readership was (a generous) 5% of all Australian FP enthusiasts, that meant the local community was about 500 people.
This got me thinking and it soon led to a conversation with Yagan Kiely, who runs the Macchiato Man blog and I knew through reddit. We started discussing the possibility of forming an Australian FP group and what form it might take (subreddit, Slack, FPN/FP Geeks-style site, etc). Ultimately, we decided to start out with a Facebook group and gathered a few other Australians we knew through social media — Casey, David (Too Many Inks), Nicholas (Eclectidbits), and Pete (Pete Denison) — to help us get started. We chose the FPA name so it would be easy for new folks to find us (despite some of Nicholas’ brilliant and hilarious suggestions) and, on 29 August, opened the group up for Australians to join.
The year since then has been a tremendous experience. FPA has grown from the initial six to more than 700 members and, far more importantly, has become one of the most active and lively FP communities in the world. We might see a couple of dozen posts every day on a huge range of topics, from beginner pen advice to discussing the design choices of top-end pens, and it’s not unusual to see threads with dozens of contributors sharing their advice and insights. People are extremely passionate and supportive of each other, which has made the group one of the nicest places online.
While the online discussion is great, it’s the pen meets that have really taken things to the next level. We have monthly meets happening in four cities (Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth, and Sydney) and I’m hoping that to add three more (Adelaide, Canberra, and Newcastle) over the next year. What’s great about the meets is that they are more like the after-hours events at a pen show than a typical club event: most start around lunchtime and can continue past midnight, with members coming and going as their schedules allow, and the group moving between different venues. Lunch might be at a nice harbourside restaurant before a visit to local pen shops, retiring to a coffee shop for the afternoon, then heading out for dinner and drinks. These folks might have met each other because of a shared passion but genuine friendships and a sense of community has developed, which binds everyone together and makes these events so joyful. While running the group can occasionally be stressful or frustrating — generally due to a few of our younger and more exuberant members — those feelings totally disappear when I see photos from a meet and the happiness that everyone experiences.
Another great part of the group is the initiative of some members in organising things. One example is the organisation of pen meets — and Diana deserves a special shout-out for being the glue that binds together the Sydney crew — but we’ve also seen members organise group imports of Akkerman or Bungbox inks and even bulk shipments for nib work. Initially, I was quite apprehensive about letting random members organise these things but quickly came to see it as one of our core strengths. There aren’t a lot of communities where individuals will put so much time and effort into doing things expressly to benefit a group of people they have never met.
It’s also been a joy to see how the group supports members who are taking a chance and starting something of their own. One of our members is Robert Oster, who has his own range of inks that now retail around the world. Another is James Finniss, a custom pen maker who runs Pensive Pens. And there are folks who have started micro-businesses — like Lisa Hurring, who makes lovely pen wraps for FPA members.
The group has also allowed members to share their buying experiences, good and bad, and has helped people to find the better retailers in their areas. It’s unfortunate that one retailer mentioned in my original post, the Pens de Luxe chain (including The Pen Shoppe in Brisbane, Penultimate in Sydney, and soon to include Penmanship in Melbourne), continues to offer service that can be rude, incompetent, or sometimes just deceptive. (One recently amusing story was a Penultimate staff member attempting to deceptively extract a warranty fee from an FPA member who not only knew better, but also happened to be a police prosecutor!) Fortunately, we are able to recommend some wonderful retailers in Australia — including Bookbinders, who supported the group in our early days and really helped us find our feet, Dymocks Sydney, and NoteMaker — and so our members soon find themselves treated with due respect and intelligence.
This generosity, kindness, and initiative has become an everyday part of life at FPA. Recently, a member started her post with ‘Hey fam!’ and I realised it’s the perfect metaphor for what our group has become. We aren’t just nerds with a shared interest or even a community: we’re an extended family with brothers and sister, cousins, even a few crazy aunts and uncles, all of whom simply accept each other as they are. I can’t express how much I love that this is what we’ve become or how proud I am of everything that FPA is.
While I was in the Philippines, I was able to participate with their local pen community, FPN-P, and was able to talk with some of the founders and admins about how they operated. It was instructive and helped me to understand why they had made certain decisions and to think about how running and growing FPA. There were things I wanted to share — particularly the diversity of their group, the warmth and hospitality of members, and the huge, lively meets — but there were also things I wanted to avoid.
Chief amongst these was their system of rules: there were different rules for the forum and the Facebook group, what was and wasn’t acceptable, what could be posted where, the obligations of new members, etc. There were also quite a number of admins required to managed compliance. For a group as large and diverse as theirs, and particularly with the Filipino character (which can sometimes lead to chaos…), the rules made sense and were appropriate. But I knew that this wouldn’t work with an Australian membership who, let’s face it, have a pretty pronounced anti-authoritarian streak!
So I’m quite proud of the fact that, a year into the adventure, FPA still doesn’t have any official rules. Instead, we’ve tried to cultivate a system of strong social norms and that has turned out to be quite effective. Some norms are natural — such as respecting the tastes and preferences of others — quite otherwise have required a little more work, such as encouraging all sellers to include some verification pictures with sales posts. But it’s meant Yagan and I (still the only admins) don’t need to spend time on compliance issues or disputes, and we don’t need new members to read a long list of rules before they can participate. Instead, most folks follow the example set by others and the group is really quite cohesive. This approach also has the healthy side-effect of constraining admin authority: we can’t force norms on anyone, so if we want people to behave a certain way, we need to convince members that it’s in their interests to do so.
