Thursday 17 January 2002
Journalism and trust
Flipping back and forth between Doc and Tom as they discuss the relationship between blogging and journalism made me conscious of certain beliefs I absorbed from my parents. I recall asking my mother in my late twenties whether she’d been disappointed when I chose to become a photographer rather than a doctor, a scientist, or an architect. Not at all, she replied, the only way you could possibly have disappointed me is if you’d become a lawyer.
For my father, it was journalists. It’s too late to ask him why he held them in such low regard but, as far as dad was concerned, if you scraped the absolute bottom of the barrel, all you’d wind up with was a spoonful of journalism.
Although, to their credit, neither Doc nor Tom frame their arguments purely in terms of American journalism, I wonder whether they take journalists more seriously than I do because American journalism is—to put it bluntly—superior to the Australian strain that my father deplored and I lost interest in a long time ago.
It’s not surprising then that I find myself at odds with Dan Gilmore when he writes:
Now, I don’t necessarily trust what I see online. I have more skepticism about what I see online from a random source than what I read in an article from a traditional publication that employs professional reporters and editors. We’re developing hierarchies of trust, and we’re learning that we need to check things out for ourselves.
Well, as Mandy Rice-Davies famously remarked, he would say that, wouldn’t he. For as far as I can figure, the recipe for an awful lot of journalism consists of equal portions of:
- Recycled press releases
- Manufactured outrage
- Wafer-thin understanding of the subject under discussion
If you don’t agree, recall an article you’ve read or a TV news segment you’ve seen about a subject you know intimately. Then grade it for accuracy. More often than not, you’ll realize that the piece was flawed by at least a few minor errors, possibly a major gaffe. Journalists are, for the most part, generalists. They know bits and pieces about lots of different things but hardly anything at any depth. And you find yourself thinking, somehow that just didn’t hit the mark.
Unlike Dan Gilmore, I have more skepticism about what I read in a traditional publication than what I read online—not from a random source but from someone who has built a reputation for accuracy and reliability.
I was a photographer for 20 years. I know a lot about photography. Sites like Phil Askey’s Digital Photography Review or robgalbraith.com leave “traditional” photography magazines in the dust. How would you even dream of comparing Askey’s and Galbraith’s astonishingly rigorous reviews with the farcical Which is better, Nikon or Canon? Well, they’re both big advertisers, so they’re both fantastic approach of the major magazines?
I’ve used Macs and PCs for 17 years. I know a reasonable amount about computers. Why would I bother with PC World or Computer Shopper—whether in print or online—when there’s Tom’s Hardware Guide, Macintouch, and Dan’s Data? Well, Dan (Gilmore), I wouldn’t.
So, after all that, I find that I’m my father’s son.
What else is new?
[Later] I realized that I might feel differently about this if I lived in Zimbabwe. <edited />
Friday 18 January 2002
Talented practioners of a new discipline
Walt Whitman wasn’t part of the curriculum at the parochial high school I attended in Sydney a long time ago. Our attention was directed instead towards the English poets and a token Australian or two. So it was a surprise and a delight to be introduced to Whitman through the poem that closed Doc’s entry on Wednesday. What a gift, I thought, to be pointed in Whitman’s direction; I immediately recalled an essay written by John Szarkowski twenty years ago on the work of the French photographer, Eugène Atget.
Atget died in Paris in 1927, having spent the previous thirty years assembling a comprehensive catalog of French architecture, landscape, and everyday life. In that time, he exposed perhaps ten thousand glass negatives—as Szarkowski writes in another essay, Atget “was not progressive, but worked patiently with techniques that were obsolescent when he adopted them, and very nearly anachronistic by the time of his death.” Nor was his work appreciated by his fellow countrymen. The American photographer Berenice Abbott rescued an enormous cache of his negatives from neglect and possible destruction. Through her efforts and Szarkowski’s, Atget’s reputation was secured.
Doc’s essay is titled, It’s the Writing, Geniuses. Doc’s genius lies in the way he builds his argument carefully and concludes it gracefully by pointing to Whitman’s poem. “Look!” he seems to be saying. “This will reward your attention.” I suggest that accomplished bloggers, Doc included, are practising a discipline that Szarkowski defines here:
As a way of beginning, one might compare the art of photography to the act of pointing. All of us, even the best-mannered of us, occasionally point, and it must be true that some of us point to more interesting facts, events, circumstances, and configurations than others. It is not difficult to imagine a person—a mute Virgil of the corporeal world—who might elevate the act of pointing to a creative plane, a person who would lead us through the fields and streets and indicate a sequence of phenomena and aspects that would be beautiful, humorous, morally instructive, cleverly ordered, mysterious, or astonishing, once brought to our attention, but that had been unseen before, or seen dumbly, without comprehension. This talented practitioner of the new discipline (the discipline a cross, perhaps, between theater and criticism) would perform with a special grace, sense of timing, narrative sweep, and wit, thus endowing the act not merely with intelligence, but with that quality of formal rigor that identifies a work of art, so that we would be uncertain, when remembering the adventure of the tour, how much of our pleasure and sense of enlargement had come from the things pointed to and how much from a pattern created by the pointer.
I’m convinced the best blogs owe much of their power to such an art of graceful pointing. And, that though they may not look like journalism, they sure as hell feel like art.
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Saturday 26 January 2002
Build or demolish
While I was sleeping, the Dave/WinerLog contretemps boiled over at Burningbird. “Should I comment?” I asked myself. After all, there seems little point in picking at the scab of a wound that might best be left to heal (or fester) on its own. On the other hand, the synergy between these three sites gave me a much-appreciated boost at the beginning of my blogging career. It didn’t feel right to ignore the issue so I went with my gut.
I am by nature a bit of a smartarse. At school I was in constant trouble for making “inappropriate remarks” in class. Because it was a Catholic school, many of my witty ripostes sprang from what I saw as the gap between theory and practice, between the dogmas the Marist Brothers espoused and their everyday behavior. It strikes me that WinerLog arises from a similar impulse. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if one or two of the Wiener Boys were recovering Catholics.
On arriving at Sydney University I found, to my great delight, that my talent was as widely appreciated there as it had been by my high school classmates. I only learned upon entering adult society that “adolescent” and “undergraduate” are used to describe a particular kind of humor. As I grew older and began to curb this instinct, I discovered that I got along with all kinds of people, many of whom would have been disconcerted or even offended by the former me. As one of my close friends put it last New Year’s Eve, “You’re a lot less angry than you were when I met you in 1979.”
It’s a widely remarked aspect of online life that people write things in email they’d never dream of saying face-to-face. I suspect that the immediacy of blogging also encourages the expression of thoughtless or malicious remarks. Dave seems to be making the same point here.
Some history: I posted some (what I thought were) lighthearted comments about disappearing items from Scripting News; Dave ripped me a new arsehole in a post that quickly disappeared; WinerLog picked up on it; I wrote another post about how tough it must be to have to listen to people criticizing you with the tools you built. Finally — and this is the really important part — Dave did something incredibly sweet and generous. He posted an item about my site looking beautiful that drove a ton of traffic here; an act that opened up a space for me in the blogging firmament, pointed me towards finding a better tone for my blog, and taught me the importance of displaying grace under pressure.
Burningbird notes the value of the Roman belief that “one’s ultimate enemy is, in actuality, one’s most powerful friend. Your enemy spends more time thinking about you than your friends do. Your enemy points out all your weaknesses, allowing you to learn how to become stronger. Your enemy will be honest when others, fearing to offend, will lie.” She’s right; though I suspect that this, as with a lot of advice, is easier to dispense than to swallow.
In a sense, Dave created an uncomfortable situation for himself by taking on two seemingly incompatible roles: building software as well as writing essays and a weblog. Most people do one or the other. Dan Bricklin also does both, but — for me anyway — his weblog lacks the spark of Dave’s. I believe that other CEOs will follow in their footsteps, finding an authentic voice with which to replace the bland platitudes of their marketing departments and PR flacks. Those who succeed will owe a debt of gratitude to Dave.
Burningbird may also be correct in telling Dave that he needs a sense of humor. But even if Dave wasn’t “a little irony-challenged” as Brent Simmons pointed out in a Wired profile, that’s still a really hard ask. The editor of the Sydney Morning Herald might print articles or letters critical of the newspaper’s stance on a given issue, but he doesn’t have to devote space every day to a column whose sole purpose is to draw attention to real or imagined deficiencies in his business and personal behavior.
Irony is certainly a sharper, more entertaining tool than sarcasm but, like any other tool, irony rapidly becomes blunted with overuse. That, ultimately, is the problem with WinerLog. There’s no light to temper the shade. Though I’ll probably continue to read it. Partly from a libertarian conviction that every voice, no matter how offensive, should be heard (listening is obviously a matter of individual choice); mainly because it gives me an occasional chuckle by appealing to the less generous side of my nature.
Dave, on the other hand, might be inconsistent or occasionally obnoxious but he’s possessed of a huge heart. In giving me a tool and a space in which to use it, he’s supported and encouraged my desire to do what I love most: to write. And he’s made me more aware that building things takes a lot more skill, love, energy, passion, and commitment than demolishing them.
Saturday 16 February 2002
Blogging as a high wire act
Dominic Dromgoole’s essay—on how the paucity of intervals reduces the drama of the modern theatrical event—explained why I frequently find the theater so stiff and pretentious. It also serves as a meta-commentary on blogging:
But no matter who the writer, theatre is tense. It’s intended to be a high-wire act. Actors can forget their lines, or fall off the stage, or have heart attacks and die. That, to be callous, is the fun of it. It is the essence of its liveness, that it is always on the point of collapse. It is one of the few arts whose joy lies in its potential for disintegrating in front of you. This is what the plate-spinning fraternity, with all their frantic falling over, do not realise. They are always strenuously underlining the liveness of theatre. It is already live. The audience knew that when they bought their tickets. They want to see something complex, difficult, beautiful and wise being brought off with speed, agility and grace. The achievement of that, that particular walk over the tightrope, is what makes theatre great. Being a crap mime, or a bad clown, and being proud of it because it proves how live you are doesn’t quite hit the same level of endeavour.
(via Arts & Letters Daily)
Monday 18 February 2002
Blogging as radical self-transformation
The topics fly past at Keep Trying, like local stations seen briefly from the window of an express. Sometimes I’d like to get off and stretch my legs—as with the discussion about the real you (a.k.a. the unitary self vs. the multiplicity of me’s)—but we’re already too far down the track. As Shelley puts it, “There is nothing more discouraging than to become excited about something and then receive silence.” One faces a couple of choices in that situation: to continue to speak in the face of silence or to switch to a subject with more general appeal.
Today Mike Sanders deftly merged two recent Burningbird topics that generated lots of comment friction: “how much is too much [personal sharing in a weblog]?” and “blogging about your blogging.” Mike observed:
…blogging about blogging is not about blogs. It’s about life. The blog is just giving us a new mechanism of examination. Examining ourselves, examining our relationships, examining our pleasures, examining our world. And many of us are energized by the wonderment of it all.
If you don’t enjoy the discovery process, thats ok with me. (Not that you need my ok.) I agree that the introspective part of it can be discomforting. Our culture does not encourage introspection and many have not had positive experiences with it. But at the core, I think we all are growth oriented and introspection is critical to personal growth.
I agree that “introspection is critical to personal growth” though, in the world that I inhabit, I see scant evidence that “we are all growth oriented”. Still, as Mike would probably say, who am I to judge?
The use of the blog as a “new mechanism of examination” meshes with an essay I discovered via Arts & Letters Daily: Thomas Nagel’s New Republic review of Rüdiger Safranski’s Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography, a biography that largely ignores outer events to concentrate on “the temporal course of Nietzsche’s inner life and his self-transformation through thought and writing.” Introducing Nietzche’s project, Nagel writes:
To take oneself and one’s world as given, and move forward intellectually and practically from that starting point, was in his view a betrayal of the extraordinary freedom that we possess as reflective beings. Nietzsche recognized that, like all human beings, he had reached consciousness with a sense of himself and a system of values that was produced by a tangled human history together with biological sources of which he was largely unaware. To take real possession of himself, to discover who he was and to decide who he wanted to be, required a bringing-to-consciousness of everything that lay beneath and behind the socially developed and educated human being—the constructed individual who handles the world with concepts, values, and methods of thought whose sources and true meanings he does not understand. It required a radical self-transformation.
There’s a difference between Nietzche’s bringing-to-consciousness of everything that lies beneath and, in Shelley’s phrase, the “complete and uncontrolled dump of self.” The latter represents Doc’s “abundance of blogging dreck” that mainstream pundits snidely emphasize. Once again, as Doc so neatly puts it, “the majority defines the entirety.” But only if you measure quantity rather than quality. The blogs I respond to are informed, articulate, gracefully written, courageous, revelatory, and radically self-transforming. And there are already too many of them for me to discover, let alone visit regularly.
Wednesday 20 March 2002
Anyone seeking instruction on how to respond gracefully to criticism might wish to read Douglas Ord’s comment on my remarks about his image/text work, stereopticon.
Wednesday 03 April 2002
Don’t blame the storyteller
Burningbird used my previous post as the launching pad for a trenchant attack on Michael Barrish’s observation that “the same self-serving logic used to justify petty theft is used to justify the destruction of the planet. People do what they want, then find reasons to justify it.” She wrote:
Bullshit. This is absolute and total bullshit.
Yes, some people will do selfish acts and then seek to justify their actions. However, most people, and I count myself in this group, making me a “goddamn paragon of rightousness”, follow our moral codes without any equivocation.
What Barrish failed to realize is that by saying this problem is a global problem, he’s absolving himself of any responsibility for his action and his reaction to the criticism he received.
To the contrary, I understood the “moral” of Michael Barrish’s story to be exactly the opposite: the planet is being steadily destroyed because people, including myself (Michael Barrish, Jonathon Delacour, whoever), do what we want and then find reasons to justify it. I found his observation dispiriting because of its accuracy. Rather than absolving himself of responsibility, I assumed he was embracing responsibility.
If we accept, as Burningbird suggested, that most people follow their moral codes without any equivocation, and if we also accept that the planet is being destroyed, then either there’s a problem with the moral codes or—and this is Barrish’s argument, and mine—people aren’t actually following them. (If you don’t believe the planet is being destroyed, the whole discussion is moot.)
As it transpired, Burningbird had second thoughts:
Did I go over the top in the last posting? I did, didn’t I? Yes, you did. A little.
I do this sometimes, have you noticed that? Come to think of it, I think I have.
But I’ve also noticed Burningbird’s willingness to acknowledge her occasional excesses. In this case, she even confessed to stealing a blue plastic light cover from a parked police car at the age of 14.
So much for my high moral ground
(…she says as she slinks away, hanging her head in shame…)
The stealing doesn’t interest me nearly as much as the intensity of her initial response, which was based (I suspect) on an unfamiliarity with Michael Barrish’s work.
Uh, oh! I promised myself there’d be no more metablogging!
Barrish’s statement (about people doing whatever they want then justifying it) needs to be seen in the wider context of his website, Oblivio, which comprises a large number of entries, apparently based on incidents in the writer’s life. Besides being enviably consistent, Barrish’s posts are subtly constructed, artfully honest, acutely observed, wryly humorous, and gracefully written.
My guess is that Burningbird reacted so strongly because she assumed that the Sign story and its sequel, #1, were weblog entries. I described Barrish’s stories as “artfully honest” because I’ve never regarded Oblivio as a weblog, but rather as a collection of stories (even though the section called Archives contains about 160 entries while the Stories section lists just ten). My “blogroll” is captioned Favorites, not Blogroll, mainly because of Oblivio.
Yet, even though I don’t regard Oblivio as a weblog, others might. I suppose it could be mistaken for a weblog, just as Michael Barrish could be mistaken for a real person. He probably is a real person since he also uses the website to solicit web development work (though he maintains separate sites for each purpose, for reasons he explains in the story Motherfucker). But Barrish is also a character who appears in his own stories. As does Rachel, his girlfriend. Whether she really exists and whether she’s his girlfriend is impossible to determine, without knowing Michael Barrish. Even then, the real-life Rachel may bear only a fleeting resemblance to the Rachel in the stories. (Just like the women in some of my stories.)
As for the Duck Crossing sign, we know that there is one, though the sign in the photograph may not necessarily be in Delaware, the scene of the story. And there may or may not be an email correspondent named Jay Perkins. In any case, notice the authenticity that the photograph confers on the story/post.
As it happens, there is a Jay Perkins with a www.jayperkins.com website. But Jay Perkins was also the brother of Carl Perkins, writer of the 1956 smash hit, Blue Suede Shoes (the B-side of the record was Honey Don’t, which was a hit for The Beatles in 1964 with Ringo Starr singing lead vocal). Carl Perkins and Jay Perkins, on their way to a taping for the Perry Como TV show in New York, were injured in a car accident. In Delaware.
So, you might be asking, what’s the point of all this? The point is this: there seems to be an implicit agreement amongst webloggers to speak with an authentic voice, to tell the truth as they see it, to give witness, according to the dictates of journalism. That’s why so many bloggers are convinced that they are creating a new form of journalism, that the collective power of weblogs lies in their ability to cover all sides of a story, that weblogs can aspire to the highest goal of journalism, which is to expose then communicate the facts—so everyone can READ ALL ABOUT IT!
Michael Barrish has made no such promise. Indeed, at the beginning of Sign, he writes:
Had we succeeded, I wouldn’t be telling you any of this. This raises the question of what I’m not telling you. I’m not telling you a lot.
Michael Barrish is an artist, not a journalist; yet, paradoxically, stories like his are richer and more honest than most journalism. More persuasive too, as was revealed by Burningbird’s passionate response and the critical email messages he received (whether they were real or simply part of the story).
Today Jon Udell responded to a New York Times article about how the future of literate storytelling looks bleak as more and more glossy magazines are replacing 4,000 word articles with images. John wrote:
Funny. The future of literate storytelling has never looked brighter to me. I can’t say the same for the future of the glossy publishing industry, though.
Jon’s correct. Literate storytelling is on the brink of a resurgence, though not because weblogs are embracing journalistic values. Storytelling depends on a belief that an artfully constructed fiction is frequently more truthful than a carefully described fact. Or to quote Antonio Machado, from one of the aphorisms that appears randomly at the top of the Oblivio home page:
In my solitude I have seen things very clearly, which are not true.
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Monday 29 April 2002
The Chinese character to the left of my name in the site banner is xin, heart. In Japanese it’s pronounced kokoro or shin, depending on the context. In Japanese it can mean mind, spirit, feelings, emotions, thoughts… Its diffuse “meaning” is one of the reasons I chose the character kokoro as the graphical title for my site.
It’s also the name of a novel by the distinguished Japanese writer, Natsume Soseki. At the end of the English translation of Kokoro, Edwin McClellan, the translator, explains: The best rendering of the Japanese word “kokoro” that I have seen is Lafcadio Hearn’s, which is: “the heart of things.”
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This site design is loosely based on the Clean Movable Type layout and has been checked against the following browsers:
- Windows Internet Explorer 5 & 6, Opera 5 & 6, Netscape 6.2, and Mozilla 1.2
- Macintosh Internet Explorer 5, Netscape 6.2, Safari, and Chimera.
It doesn’t work in Netscape 4.x and I don’t particularly care (early Netscape and Internet Explorer users see the banner logo and text, then the content, and finally the calendar and links). It doesn’t look pretty in earlier browsers but the content is all there.
You’ll find other excellent CSS layouts at:
For general advice on CSS, Eric Meyer’s site is a great place to start.
I have to say right up front that I love these W3C buttons—they remind me of the merit badges I struggled to win as a Boy Scout.
At Mark Pilgrim’s urging, I swallowed the XHTML and CSS KoolAid. It validates as XHTML and would validate as CSS if the W3C CSS Validator understood the Simplified Box Model Hack. So I’m wearing the badge anyway.
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Thursday 02 May 2002
In my recent post on pho, the Vietnamese soup, I included (with a link) a few paragraphs from a comprehensive essay on the place of pho in Vietnamese history and culinary tradition. Out of courtesy, I sent the author an email, telling him that I had quoted his text.
I received a reply saying that it was not his work, that he found it on the Net and “used it as an example.” All 1781 words! A little Google sleuthing located the real author, Mai Pham, the owner of a Sacramento restaurant and author of a Vietnamese cookbook. The article was originally published in SF Gate. This is my first experience of Web plagiarism. I guess I must be naive.
Attacking the (person not the) argument
Mike Sanders quoted Richard Bennett’s snide personal attack on Dave Winer, written in response to Winer’s essay, Sharon Must Go.
If Winer had followed the party line and written an essay called Sharon Must Stay in which he praised Sharon as a “man of peace,” would he have been flattered instead of denigrated? Like this, for example:
A particularly sharp example of Silicon Valley political savvy is the essay on Dave Winer’s blog titled “Sharon Must Stay.” Winer is a key figure in the group that some have called the San Francisco Web whizzes. He’s representative of a common phenomenon in this valley, the brilliant software developer who singlehandedly creates an important software category, builds a company around it, then sells the company for a handsome profit.
In Winer’s case it was an outlining and presentation package for the Macintosh called MORE, which he astutely sold to Symantec before Mac sales started to nosedive. Although he could have relaxed on a beach in the Bahamas for the rest of his life, Winer has chosen to devote his imagination and considerable energies to creating a blogging tool called Radio UserLand. He has initially positioned Radio as personal publishing software, but his real goal is to empower groups to work collaboratively in new and exciting ways.
Along the way, Dave Winer has managed to antagonize more than a few people but that’s to be expected for anyone who has the moxie to forcefully express his opinions, about politics or technology. Here’s the essence of his argument:
As it happens, my rewrite is considerably closer to the truth than Bennett’s unsavory ad hominem attack. But that’s not the point. In both my version, and in Bennett’s original, there is only one relevant sentence. It’s this one:
Here’s the essence of his argument.
The only issue worthy of rebuttal is Dave Winer’s argument that Sharon should go. Winer’s personal history, how he made his fortune, and how he spends it have absolutely no bearing on his attitudes towards the Middle East. Dave Winer is entitled to express his opinions in good faith and to expect that anyone who disagrees will attack the argument and not the person making the argument.
When Bennett does address Winer’s argument, he makes the persuasive point that “that the only possible successor to Sharon in the wings right now is Netanyahu, a more hawkish man than Sharon himself.” So why not build on that to undermine Winer’s basic premise?
Instead, Bennett sends out an unambiguous message that anyone who expresses less than unconditional support for Israel will be subjected to a character assassination. In Winer’s case, his motives have been called into question, his life’s work dismissed as trivial, and his financial success shrugged off as accidental.
How that encourages the uncommitted to give sympathetic consideration to the Israeli cause is beyond my comprehension.
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Monday 13 May 2002
Let’s blame the victim
Bruce Burkhardt’s CNN interview with “self-proclaimed blogger Josh Quittner” touched more than a few raw nerves in Blogaria today. Burningbird asked:
Why is Josh Quittner the definitive authority on weblogs, do real people use the word “cool” that much in their conversation… and who the fuck cares?
And visitors to her site were quick to comment.
Jeneane Sessum: you forgot to mention the exclamation points. we bloggers love those as much as Josh talking about blogs! Don’t ask a woman blogger though. NOOOO way.
Rogi: *What* a completely and utterly useless article that is…do you think that they actually paid him for it?
Stavros: think I might eat a plate of flowers, in hope that I might then be able to shoot bees out of my mouth.
Ed Murray: hands down the worst ‘mainstream’ piece about weblogs to date. what’s this new site called Slash.com Mr. Quittner seems so enamored of?
Perhaps spending so much time with AKMA over the weekend has left me with a quart of the milk of human kindness flowing through every vein. Or, again under AKMA’s influence, I may be drawn to desperate, forgotten, impossible or lost causes. Either way, I feel compelled to rush to Josh’s defence. I’ll start by quoting Adam Curry’s The Big Lie:
I’ve been in the public eye for more than 18 years, in Europe and the US. I’ve enjoyed fame and recognition, which comes at a price.
That price isn’t privacy, as many would have you believe, the price is the cost of the truth.
I’ve been interviewed hundreds of times. By broadcasters, publications, newspapers, magazines, school papers. You name it, they’s interviewed me.
Not once, ever, has the result been factually correct.
Though I’m not even remotely “famous,” I’ve been interviewed dozens of times. More often than not, my ideas or opinions have been blatantly distorted in order to manufacture controversy. Even when you try to be on your guard, a skillful journalist can still make you look like a clown.
For example, Josh’s reference to Slash.com:
So, my favorite — the one I go to every day… is a site called Slash.com. It’s a blog for techies. The cool thing that (Slash) does though, is its software has this really interesting algorithm that weights how many times people actually hit on a particular link and how valuable they found it. So the good commentary floats to the top….
Am I alone in believing that Josh is actually referring to Slashdot? And that Bruce Burkhardt assumed he meant “Slash.com” but didn’t bother to check, since the real Slash.com describes itself as a:
site… used for web site development [which] has no content of interest to anyone except the developers. There are a number of student sites hosted here and you are welcome to visit them.
Needless to say, there are no links to any of the sites mentioned in the interview.
So isn’t the real villain CNN’s Bruce Burkhardt? After all, he wrote the “article”—in the time-honored pro-journalist tradition: “Who gives a shit about weblogs? Why bother with fact-checking? After all, isn’t our real job trivializing the subject and undermining the credibility of those we interview?”
As far as I can tell, Josh Quittner is guilty of one thing: as a journalist himself, he should have seen the setup a mile away. But hey, who amongst us hasn’t behaved like a dill at one time or another?
So my sympathies are with Josh. Even if the CNN interview is karmic payback for his past journalistic sins. But no way will I try to defend Gurshuran Sidhu.
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Wednesday 15 May 2002
Enforcing academic standards at U Blog
AKMA notes that:
a sizable proportion of the U Blog faculty are exiles from the sacred precincts of physical-world academia, and so far as I know, Jeff Ward and I are the only active practitioners on the roll. This is not an accident, and indeed has provoked in me certain musings about my own vocation (if the online friends whom I so respect and in whose electronic presence I bask are themselves not quite at home in the institutional academy, what am I doing there?).
A good question and one that I shall be raising at the next faculty meeting. I have it in mind to suggest that only those with no direct connections to “physical-world academia” (or no formal qualifications in the subjects they have been engaged to teach and research) should be eligible to hold tenured full professorships. Although, regrettably, this will mean that both AKMA and Jeff Ward will be forced to accept non-tenure-track assistant-professorships, we cannot allow personal feelings to undermine the high academic standards of the University of Blogaria.
An easy way out of this dilemma would be for Jeff to relinquish his Chair in Rhetoric in order to take up the currently vacant John Szarkowski Chair in the History of Photography. AKMA might be interested in becoming Procter & Gamble Foundation Professor of Dish Care Technology.
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Friday 31 May 2002
Bloggers as journalists. Just say no.
Towards the end of We Were Soldiers, the survivors of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry are coming to terms with the cost of their “victory” when a helicopter lands and a gaggle of journalists spills out onto the battlefield.
They ask the commander, Lt. Col. Hal Moore, a series of inane questions and, when he turns away from them in weary amazement, they switch their attention to Joe Galloway, the UPI reporter who has spent three days in hell with the American forces. Galloway fast-talked his way into the combat zone, won the soldiers’ respect by sharing the danger and hardship and by exchanging his cameras for a weapon at a particularly desperate point in the fighting, before finally making the notes and pictures that would tell the story of one of the most important engagements of the Vietnam War.
When Galloway too turns his back on them in disgust, the intention of the scene is unmistakable: journalists with integrity are the rarest of the rare; most of them are charlatans, time-servers, or hacks.
Robert Young Pelton makes a similar point:
Why was Barbara Walters in Saudi Arabia? Did she get up one day, buy a ticket and take a camera in with her? No. She was invited by the government as part of a P.R. campaign to convince the American public that the Saudis who flew the planes into the buildings had nothing to do with the country of Saudi Arabia. That’s an overt P.R. campaign. Why do you think the military invites journalists into a combat area? Because they know there’s going to be a nice clean operation and it’ll look good when we blow stuff up and they’ll write about how we’re winning the war.
The comparative rarity of journalists like Galloway and writers like Pelton (who refuses to call himself a journalist) has me wondering about this desperate desire of bloggers to supplant the role of “professional journalists.” I mean, what’s the big deal here? Am I the only inhabitant of Blogaria who didn’t get a shot of Journalism is the Holiest Profession serum when I was eight years old?
Why would anyone, given the opportunity to participate in a brand new (and relatively unfettered) conversational medium aspire to mimic conventional broadcast or print journalism?
And yet I shouldn’t be surprised. Every new means of expression starts out by imitating the mindset and techniques of the one it is intended to displace. The first movies were theatrical plays filmed with a static camera pointed at an (outdoor) stage. The pioneers of television imagined they were adding images to radio programs.
What combines news, opinion, and pictures and comes out every day? A newspaper. Oh! A weblog has news and opinions and pictures and comes out every day too. So bloggers must be journalists. Or their handmaidens. John Hiler’s article Blogosphere: the emerging Media Ecosystem explains it all in mind-numbing detail, complete with diagrams that map the flow of information between bloggers and print journalists. But—to borrow a metaphor from Robert Kagan—Hiler’s model boils down to this: bloggers do the shopping, chop up the ingredients, and wash the dishes; while print journalists get to cook (and eat) the meal.
We have the opportunity to do something magical, original, and true. And you want to be journalists. Give me a fucking break.
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Wednesday 05 June 2002
In a post titled R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Burningbird asked:
Am I coming across as this whiney thing that starts a fight, and then tells those who show up to stop picking on me? I would be appalled if this is true, because that’s not how I am. That’s not how I want to portray myself.
Dorothea Salo’s insightful response concluded:
I guess I’m encouraging Burningbird to examine her own writing. It’s not a bad way to learn about yourself. (Neither is RPGing, for that matter. Some of my characters have taught me quite a bit.) I suspect, however, that she’ll find that the worst of the abuse she’s getting is an artifact of the medium, and not her message.
Along the way to that conclusion, Dorothea offered some reasons for the negative (and occasionally personal) comments that troubled Burningbird:
- one’s weblog posts can be misread (sometimes willfully);
- people’s natural tendencies are amplified (“nice people tend to get nicer, mean people tend to get meaner”);
- remarks on the Web are decontextualized (misinterpretation arises from a lack of shared background).
To which I’d add that certain topics—the Middle East conflict currently tops the list—act as a lightning rod for misreading, meanness, and misinterpretation. These topics (abortion is another) are high in the “emotional charge” that sends some people “into a fetal position in a corner” while energizing others to the point where they feel that they’ve finally discovered the meaning of life.
Such emotionally charged issues make it easy to forget or ignore the Happy Tutor’s First and Second Rules of Disagreeing Agreeably (or at least Effectively):
Attack the sin, not the sinner.
Attack the position, not the person holding the position.
Additionly, certain personality types seem more prone to overly aggressive behavior. Some people can’t form boundaries between their self and their strongly-held beliefs and, as a result, frequently (mis)interpret an attack on their position as an attack on their personal worth. Others are dogmatic in the sense Joseph Deumer describes, people who insist that they have a mortgage on the truth by shouting down any alternative or nuanced opinion. It’s the dogmatists who casually throw around epithets like “racist,” “sexist,” and “anti-Semite” as a substitute for reasoned, coherent argument.
These factors—emotional charge, poor internal boundary formation, dogmatic temperament—combined with Dorothea Salo’s “artifacts of the medium” (misreading, meanness, and misinterpretation) yield much of the unpleasantness that contaminates Web discourse.
By way of contrast, my recent post on blogging and journalism provoked a robust and productive dialogue (helped no doubt by the fact that the topic lacks emotional charge).
My post argument be summarized thus:
Given that mainstream journalism is so hopelessly compromised and that blogging appears to offer so many more exciting and creative possibilities, why are so many bloggers willing to settle for the tenth-rate ambition of acting as unpaid researchers and fact checkers for print journalists?
Along the way I took a couple of potshots at John Hiler’s article Blogosphere: the emerging Media Ecosystem (although, with hindsight, I would have done well to have mentioned Dave Winer’s Long Bet with the New York Times). John Hiler’s response showed a sure grasp of the Happy Tutor’s Third Rule:
Adopt a good-humored bantering tone.
After quoting some of my less complimentary remarks, he wrote: “Hmm Jonathan, I’m kind of getting a negative vibe here.” He then quoted at length from some other critical remarks I’d made about his Tipping Blog article, before concluding:
That’s a lot of failing, ignoring, and falling apart! But actually I dug that post because despite the brutality, there were some great points in there. I’d dig this more recent post more if I felt it was responding to points I made in my article…
On reflection, I can see the validity in John’s observation. Kuro5hin, which he treats in depth, is a perfect example of the collaborative authoring that I believe has so much potential. I did briefly consider commenting on the San Francisco State University fracas, which John describes in glowing terms as bloggers acting like real journalists (whereas I thought their reliance on partisan witnesses resulted in a lack of “journalistic balance” that was almost farcical). And I wish now that, instead of framing my argument in terms of journalists living off the backs of bloggers, I’d placed more emphasis on the mutually exploitative relationship between journalists and bloggers that John describes.
What’s most interesting though is that John Hiler’s deft response to my remarks sent me back to read his article once more and to reconsider the criticisms I’d made. Ironically, it’s this call and response mechanism that forms the core of Hiler’s Blogosphere.
Something similar happened in the comments on my post where, amongst the mostly favorable responses, John Morrish wrote:
Blogging is not journalism. You’d have to be deluded to think it was.
John, a British writer who also trains reporters, editors, and feature writers, runs a Web resource called The Journolist. Uh-oh, I thought to myself, he thinks I’m deluded. (Hint: misinterpretation!) John Morrish didn’t think I was deluded at all and even replied politely to my unfavorable view of mainstream journalism:
We’ll probably have to differ about whether journalism is worn out and corrupt. Plenty of journalists are, that’s for sure, but I still think the basic idea — finding something out, finding evidence to support your belief that it happened, publishing in a way that’s lawyer-proof — is worthwhile. When we have one of our perennial rail crashes, I don’t expect to discover the cause in a blog.
Another valid argument. It’s unlikely to change my view that you’ll learn more about what’s truly worth knowing by reading War and Peace, Remembrance of Things Past, or The Tale of Genji than from The New York Times or The Sydney Morning Herald. It did, however, force me to reconsider and acknowledge the worth of factual reporting (I try to avoid sitting in the front carriage of a train).
A useful exchange of views depends not just on the participants’ having strong internal boundaries as well as an awareness of the pitfalls of misreading, meanness, and misinterpretation. It also requires a readiness to consider changing one’s mind, to be open to new experience (as Gadamer described it, to be “radically undogmatic”). Or as Joseph Deumer wrote:
Is it any wonder then that I am suspicious of dogmatism in all its forms, or that I have adopted, partly intuitively & partly through study what amounts to a philosophy of radical pluralism: essentially, that no single point of view is an adequate description of reality, including moral reality. The only descriptions that approach adequacy are plural, multiple.
Weblogging provides that multiplicity of viewpoints. The real challenge is to develop ways of conducting a reasoned discourse about emotionally-charged topics. Particularly topics that attract those who already know everything and who know it better than anyone else. At that point there may be some respect.
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Tuesday 11 June 2002
Blogging and Idealism
In a DaveNet titled What I’m learning about journalism, Dave Winer wrote:
PS: Today the New York Times ran a story about weblogs and used the word “journalist” to describe people who do what we do. That’s a milestone worth noting and appreciating. Thanks!
Doc Searls pointed out that the NYT story is essentially bullshit, based as it is on a non-existent rift between Techbloggers and Warbloggers:
But this story has no deep truth. It’s just another feature about another transient topic.
Meanwhile, blogs are still out of fucking control. And the fucking they’re out of control from is old fashioned journalism.
Doc still, however, categorizes blogging as “a form of journalism.”
This blogging = journalism equation drives me to distraction. I can better understand why Doc regards blogging as journalism; after all he’s a professional journalist. But why Dave? When he’s built Radio UserLand, one of the tools that allows us to route around the worn-out, corrupt world of mainstream journalism—not replacing it, but offering something else that is infinitely richer, subtler, and more engaging.
I’ve been racking my brains as to why so many bloggers have such a hard-on for journalism when the journalistic product so frequently:
- relies on either non-existent conflict or manufactured outrage;
- recycles press releases and marketing hype;
- exhibits a wafer-thin grasp of the subject under discussion.
I needn’t have been puzzled. Both Dave’s and Doc’s posts provide the answer to my question.
Dave on journalists:
…many, maybe even most, got into journalism for the same reason people start weblogs. Hoping to make a difference. To have an intellectual life. To be where the action is. Idealism.
Doc on journalism:
Now before you go thinking I’m slamming old fashioned journalism here, I’m not. It’s full of ideals, principles and practices that are no less noble and important for blogs than they are for newspapers.