Taking that approach hasn’t meant the past year was smooth sailing. One particularly tricky issue has been navigating the political differences of members. A majority of our members have degrees and postgraduate degrees, and it’s not surprising that these people have strong and considered views — and, from time to time, these views have come out. After the launch of Noodlers Berning Red, one discussion became a bit heated and this was problematic for us as it threatened to undermine the inclusive, mutually respectful spirit of the group. Consequently, we’ve encouraged members to avoid political discussion, just like you would with friends and family.
For the most part, that approach has worked well. I was quite apprehensive in the run-up to our recent federal election but it passed without incident — in fact, we had a lot of members sharing pictures of the pen and ink they used to complete their ballots (which were surprisingly FP-friendly) and their experience of voting, without the discussion becoming political or heated. In fact, it was one of the warmest and friendliest discussion we’ve had. (Though, of course, I must give credit for this to the democracy sausage — easily the greatest gift to political harmony in history.)
All this has meant that very little effort has gone into moderating the group and we’ve only had to remove a very small number of members. Some of those removed were spambots (which to screened member requests) and the rest, I’m sorry to say, were bloggers in the broader community. While our group is obviously orientated towards Australians and that’s our core audience, we have been open to admitting international members. But this was sorely tested by bloggers who have joined just to advertise and promote their own work — which is to say, they basically spammed us. There was no contribution to our community and, while this behaviour might be tolerated elsewhere, I felt it was quite selfish and diminished my opinion of those bloggers. But these problems have been few and far between.
My big hope for the future is that we can hold onto the present community and spirit of FPA as we continue to grow. I’d love to see more members, more activity, and more pen meets, but that sense of family is worth more than any amount of growth. We’re hoping to expand the number of cities where we have regular pen meets and we’re also exploring the possibility of virtual meets, using Skype or Google Hangouts, to help members in rural areas who can’t easily attend any of the monthly meets.
We also need to work out a way to handle pen sales. Facebook groups have a neat ‘For Sale’ tool and this is fine for now, but if trades start to increase it might start to crowd out other content. There’s a few different options available to us — a separate Facebook group, Slack room, etc — but we haven’t come across anything which fits the bill just yet.
We’ve also thrown around the idea of holding a national pen meet, perhaps to coincide with the annual Melbourne Pen Show in November. The show is a small, one-day affair with a strong vintage focus, which isn’t the best fit for our members. But it might be a good excuse for a bunch of us to fly to Melbourne and enjoy the city’s good food and drink for a weekend. On the other hand, it might also be nice to book out a winery for the weekend and call it an FPA National Conference! Pens, inks, and booze — what could be better? This would be a dream come true but it’s going to require a lot of work and I’m not sure we can fit it into the next 12 months.
On the back end of things, I’m also hoping to build more relationships with Australian retailers, distributors, and manufacturers. There’s a good opportunity here for industry to engage with the core customer base, to learn more about us and our preferences, and to improve their product offering. This strikes me as having distinct advantages to both firms and FPA members but, while there are plenty of firm managers lurking in the membership, there aren’t many who have taken the initiative just yet. I’m hoping that will change over the coming year.
Actually, now I think of it, there’s one other thing coming up in FPA’s second year…
The Best of Tines
Today, we are very proud to announce that FPA is launching it’s very own podcast, called ‘The Best of Tines’. This will feature in-depth discussions about pens, the community, and the industry from an Australia perspective, hosted by myself, Yagan Kiely, and our dear friend Lisa Hurring.
The first episode will be available at noon on Friday, 9th September (AEST) and we’ll have new episodes available every two weeks. In the off weeks, we’ll have special interview episodes with pen lovers, bloggers, and industry professionals, where we will talk about how they got into fountain pens, what they enjoy so most, their favourite products, and basically just geek out over the things we love. Our first guest is Nicholas Gold (aka Eclectidbits) and that episode will be available on Friday, 16th September.
The Best of Tines will be completely free thanks to the generous support of our sponsor, Bookbinders. Apart from their expertise in actual bookbinding, Bookbinders are also an online retailer of fountain pens, inks, Tomoe River notebooks and paper, Midori Travellers notebooks, and Field Notes. You’ve probably heard of their Snake Inks, which launched earlier this year and recently expanded to eight colours. I’m thrilled that we’ve been able to partner with a business that has such great products, wonderful service, and one where I am already a very happy customer. These guys supported FPA right at the beginning and I am so very glad that they’ve decided to support us in this new endeavour. If you happen to be attending the San Francisco show this weekend, you can catch them in person -- tell them I said hello!
The Best of Tines will be available via iTunes, Soundcloud, RSS, etc and you can also follow the show on Facebook and Twitter. We're still building our website and social media platforms but everything should be in place by the time our first episode drops. We are very proud of what we have put together and promise that it’s going to be a lot of fun!
It probably goes without saying that starting FPA is one of the best things I have ever done and I feel so fortunate and grateful to be part of such a vibrant, passionate, and wonderful community. The credit for this is entirely to the members who participate, who share, who organise, who engage, and make the experience so enjoyable for hundreds of others. I really hope that we can capture some of that joy in our podcast so we can share it with the world — and I hope that you’ll give us a listen!
If you’re an Australian who hasn’t yet joined, I strongly encourage you to do so. And if you don’t have a local community, I strongly encourage you to start your own and share your passion with others in your area. It’s definitely worthwhile and I’m happy to help in any way I can!