Dave, Doc, and other bloggers who want to be journalists are idealists in that they have faith in the “elevated ideals or conduct” of journalism and they believe that those ideals are worth pursuing.
Whereas I see pursuing ideals in relation to journalism as unrealistic, choosing in this case to define idealism as “impracticality by virtue of thinking of things in their ideal form rather than as they really are.”
If I’m not an idealist, I guess that makes me a realist, at least according to Brecht’s definition:
Realism does not consist in reproducing reality, but in showing how things really are.
I’ve already argued that blogging can offer infinitely more than journalism. What disturbs me about the blogging = journalism movement is the attempt to define a new form of expression in terms of an old one. It doesn’t matter that there are hundreds of thousands of weblogs. It doesn’t matter that people have been blogging since 1996 or 1997 or whenever. We still can’t really grasp the potential of blogging—particularly now, when tools for linking reader comments, building communities, and collaborating threaten to obsolete the traditional cite, link, quote, opine style that forms the heart of most “journalistic” blogs.
To base one’s (albeit idealistic) definition of blogging on a form such as journalism, whose ideals are so deeply compromised, suggests either wilful irrationality, an improbable infatuation, or—worst of all—a craving for mainstream approval. And as Jung wrote in Memories, Dreams, Reflections:
Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol or morphine or idealism.
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Sunday 16 June 2002
Changing of the guards
But Eden is burning, either brace yourself for elimination
Or else your hearts must have the courage for the changing of the guards.
Bob Dylan, Changing of the Guards
“How tedious is this?” asks Stavros about Meg Hourihan’s What We’re Doing When We Blog. “How perfunctory and lacking of any sense of the mad, wild spirit of creativity that is tearing through the souls of (fill in the names or pseudonyms of your favorite bloggers here)?”
Meg Hourihan’s explanation of blogging left me, as it did Stavros, aghast. And sent me back to the years when I was a photographer, showing my work in galleries and museums. Although (or perhaps because) I was a first-rate technician, technique was of little interest. I was primarily concerned with:
- Forging an intimate emotional connection with the subjects and objects that formed the nominal content of each picture.
- Transforming chaotic three-dimensional space into a coherent (though ambiguous) flat pictorial space.
- Creating a beautiful image that also questioned conventional notions of beauty.
- Inserting coded references to the work of photographers I admired.
- Packing the image with sufficient energy to attract and hold a viewer’s attention.
And at openings, workshops, forums, interviews, the same questions always cropped up:
- What camera did you use?
- What lens did you use?
- What film did you use?
- What developer did you use?
- What shutter speed did you use?
- What aperture did you use?
- What paper did you use?
- What toner did you use?
Photography—perhaps more than other form of creative expression—attracts enthusiasts who fixate on the mechanical aspects of the medium. Some grow out of it and turn their attention to more sophisticated problems. Others don’t and happily continue to make technical flawless pictures devoid of any energy, ambiguity, or emotion.
Just like those photo-technicians, Meg Hourihan defines blogging in terms of the format: reverse-chronological and time-stamped. In this sterile depiction, the key elements of a blogging post are the links, the time-stamp, and the permalink.
God give me strength. I could describe a Walker Evans photograph by saying that it was taken with a Zeiss Protar lens on a tripod-mounted 8 x 10 Deardorff view camera, at f/45 to maximize the depth of field and with a G filter to emphasize the clouds. All of which is true but, frankly, who gives a shit? Such a description refuses to acknowledge that Evans’ image of a highway corner in Reedsville, West Virginia in 1936 is not just visually complex and gorgeous to look at. Evans’ radical approach to picture-making subverted many of his contemporaries’ most deeply ingrained beliefs about pictorial beauty and the purpose of documentary photography.
Which is not to say there’s no place for an explanation of the mechanics of weblogging: tools, posts, links, time-stamps, permalinks… But wouldn’t it be better to leave those prosaic details for later? And to start by mapping out an imaginative vision of the medium’s potential?
To focus attention on the magic and mystery of blogging. To acknowledge (paraphrasing Burningbird) that the key to weblogging is people, not a format. To admit that—five years on—we’re only just starting to realize what might be possible. To stress the communal nature of the activity. To celebrate the amplification of meaning that occurs when smart, creative people collaborate. To invite newcomers to join a grand adventure, a networked version of Hesse’s Journey to the East.
Instead we are offered a constrained model that, by focusing on the inessentials, drains weblogging of its poetry and promise. It’s dispiriting that one of blogging’s leading lights should have such an arid view of its future. Ultimately that doesn’t matter: we’re building our own ethereal cathedral and filling it with passionate voices. Stavros should have the last word. I can’t say it any better than this:
If you people, you A-listers, you pioneers (and I bow in respect to the Old Blog Guard, but some just don’t seem to get the New, in much the same way, ironically enough, that Old Media don’t seem to get La Kottke or whatever archetypical high-traffic blogger that they happen to pick out of their very small grab-bag when a url is necessary for street-cred in their latest in-depth analysis), if you can’t muster the juice to sing a soul-stirring song about this beautiful web of voices we’re collectively weaving, then I suggest you step the hell back, and point your fingers to those of us who can summon the muse and weave the hymns that will bind the New Tribes together.
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Tuesday 18 June 2002
The missing spice
In a move that I hope encourages further discussion rather than providing premature closure via a (false) happy ending, U Blog faculty members stepped in to provide the nuance I craved.
Jeff Ward, Visible Darkness:
In some ways, I think the confusing night represented by hypertext has been turned to day by blogging. Isn’t it natural to ask why? I alluded to my opinion that it represents a change of consciousness which is deeply tied to the grammar involved. This is a difficult stance to explain concisely. It is an acceptance of a fairly hegemonic view in the education industry that language and thought are intimately connected.
For a capsule summary of the interface between orality and literacy, have a look at this excerpt from Vygotsky. In Vygotsky’s view of cognitive development, at an early age language turns inward becoming “inner speech.” This is different from literacy, however, what Ong and others have proposed is that the transition from speech to writing modulates inner speech, changing it into new patterns of thought. Radical changes brought about by writing changed consciousness As writing changes, we change.
Steve Himmer, One Pot Meal:
But still, a tool is not a point. G.P.’s words say his point, and a tool digs him down to his words, as it digs us down to our own. What is built with said tool, what is now known and surprising, that is our point—that is his point. Things coming known, coming out, through an act of forging such tools. At first a man, a woman (any man, any woman) knows to dig, not a spot. A spot is found, but ground is hard, unsplit, and tool shows a way to crack it. Without our tool, our digging would fail; without our digging a tool has no worth. Dig without tools? No way. Tools without digging? No why.
Friday 21 June 2002
Kamome no jonasan
One of my life’s ambitions has been realized. I’ve been mentioned on a Japanese website:
A loose translation would be:
An Australian weblogger has caused a furore by vaulting to the top of blogging’s A-list within a few months of starting his blog. In a telephone interview, Sydney-based Jonathon Delacour said he’s delighted though amazed that his site now dominates Daypop, Blogdex, and the Weblogs.com Top 100.
“I started out like everyone else, writing about XML and my cat,” he told us, “but a post about the Dishmatique seems to have been the catalyst. I was promptly invited to join the faculty of the University of Blogaria and it just took off from there. Naturally I couldn’t have achieved any of this without the support of my U Blog colleagues and the wider weblog community.”
Not surprisingly, given his interest in Pure Land Buddhism, Delacour rejects the cliquish values of the A-list. Instead he is using his influence to support projects that democratize weblogging. For those who create blogs, he is publicizing Shelley Power’s ThreadNeedle (a technology for tracking cross-blog conversations that’s designed to expose previously ignored blogging voices). And to ensure that no-one is excluded from reading weblogs, Delacour has committed to implementing the tips from Mark Pilgrim’s 30 days to a more accessible weblog series.
Heheh. Just kidding. The Japanese story is actually a translation of Noah Shachtman’s Wired News story about blogging and j******ism. What grabbed my attention is how they transliterated my name. I always write it in katakana (the syllabary used for foreign words) as JONASON DERAKORU. In the Wired article they’ve rendered it as JONASAN DERAKUUA.
I resigned myself to the Jonathon/Jonathan confusion a long time ago—in the English-speaking world, in Blogaria, and in Japan. Particularly in Japan where, whenever I introduce myself as Jonathon, the automatic response is “Aah, kamome no Jonasan mitai ne!” (Aah, just like Jonathan Livingston Seagull!) And though others would normally refer to me as JONASON-SAN, that sounds awkward so it’s invariably shortened to JONA-SAN.
I chose DERAKORU because it was similar to how Nikkor (as in lens) is written in katakana. But perhaps DERAKUUA sounds better (in Japanese). I’ve been meaning to get a new set of bilingual business cards so I’ll run the two alternatives past a few of my Japanese friends. In the meantime, Mark’s and Shelley’s projects deserve all the support we can muster.
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Sunday 28 July 2002
Everyone should keep a weblog, if they have any interest in sharing their opinions with others.
Jorn Barger (via Dave Winer)
opinion noun a view or judgement formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge
The New Oxford Dictionary of English
Well, opinions are like assholes… everybody has one.
Inspector Harry Callahan
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Tuesday 06 August 2002
Prize for the 1000th comment
As the number of comments on my posts approaches the 1000 mark, I thought I’d offer a prize to the visitor who makes the 1000th comment (kind of like the 19th caller to a radio station who wins the concert tickets).
The prize will be the winner’s choice of either a complete Dishmatique dishwashing system or a selection of Tim Tams, shipped anywhere in the world. The winner will be announced as soon as the 1000th comment has been entered. Naturally the judge’s decision is final and no correspondence shall be entered into. I’m open to suggestions as to whether people on my blogroll should be declared ineligible—as are family or employees of the sponsor and the radio station. (Or am I taking this a little too seriously?)
And AKMA’s friend (associate?) Tripp has been automatically disqualified for referring to the Dishmatique as a “silly little specialized tool.”
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Wednesday 07 August 2002
We have a winner!
Could this be your 1000th comment?
See you tomorrow.
Posted by Mahesh Shantaram on August 6, 2002 11:29 PM
Indeed it is my 1000th comment, Maresh. Congratulations! What an apt comment! And such confidence too. (As in: “See you tomorrow, when I tell you where to ship my prize.”)
Just to prove that everything is above board:
Dishmatique or Tim Tams, Mahesh… the choice is yours. Just email a delivery address and the prize will soon be on its way. (And a sincere thank you to everyone else who took part. Plus a special thank you to Burningbird for her tireless efforts in promoting the competition.)
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Tuesday 13 August 2002
Once more without feeling
In her latest O’Reilly column, Blogging for Dollars: Giving Rise to the Professional Blogger, Meg Hourihan writes:
There’s a vast group of people out there now who are experts in finding the news and links, capturing its essence in short snippets, and churning it out hour after hour, day after day.
Let’s pay them, Meg suggests, to work fulltime on weblogs about the latest happenings with the Google API, links and commentary for insurance company policyholders, or wine-related information for Wine.com customers.
I don’t even know where to begin with this and, given the trouble I got myself into last time, it’s probably best I don’t even start. But Stavros’s response to Meg’s previous column applies equally well to the latest one:
“How tedious is this? How perfunctory and lacking of any sense of the mad, wild spirit of creativity that is tearing through the souls of (fill in the names or pseudonyms of your favorite bloggers here)?”
Monday 23 September 2002
That was a Wonderful Remark
I love to fossick in people’s archives. Trawling through Mark Pilgrim’s posts on RSS, I stumbled on a paragraph that made me pause, consider, and realize that at last I’ve returned to what Don Juan called “the path with heart.”
As I write this, the year is 2000, and the Internet is a battleground of intellectual property disputes. Some people would like you to believe that, without proper financial incentives, music, literature, and computer software would disappear. After all, who would make music if they can’t make money on it? Who would write? Who would program? I know the answer. The answer is that musicians will make music, not because they can make money, but because musicians are the people who can’t not make music. Writers will write because they can’t not write. I’ve been programming for 16 years, writing free software for 8. I can’t imagine not doing this. If you can imagine yourself not doing what you’re doing, do something else. Do whatever it is that you can’t not do.
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Thursday 17 October 2002
Redeemed through blogging
Given the paltry stipend one receives as a tenured faculty member of the University of Blogaria, the professoriate’s ongoing fascination with the Blogging for Dollars controversy should hardly come as a surprise. AKMA, The Happy Tutor, Steve Himmer, Tom Matrullo, Mark Pilgrim, Shelley Powers, Dorothea Salo, Jeneane Sessum, Halley Suitt, and David Weinberger have all weighed in to the debate.
A couple of sentences of Dorothea’s resonated with me:
Small lies corrode the soul. Bigger and bigger lies get by. In time, the system manufactures another soulless PR flack.
Are you strong enough to resist such corrosion? I’m not.
Actually, I discovered that it can work the other way.
But first, a quote from Murakami Haruki’s Dance, Dance, Dance:
Well, somebody’s got to write these things. And the same can be said for collecting garbage and shoveling snow. It doesn’t matter whether you like it or not—a job’s a job.
For three and a half years, I’d been making this kind of contribution to society. Shoveling snow. You know, cultural snow…
It takes no great effort to find work in the giant anthill of an advanced capitalist society. That is, of course, so long as you’re not asking the impossible.
When I still had my office, I did my share of editing and writing, and I’d gotten to know a few professionals in the field. So as I embarked on a free-lance career, there was no major retooling required. I didn’t need much to live on anyway.
I pulled out my address book and made some calls. I asked if there was work available. I said I’d been laying back but was ready to take stuff on. Almost immediately jobs came my way. Though not particularly interesting jobs, mostly filler for PR newsletters and company brochures. Speaking conservatively, I’d say half the material I wrote was meaningless, of no conceivable use to anyone. A waste of pulp and ink. But I did the work, mechanically, without thinking. At first, the load wasn’t much, maybe a couple hours a day. The rest of the time I’d be out walking or seeing a movie. I saw a lot of movies. For three months, I had an easy time of it. I was slowly getting back in touch.
Then, in early autumn, things began to change. Work orders increased dramatically. The phone rang nonstop, my mailbox was overflowing. I met people in the business and had lunch with them. They promised me more work.
The reason was simple. I was never choosy about the jobs I did. I was willing to do anything, I met my deadlines, I never complained, I wrote legibly. And I was thorough. Where others slacked off, I did an honest write. I was never snide, even when the pay was low. If I got a call at two-thirty in the morning asking for twenty pages of text (about, say, the advantages of non-digital clocks or the appeal of women in their forties or the most beautiful spots in Helsinki, where, needless to say, I’d never been) by six A.M., I’d have it done by five-thirty. And if they called back for a rewrite, I had it to them by six. You bet I had a good reputation.
The same as for shoveling snow.
Let it snow and I’d show you a thing or two about efficient roadwork.
Murakami’s protagonist and I were kindred spirits. For me, shoveling cultural snow was undemanding, relatively well paid work that I’d done successfully for years. Then, a few months after I started blogging, the strangest thing happened: I found I couldn’t do it anymore. My last assignment was a disaster. I got sick, the person I was supposed to interview went away on holiday, and then the writing—which had always flowed effortlessly—turned into a protracted struggle. I finally turned in the copy more than a week late and never heard from the marketing manager again.
A month or so later someone else contacted me by email to ask if I’d be interested in doing a series of projects. I replied to the email and left a voicemail message but somehow never followed it up. I realized then that my days of shoveling snow were over. Day by day, writing post after post to this weblog, I discovered my own voice. Or, to be more accurate, I gained a clearer sense of how it might develop—given time, commitment, and practice. But, as my own voice grew louder and more distinct, I could no longer write using the vocabulary of marketing and public relations. From a distance I can see that my illness was largely psychosomatic. And that I’ll have to replace the page describing the services offered by a former me.
Mark Pilgrim is right: there is “money to be made from blogging, but indirectly.” Warts and all.”
I’ve already got a couple of gigs as a result of people reading my weblog. Dorothea Salo got it right too, when she wrote: “Hire me, hire my blog—that’s how it works.
So there it is, a kind of I was redeemed through blogging story…
There remains, however, one thing to make perfectly clear. Despite the fact that Daniel Neumann from Easy-do has contacted me via my comments, I have never received any consideration (financial or otherwise) for my enthusiastic endorsement of the Dishmatique product line. If Easy-do wants to fly me first-class to London and put me up at The Savoy in return for my giving the keynote at an International Dishwashing Technology Conference, I promise to disclose the offer here before boarding the plane.
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Thursday 24 October 2002
The illusion of knowing oneself quite well
Blogrolls are an interesting twist on the problem. Mine has been fairly stable for a long while now, and I get the illusion that I know some of these people quite well. I like the feeling. I like anticipating what I might find on their sites next. I like getting to know people. Due to the intense nature of my place in life right now, I don’t say thank-you often enough to those people that I read every day. Though we haven’t been properly introduced, I’ve been following the stories long enough to feel like I know what’s going on. I count on all these people to take me outside myself, in these times that I must focus on my own personal projects.
I like the feeling too. It’s anchored me during a period when I felt I might be swept away by events both far away and close to home. Nor do I say thank-you often enough to those with whom I feel such a strong, deep connection. I’d love to go back to mid-January, when I started this weblog, and to retrace the steps by which I stumbled upon and was welcomed in to this community.
Like Jeff, I get the illusion that I know some of you quite well. Equally, as a consequence of writing to and with and about you, I get the illusion that I know myself rather better. Krista, a friend of Jeff’s, said to him: “I don’t think you realize just how much its possible to learn about you from your site.” Again, it cuts both ways. We learn about ourselves and each other, simultaneously.
I guess what I’m saying (it’s late and I should be in bed) is that I’m grateful for the opportunities to try different kinds of writing, to make mistakes and live with the consequences, to have my idiosyncracies accepted (or politely ignored), to be exposed to so many gifted individuals, and to have so many wonderful models of writing and behavior. So thanks, everyone.
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Friday 25 October 2002
Burningbird is (uncharacteristically) lost for words:
The Bird you can’t shut up to save your life, Ms. Jibber Jabber herself, can’t find a bloody thing to say today. I’m wordless.
In a comment I admitted to suffering from the same affliction and suggested that Bb and I might ask Dorothea Salo if she could spare us each a thousand words or so. Caffeinated soda or no, Dorothea is writing up a blue streak—as Bb said: “Hot blogger coming through.”
On reflection, though, I realized that I’m lacking neither words nor subjects . Rather it’s that the words are dammed up inside me. All I need is a Lancaster or three from 617 Squadron (The Dam Busters) to release a few bouncing bombs that will fracture the walls of the dam and unleash the torrent.
(It’s no accident a bombing metaphor came to mind—I’ve just finished reading Martin Middlebrook’s account of the RAF’s disastrous Nuremburg raid and have started his book on the ill-fated mission to Schweinfurt and Regensburg by the US Eighth Air Force. For the last few years I’ve been preoccupied with the firebombing of Tokyo on the night of March 9-10 and I realized I needed a better understanding of how the theory and practice of strategic bombing developed during the European air war.)
Where was I? Right, plenty of topics but unable to unleash the words. Burningbird offered some advice:
As for our own wordless state, perhaps now is a time for us to quietly enjoy the writing of others. Weblogging is as much listening as writing, and maybe we’re in a “listen time”.
Maybe we are in a “listen time” though I can’t help but think that the defining characteristic of weblogging is the relentless pressure to write. Perhaps, as Matthew Arnold wrote, we
have not the word
because we have so
much of the thing.
(Note to faculty members of the University of Blogaria: Tips and Tricks for Writing Regularly, Fluently, and At Length would be greatly appreciated by your blocked colleagues.)
I’m sure Dorothea used to have a category for “blog entries in progress” or “subjects that need to be blogged”—something like that, but with a far more impressive name. Since she moved her blog to yarinareth.net the category has disappeared. I need a category like that, desperately, to encompass my responses to:
- Norm Jenson’s post on the statement: “The decision to go to war is not yours, its the decision of the state in which you live and if the state decides to go to war you are not responsible for that decision.” (Who said it? Any comments?)
- Burningbird’s posts about the Andrew Orlowski/Beth Goza/Doc Searls/Dave Winer fracas and Dorothea’s suggestion that Bb deserved more support than she received.
- Steve Himmer’s analysis of the value of comments: “I wouldn’t want a bunch of yes-bloggers congratulating me on every word, nor would I want my comments to become a haven for opinions and aggressions far removed from my own—a cracker barrel for bigots, if you will.” (Now there’s a subject on which I can write authoritatively.)
- Dorothea’s thank-you to Tish for publicly getting her post on the appropriation of body image (posts that forced me to re-consider the worth of a post of my own).
- Steve Himmer’s question—“How do you engage and participate in a system while simultaneously working against it?”—an issue I’ve been thinking about while watching Mizoguchi’s 1941 film Genroku chushingura (The Loyal 47 Ronin) for the fourth or fifth time.
There’s a ton of other stuff to write about but these posts cry out for attention: either because they are associated with unfinished business or some recent concern or because they speak to my long-term obsession with the Pacific War. (In addition, there’s technical stuff about PHP & MySQL, the long-delayed move to Cornerhost, plus some thoughts about accessibility.)
I’m not the kind of person who confuses making a list with actually accomplishing the listed tasks. I’m hoping that making the list public will encourage me to settle down to writing.
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Saturday 30 November 2002
Showboating and grandstanding
“We are inclined to think that genuine innovators are loners, that they do not need the social reinforcement the rest of us crave. But that’s not how it works…” writes Malcolm Gladwell (link via Arts & Letters Daily) using Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller’s Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live and Jenny Uglow’s The Lunar Men (about five 18th century inventors) to show that innovation most commonly arises from groups:
…those who depart from cultural or intellectual consensus need people to walk beside them and laugh with them to give them confidence. But there’s more to it than that. One of the peculiar features of group dynamics is that clusters of people will come to decisions that are far more extreme than any individual member would have come to on his own. People compete with each other and egg each other on, showboat and grandstand; and along the way they often lose sight of what they truly believed when the meeting began. Typically, this is considered a bad thing, because it means that groups formed explicitly to find middle ground often end up someplace far away. But at times this quality turns out to be tremendously productive, because, after all, losing sight of what you truly believed when the meeting began is one way of defining innovation…
Uglow’s book reveals how simplistic our view of groups really is. We divide them into cults and clubs, and dismiss the former for their insularity and the latter for their banality. The cult is the place where, cut off from your peers, you become crazy. The club is the place where, surrounded by your peers, you become boring. Yet if you can combine the best of those two states—the right kind of insularity with the right kind of homogeneity—you create an environment both safe enough and stimulating enough to make great thoughts possible.
Isn’t Gladwell’s image of artists and inventors competing with each other and egging each other on, showboating and grandstanding, an equally accurate description of blogging, at its best?
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Saturday 21 December 2002
Fresh out of trinkets
Steve Himmer posed some questions about writing for the web:
What are we we writing, and how are we writing it? What constitutes good writing on the web, and is it determined by the same criteria that determine good writing elsewhere?
Jeff Ward suggested that conventional web writing bore strong resemblances to the writing taught in school:
It’s academic. Sort of like speaking up in class with just the right comment at the right time, rather than providing a complex dissertation on a topic.
Sometimes I think that the discourse of blogs doesn’t really reach that high. It’s more like show-and-tell—like kindergarten. See the nice link I found? Admit it, show and tell is fun and most outgoing adults still enjoy it. Some blogs stake out that territory and stay there—it’s comfortable and non-threatening. To an extent, it’s academic too. Say hello to the class and show them something so they will like you. Link heavy blogs create persona through a process of selection, of valuation. It’s interesting that this is perhaps the longest surviving mode of blogging, which does not show much sign of fading—I remember when I started that this seemed mostly bush-league. It takes guts to put yourself out on the commons without any trinkets to sell.
Comparing the link+quote+comment weblog to show-and-tell made me laugh, even though I started out that way myself. I didn’t stay there for long—within my first week of blogging I’d written my first long form post. Thinking back to how I approached blogging in those early days, there was an element of wanting to please that’s less evident now (to me anyway). And it does make sense that this is the longest surviving mode of blogging given that it requires hardly any effort and even less risk.
Perhaps, though, Jeff’s analogy depends on defining show-and-tell such that the objects brought to class should be produced or created by a third party, that one’s own creations are not admissable. Such a definition would allow us to easily differentiate between the link+quote+comment weblog and the long form weblog that consists mainly of original writing.
I have friends with young children so I called a couple of them to ask whether original works were accepted at show-and-tell. Absolutely, they replied. My nine-year-old goddaughter summed up the intellectual property issues: “You can take anything you like.” Why, then, was I surprised to learn that a found object—such as a seashell plucked from the beach or a Barbie doll purchased at the mall—is treated with the same seriousness as something the child actually created, a ceramic coil pot or a handmade dress? Anyone with even a passing knowledge of art history could have pointed out that show-and-tell and weblogging lie squarely in the tradition established by Duchamp’s readymades.
It’s not clear from Jeff’s post whether he still thinks that link+quote+comment weblogs are mostly bush-league but it seems to me that we’re all engaged in show-and-tell, of one kind or another. I read both kinds, although—as my (soon to be extinguished?) blogroll indicates—I prefer the long form to the traditional weblog. I guess it’s like having two different friends: one who has fascinating ideas and another who knows interesting facts. You enjoy spending time with both of them while acknowledging that it’s a lot tougher out there on the commons, when you have no trinkets to sell.
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Monday 23 December 2002
Please, sir, can I have some more constraints?
I appear to be one of the few to have appreciated Burningbird’s post about potential problems with the newly announced Creative Commons Licenses. The general reaction has been one of horror that anyone could actually question what is clearly intended as A Good Thing.
Interesting too, though mainly dispiriting, how little time it’s taken for the term Stop Energy to join Ad Hominem, Racist, Anti-Semitic, Sexist, and Homphobic as a fast and effective means of avoiding reasoned debate. Anyone with half-a-teaspoon of common sense and a couple of sprinkles of imagination could see that Burningbird’s reservations were articulated in good faith and in the hope of encouraging a productive discussion. Instead, the CCL advocates (with the notable exception of Matt Haughey) seemed outraged at her temerity in questioning the impact of a CC license on a weblog’s RSS feed—an problem that those who designed the licenses had clearly not considered.
I’d almost decided not to implement a CC license for any of my weblog content. My instinctive distrust of schemes cooked up by lawyers for improving the common good was echoed in Dorothea Salo’s question: “What is the good of automatically branding creativity with the mark of the lawyers, as if there were no other way to think or act toward it?” And the example Dorothea cited—of the ripoff artist who authored a spurious Don Quixote continuation, thus prompting Cervantes to write an inspired second half of Don Quixote—exemplified the best response an artist can make to his or her imitators.
I was equally influenced by Burningbird’s framing of the issue as a difference between optimists (the advocates of the CCL) and pessimists (those who worry about unintended consequences). Except that instead of pessimism and optimism, I prefer to see the problem as Thomas Sowell describes it, in terms of the conflict between constrained and unconstrained visions:
The constrained vision is a tragic vision of the human condition. The unconstrained vision is a moral vision of human intentions, which are viewed as ultimately decisive. The unconstrained vision promotes pursuit of the highest ideals and the best solutions. By contrast, the constrained vision sees the best as the enemy of the good—a vain attempt to reach the unattainable being seen as not only futile but often counterproductive, while the same efforts could have produced a viable and beneficial trade-off…
Running through the tradition of the unconstrained vision is the conviction that foolish or immoral choices explain the evils of the world—and that wiser or more moral and humane social policies are the solution… By contrast, the constrained vision sees the evils of the world as deriving from the limited and unhappy choices available, given the inherent moral and intellectual limitations of human beings.
Sowell uses Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations as an exemplar of the constrained vision. Smith, he says, believed that “economic benefits to society were largely unintended by individuals, but emerged systematically from the interactions of the marketplace, under the pressures of competition and the incentives of individual gain.”
People could also be persuaded to act altruistically, though for
reasons ultimately reducible to self-interest. It was not an atomistic theory that individual self-interests added up to the interest of society. On the contrary, the functioning of the economy and society required each individual to do things for other people; it was simply the motivation behind these acts—whether moral or economic—which was ultimately self-centered. In both his moral and economic analyses, Smith relied on incentives rather than dispositions to get the job done.
Therein lies the source of my uneasiness about the Creative Commons Licenses: nothing I’ve read about the licenses (on the Creative Commons website and elsewhere) explains in a persuasive manner why granting such a license is truly in the interest of the creator of the work—whereas both observation and experience have led me to the conviction that self-interest is the single most reliable indicator of human behavior.
Certainly, the Creative Commons FAQ mentions self-interest in their answer to the question: Why should I turn my work over to the public domain, or make it available under a Creative Commons Custom license, if copyright provides more legal protection?
You might do so for a few reasons. Some people may be attracted by the notion of others building upon their work, or by the prospect of contributing to an intellectual commons. As the Creative Commons community grows, licensors will have the satisfaction of helping develop new ways to collaborate. Or you might license your stuff purely out of self-interest. A scholar might want his writings to be copied and shared so that his ideas spread around the world. An upstart designer may want to encourage the unfettered dissemination of her sketches to help build a reputation. An established commercial musician might post samples to whet the public’s appetite for his other, fully protected songs. A political activist may want her message to reach the widest possible audience through unlimited copying. Our licenses can help implement such strategies, all while leaving you in ultimate control of your copyright. Read more examples.
One example is Get Creative, a 1.5 Mb Flash animation that, tellingly, starts with the case of a musician who adds a bass track to another band’s songs. This is easy to understand since music is, if not primarily then substantially, a collaborative art. We already have, in our own corner of Blogaria, a successful example of the collaboration envisaged by Creative Commons. Scott Andrew La Pera reworked a Shannon Campbell song, Dreaming of Violets, by “inserting himself as her backing band.” The result, Dreaming Of Violets (redux), absolutely delighted Shannon:
I’m absolutely, unbelievably, entirely in love with it. I would marry it and have 10,000 of its babies, if that were at all possible.
I have no doubt that the Creative Commons founders envisage the same thing happening a million times over, with just as many happy outcomes. But what if Shannon Campbell had hated Scott Andrew La Pera’s reworking of her song? Scott had the decency and integrity to email her his new version before mentioning the process on his site. What if, since this occurred a couple of months ago, he had published his new version without asking her? Alternatively, she might have released Dreaming of Violets under an Attribution-NonCommercial License, only to have someone else publish a version she despised and see it turn into a runaway hit.
Another Creative Commons example is that of filmmaker Jack and photographer Jill, who has taken a dramatic black and white picture of the Empire State Building. Jack can use Jill’s photo in his digital movie because it is available under a Creative Commons License. The reason for Jill’s largesse? Because “when she is still trying to build her reputation, she wants people to copy her work as much as possible.”
But what if Jill, in an attempt to have her work reach the widest possible audience, has chosen an Attribution-No Derivs. Licence that allows commercial uses of her work? And Jack’s film wins the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject. Knowing that Jack has profited handsomely from his film, will Jill be satisfied with merely the kudos? How will she feel when she realizes the photograph is being reproduced in books and magazines around the world—attributed to her, of course—without yielding her a cent in royalties? What if it turns out to be the definitive image of the Empire State Building? CCL advocates would argue that Jill could parlay the success of that photograph into a successful career. I rather think that every time Jill saw the photograph she’d feel stabs of resentment and regret at her own naivety.
And, unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that she can change her mind, since every Creative Commons license:
- applies worldwide
lasts for the duration of the work’s copyright
is not revocable.
What is the duration of the work’s copyright? Let’s assume that Jill took the photograph after January 1st, 1978. In that case, the duration of the copyright is life plus 70 years; or, if she publishes the picture before the end of next week (December 31, 2002), the copyright period is life plus 70 years or until December 31, 2047, whichever is the greater.
“Not revocable” means “not capable of
being revoked or cancelled.”
So Jill has given away all potential revenue from anywhere in the world, for why would anyone want to pay her to use the picture when they can have it for free? And she has also ensured that her descendants are unlikely to profit from the work.
Let’s use an example closer to home… some years ago I took a series of photographs of sick, recovering, and dead babies in the Neonatal Intensive Care ward of the Childrens Hospital in Sydney. If I publish these pictures on my website under an Attribution-NoDerivs-NonCommercial License, anyone can copy, distribute, display, and perform unaltered copies of the photographs as long as they give me credit and do not use them for commercial purposes.
What recourse do I have if one or more of these photographs is used in a context of which I disapprove? For example, on a poster advocating euthanasia for terminally-ill infants or in a right-to-life brochure—both published by non-profit organizations.
What’s to stop someone overlaying racist captions on photographs I took in the New Guinea highlands twenty-seven years ago, should I choose to release them under an Attribution-NonCommercial License? Or to include the photographs in a white-supremacist collage? How am I to respond when the pictures I made at a Jewish funeral appear as illustrations in an anti-Semitic diatribe? Not only has my artistic intent been subverted, but I have also allowed myself to be portrayed as a racist or an anti-Semite.
As far as I can tell, there is no remedy for such misuses of my work. The Creative Commons FAQ makes no reference to such situations. For Matt Haughey, one of the key advantages is that people don’t have to ask to use his work:
Here’s the reality of my situation and why I applied licenses to my work: over the past few years several dozen people have emailed me to request permission for reuse of my photos and essays. I had to answer each one individually, and I’d like to make that automatic for them instead. This way, more people use my creations (since they don’t have to go through the bother of asking first), my name gets out there in more places (with attribution requirements), and wild new creations are made based on my work (since I allow for derivative works). Putting something online and into the world already has lots of risk, but I don’t want to interfere at all with the legitimate reuses of my work, in fact I want to encourage it.
I guess it depends on how you define legitimate. But one thing seems certain. As long as they stick to the terms of the license, no-one is under any obligation to contact me and say: “By the way, I’ll be using this picture of yours in my racist/sexist/anti-Semitic/homophobic/neo-Nazi publication.” What makes it worse is that, as in the case of Jill’s photograph of the Empire State Building, the licenses I grant apply worldwide, last for the duration of the work’s copyright, and are not revocable.
A similar argument applies to writing since it’s entirely possible that the text of an essay released under an Attribution-NonCommercial License could be subtly (or blatantly) modified to convey a meaning opposite to that which I’d intended. It hardly matters that my original essay is available online if my name and reputation have been tainted by this revision (and negation) of my ideas.
If I’ve got this all wrong, then I’m happy to be corrected. Yet I can’t help but ask:
How is it in my best interest to so comprehensively relinquish control of the context in which my work appears?
And what am I offered in return, apart from a warm inner glow?
I note that, having had “many of [her] concerns about the legality of CC licenses… allayed by [Denise Howell’s] writeup, Burningbird has decided “to incorporate CC licenses, gradually, throughout [her] web sites.” I read Denise Howell’s step-by-step explanation and it allayed none of the concerns I’ve raised.
“Why do this at all?” asks Denise. “Creative Commons explains this nicely, she suggests. Well, explains is the FAQ entry I’ve already mentioned; this is the explanation of the licenses that includes “every license applies worldwide, lasts for the duration of the work’s copyright, and is not revocable;” and nicely is a Flash animation that, to me anyway, is long on style and short on substance.
“Collaboration across space and time,” says the confident, optimistic Flash movie voiceover, “…creative authorship with people you’ve never met. Standing on the shoulders of your peers. That’s what this Internet is all about. It’s can be that easy when you skip the intermediaries.”
Picasso and Braque stood on each other’s shoulders as they invented Cubism but they were careful (and sufficiently smart) to maintain the copyright on their works. The Creative Commons Licenses, on the other hand, typify Thomas Sowell’s unconstrained vision of human nature by relying on people (“I’ve never met”) to behave honorably and to respect the integrity of my work. Spend five minutes on “this Internet” and tell me I’m not bound for disappointment.
I wouldn’t be so skeptical if the Creative Commons Licenses relied less on a rose-tinted vision of benign collaboration and instead provided greater safeguards for the real interests of those licensing their original works; or if, to borrow Thomas Sowell’s words, they replaced—to at least some degree—their “moral vision of human intentions” with a more pragmatic acceptance of the “inherent moral and intellectual limitations of human beings.”
In other words—and pardon my bluntness—what’s in it for me? Really? Other than distress and disillusionment?
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Monday 06 January 2003
Tracking all the lies
I think I might be getting the hang of TrackBack. A couple of pointers, offered in response to my request for a succinct explanation of how TrackBack works, got me started.
Firstly, I realized that I should have sent a TrackBack ping from my previous post to Allan Moult’s New Dishmatique Sighted post. Done.
Then I read and was inspired by Burningbird’s TrackBack-related posts, The Year of Linking Dangerously:
Once your tool supports Trackback, use it. It’s there to allow people to visibly show their connection to your writing. It lets your readers know that others have something to say about your post, good or bad. It continues the conversation. It breaks the hell out of this idea that weblogs are just some form of electronic journal, written in isolation that just happens to be published for posterity’s sake.
More than that, though, Trackbacks provide deliberation and some intelligence with the link. Not a whole lot other than the words of the associated post, but it’s a start. There’s a tiny bit of RDF/XML associated with the Trackback link — a placeholder for future information, future bits of knowledge. A base on which to build.
and Adding TrackBack Entries to Individual Archive Pages:
To implement trackback within the archive page following my prefered approach, I did need to make a minor modification to one of the Movable Type’s Perl modules, Trackback.pm. It’s a minor change: it forces a re-build of the archive page when a trackback occurs so that the new trackback entry displays in a manner similar to how new comments are added, automatically, to the page. You can download the modified file here and replace the in your MT directory (put it into /lib/MT/App/). However, you do so at your own risk.
Yikes! I’ve just started playing with plugins. Am I now on the brink of modifying Movable Type’s Perl modules? Evidently so. I like the picture Burningbird paints of breaking free of the tyranny of links, burning down “the house that Google built before we become as dependent on Google as we almost became on Microsoft Windows.” (Ironic, I know, given my previous post, but are we not all capable of redemption?)
And I read, at Burningbird’s suggestion, Joshua Allen’s Renmin Voice. The intricacies of RDF and XML pass straight over my head, though that doesn’t trouble me at all. I’m only really interested in two things: content (telling stories) and community (amplifying other people’s stories). So three sentences—more particularly, five words—in Joshua Allen’s post grabbed me by the throat:
The key point here is that the web, and especially the semantic web is about capturing and communicating human knowledge. For people who have trouble understanding that “knowledge” is a truth-neutral word, it is fine to say that the semantic web is about capturing and communicating human voices.
The web from the very beginning was a digital library of human knowledge (or lies, it doesn’t matter), and all sorts of useful new applications have evolved as people continue to innovate new techniques for representing and mining that knowledge.
(or lies, it doesn’t matter)
Is it because we swim in an ocean of lies that we make such a fetish of discovering and bearing witness to the truth?
I like very much Joshua Allen’s refusal to distinguish between knowledge (truth) and lies since that refusal acknowledges (in a formal or technical context) the way in which, in our everyday lives, we hide the truth so artfully from ourselves and from others, as one of my favorite poems, by the tenth century Japanese writer, Ki no Tsurayuki, suggests:
To the distant observer
They are chatting of the blossoms
Yet in spite of appearances
Deep in their hearts
They are thinking very different thoughts.
I have no idea—to be honest, I don’t really care—whether TrackBack will enable us to establish a more “truthful” web but it does seem to hold out the promise of allowing us to create more nuanced and inclusive relationships than a web based on links and PageRanks. Who knows? It might even reveal more of the very different thoughts that lie hidden, deep in our hearts.
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Tuesday 07 January 2003
Quality vs Popularity
Commenting on my previous post, Burningbird wrote:
My only hope is to allow voices to be heard other than those at the top of the charts. We say ‘Wow, weblogs allow everyone to have their say!” and then we all read the same list of 100 people. Or only the few on our blogrolls.
Mark Pilgrim replied:
I think that any community, left to its own devices, naturally creates celebrities, because people want celebrities. Given unlimited choices, many people apparently just want to do what everyone else is doing, read who everyone else is reading. Why not let them do it?
…Yeah, I read all the people on my blogroll, every day. I subscribe to all of their sites. It’s a small group, and I know all of them at *least* through repeated email, and several in person. One I’ve known for 10 years. I’m an introvert; I *like* small intimate groups, and I dislike crowds. So I section off a small part of the vast virtual world and say “this part is mine, these people are the ones I’m comfortable with, and the rest not so much”.
[Aside: it is so cool to be able to link to individual comments—as in
http://weblog.delacour.net/archives/000804.html#comment1826—thanks to Burningbird’s “recent comments” code.]
Interesting that Mark and Burningbird appear to be on opposite sides of the fence on this, when all I can see is a shared commitment to tracking, collating, and publicizing the inter-relationships between weblog entries. Mark does it through (amongst other methods) his use of the
cite tag (allowing him to list posts by citation) and his “further reading” script that “auto-generates quotes from referring pages.” Burningbird uses TrackBack and her promised replacement of her blogroll with a favorite posts feature.
When Mark writes, “I’m an introvert; I *like* small intimate groups, and I dislike crowds,” he also describing me. Exactly.
And when he points out that, even offered unlimited choices, “many people apparently just want to do what everyone else is doing, read who everyone else is reading,” I’m hard pressed to disagree.
Well, not exactly. I watch on average an hour of TV a day. In any given week, now that Survivor is finished, I’ll catch the English Premier League Highlights, The Sopranos, perhaps NYPD Blue. The rest of time I’ll watch movies I’ve taped on SBS or rented. My backlog includes Shopgirls 2 (Italy), The Legends of Rita (Germany), Not One Less (China), The Last Dance (Japan), Girl’s Night Out (South Korea).
But, despite my eclectic tastes in books, movies, music, and television programs , like everyone else, there are limits on my time and attention. So, actually, I do agree with Mark. I will watch pretty much any Chinese, Japanese, or Korean movie. Yet American movies hardly interest me, and I’m more likely to be struck by lightning than to watch a movie from India, Poland, Iran, Senegal, or Mongolia.
In other words, I’ve sectioned off a small part of the vast cinematic world and said “this part is mine, these movies are the ones I’m comfortable with, and the rest not so much.”
Burningbird, on the other hand, argues that this is regrettable. And she’s right. My life may have taken an entirely different (more rewarding and productive) direction had I seen that Iranian or Mongolian movie, which spoke so directly to my deepest concerns and interests. I didn’t. I’m the loser, because I restricted my viewing to films from the few countries on my “movieroll” (much as I restrict my weblog reading to “the same list of 100 people. Or only the few on my blogroll”).
I don’t know what the answer is. Well, that’s not true. I do know what the answer is. It’s to be more open, it’s to leave room for the unfamiliar, to make time for experiences other than those I’m comfortable with. How do I find out about these potential rewarding encounters? By paying attention.
In terms of weblogs, it means checking my referers regularly (it’s not just those who agree with me who link to me), following unfamiliar links from familiar sites, chasing up trackbacks, and even (gasp!) perusing blo.gs, Technorati, and blogging ecosystem. Therein lies a conundrum: are the weblogs on the top 10/20/100 lists popular because they’re worth reading or popular because they’re popular?
This is what I suspect Burningbird is getting at, that popularity only occasionally correlates with quality. She’s passionate about auto-discovering new, unheard voices. But then so is Mark Pilgrim. And although I could be completely mistaken, it seems to me that they’re employing different technical strategies to achieve a similar outcome: by analyzing inbound links and/or trackbacks, find other weblogs that represent a shared interest in the topic(s) under discussion. Kind of like establishing new friendships, or matchmaking, where the objective is to find someone who’s both comfortably familiar and intoxicatingly different. Except that you get to fish in a deeper pool.
I am curious about one thing, though. Since the entries on Mark Pilgrim’s further reading list don’t just come from the weblogs on his blogroll, I’m curious about how widely he casts his net. Oh, silly me. He’s following referrers then analyzing each referring post. For a moment there I imagined his ability to produce million dollar markup had enabled him to become a one-man Google.
As for me, I don’t have any programming smarts so TrackBack will do me fine, as long as I have Burningbird’s example to follow. Either way, it’s exhilarating to be building a web with sticky strands.
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Thursday 30 January 2003
Archive organization re-viewed
Dorothea Salo takes Mark Pilgrim to task over what she regards as his blog’s unnecessarily complex archive structure:
Maybe it’s that I read too damn fast, but individual-post archives never fail to annoy me. When I’m trying to catch up on a blog, as for example after my trip to Indiana a while back, I hate having to click on individual post links. Hate it hate it hate it. Larger date-based chunks, please.
Am I all alone here, or does this irk anyone else?
Actually, you’re not alone here, and it does irk someone else. Me. Though perhaps not in the way you anticipated.
Firstly, let’s file Dorothea’s complaint under Pot Calls Kettle Black or, alternatively, Glass House Dweller Throws Stones, given that she lavishes praise on her own archiving method, which happens to be the worst of all possible choices: the execrable weekly archive. To paraphrase: “When I’m trying to find a particular post in a blog, I hate having to click on weekly archive links. Loathe it, detest it, abhor it, despise it, feel revulsion towards it, am repelled by it, cannot stomach it, find it intolerable, hate its guts.”
Larger date-based chunks, please? Certainly. How about a delicious, nutritious, more substantial serving of monthly archive? With side orders of individual archive and category-based archive? In other words, something for every taste. Unless you like the taste of vomit… in which case, since I don’t offer weekly archives, I can’t help you.
Gee, Jonathon, I get the feeling you don’t care for weekly weblog archives. Why is that?
Because the purpose of an archive is (or should be) to provide easy access to past weblog entries. And weekly archives make it far more difficult than it needs to be.
Dorothea uses the example of wanting to catch up on a weblog after being out of town for a few days, noting that with many Blogspot blogs she can only do that by “hitting the archives.” I admit that weekly archives meet that need perfectly: click on the most recent weekly archive link to read the latest posts. But doesn’t that suggest that weekly archives are useful only for a negative reason? Because they allow you to route around problems caused by a third-rate blogging tool and/or hosting service?
A far more common use of a weblog archive is to find a post that’s fallen off the main index page. If you’re lucky, the weblog offers a searchable archive (Movable Type does this particularly well) and, as long as you can recall a keyword or two, you should have no trouble finding the post you want.
But let’s imagine you’re in the unhappy situation of looking for an entry in a weblog that offers no proper search facility and nothing but weeky archives. (You could, of course, do a Google search on “
keyword site:blogname.blogspot.com” but since Dorothea has framed her argument in user interface terms—by comparing mouse clicks—let’s deal with it accordingly.)
The item was posted a month or two ago, in November or December last year. So you click on the link for 12/01/02 - 12/07/02 (another source of irritation, which I’ll get to later) and either scroll through the entries or do a browser Find on a keyword. Nothing. Now you have the choice of trying either 12/08/02 - 12/14/02 or 11/24/02 - 11/30/02. You try them both. Still nothing. And so it goes until you finally locate the entry you were after.
If the weblog had instead offered monthly archives, you could have found the post in a fraction of the time. And you wouldn’t have had to deal with the wretchedly unintuitive—to those of us who are not American—MM/DD/YY date format. When I see 12/01/02, I automatically think January.
To her credit, Dorothea displays her weekly archives in a DD MMM YY format that’s easy to understand (allowing for the mild confusion of some Latin abbreviations). And by making her weblog searchable and also providing category-based archives, she makes up for the deficiencies of her weekly archives.
I guess it comes back to what you regard as the natural unit of blogging discourse. I see it as the individual post, which is why I base my permalinks on individual entries. Since I allow comments, this enables me to combine post and associated comments on a single archive page. And I provide a proper search plus monthly and category archives. But not weekly archives. Never.
Because… weekly archives stink.
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Monday 24 February 2003
Another boy meets form
It’s as though I’m all over the place, a thousand topics to write about and no idea where to start. There’s a thread connecting these thousand topics though, one to another; or rather, hundreds of threads, which must be why I’m writing—or attempting to write—hypertext, since the book I’ve dreamed about writing remains resolutely unwritten.
Ray Davis—“unable to finish new fiction”, “unable to finish new essays”, “unable to start new reviews”, and unwilling to resign himself to commercial writing—describes how he broke through:
In ten years of confusion, backtracking, and intermittent clarity, I’d gained ability and access, but my capability stayed stubbornly put. In 1999 as in 1989, the writing was motivated by dialogue, you-gotta-see-this enthusiasm, problem solving, and the mesmerizing glitter of verbal artifacts-cum-artifacts; it remained mulishly unspurred by ambition but turned into Red Hot Ryder’s mighty Sliver whenever it whiffed a digression — “Whoa, horsey! Aw, come on, horsey, won’t you please whoa?” —; and it arrived as opaque fragment or self-undermining rant or pseudo-conversational speech.
Boy meets form. “For good or for bad,” as one mildly disapproving friend said.
Three-and-a-half-years in, the compeers swarm and I grow ever more grateful to the form. Which is saying something, since it started pretty much saving my life from the get go.
Discovering Ray’s post a couple of weeks ago was a revelation, like reading my own history, my own dilemma, lived out and solved by someone else. It’s been slowly working its magic since then. I have no idea what Ray looks like but it felt like I was in Ray’s body looking in a mirror at my own face: Ray’s hand grasping the mirror, my face reflected back. Or the other way round.
Boy meets form. Yup. Pretty much saved my life from the get go too.
And, of course, there aren’t really a thousand different topics. Just one, seen from a thousand different angles: the firebombing of Tokyo on the night of March 9-10, 1945. For good or bad.
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Tuesday 15 April 2003
Alibis and consistent lies
Last night, watching a 1999 French documentary I’d taped about the novelist John Le Carré, I was struck by the comparison he drew between writing and spying:
We shouldn’t ever forget the strong cultural and literary tradition that our Service perpetuates. I am one of lots of writers who did secret work, who were in the Service at one time or another: Grahame Greene, John Buchan, Compton McKenzie, Iris Murdoch I believe… and a whole number of writers whose imaginations were put to work. So there was a natural affinity between the creative imagination of the artist and the creative imagination that was necessary to produce good deception and intelligence work, to produce alibis and consistent lies. It’s only a very small shift from the kind of fable making in literary terms to the same kind of fable making in espionage terms.
In the following scene, Le Carré’s talking head was replaced by a still of Richard Burton in Martin Ritt’s movie version of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, accompanied by a brief voiceover narration of a scene from the novel. I stopped the VCR. Not that I’d lost interest, but I’d recalled the “cast of characters” in the Persons and Places section of James Agee’s and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men:
James Agee … . a spy, traveling as a journalist
Walker Evans … . a counter-spy, traveling as a photographer
And the poem that starts Book Two, dedicated by Agee to Evans:
Against time and the damages of the brain
Sharpen and calibrate. Not yet in full,
Yet in some arbitrated part
Order the façade of the listless summer.
Spies, moving delicately among the enemy,
The younger sons, the fools,
Set somewhat aside the dialects and the stained skins of
Ambiguously signal, baffle, the eluded sentinel.
Edgar, weeping for pity, to the shelf of that sick bluff,
Bring your blind father, and describe a little;
Behold him, part wakened, fallen among field flowers
But undisclosed, withdraw.
Not yet that naked hour when armed,
Disguise flung flat, squarely we challenge the fiend.
Still, comrade, the running of beasts and the ruining
Still captive the old wild king.
I thought too of the discussion precipitated by Steve’s post about Liter(al)ture, which Burningbird had mentioned, a conversation that evoked in me the most profound sense of relief.
Thank God, I said to myself, someone’s started talking about this stuff that’s been on my mind for ages.
And then: Shit, they’ve started the conversation without me.
How wonderful that Steve had quoted an old (and esteemed) acquaintance, Mark Bernstein, who summed up in a couple of sentences ideas that for months I’ve been creeping up on, like a spy, and trying to startle into action:
It’s time for weblogs to grow up, to move beyond their obsession with
authenticity and to get over the panic that accompanies any hint that a
weblog writer might not be exactly what they say they are. Who is?
Steve figures large in this—for cranking up the conversation and for emphasizing the importance of story:
the weblog is the collection of stories, the way they’re told, the
element of time (and especially change over time) introduced to
narrative in ways that aren’t possible with newspapers or novels.
Liz Lawley as well, not so much for her observation about the blogging pioneers’ party line (though I have a long essay in the works about that), but more for a remark she made a while ago:
Let me start with a disclaimer. I like Jonathon Delacour — at least, I like the persona he displays to us through his weblog.
Ah, Liz, I wondered when I read those sentences, are you the only one who’s figured out I’m making a lot of this up? Or just the first to suggest it publically?
Burningbird too, in a negative yet entirely positive way. Her post, Obliquely Yours, helped me clarify my own position. By focusing on the technique of writing obliquely, of feeling and experiencing one thing, but writing about another—something that, for me, holds little fascination—she helped me formulate precisely where my own interests lie.
That’s it: where my own interests lie. In other words, hardly anything to do with telling the literal truth; and everything to do with fashioning an authentic persona from bits of alibis and consistent lies.
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Wednesday 16 April 2003
It must have been twenty-five years ago that I read a magazine profile of George Segal in which the writer described an exchange between Segal and another guest, after both had appeared on a television chat show. As I recall, the conversation went something like this:
“You were amazing,” said the other guest. “Nothing like I’d expected. I knew you’d be smart and funny but I never imagined that you would open up and reveal the real George Segal, that you’d be so honest and vulnerable.”
“Well,” replied Segal, “that’s not really so difficult. After all, I’m an actor.”
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Thursday 17 April 2003
Art and entertainment
The willingness to risk excess on behalf of one’s obsessions is what distinguishes artists from entertainers, and what makes some artists adventurous on behalf of us all.
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Sunday 20 April 2003
Art’s emotional charge
What a strange feeling, waking up on a drizzly Sunday morning to find oneself characterized as callous and manipulative, someone not to be trusted, the sort who would betray a troubled friend by disclosing information given expressly in confidence.
Twenty-five years ago, when I was a photographer, I was fortunate to have as an assistant a young woman who is now an acclaimed and highly respected artist. We spent all our working hours either photographing other people’s art or discussing our own. I once asked J how she knew an idea for a project was worth pursuing. She replied without hesitation:
“I know it’s something I have to do when my own first response to an idea is ‘No, I couldn’t possibly do that. It’s too risky. It’s too difficult. It reveals too much about me. It will offend too many people…’”
I knew instantly what she meant. The unconscious throws up a fascinating idea and our first impulse is to reject it, for all the reasons J listed and others too: it’s unfashionable, it doesn’t fit within an accepted genre, it breaks the rules, curator X won’t like it (art practice—both conventional and avant-garde—is in many ways as constrained as life under the Taliban).
J was saying, obliquely, that the objections raised by her conscious mind were a direct indicator of the emotional charge of the idea. The trick—and she understood this equally well—was to harness that energy, to marshall all one’s technical skills in packing the work with these psychic associations.
The primary danger in such an approach is of creating épater les bourgeois art, art whose main purpose is its calculated effort to shock those with (what the artist regards as) conventional values—Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ comes immediately to mind. An audience’s only defence against such “art” is to judge the body of work, rather than individual works, over time.
I believe the same idea can be inferred from Steve Himmer’s explanation of the importance of reading a weblog in context, over time:
When we read an isolated essay, by Annie Dillard, maybe, we read it as a discrete, ‘closed’ unit—there is no context unless we set out to find that context elsewhere, in biography and criticism. A weblog, on the other hand, is all context—every post we read is read through the lens of the other posts we’ve read, and if you only read one post from a blog you’re not reading the blog—which as a whole is the text, not the individual post. Why does this matter? Because what the weblog offers, unusually, is the element of time: both the work and its author are able to change and shift over time, trying out new positions, refuting them, reclaiming them; trying on voices and faces. As readers, though, we have a unique opportunity to read through this play of time: unlike the novel, complete between its covers, the physical author reduced to a cypherical ‘author’ composed of the publicly-traded values assigned to that author, we are able to watch an author/text interaction occur in real time. It’s a different way of writing, and it requires a different way of reading. It requires us to learn, over time, how to read Jonathon Delacour or Shelley Powers or Stavros the Wonder(ful)chicken—they don’t know, as authors, all at once who they are, so why should we, the readers? Like Joyce said, more or less, it took him years to write a novel; it should take at least as long to read it.
Implicit in Steve’s argument is that it is the audience’s responsibility to discover context, just as it is the artist’s/writer’s/blogger’s responsibility to act in good faith.
Explicit in Dorothea’s criticism of my Ikuko post/story is the acccusation that, by blurring the line between fact and fiction in a weblog, I acted in bad faith and am, accordingly, not to be trusted.
The Happy Tutor saw it differently. Responding to Dorothea, he wrote:
Some of us today believe that most of what we are fed by popular news and culture is a fiction, created by Knaves for Fools, and that these false seemings work because most readers are good-hearted, ignorant, and gullible. Hence, we Teachers adopt the stratagems of indirection, creating elaborate and absurd canards and defending them with all the energy of Ari Fleischer. If you can read us well, and see through us, you are prepared to read the daily papers.
An admission: I was “bit” by Delacour’s tale of Ikuko. What helped me as I thought about it was my sense that he is a moral man — and that no one of his taste and intelligence would ever write of a real lover with so little concern for her privacy. So, I was forced to conclude that his Ikuko was just another street-walker from the Ginza, where lost souls of that name are found on every corner.
As did Liz Lawley. In a comment on my post, Alibis and consistent lies, Liz wrote:
I’ve been floating around virtual communities and computer-mediated communication spaces for a long time, and I long ago gave up any attempt to separate truth and fiction…
On some level, all we have are situation-specific personas. The persona I project in the classroom where I teach is quite different from the one I display in the classrooms where my children learn. The woman my husband knows and loves is in many ways not the same woman who goes out dancing with her girlfriends.
It’s too simplistic to see it as simply onion-like layers, which can be peeled away to find a core of truth. The reality is far more complex and multi-dimensional.
I do believe that there are relationships in which we come very close to the “real” person. But even when we don’t, there’s plenty of room to take pleasure in the interactions. I still like the persona you display here. I don’t feel betrayed by any revelation that not everything you write is literal truth…it doesn’t change the fact that you’re a hell of a writer, and your words bring me pleasure every time I read them.
Interesting that so much of the conversation has revolved around the Ikuko post. I remember being quite struck by that post, myself. Like the Happy Tutor, I suspected that it was too intimate in its detail to be entirely literal—the persona that dominates your weblog is too concerned with privacy and restraint to share so much detail about another person in such a cavalier way. But that didn’t change my enjoyment of the story. I wonder now if I remember it so well because of my doubt of its “truth,” or my appreciation for its truth?
“The persona that dominates your weblog is too concerned with privacy and restraint.” “No one of his taste and intelligence would ever write of a real lover with so little concern for her privacy.” I could hardly have described myself in those terms—in the sense that, even though I carefully circumscribe what I write about my everyday life, it came as a shock that Liz and the Happy Tutor (correctly) interpreted that absence of detail as evidence of my essentially private nature. It appears that they, who “know” me only from what I’ve written, know me—in a fundamental way—as well as my closest friends.
That Dorothea cast the Ikuko post in a different light is best taken, from my perspective, as evidence of the emotional charge associated with blogging fact and blogging fiction. Although I can assert that, in blending fact and fiction, I am neither acting capriciously nor in bad faith, this assertion is unlikely to satisfy Dorothea and its truth (or otherwise) will only be revealed over time and in context.
Context is everything, I agree, though not in the sense that Dorothea meant when she wrote:
Context. Context. Context. In a basically self-revelatory context, I expect self-revelation, not roleplaying games. Now, to burn another straw man, I’m quite aware that not all blogs exist to be self-revelatory, and I don’t have any particular bone to pick with that, either. I just want to know, one way or the other, what to expect. If a blogger picks the pothole-ridden road of self-disclosure (and we all know how big and bad and black those potholes can be!), I genuinely prefer not to suddenly read about invented people on that blogger’s blog as if they were real.
All I can say is this: there are many strategies of self-revelation and that if Dorothea wants “to know, one way or the other, what to expect” then, should she choose to read on, she must expect not one or the other but both: self-disclosure and invented people.
In that regard, the Happy Tutor was only partly correct about my being in a transitional phase:
To take the conversation one step farther, what of counterfeits that are meant not to be unmasked, but to pass “coin of the realm”? That was, I think, what made Jonathon’s post, maybe, “transitional.” It wasn’t clear that it was meant to be seen as a fiction, or that we were gradually meant to wake up to its fictional strategies. And having discovered that we were fooled, there does not seem to be a particular point that ties back to the story — not moral “aha so that is what he was driving at.” This is not a criticism, really. I think he is making a transition from essay to fiction, and has one foot in either genre.
Rather than making a transition from essay to fiction, I see myself as adding a fictional element to the essays and autobiography that already make up the bulk of my recent posts. There shouldn’t be any surprise in this, since I’ve alluded to it twice before. Firstly in my About entry:
Although this site may appear to be a weblog, it does not follow the conventions of journalistic truth that many bloggers adhere to. Rather, my desire is—to borrow Susan Sontag’s description of Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge—to crossbreed fiction, essayistic speculation, and autobiography in a linear notebook rather than a linear narrative form.
And again, more recently, in the post Riding easy in harness:
I feel similarly about the craft of writing and the debt I owe to certain Japanese literary traditions, particularly the zuihitsu, nikki, and shishosetsu, as well as to Fielding and Sterne, to Agee and Sebald, and—as The Tutor recognizes in his entry How He Rambles! - Freedom and Craft—to the classical English essayists: Addison, Chesterton, Hazlitt, Johnson, and Lamb. In other words, to writing which, in Susan Sontag’s description of Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, “crossbreeds fiction, essayistic speculation, and autobiography in a linear notebook rather than a linear narrative form.”
Thus it appears that, in addition to having a foot in each of the fiction and essay genres, I have a hand in the autobiography genre, and five fingers free to tap out my weblog entries. With the proviso that, as Steve pointed out, I don’t know, as an author, all at once who I am or what I’m doing. Brecht said it best:”You never know where you are with production. Production is the unforeseeable. You never know what’s going to come out.”
If the party line is that fiction, essays, and autobiography shouldn’t appear in the same weblog, then I can only borrow Steve’s line and say: “I guess I didn’t get invited to that party.” I’ve been thinking and dreaming about this ever since I stopped photographing, fifteen years ago. Rightly or wrongly, it seems entirely legitimate to simultaneously love the weblog form and wish to employ it in the service of art rather than journalism. Fiction, essays, autobiography… Burningbird nailed it when she suggested that this is “the real Jonathon’s writing.”
In another post, Dorothea wrote that she never claimed or even seriously wanted to be an artist and perhaps therein lies our difference; because I—apart from my youthful desire to be a soldier—never seriously wanted to be anything else.
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Ceci n’est pas un blogue
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Wednesday 23 April 2003
Keep the Bird Burning
Burningbird’s en route from San Francisco with a car full of possessions, completing Stage 1 of what she calls her Moving Adventure. I woke up yesterday morning thinking that I’d write her an email saying simply: “You are greatly missed.” Only to find that she’d posted from SF while I was asleep.
Thanks for all the kind comments in the last post, and the offers of hosting help. They are appreciated. Chris/Stavros from EmptyBottle has found a new weblog home so he won’t be going dark at the end of the month. As for me, I might see if a friend’s offer of a host is still open. Bandwidth’s still an issue, though and it’s running late to make a change. Knock on wood.
I replied in her comments:
It’s time for someone to step up to the plate and organize a “Keep the Bird Burning” fund and it looks like that someone is me.
I’ve emailed Euan Semple to ask him about the dynamics of setting up a PayPal account (Euan organized the Mark Woods computer fund) and, as soon as I have it figured out, I’ll post an entry on my weblog.
Broke, tip-jar’d out, or cheap… it doesn’t really matter. I hate the thought of losing Shelley’s unique, powerful, generous presence and I trust that enough people agree with me to ensure that the flame is not extinguished but rather will continue to burn even more brightly than before.
To that end, I’ve set up a PayPal donation account called Keep the Bird Burning and I’m now officially soliciting donations. Clicking on the button below will take you to a PayPal Payment Details page displaying the details of the donation you are (hopefully) about to make. If you don’t have a PayPal account, you can quickly and easily set one up.
The donations will go to my PayPal account and I’ll progressively transfer the money to Shelley’s account. (Do I need to reassure anyone that this post has no fictional elements?)
As far as the target amount is concerned, I don’t have a clear sense of what a reasonable goal should be. The last twelve months have been tough for Shelley so I’d like to collect enough cash to secure her plenty of space on a reliable server with gobs of bandwidth for at least a year, preferably two.
Obviously I’d be grateful if you’d publicize the Keep the Bird Burning campaign on your own weblogs. If you’d like to add the donation button to your own site, you can either copy the code from my source or email me (jonathon[don’t forget the at symbol]delacour.net) and I’ll send it to you.
I’m well aware that we all have limited financial resources. I guess all I can say is that I’m hoping as many of us as possible will be able to give something back to Shelley, who has given so much of herself, in her passion, her commitment, and—most of all—her wonderful writing.
UPDATE: The campaign has now concluded. We raised just over $800 in 72 hours, thanks to the generosity of everyone who supported the project with cash or by publicizing it on their blogs or both.
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Friday 25 April 2003
Bb fundraiser update
Thanks to the generous support of everyone who has made a donation and/or publicized the Keep the Bird Burning fund, we’re on track to raise enough money so that Burningbird will have a couple of years without having to worry about paying for web hosting.
I agree with Marek, who organized Project Dell’Essum to provide Jeneane Sessum with a refurbished Dell laptop, that campaigns like this should have a limited lifespan. As I write, the Bb fundraiser has been running just under 48 hours. I’ll probably let it run another day then wrap it all up. There’s still some room left in the pot so, if you’ve been meaning to donate but haven’t yet got around to it, click on the button here or on one of the many others you’ll find scattered around the neighborhood. Dorothea summed it up perfectly:
On the up side, an email from Jonathon indicated that the Burningbird campaign is going well. Could always be improved upon—especially given Bb’s tastes in server hardware—so ante up, folks.
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Saturday 26 April 2003
That’s a wrap, folks
Shelley is back—bigger, brighter, and better than before. So now it’s time to thank everyone who has made the Keep the Bird Burning campaign such a spectacular success: by contributing cash or publicizing the project on their weblog or both. We’ve raised a little over $800 in 72 hours, a spectacular effort by any measure.
I’ve removed the “official” donation button from my site and I’d encourage everyone who is currently displaying one to do the same. Shelley has told me that as soon as I’ve sent her the list of donors she’d like to formally thank them herself. (She’s already thanked those who mentioned the fundraiser on their blogs—if she missed anyone, please let Shelley know, or me, so that you are properly acknowledged.)
Some of you who have donated cash have indicated in email to me that you’d like to remain anonymous and so I’d like to ask anyone else who would like to be an anonymous donor to let me know via email (you’ll have my address on the thank-you email I’ve already sent).
So, that’s it. All that remains is for me to say thanks to you all for getting behind the project and supporting it with such open hearts.
Friday 30 May 2003
This will be my last post for a while. I’ve decided to take an extended break from weblogging in order to focus on other projects. I appreciate the attention and feedback my weblog entries have received over the past sixteen months—I’ve met some wonderful people and learned a great deal from the experience. I hope to catch up with you again at some point in the future.
Monday 04 August 2003
How it really happened
Final scene in Volker Schlöndorff’s Die Stille nach dem Schuß
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Wednesday 06 August 2003
I caught up on the controversy about annotating comments left on on one’s
blog by reading the arguments for and against, which are canvassed thoroughly
in these posts and their accompanying comments:
I've always had an extremely liberal policy regarding comments about posts
on this weblog: in 16 months of blogging I've removed one off-topic comment (though I should probably have removed a few more),
a couple of abusive comments, and perhaps 30 spam comments. I doubt that having
a comment policy will change things significantly. So why have one at all? Because
the most cogent
leveled against Sam Ruby--I found the accusations of "censorship" unpersuasive--was that he implemented the policy without prior warning.
Here's my comment policy, which is based (very loosely) on Mark
Pilgrim's but without the strikethrough annotation pioneered by Sam Ruby:
- Wildly off-topic comments will be removed.
- Spam (i.e. comments containing irrelevant links to commercial sites) will be removed.
- Abusive comments will be removed.
Although Mark Pilgrim regards trackbacks as remote comments and subjects them
to the same rules, like James Snell I'm inclined to be less stringent about trackbacks (it
trackback spam becomes a problem).
In the interests of openness and transparency, material
that has been removed will be identified thus:
- [Removed (off-topic)]
- [Removed (spam)]
- [Removed (abusive)]
Links to spammer's sites will be deleted, their email addresses changed
to firstname.lastname@example.org, and their names truncated to four letters.
(I may implement Phil Ringalda's hack for
/lib/MT/App/Comments.pm that rejects comments from
Comments may not be enabled for some posts and might be closed for others
discretion. TrackBacks are now listed above comments on the individual archive pages.
In essence, nothing much has changed, rather some unstated practices have
been made explicit. I'll sum up by quoting the request that Tom
Coates includes at the beginning of the comments section of each of his posts:
Please remember to try and keep your comments on-topic, informative and polite. Unpopular viewpoints are welcome as long as they're pertinent. Some posts may be deleted if they would have been better sent as e-mails...
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Although I found out about the accountability (Winer Watch) controversy long after it had concluded, I was triply interested since:
- I’ve been the subject of one of Dave Winer’s (deleted) inflammatory posts;
- I invented the term Doing a Dave (“substantially editing or removing content after having posted it to the web”); and
- I once believed that changes to weblog entries should be clearly identified (using the <edit></edit> and <edit/> syntax suggested by Burningbird).
My brush with Dave Winer came just three days after I'd started blogging when, late one night, I noticed that I was zooming towards the top of weblogs.com. "Wow," I thought to myself, "my blog's become really popular in just a few days." Actually, I'd copped a serve from Dave over a post about disappearing content, titled Did I hear someone mention integrity? I wrote a conciliatory follow-up and went to sleep. When I woke up, the flame had been replaced by a complimentary post about my (newly-designed) Radio weblog.
The end result? The "disagreement" drove an enormous amount of traffic to my new site, I met some terrific people (Burningbird recalled "I also met Jonathon Delacour in my first year, meeting him over a phrase, no less -- Doing a Dave. What a way to meet another person -- over doing a Dave."), and I discovered a corner of Blogaria worth settling down in. Actions always have consequences; but the consequences aren't always those we anticipate.
I still have strong reservations about removing entries but I've changed my mind about pretty much everything else. And while I can understand the impulse to encourage "accountability", I find I've crossed over to Dave Winer's side of the fence as regards "substantially editing (although not removing) content after having posted it to the web." For me, since writing is rewriting, the idea of tracking changes to a text is inimical to the essence of writing. But then I don't define weblogging in terms of journalism, which is Rebecca Blood's frame of reference for the rules she suggests in her essay Weblog Ethics, rules that she believes "form a basis of ethical behavior for online publishers of all kinds."
Any weblogger who expects to be accorded the privileges and protections of a professional journalist will need to go further than these principles. Rights have associated responsibilities; in the end it is an individual's professionalism and meticulous observance of recognized ethical standards that determines her status in the eyes of society and the law. For the rest of us, I believe the following standards are sufficient:
- Publish as fact only that which you believe to be true.
- If material exists online, link to it when you reference it.
- Publicly correct any misinformation.
- Write each entry as if it could not be changed; add to, but do not rewrite or delete, any entry.
- Disclose any conflict of interest.
- Note questionable and biased sources.
More importantly, I instinctively mistrust attempts like this to impose rules or standards, no matter how well-intentioned they might be. I agree with Dave Rogers when he says:
In my opinion, "accountability" is misused to impart some patina of authority to an agency that has none. I am accountable to the laws of my nation, state and city. I am accountable to the mother of my children as my children's father. I'm accountable to my employer within the context of my employment. I may or may not be accountable to an entity commonly known as God. That's an issue that we need not go into here. But I am not accountable to Mark Pilgrim or Dave Winer or any "community" that wishes to exercise some authority over me. I recognize my choices have consequences, but I do not recognize the authority of vaguely defined groups of others over my choices and actions.
This "community" of webloggers is trying to exercise some authority over other webloggers over how they choose to write and what they choose to post or take down. Screw them, I say.
That said, the simplest way for me to define my own weblog "ethics," and thereby to avoid any misunderstandings, is to explain how my practice departs from Rebecca Blood's rules.
1. Publish as fact only that which you believe to be true. The problem here is the assumption that facts and truth are equivalent. They're not, necessarily, for me. I'm more concerned with emotional truth. As in:
I don’t know if Jonathon ever dated a woman named Ikuko for real, but I know that I believe the stories he tells about her. (One Pot Meal)
2. If material exists online, link to it when you reference it. No problem with this one--I'm meticulous about linking to material I quote.
3. Publicly correct any misinformation. According to my New Oxford Dictionary of English, misinformation is:
false or inaccurate information,
especially that which is
deliberately intended to deceive
while fiction is:
the form of prose, especially
novels, that describes
imaginary events and people
invention or fabrication as
opposed to fact
a belief or
statement which is false,
but is often held to be
true because it is
expedient to do so.
Given that some of my weblog entries contain fictional elements--perhaps the people exist (or existed) but an event didn't happen exactly as I describe it or the event happened exactly as I describe it but to someone who never existed--I can't "publically correct any misinformation" without negating the truth of the story.
I've never set out to "deceive" anyone, though in retrospect it would have been infinitely better to have made it explicit much earlier that my interests (and my writing) were shifting from writing conventional weblog entries to telling stories. I regret that I didn't. Take this, then, as a belated announcement.
4. Write each entry as if it could not be changed; add to, but do not rewrite or delete, any entry. This rule exemplifies how Rebecca Blood's enterprise is based on the rules and practices of traditional media: the book has been printed, the newspaper has been published, the television or radio program has been broadcast (but remains available on tape), the prints of the movie have been struck. The expectation is that the information is immutable, that it has been inscribed on a stone tablet.
I find this difficult to accept. Rather I'd prefer to rewrite entries as many times as I choose, in the interests of improving the writing and getting closer to the emotional and intellectual truth of the story. I'm not writing a book, or a magazine article; and I'm not writing journalism.
But I'll need to tread carefully here. Rebecca Blood may have a point when she argues that:
Changing or deleting entries destroys the integrity of the network. The Web is designed to be connected; indeed, the weblog permalink is an invitation for others to link. Anyone who comments on or cites a document on the Web relies on that document (or entry) to remain unchanged...
The network of shared knowledge we are building will never be more than a novelty unless we protect its integrity by creating permanent records of our publications. The network benefits when even entries that are rendered irrelevant by changing circumstance are left as a historical record...
History can be rewritten, but it cannot be undone. Changing or deleting words is possible on the Web, but possibility does not always make good policy. Think before you publish and stand behind what you write. If you later decide you were wrong about something, make a note of it and move on.
So, although I won't promise not to rewrite any of my entries, I'll ensure that any subsequent editing does not negate the essence of the original post. Ultimately, however, my loyalty is to the writing and to the story.
As regards deleting entries, I did delete 19 entries about the technicalities of Radio UserLand when I switched to Movable Type (were I doing it again, I may well leave them there). And recently, because I wanted to reshape my weblog to reflect my current interests, I changed the status of a large number of entries from Publish to Draft--removing those entries from the navigation but--through the magic of Movable Type--leaving the archive pages intact, thus preserving the permalinks.
I may revisit the subject of deleting entries when Burningbird publishes Part 4 of her series on Weblog Links, to be called "Start fresh by sweeping out the old webs."
Sometimes you may want to break the permalinks, and sometimes you may want to deliberately throw out archive pages. This last section challenges the premise behind persistent archives, and the myth of the permalink.
5. Disclose any conflict of interest. No problem with this--on the few occasions when it was appropriate, I've been "quite transparent about [my] jobs and professional interests." When I received a book to review, I disclosed the circumstances. In the unlikely event that "any monetary (or other potentially conflicting) interests" arise, I'll disclose those too.
6. Note questionable and biased sources. With this rule, Rebecca Blood seeks to distinguish between questionable articles produced by "highly biased organizations or by seemingly fanatical individuals" and reliable stories produced by trustworthy professional organizations (The New York Times and Rupert Murdoch's Fox News spring immediately to mind).
It is reasonable to expect that expert foragers have the knowledge and motivation to assess the nature of these sources; it is not reasonable to assume that all readers do. Readers depend on weblogs, to some extent, for guidance in navigating the Web.
Well yes, as long as we acknowledge the fine line between providing guidance and insulting the reader's intelligence. When I write again about David Irving's book on the bombing of Dresden, I doubt I'll need to point out that Irving is a Holocaust-denier whose credentials as a historian have been comprehensively discredited. It should be enough to quote Richard J. Evans's assertion in Lying About Hitler that Irving's account of the Dresden raid was based on "fantasy, invention, speculation, the suppression of reliable evidence, the use of unreliable sources or, most shockingly, the repeated deployment of a document that he knew to be a forgery."
I've laid my cards on the table, making clear as best I can how I try to negotiate what Steve Himmer called, in his post titled Learning to read, "those issues of voice and trust are at the center of so much of the weblogging enterprise."
Obliqueness, to me, is inextricably bound up with that 'play of time' I mentioned: there's no need to tell everything all at once, because the text isn't asked to be complete all at once. Readers, over time, can assemble their own picture of who the author is, and what oblique references may or may not refer to, and that's the richness of reading weblogs, frankly. Even if you use, as in the famous Oblivio example a 'false' center for your obliqueness, the reader still has the opportunity to suss out over time the parameters and position of the author—the blogger may be a fictional character (as I said the other day, between the real me and the me I write here, one of us drinks more, but it could easily be that one of us is more confident, or actually says the things the other only imagines saying), but they're a fictional character existing in more dimensions than Oliver Twist or Leopold Bloom.
To sum up, I do occasionally use a "false"' center for my obliqueness and I may write about "fictional" characters (including myself), but only as a strategy for disclosing the "real me."
Addendum. In a comment on this entry, Dave Winer asked that I point to his disclaimer about integrity, which says (in part):
A while ago I wrote down two rules about integrity in public writing. It doesn't matter whether you're a pro or amateur. I think these two rules are necessary and sufficient.
1. Disclose all pertinent information about your interests.
2. Never state as fact something you know not to be true.
In a separate
During-the-Day Edits Disclaimer, Dave explains that:
I edit my weblog as the day goes by. At 10PM Pacific, the contents of Scripting News is sent via email to people who subscribe. At that point, unless something exceptional happens, I don't edit any further. This policy has been in place since the by-mail-subscription feature was installed.
Though this process of editing "as the day goes by" precipitated the "accountability" war, it must be said that Dave has a policy that he's followed consistently. However, I suspect it's also true that the controversy is focused more on deleting than rewriting entries. And, apart from those few posts I deleted when switching to MT, I haven't really changed my mind about that.
Still, it can be seen as bitterly ironic (from Dave Winer's point of view), that having been critical of his editing until 10PM Pacific, I now claim the right to edit "as the weeks, months, and years go by."
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Thursday 07 August 2003
Did you miss me?
I’m blogging again. As I told a friend the other night, I realized how much—just like Ray Davis—I love the form. Not the link+quote+comment, time-stamped in reverse-chronological order form, but Steve Himmer’s changing and shifting over time, trying out new positions, refuting them, reclaiming them; trying on voices and faces form as well as the crossbreeding fiction, essayistic speculation, and autobiography in a linear notebook rather than a linear narrative form (Susan Sontag’s description of Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge), which is how I see what I’m doing here.
my two month hiatus from blogging I didn’t look at weblogs at all—until a trackback notification
email from Burningbird alerted me to the controversy about annotating someone else’s comments on your
blog, which led me to the fracas about rewriting or deleting weblog entries (aka
accountability and the Winer Watch).
Since I’ve been troubled by the steady rise of spam in my comments, I thought it might be useful to
implement a comment policy. Given that Burningbird has broached the subject of removing weblog archives entirely, and given that I have no qualms about rewriting entries nor the slightest commitment to notions of journalistic truth in weblog entries, I thought it would be helpful to explain my position regarding weblog ethics. I could then link to each of these posts
the “About” section of the navigation bar and get back to writing autobiographical essays with fictional traces.
Since the posts about comments and ethics are lengthy, here’s the executive summary:
- Comments will not be edited or annotated.
- Spam and wildly off-topic or abusive comments will be removed.
- Comments may not be enabled for some entries and might be closed after a period of time for other entries.
- Trackbacks will be subject to a more relaxed interpretation of the comment rules.
- Weblog entries
- Entries will be truthful although they may not always be factual.
- Entries may be added to and rewritten at my discretion, whilst preserving the essence of the original version.
- Entries will not be deleted (so that permalinks are preserved) although they may be removed from the site navigation.
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Friday 08 August 2003
You like me… you really like me!
adjective astonished; flabbergasted.
What a marvellous word, gobsmacked, although it underestimates how I feel about the warm and generous welcome back I’ve received. For all your comments, trackbacks, and emails—thank you. And yes, I do count myself a lucky man.
Wednesday 03 December 2003
Am I the only one around here who feels overwhelmed by the volume of data I expect myself to absorb and process every day?
I just did a Google search for “information overload”. It yielded “about 296,000” results. The first, a 1994 Patti Maes paper on Agents that Reduce Work and Information Overload:
The metaphor used is that of a personal assistant who is collaborating with the user in the same work environment. The assistant becomes gradually more effective as it learns the user’s interests, habits and preferences (as well as those of his or her community)…
The set of tasks or applications with which an agent can assist the user is virtually unlimited: information filtering, information retrieval, mail management, meeting scheduling, selection of books, movies, music, etc.
The second, a three-year-old InfoWorld article on
Overcoming information overload:
Alan Lightman, a humanities professor and physics lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in Cambridge, Mass., also takes a pessimistic view of the effect of technology on communication. People need to examine what they are getting into when they adopt technologies, he says.
“I think that the high-speed information technologies, while very useful in many ways, have robbed us of our necessary silences of time to reflect on values on who we are and where we’re going,” Lightman says.
The optimist and the pessimist: both from MIT.
I started to make a list of all the stuff I’m thinking about (let alone trying to write about) then gave up. It doesn’t really matter, given that functionally your list is identical to mine even if they don’t have even a single item in common. What’s important is the size of the list, not its contents.
I’m wondering whether I shouldn’t try to emulate my friend Karl, whom I’d describe as a late/reluctant adopter. In 1986, when I suggested that it might be useful to buy an external 400K floppy drive for his Macintosh Plus, he told me that the internal floppy drive was more than adequate. A couple of years ago he bought a television set and a VCR, having lived without television for the fifteen years I’ve known him. When I asked him last week whether he’d seen such-and-such on TV, he reminded me that his television wasn’t connected to any kind of antenna—he’d only bought it so that his young daughters could watch videos once or twice a week. Yesterday he called and asked me to send him a test email, to check that he hadn’t screwed up his email account while setting up his new ADSL connection. That surprised me. But I’d expect that within a month he’ll have figured out how to throttle back his high speed Internet access.
Karl’s not a Luddite. He has a notebook and a desktop machine and knows more about computing than most of the IT staff at the major hospital where he works as a neonatologist. Nor is he uninformed about local and international events: he listens to the radio a lot, mainly ABC Radio National (roughly the Australian equivalent of NPR). Not listening to the radio—not at home nor in the car—is perhaps my only means of filtering out information.
Even though he works longer hours than I do, Karl’s rigorous defence against the flow of unnecessary information provides him with far more time than I allow myself to read, to think, and to be silent. And even if ADSL turns out to offer a formidable challenge to his minimalist ethic, Karl has one huge advantage over me: he doesn’t blog.
Self-employment, a constant Internet connection, a weblog, and a mildly addictive personality turn out to be a killer combination—even for someone who no longer feels compelled to post regularly, let alone every day. Liz Lawley went cold turkey by taking a vacation with her family:
The best part of the trip was that by midweek I’d stopped blogging things in my head. I hadn’t realized how much I’d begun to detach from real life, always running meta-commentary in my head to save for later blogging. Letting go of that was very refreshing. It’s not that I don’t want to blog, it’s that I don’t want to do it all the time.
Although Liz didn’t say this explicitly, I think she realized that having a weblog turns information overload into a two-way process: first you suck all this stuff into your head for processing; and then you regurgitate it as weblog posts. And, while this process isn’t all that different from the ways in which we manipulate information in our jobs, it’s something that we’ve chosen to do in addition to our jobs, something that detaches us even further from “real life”. I suspect that the problem is compounded by the fact that weblog entries are—overwhelmingly—expressions of opinion and, to make it worse, many of the opinions are opinions about opinions on issues concerning which the opinionators have little, if any, firsthand knowledge or experience. Me included.
Now I’m beginning to understand what I valued so much about photography. Photographs are, to be sure, just as much a means of expressing an opinion as any other form of communication. But, somehow, its non-verbal nature confers upon the photograph an opacity that I find incredibly appealing, particularly if any captions are restricted to a spare description of the time, place, and (if appropriate) person’s name. I don’t, however, believe that this preference means that I’m assuming—in Jeff Ward’s words—that “there is an intrinsic quality to images which is either diluted or enhanced by the presence or absence of the caption”. It’s more that, for me, the absence of a comprehensive caption makes it more difficult for the photograph to trumpet an opinion. To paraphrase Lisette Model, the less the photograph tries to prove something, the more likely I am to get the lesson.
The other thing I realize about all that time I spent taking pictures is that photography provided an amazingly effective choke on all the extraneous information that was trying to cram itself into my head. In those years, I was preoccupied with looking at photographs, shooting photographs, processing film and making prints, thinking about photography, and watching movies. But, despite the temptation posed by this new “analog” digital Leica, it’s unlikely that I’ll ever go back to photographing with the passion and commitment I once had.
I’m also beginning to realize why, when I abandoned photography, I took up studying Japanese. It (Japanese) offers the same kind of opacity that I valued in photographs, the opacity which ensured that I never really understood even my own photographs—particularly those I was proudest of. My last photographic project was a series taken in the neonatal intensive care ward at Karl’s hospital. A couple of years later he said to me, “Just as well you managed to replace photography with Japanese… that should keep you productively engaged until you die.”
Perhaps reading Japanese more than English offers one way of filtering out the information that threatens to overwhelm me, since my lack of expertise ensures that interpreting and understanding a Japanese sentence takes much longer than one in English. And, even though this is a strategy whose effectiveness will diminish as my facility with the language improves, it might provide me with a buffer until I can figure out other ways of dealing with all the excess data.
Another way might be to try to modify my relationship with my surroundings, in Godard’s words to “go on listening… go on looking about me even more attentively than before… the world… my fellow creatures… my brothers.”
Today Norm Jenson quoted Richard Feynman:
I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong.
To which I added, in a comment: “I also think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be right.”
Again, paraphrasing Lisette Model, when you point your camera at something, (ideally) you are asking a question and the photograph is sometimes (the right or the wrong) answer.
So perhaps I’m thinking about the ideal weblog post as one that privileges questions over opinions. Except it’s more complex than that. After all, couldn’t an opinion expressed with subtlety and restraint be another way of asking a question?
Either way, my question is the one I asked at the beginning: who else feels overwhelmed by the volume of information we expect ourselves to absorb and process every day? And how do you manage to deal with it?
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Monday 08 December 2003
I’ll link to whoever he’s linking to
Since 95 percent of people are imitators and only five percent initiators, people are persuaded more by the actions of others than by any proof we can offer.
It’s amazing to me that in all the argy-bargy about men’s alleged reluctance to link to women bloggers and the connected issue of the WizBang award for Best Female Authored Blog no-one has ever mentioned Robert Cialdini’s concept of Social Proof.
I accept that male bloggers are less likely to link to female bloggers: whatever the topic being debated, technology-related or not. But I referred to “men’s alleged reluctance to link to women bloggers” because running through the entire discussion is the unstated assumption that, even though men might not be actively colluding to ignore women, the situation could be turned around if they were made aware of their “unfair” (albeit unconscious) behavior. Yet it is abundantly clear (to me, anyway) that linking practices have far less to do with gender than with deeply ingrained human behavior.
In his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini, a professor of psychology at Arizona State University, identifies
six principles of persuasion—reciprocity, commitment/consistency, social proof, liking, authority, scarcity—discussed by Cialdini in this interview and explained here in the context of cult recruitment.
Reciprocity: When we receive an unsolicited gift, we feel an obligation to give something in return.
Commitment and Consistency: Once we make a commitment, there is a natural tendency to “behave in ways that are stubbornly consistent” with our earlier decision, even if that decision turns out to be mistaken.
Social Proof: In a given situation, our view of whether a particular behavior is correct or not is directly proportional to the number of other people we see performing that behaviour.
Liking: We prefer to say yes to people we know and like—especially people who are physically attractive, who are similar to us, who praise us (subtly), whom we encounter regularly, and who are associated with individuals or events we admire.
Authority: Since we have been socialized to obey legitimate authorities, we tend to also obey individuals whom we perceive to possess “high levels of knowledge, wisdom, and power”.
Scarcity: We assign greater value to opportunities when they become less available and frequently assume that scarcity is an indicator of quality.
One only needs to have had a weblog for about five minutes to see the relevance to blogging of Cialdini’s ideas about how we are persuaded and how we reach decisions—particularly concerning whom one links to or adds to one’s blogroll. If you’re honest, you’ll recognize that at least some of Cialdini’s principles have determined your linking/blogrolling preferences:
- Reciprocity (If I put you on my blogroll, you’ll feel obliged to put me on yours.)
- Commitment/Consistency (Now that you’re on my blogroll I’m unlikely to remove you.)
- Social Proof (If all those other people have X on their blogrolls, then he definitely should be on my blogroll.)
- Liking (The people I link to and have on my blogroll are similar to me, have praised me, are associated with events or projects I’d like to be a part of… at the very least, since I’m never going to reach the A-list, I can bask in the A-lister’s reflected glory.)
- Authority (Anyone on the Technorati Top 100 must automatically be knowledgeable, wise, and powerful.)
- Scarcity (Since the A-list has so few members relative to the total blogging population, what A-listers write must necessarily be of high quality. Similarly, a link from an A-lister is enormously valuable—regardless of the quality of the item at the end of that link.)
Although each of these factors probably has some influence, I suggest that Social Proof is far and away the most important factor in the “female bloggers don’t get their fair share of links and therefore need their own blogging award” fracas.
Remember what Cavett Roberts (the founding president of the National Speakers Association) said: “Since 95 percent of people are imitators and only five percent initiators, people are persuaded more by the actions of others than by any proof we can offer.”
Social Proof ensures that those who either lack the time to thoughtfully investigate the alternatives or lack the capacity to think for themselves can make decisions quickly, easily, and—above all—correctly since, as Cialdini points out: “The greater the number of people who find an idea correct, the more the idea will be correct.”
One could hardly be surprised that decisions based on Social Proof will result in something like Clay Shirkey’s Power Law Distribution:
To see how freedom of choice could create such unequal distributions, consider a hypothetical population of a thousand people, each picking their 10 favorite blogs. One way to model such a system is simply to assume that each person has an equal chance of liking each blog. This distribution would be basically flat - most blogs will have the same number of people listing it as a favorite. A few blogs will be more popular than average and a few less, of course, but that will be statistical noise. The bulk of the blogs will be of average popularity, and the highs and lows will not be too far different from this average. In this model, neither the quality of the writing nor other people’s choices have any effect; there are no shared tastes, no preferred genres, no effects from marketing or recommendations from friends.
But people’s choices do affect one another. If we assume that any blog chosen by one user is more likely, by even a fractional amount, to be chosen by another user, the system changes dramatically. Alice, the first user, chooses her blogs unaffected by anyone else, but Bob has a slightly higher chance of liking Alice’s blogs than the others. When Bob is done, any blog that both he and Alice like has a higher chance of being picked by Carmen, and so on, with a small number of blogs becoming increasingly likely to be chosen in the future because they were chosen in the past.
Think of this positive feedback as a preference premium. The system assumes that later users come into an environment shaped by earlier users; the thousand-and-first user will not be selecting blogs at random, but will rather be affected, even if unconsciously, by the preference premiums built up in the system previously.
Although he doesn’t mention Robert Cialdini in his Power Law essay, Shirky is describing a perfect example of Social Proof in action. Cialdini elaborates:
First, we seem to assume that if a lot of people are doing the same thing, they must know something we don’t. Especially when we are uncertain, we are willing to place an enormous amount of trust in the collective knowledge of the crowd. Second, quite frequently the crowd is mistaken because they are not acting on the basis of any superior information but are reacting, themselves, to the principle of social proof.
This neatly describes what occurs when a new blogger arrives on the scene wondering who to put on his or her blogroll or, alternatively, a more experienced blogger needs to quickly publish a post or two. In either case, the easiest course of action is to place one’s trust in the collective knowledge of the crowd. In other words, “I’ll link to whoever he’s linking to.”
So when Burningbird wrote:
To be honest, if the Wizbang awards person had taken the nominations, went out to Technorati and found the least linked of them and put only them into the award lists, I would have promoted the hell out of it. I wouldn’t have been on that list, but I still would have promoted the hell out of it.
she was expecting the Wizbang awards person—and many of those who took part in the nominations—to do something that is almost totally counter-intuitive. Unless you’re among the five percent initiators, like Burningbird.
In the same post, titled Blogger Strike, Burningbird listed her reasons for focusing on this issue:
I do have a fairly good rating in Technorati, and people must wonder why I write so much on this — what do I have to bitch about: the A-Lists, the hunt for links, and women’s writing. I have people coming by, writing comments, linking to me, and I’m a woman. What do I have to complain about?
True. All true. That’s why I felt more obligated to write what I do, because I remember all too well coming close to quitting two years ago this Christmas, when I was alone in San Francisco and felt even more alone online because no one was around, or commented, or seemed to see me.
I’ve never forgotten this and hoped to make a difference, but I’m fighting against human nature. I wasn’t helping, and once you get to the point of having to explain your motivation, you’ve already lost the battle.
Interesting that Burningbird sees it in terms of “fighting against human nature”, since it is possible to frame my argument about the influence of Social Proof in a way that suggests there’s little point in attempting to argue with the numbers, given that they are a direct reflection of “human nature”. Yet Cialdini’s insights can be employed in the service of diametrically opposed aims: to manipulate others so that their behavior conforms to our wishes or to defend ourselves against such manipulation.
It’s instructive that one A-list blogger has analyzed link dynamics from an engineer’s perspective and figured out—as far as it is possible for an individual to do so—a way to subvert the effects of Social Proof. Steven Den Beste has a long-standing, carefully-articulated policy of replacing the names on his USS Clueless sidebar every four months or so. He wrote about it at length in an earlier post ( Inverse Network Effect) and a few days ago when he turned over the list again (Best Original Content). But this paragraph, from a post written last July (Rototilling the Sidebar) neatly summarizes his policy:
The basic idea is to try to give several months of concentrated exposure to a small number of blogs which I think deserve far more attention than they get. With any luck, during that time they’ll build up a large enough regular readership that their traffic can continue to grow on its own thereafter. So periodically I replace the list with another group to try to do the same for them.
Why do I do this? Mostly because it’s what I wish someone had done for me, back when I first started out.
It’s entirely in character that, in a post referring to his 2003 Warblogger Award for Best Original Content, Den Beste wrote at length about why another blogger, who didn’t even rate a place in the category, deserved the award more.
As important as it is to draw our attention to “injustice”, as Burningbird has done, it’s far more useful to transform theory into practice, as Steven Den Beste has done. Given the differential value of links, I doubt that—without the support of a majority of A-listers—it would be possible to cause even a crack in the citadel based upon Social Proof and the Power Law Distribution.
And I’m sufficiently pessimistic about “human nature” to doubt that this could result in such a radical transformation of the A-list that the current members will find themselves back in line outside the club whilst some of the formerly tired and huddled masses suddenly find themselves whooping it up in the VIP lounge. But who knows? If enough of us followed Den Beste’s example, it might prompt a shift in the way people think about blogrolls and links.
Nor do I think there’s anything to be gained by attacking awards, no matter how predictable or ill-considered the basis upon which they are bestowed. Better to do what Burningbird, after reflecting on the problem, suggested:
Disregard my earlier rants about the Wizbang awards. Instead, go out there and look at the lists. From each, find the sites with the fewest links in Technorati, visit them. For those you like, leave a comment or two, and then vote for them.
Notice that following Burningbird’s suggestion will require time and effort—and it’s exactly our reluctance to thoughtfully consider the alternatives and think for ourselves that Social Proof depends on and therefore that created the current situation. (You might also want to be careful—in choosing the weblogs “you like”—to recall Cialdini’s principle of Liking and resist the temptation to select those who are similar to you, have praised you, or are associated with events or projects you’d like to be a part of.)
Even so, I am convinced that, although it is unlikely to overcome the hegemony of the Power Law, the widespread adoption of Steven Den Beste’s rotating blogroll idea would have a greater impact than any weblog award by creating a healthier array of niche communities and, simultaneously, providing a kind of principled resistance to the tyranny of Social Proof.
Perhaps bloggers would start to believe that if enough people (us) are doing the same thing (basing blogrolls and links on the quality and originality of the ideas and writing) then we must know something they don’t (that excellence rather than reputation deserves to be celebrated).
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Sunday 23 January 2005
Jon Udell, picking up on Tim Bray’s and David Weinberger’s posts about the Heavy metal umlaut, has created a fascinating screencast that traces how the Wikipedia Heavy metal umlaut page has evolved since it was originally published in April, 2003.
It’s a wonderfully silly topic, but my point is somewhat serious too. The 8.5-minute screencast turns the change history of this Wiki page into a movie, scrolls forward and backward along the timeline of the document, and follows the development of several motifs. Creating this animated narration of a document’s evolution was technically challenging, but I think it suggests interesting possibilities.
(Jon didn’t, inexplicably, mention my Diacritical entry, published earlier in the week, before Tim’s or David’s, in which I wrote at length about umlauts, diaereses, macrons, and the Heavy metal umlaut.)
However, as the list on Jon’s site (reproduced on the right) indicates, my post has just slipped in to the top ten hits for a Google search on
heavy metal umlaut.
The 4th, 5th, and 6th results—for Det perfekta tomrummet: Tesla och heavy metal umlaut—provide the best example of c*mm*nt sp*mm*ng I’ve yet seen—though I can’t make up my mind whether this offers compelling evidence for or against the rel=”nofollow” attribute’s ultimate effectiveness.
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Sunday 20 March 2005
Before the Revolution
Every time I read about how the blogging “revolution” will “change the world,” I think of Talleyrand. More exactly, I think of the remark by Talleyrand that Bernardo Bertolucci used as the epigraph to his 1964 film Before the Revolution (Prima della rivoluzione):
He who has not lived in the years before the revolution cannot know what the sweetness of living is.
According to The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, Talleyrand’s remark was recorded by François Guizot, in his Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de mon temps (1858):
M. Talleyrand me disait un jour: “Qui n’a pas vécu dans les années voisines de 1789 ne sait pas ce que c’est que le plaisir de vivre.”
(Monsieur Talleyrand said to me one day: “He who has not lived during the years around 1789 can not know what is meant by the pleasure of life.”)
That Talleyrand’s observation and Bertolucci’s version of it can be interpreted quite differently is, of course, what interests me most.
In the aristocratic system into which Talleyrand was born, it was common for the eldest son in a family to enter the military (and to inherit the property and titles) while the second son made a career in the clergy. However, Talleyrand’s impaired physical mobility (due to a malformed foot, which some attribute to Marfan syndrome) meant that in his case the custom was reversed: his younger brother was named heir while Talleyrand—although a notorious unbeliever—was ordained a priest in 1779 at the age of 25.
The biographical entry at Everything2.com elaborates:
…the club foot was to loom large in Talleyrand’s life. His parents obviously felt that the disability made him unfit to carry on the family lineage, and stripped him of his birth right and inheritance at an early age. He lost the right to pass on the family wealth to any children he might have, as well as most of his inheritance. While he was still technically part of the nobility, Talleyrand was essentially without any class or standing from birth.
Talleyrand’s ordination did little to put a damper on his libido. A son was born of his affair with Countess Adelaide de Flahaut in 1785, and was named for his father…
In 1788, Talleyrand was appointed Bishop of Autun by King Louis XVI (with some reluctance), following a petition by his dying father (the same father that had disinherited him thirty years ago). Talleyrand did not linger long in his diocese ; after three weeks, he departed, having been elected deputy of the clergy (the First Estate) to the Estates General.
In addition to the clergy (the First Estate), the Estates General included representatives of the nobility (Second Estate) and the commoners (Third Estate). The First Estate was divided into “upper” and “lower” clergy: the former being a kind of clerical nobility drawn largely from the aristocratic families of the Second Estate; the latter having more in common with the commoners of the Third Estate.
In the context of a discussion about the “blogging revolution” it’s fascinating (or ironic) that, as Mick Underwood explains, “within the model of a pluralist liberal democracy, the mass media are often seen as fulfilling the vitally important rôle of fourth estate, the guardians of democracy, defenders of the public interest. The term fourth estate is frequently attributed to the nineteenth century historian Carlyle, though he himself seems to have attributed it to Edmund Burke.”
Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important than they all. It is not a figure of speech, or a witty saying; it is a literal fact,…. Printing, which comes necessarily out of Writing, I say often, is equivalent to Democracy: invent Writing, Democracy is inevitable…… Whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law-making, in all acts of authority. It matters not what rank he has, what revenues or garnitures: the requisite thing is that he have a tongue which others will listen to; this and nothing more is requisite.
The ongoing argument about weblogging and journalism revolves, at the most basic level, around a struggle for power, as webloggers—not content to form a Fifth Estate—seek to wrest control of the Fourth Estate from the current incumbents.
But I digress…
Tallyrand supported the revolutionary cause and was excommunicated by Pope Pius VI for proposing the Civil Constitution of the Clergy that nationalized the Church.
It’s worth noting that despite his status in the Church, Talleyrand had been exposed to revolutionary philosophy during his term at St. Sulpice (and presumably later on as well). He is reported to have celebrated mass on the Champs de Mars in 1790 to commemorate the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. Thus it is perhaps not entirely surprising that he was appointed to the constitutional committee of the National Assembly in 1789, and became a signatory of the constitution that the committee presented to the King. However, one must also keep in mind that Talleyrand had earlier urged the King to dissolve the assembly, and only joined when he felt that the democratic movement was becoming unstoppable. (Everything2.com)
As Talleyrand himself explained, “The art of statesmanship is to foresee the inevitable and to expedite its occurrence.”
During The Terror, while he was in Britain attempting to avert war, a warrant was issued for his arrest. Talleyrand escaped to the United States, returned to France in 1796, and became Foreign Minister in the Directory (the group of five who held executive power in France).
It was in this position that he met Napoleon Bonaparte, and in him recognized the man who would put an end to the many vicissitudes of revolutionary France. Sensing the way the wind was blowing (something at which Talleyrand was exceptionally skilled) he resigned his post with the directory, and began working to prepare the foundation for the coup that would bring Napoleon to power. (Everything2.com)
Although Tallyrand resumed his post as Foreign Minister after Napoleon seized power as First Consul, he had little to do since Napoleon preferred to control foreign affairs. The 60 million francs that Talleyrand received for his services provided adequate compensation.
In early 1804, Talleyrand’s involvement in the kidnapping and execution of the Duke of Enghien led to his most famous quip: “That was worse than a crime; it was a mistake.”
Later the same year Napoleon appointed him Grand Chamberlain; in 1807 he resigned as Foreign Minister; in 1808 he betrayed Napoleon by engineering an alliance between Austria and Russia and was then dismissed as Chamberlain when Napoleon, describing Talleyrand as “a piece of shit in a silk stocking”, suspected him of involvement in an assassination plot.
Just as surprisingly, in 1814 Napoleon empowered Talleyrand to negotiate on his behalf with the allied European powers, even as he was criticizing Talleyrand for his private politics. By this time, Talleyrand seems to have once again smelled change on the wind, and hastened to reconcile himself with the vestiges of the Bourbon dynasty, becoming advisor to the future Louis XVIII. (Everything2.com)
The Answers.com assessment of Talleyrand is generous given that his style of diplomacy (which Henry Kissinger emulated) has fallen out of fashion:
The prototype of the witty, cynical diplomat, Talleyrand has been either exalted as the savior of Europe in 1815 or damned as an opportunist or even a traitor. His corruption was undeniable, and his pliability enabled him to hold power under the ancien régime, the Revolution, Napoleon, the Restoration, and the July Monarchy. Yet Talleyrand was a good European, and his policy was aimed consistently—and often courageously—at the peace and stability of Europe as a whole.
Ever since I first saw Before the Revolution in the late sixties, I’ve thought that Talleyrand’s remark about the revolutionary period (or rather Bertolucci’s use of it) was masked by ambiguity—an ambiguity that, I now realize, sprung from my focusing on Talleyrand’s aristocratic background rather than on his diplomatic career.
Having only ever seen the (subtitled) English translation of the Italian translation of Talleyrand’s remark, I wrongly assumed that he was looking back nostalgically at the life he enjoyed in the years before the revolution. Now, knowing a little more about his life—most particularly, his passion for politics and influence—and (despite my shaky grasp of French) having seen the French version of his comment, it seems clear that Talleyrand was celebrating the years immediately before and after 1789 (“dans les années voisines de 1789”), the heady days when the absolute monarchy was overthrown and the influence of the Catholic Church diminished, when everything seemed possible, and—most importantly—when Talleyrand was at the center of events.
This interpretation must be played against Bertolucci’s, which I always took as meaning that life only becomes sweet after the revolution—a belief that accords with both the Marxist sympathies of Fabrizio, the protagonist of the film, and those of Bertolucci himself (he joined the Italian Communist party in 1969, leaving ten years later). I was wrong about that too.
Louis Menand, in a long New Yorker essay that combines a review of Bertolucci’s most recent film, The Dreamers, with a survey of his earlier work, discusses Before the Revolution (the film and its title) at length. About the title, Menand writes:
By 1968, student radicals were citing [Bertolucci’s film] as explanation and inspiration, and the phrase “before the revolution” appeared in accounts of the events of May in the French press.
The words are taken from a remark of Talleyrand’s: “He who did not live in the years before the revolution cannot understand what the sweetness of living is.” Bertolucci insisted that he meant the title ironically, that life “before the revolution” is agony; he has his protagonist mutter, despairingly, “It’s always ‘before the revolution’ if you’re like me.” But with movies you believe the camera—what the camera loves cannot be all bad—and the camera tells us that although Talleyrand was undoubtedly on the wrong side, he was not wrong. “At first my story was a modern ‘Charterhouse,’” Bertolucci explained in an interview in the Cahiers in 1965, “but then it gradually developed into ‘Sentimental Education.’” Fabrizio is not a revolutionary; he is playing at being a revolutionary, because that is what young people in the postwar middle class do. His kind of revolution is just a chapter in the bourgeois family romance (thus the incest: it violates the norms of the nuclear family). If “Before the Revolution” is a prophecy of the rebellion of May ’68, in which students from the Sorbonne marched in solidarity with workers from the Renault auto plants, it is also a prophecy of its failure.
If Bertolucci “meant the title ironically,” then it’s clear that he interpreted Talleyrand’s remark as I originally did: that Talleyrand was a reactionary who yearned for the good old days before the revolution destroyed the aristocratic way of life. In 1965, when Bertolucci offered his explanation, it was still possible for the idea of revolution to inspire hope: the Chinese Cultural Revolution would begin in the same year and continue until October 1968, when Mao’s rival, Liu Shao-chi, was expelled from the Party (and the “revolution” had to be brought back under control). Ironically, during the same period that Jean-Luc Godard was making films extolling the virtue of the Red Guards, Chen Kiage (who would eventually direct films such as Farewell My Concubine and The Emperor and the Assassin), had joined the Red Guards in attacking his own father.
But events in Soviet Russia, China, North Korea, Cambodia, and elsewhere confirm that life “after the revolution” is agony too—and not just for the displaced ruling class—since one dictatorial regime has simply been replaced by another. As Samora Machel observed, “The revolution eats its children.”
Menand suggests that “although Talleyrand was undoubtedly on the wrong side, he was not wrong.” I assume Menand means that Talleyrand was on the “wrong” side in the sense that, although he played a crucial role in dismantling the monarchy and the Church, his primary concern was to ensure the stable transfer of power whilst staying close to the center of power himself—he had little interest in changing how power was exercised.
Talleyrand was right in that he understood that each revolution contains within itself the seeds of its own eventual destruction, whilst being sufficiently adroit to ensure for himself both a successful career and a long life. By the time Talleyrand died in 1838, at the age of 84, he had accumulated a 30,000 acre property, a 10,000 volume private library, a hotel in Paris, and a huge personal fortune.
My intuition says that the blogging revolution will turn out in much the same way: rather than supplanting mainstream media, weblogs will become an integral part of the Fourth Estate. The ongoing argument that bloggers be recognized as “citizen journalists” and the rush to put advertising on weblogs are only the first signs. Jim Kloss at Whole Wheat Radio put my own thoughts into words in a post titled Tsunami (Thought for the Day):
It feels like the web has 3 tiers now:
- Commercial/Corporate sites where the entire motivation is traditional advertising.
- Everyday people who are now including traditional ads with their content.
- Everyday people who create content with no traditional ads.
#2 is the tsunami. I’m running to higher ground so fast I don’t have time to look back and see how high the water is on the beach. Occasionally I look to the side and see others running too…
I’ve unsubscribed from 98% of the feeds I was following. I’m no longer even attempting to keep up with webgeist. I’ve become super selective. I am choosing ignorance; to bury my head in the sand. No more scanning of audio.weblogs.com or bloglines searches to see the direction things are going. I don’t like the vast majority of what the web stands for anymore, with a few glaring exceptions—the same ones that have been on the radar screen all along.
I want to continue making ‘content’ but I want to do it in a vacuum. I don’t want to debate, I don’t want to justify, I don’t want to predict, I don’t want to answer the critics.
Nor do I. This morning, following a link from Phil Ringnalda’s Three Days Worth post, I found and installed the Hide AdSense script for GreaseMonkey. That’s made browsing a little more tolerable. All the same, I can hardly bear to watch as the Talleyrands corrupt something that was, for a while, magical. I’m tempted to say this, though:
Those who did not blog in the years before the revolution cannot know what the sweetness of blogging was.
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© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour