Net Culture

Press Play-Record

[ 5 Nov 03] One of the relics I unearthed at my parents' place last month was the instruction booklet for a long-gone tape-deck from the 1970s, complete with surreal illustrations by an unknown Japanese graphic artist. Rather than let them languish, I've borrowed a few for this harmless diversion: The Recording Industry Guide to Home Taping.


[31 Oct 03] Kathleen of Planned Obsolescence on weblog boundaries and knowing where to stop.


No Comment

[15 Oct 03] I know, it's quiet. The combination of all that time away, all that work to keep the site online, and all those days of feeling like a wheezing bag of phlegm has made it hard to get enthusiastic about posting again. And to cap it all off, like so many others I've been dealing with comment spam. After six months of putting out spot-fires in the archives I was more than ready for Jay Allen's plug-in, even before "Lolita" dropped by.

Something about this latest assault was particularly depressing. There I was, contemplating how to write about some pretty personal stuff—the place I grew up in, what it means to me, how it's changing and what those changes mean—subjects I've only touched on here before—and in comes yet another spammer treating my personal space as a data-point for a search engine, a billboard to plaster his or her grinning mug on. It was as if the web was saying, Remember, your personal site isn't yours any more... it's part of a big ol' meme-aggregating horde of weblogs. Even if you think you're the one choosing what to talk about, you're probably wrong; it's just part of the meme-stream. And now even the links are out of your control, twisted into the same crap that fills up your inbox. Remember how a "web log" used to be about server statistics? It still is. Your weblog is a statistic.

I was going to add a third paragraph about my loathing for spammers in all their forms, but I think this is one of those times when I can rely on a deep unspoken understanding between author and reader.


The Victorian Boy's Guide to Blogging

[ 9 Sep 03]

The nicely tended weblog
Should every rise and ebb log
Of its author's ever-changing mood:
His transient obsessions
And Rousseau-like confessions;
And once or twice a link just might intrude.
Choose your subject well,
And then proceed to tell
Everything you know: about, say, Food.
A dozen posts should do—
Then on to pastures new.
It matters not, provided it's not lewd.
(What's that? See here now, sir,
Don't cater to one browser;
It doesn't matter how on earth it's viewed.)

Weblogging for posterity
Demands all our austerity,
Consideration, and a cautious tone.
The gentlemanly blogger
Should never stoop to flog a
Nother whose opinions aren't his own.
Eschew the filthy flame war!
Chin up and play the game, or
Keep your views to you yourself alone.
It really isn't cricket
To wallow in that thicket
Let he who's without sin cast the first stone.
(You boy, up the back—
Stop saying this is whack.
And for heaven's sake switch off that mobile phone.)

In time, I fear, you'll find
The exercise of mind
Is really quite intensive, to be frank.
You may in fact get tired
Of cribbing posts from Wired
And find that you begin to draw a blank.
Just take a welcome rest,
Or get yourself a guest
Weblogger of the finest A-list rank.
Your audience will stay
For your return some day;
For that, your noble guest you'll have to thank.
(No, boy, it's not a waste
Of virtual real estate.
And it most
certainly is not a wank.)

As you blog your lives
You'll find that your archives
Will whisk you back to times happy and sad.
But don't delete a post
Or file from your webhost;
You'll only make your fellow bloggers mad.
The network is the thing,
And dear Google is its King.
That's right, my boys, you have indeed been had.
You may all think it stinks
To be slave to all those links,
But compared to sweeping chimneys, it ain't bad.
(Yes, I know it's quaint
For teachers to say 'ain't'.
Now go and piss off home to Mum and Dad.)


Certain Urges

[ 9 Sep 03]

go ahead
tear it down
rip out the windows
burn it to the ground
watch every pointless pixel
vanish off the maps
wipe all that tired data
and let it all collapse


Critical Mass

[ 8 Sep 03] Ed Champion, as you might already know, recently had a crack at a post about blogs by Tom Coates, drawing the ire of several bystanders who liked the original post—not to mention a slightly baffled reaction from Tom himself, who actually agreed with most of what Ed wrote. Blimey; we haven't seen an outbreak of metablog misunderstanding on this scale since HMCS Stavros fired a few broadsides at the good ship Megnut back in ought-two.

Most recently, Dan Hon has hoved into view with some cycling metaphors, and the whole thing looks set to end, like so many inter-blog disputes, with the critic being roundly dismissed by the defending parties as someone who Just Doesn't Get It. Enter the S.S. Snail bearing the flag of truce. As one of the few people who actually reads Tom and Ed on a daily basis, this is one skirmish I can't sit out.

First, to get this just-doesn't-get-it stuff out of the way: Ed has being playing with this updated personal website caper for as long as any of us (not everyone keeps archives going back to day one); he understands the medium just fine. He used to review weblogs for fun. Ed gets it. Do you get Ed?

Perhaps not. Dan writes:

To say, though, that because blogging isn't journalism it is inherently worthless, to say that because blogging couldn't possibly be raised to the standard to which journalism holds itself—that I find highly lacking in journalism in the first place—displays the kind of knee-jerk mentality that's really going to make you look rather stupid.

Which Tom links to with a so-there-Ed line about "Mr Missing-The-Point-Completely".

Well, who's missing whose? Ed didn't say blogs were "inherently worthless"; he said they had "inherent problems", and were "mostly worthless until the bar is set higher". There's a difference. I would say, and I suspect he'd agree, that some bloggers are already setting their bar higher; they're the "fine blogs" he mentions in that same concluding paragraph.

He isn't insisting that blogs are or should be journalism (at least not in every case; though some of them could be, one imagines, if done well). He's saying that bloggers should be the best writers they can be. Don't just use your bike to pop down to the shops; ride the Tour de France. Set the bar higher.

And Tom more or less agrees; he says as much in his comments on Ed's post, sounding perplexed that he's been singled out. Look at the way he structures his site: a links blog for ephemera; short posts for regular conversational entries; and long posts with titles in the vein of classical essays when he has something more substantial to say (the ones that start with "On..."), which he then highlights in a "best of" box. What's the point of that, if it isn't to say, "This site is more than just a bunch of links knicked from Blogdex and MeFi; there's substance here."

I'd say that what Ed was riffing off in Tom's post (though his primary target appears more to have been Dave Winer than Tom) was the unfortunate flipside of "mass amateurization": more people have gained access to a form of publication, sure, but without the competitive pressure that once made those who were published as good as they were. Writers once really had to strive to get somewhere; half-baked instant-karma entries weren't good enough. Where's the striving in clicking on a BlogThis button? Nowhere—unless we all set the bar higher. Which can, in some ways, make life harder for those who are trying to produce something of substance. There's no external authority: no editor of the New Yorker to convince before you can "make it"; no "barrier of entry" to test yourself against, or chance to relax once you're through; no subs to check over your work. Nobody except you, and a very small audience.

Sure, there's value in what we have—a growing number of people hopping on their bikes to pop down the shops. No question, that's a useful development. But Ed's saying, look, some of you could be Lance Armstrong if only you tried harder. And that's a message we need to hear too, if we want to be more than data points for the link aggregators. The more we strive to do the best work we can, the better the mass of weblogs will be. And the more our worries about the negative connotations of the word "amateur" will become less and less relevant.


Blog Geography

[20 Aug 03] Kathleen, whose questions seem to speak to me a lot at the moment, asks "What is the relationship between the blog, the place it resides, and the space its author currently inhabits?" At the risk of seeming overly obsessed with blogging (two metablogging entries in one month—it must be the heat), I thought I'd answer here rather than in a small comments box.

For me, the blog—or more properly, this whole site—was a way of reinforcing the thread of myself at a precarious time in my life. Because I've moved around so much over the years, and particularly in my first year or so of blogging, I found myself replacing connection with a place with connection with a narrative. This was something I'd experienced before with the letters I wrote to family and friends—a constant stream of them to my parents and close friends, and an annual epistle to my wider circle. But the blog took over that role, at least for those aspects of life I felt I could make public.

That isn't to say that blogging was everything. The places I felt connected to were still there, of course, although geographically remote; and I still had family and friends, and especially my wife, to maintain a sense of continuity. But maintaining the site did help cushion the sense of disjunction you feel when travelling, and especially emigrating. Life became a story with two lead characters and a dazzling array of settings, instead of a story of a single place—home—and the people around you. I've lived both kinds of stories, and the difference between them can be seen in my archives—not least, the break between the first phase and this, the second.

As 2003 rolls on, the narrative aspect of the blog has all but disappeared, as Jane and I settle more into our new home and build up a circle of friends; more of my stories are shared with others, and aren't mine alone to tell. More and more things are happening in my life that don't get mentioned here (although some might be eventually); the blog becomes commentary and observation rather than narrative. In some ways, it's less satisfying to write; I was close to abandoning it completely in May and returning to updating in a more ad hoc way. I was dissatisfied, I now think, with the unravelling of that narrative thread.

For me, building up a set of observations about a single place over years rather than weeks makes for a less satisfying blog, at least on the day-to-day level of reading and writing. The saving grace is that the archives gain more weight and form, especially when individual entries are assigned to categories. In hindsight I can see that I had the perfect tools for each phase of my blogging: Walking West was predominantly a narrative, archived only by date using Blogger; when I needed categories and entry titles to build up a collection of stand-alone observations, there was Movable Type.

So for me there's been a close connection between blog and geography (reinforced, you'll notice, by the imagery in every one of my blog designs). As for "the place it resides", it's only an issue when I have to deal with ISPs and worry about bushfires. At other times I like to think of it as being everywhere and nowhere—a place in itself, not itself in a place.



[15 Aug 03] As usual, behind-the-scenes activity is to blame for this snailian silence. I seem to store up more and more to say here, only to watch it all drain out the overflow hole, leaving me with a stagnant pool of content and a grimy ring around the sink.

And it's not always because I'm too busy to write, although at the moment I usually am. Kathleen wrote last week on the hesitance to blog borne of academic rewriting habits, and it's a quandary with which I'm increasingly familiar. Despite my resolve of last month, I've yet to come up with the goods, even though they're lurking in the store-room out the back. The technical problems of combining the free flow of thought with the permanence of publication may have been solved by the weblog format, but conceptual and structural problems remain, particularly when it comes to questions of revising one's work in public. I think I've come up with a way to do it, but—paradoxically—feel I have to get the details right before launching anything. I'm close, though... as long as I can get some unrelated work finished over the next couple of weeks.

Of course, it's always when I'm busiest that I end up sifting over old writing, partly as a way of recapturing ideas. Which probably explains why I did some grepping through a huge pile of old MeFi posts and... uh... calculated how many words I've posted there over the past three years oh okay I was curious and the word count on BBEdit was so tempting...

72,624, as of two days ago; nearly 40,000 of those last year alone. And I don't consider myself a prolific poster: most of those represent intense bursts of words in a few threads; relatively few are throwaway one-liners.

As part of that sifting, I ended up making something I'd meant to for a while, which was an index of asides as a place to bring it all back home. (There's a 2002 equivalent now, too.) Some of its new pages contain material that was never linked from here, even when in hindsight they would have made perfectly good posts. Which brings me back to this whole question of blogging reticence.

It's not just an academic urge to rewrite until perfect that slows down the flow of a weblog; it's an awareness of one's audience—of the fact that there is now an audience—and the consequent attempt to write for that audience. Perhaps studying certain academic fields—like English, or Cultural Studies, or even Political Science—heightens your awareness of the impact words can have, and makes you overly cautious. Or maybe it's universal; the fear of your sister reading your diary. Writing your entire self onto the page or the screen carries the risk that someone won't like it.

Yeah, but that's nothing new, and that's not it... (thinking to myself on a Friday afternoon with five minutes left to finish this post before I have to be somewhere else). It's just a question of tone... of trying to find the tone that gives an impression of the whole, of your complete life, of all its aspects... and that's impossible, isn't it. So why not re-use material you wrote elsewhere... someone might already have seen it, but most won't, so why hold back?

You can always spot my first-draft posts by the number of ellipses.


[12 Aug 03] Sometimes the stories satirize themselves:

America Online is asking AOL Time Warner to drop "AOL" from its name, ... [which] has been tarnished as the Securities and Exchange Commission investigates numerous accounting issues at the company, mainly at the AOL division. ... Miller's rationale for seeking the change is that he is concerned that negative publicity regarding the parent company is often associated with the America Online division.



[ 7 Aug 03] MeFi has had a series of threads discussing copyright and peer-to-peer lately, which are starting to add up to a pretty good (albeit informal) coverage of the issues involved: music label price-fixing; the MPAA's public service campaign; the future of the Internet; killing the music. The last is the longest, and the only one I took much part in, towards the end. [Edited version of my comments mirrored here.]

What the issues lack in excitement, they make up for in their importance. If only most people actually cared...



[31 Jul 03] Coudal threw out the ball, I batted it back, and before long it turned into the most fun we've had on MetaFilter in ages. I'd already seen BlogStop, the group weblog where each entry takes the last word of the previous one as its acronym, but the MeFi thread easily surpasses it, because it reads more easily as a thread than as a series of reverse-chronological blog posts, and there's so many of us playing you have to be blindingly fast to keep up. I was glad, too, that people ran with the early attempts to make each post part of a proper meta-conversation about the act of posting, the nature of MetaFilter, and so on; far more fun (and challenging) than just plonking down nonsense words.

The thread's getting hard to follow, though, because too many players can't resist adding their entries even though someone else got in first—or they miss them on preview—leading to confusion about which last word is currently 'on'. But I can understand the impulse to post and be damned; I've ended up with a long list of entries I sadly had to abandon:

So, only piddling, halting issuances should the readers yield? ¶ Help, every latest issuance cancels others! Prefer to emit really slowly. ¶ Right, each cancels (usually rapidly) something in one's noodle. ¶ Not each addition terminates lightly, yes? ¶ Yet our urbane riffs shine ever longer, friend. ¶ No other time in one's notebook, sorry. ¶ Sir, every questing user easily notes complete entries. ¶ Slowly, painfully, each entry disintegrates. ¶ Kids, no other words lend erudition; don't go entering a boring long yarn. ¶ Sure, tiring it might usually look; actually, the entries dominate. ¶ Even Xhosa phrases or similar I'd try, if only notified. ¶ Do all you losers instill gags horribly, then? ¶ Reloading, I guess, hammers the easily overheated, underappreciated server lots, yes?

That last one seems particularly apt. If I get another shot at 'righteously', it's going in!


Search Me

[23 Jul 03] Matt Haughey has been wondering whether the Google critics have a point about the impact of weblogs on the web's favourite search engine, noting the "types of things a search engine like Google likes to see":

  • frequent updates to webpages
  • many incoming links
  • meaningful page titles
  • important text wrapped in header elements
  • meaningful page filenames

Matt suggests that "it's a total accident that blogs do all of the above well". I'm not so sure. We've had years of experts telling us what makes a good website: update regularly, give pages meaningful titles, use header tags to give semantically meaningful mark-up. Just because webloggers and other personal site builders have taken those lessons on-board better than many others, does that make those lessons wrong?

It may be that "something isn't right in Googleville", but surely the problem should be solved by the rest of the web lifting its game, not by crippling Google's ability to detect good web practice. Maybe there's scope for a short-term tweak of Google's algorithms until the world catches up; but maybe that would skew the playing field towards something none of us would consider best-practice.

[Update: Matt tells me he meant that for most bloggers Google attractiveness is a side-benefit of following those criteria, not the main aim.]



[20 Jul 03]

Pirates of the Internet


Academic Circles

[17 Jul 03] You may remember my giving a paper in Vienna last year at a Pacific studies conference (assuming you've been reading that long, and have a photographic memory for things people mention in passing). At that stage it was basically a pile of notes and a Powerpoint slideshow, but over subsequent months of tinkering I reformatted it for the web. I had plans to turn it into a traditional journal paper, but given the nature of it (lots of screenshots and graphs) couldn't figure out how to surmount the difficulties of turning out a print version; so I procrastinated.

There was another reason. For years now I've been thinking about issues of online copyright and its academic implications. It's a big part of my work at the moment. And the more you look at the subject, the more stark the situation appears. Traditionally, academics sought to publish their work in books or respected journals, as that was the best way of getting it out to an audience of their peers. Nowadays there's an alternative—and you're soaking in it. Major journal publishers, meanwhile, are dealing with the challenge of the web by locking up as much intellectual property as they can, and keeping tight controls on access to electronic versions of texts. In effect, they're renting the work back to the very people who gave it to them.

Yes, gave. To get published in most academic journals, you must assign your copyright to the journal. Once you do, you have no control over what's done with it. If they choose to make it available only to those whose institutions pay an extortionate subscription, there's nothing you can do about it. Your work may be online, but there's no point linking to it, because most people can't see it.

This is something I find increasingly and deeply troubling.

There are all sorts of issues involved, which I'm trying to work through behind the scenes at this very moment. But leaving aside the wider issues, this has a particular resonance for me because of the areas I've worked in over the years.

One, now sadly receding into the past, is the Pacific. When I was a grad student working on Pacific politics, I hoped that my work would be part of a conversation between islanders and non-islanders, not some cloistered effort that would only ever be read by visitors to the ANU library. Realising that dream meant getting the work to as wide an audience as possible—and putting it on the web is a way of doing that. While net access in the islands may not be great, at least it's available in some places, whereas access to hundred dollar books from OUP and expensive paper or electronic journal subscriptions is next to nil.

The other, obviously, is the web itself. I've worked in this field now for five years. My current job is specifically about its educational implications. I want to see it used to best advantage by academics, not just in teaching, but in the part of their work that universities value the most: research. Research, and the dissemination of research.

I want to see that happen, yet in my own day-to-day practice have been holding back, in case I have to publish in journals which won't consider submissions that have already appeared online (most of which don't publish freely to the web either). So: I can't put my work online before print publication, when it has the highest chance of appearing topical and fresh and sparking interesting discussions with my peers; and I can't put it online after print publication, because someone else will own the copyright and want to rent it back to my university library; so in effect, I can't put online academic work which is all about working as an academic online in order to discuss its implications online with fellow academics.

This is madness.

The main reason to acquiesce to this madness is, unfortunately, fairly compelling: traditional forms of print publication are the main basis on which research performance is judged, which in turn determines one's prospects for academic appointment/renewal of contract/promotion/tenure/delete where applicable.

Different people will deal with this quandary in different ways, I guess. But if enough people deal with it by rejecting it, the quandary will go away. Traditions only persist if enough people actively believe in them and maintain them. They change when people start behaving differently.

That doesn't help much if your university still does things the old-fashioned way and you're facing the end of your contract—and mine's only a year off. But maybe that's what's making me feel as if bold action is needed. I don't actually believe there is any academic job security; the '50s and '60s are gone. Nowadays academia is a carrot-and-stick game where management and government have eaten the carrot. Even if you have tenure your situation can become untenable.

But I digress.

Here, then, is my new personal policy. I no longer care about journals that automatically reject material which has already appeared in some form online. I no longer care about journals that demand copyright in exchange for the privilege of publication on paper and/or a pay-per-view website. I will no longer publish my research anywhere that won't allow me to republish it here—unless the bargain is far, far more compelling than giving away all rights in exchange for a one-line reference on my CV. The public purse is paying for this work, and I want the public to be able to see it.

So that's the deal. I have a ton of ideas in my head, and a ton of unpublished stuff on the hard disk, and it's all coming soon to a web page near you.

After that rousing manifesto, its first fruits might seem a little disappointing; but even if you're not a Pacific anthropologist (neither am I, but I was speaking to a room full of them) you might find something in it. The paper is Linking the Islands: Pacific Implications of the Web, and while the first section deals with the development of websites about and within the Pacific (mostly only of interest to Pacific scholars), a later section comparing levels of net access in the Pacific and the West gives some indication of the digital divide between rich and poor nations (as opposed to rich and poor within the same nation, which is what you usually hear about). I thought about expanding that survey to a greater number of countries, and now it could use updating with 2002 figures, but—well, other things got in the way. Maybe I'll be more tempted to, now that it's out there. Maybe I'll even turn out that print version after all, and find a suitable home for it. And maybe—one day—it won't matter if I don't.

There's something about blogs in there, too. Yeah, yeah, I know.

Thanks to Kathleen for inspiring me to think about what the hell I'm doing by posting her own what-the-hell-am-I-doing thoughts over recent weeks. Also, this paper by John Willinsky helped me feel I wasn't alone in all this—recommended further reading.


Feeding Time

[15 Jul 03] When I saw Tom Coates's latest post my first thought was 'Tom, don't feed the trolls', but Simon/hitherto's response is a useful outcome of this tiny spatlet: reasonable points, soberly made. But while I have some sympathy for his position (although protesting against new words all too often appears Daily Telegraph-ish), there is a useful outcome of the blog movement, too.

Yes, the concept goes back to the beginning of the Web; the last chapter of Tim Berners-Lee's Weaving the Web (1999) puts that beyond any doubt. It's really just a new word to describe what he wanted the Web to be all along: a place where anybody could publish their ideas and findings as they occurred, allowing all sorts of new linkages to form. But in the second half of the nineties, that vision was so overwhelmed by the rise of commercial brochure sites that the world needed reminding that the Web isn't just a variant on traditional publishing with the same old constraints and gatekeepers. Sometimes it takes new words and new descriptions to focus our attention on what's already there.

Hitherto said, in his first essay on the subject, 'Blogs are fundamentally no different to the personal websites that have been made so easy by the likes of Geocities since 1996 or so.' Maybe so, but how many of those Geocities sites grew beyond a few pages built in a first flush of activity? A minority, I'd bet. When people are thinking in terms of 'building a site', the temptation is to tackle it like any other one-off project: in, build it, done, out (all those animated gifs of men-at-work signs). But when the tools they use and the rhetoric of the form stress the open-endedness of what they're doing, the constant changingness of it, they'll approach it in a different spirit. True, they still might not stick at it, but they'll have engaged more with one of the major strengths (and weaknesses) of the Web—its transience—than they would have if they'd bunged up a picture of their cat and left it at that.

Hitherto clearly has an appreciation for the finer points of rhetoric and the subtle cut and thrust of civilised debate (to wit: 'DO SOMETHING THAT'S ACTUALLY OF WORTH YOU STUPID, POINTLESS, SELF-IMPORTANT, DULL, TEDIOUS, MINDLESS *FUCKS*'). Surprising, then, that he misses the rhetorical significance of all this. Any 'new' Web 'movement' that wakes up the media and (just perhaps) the masses to the potential of all those PCs and all those internet connections and all those 10MB accounts of free webspace given out with all those net connections and all those ideas and observations in all those people's heads in all those countries, cities, homes and offices is a good thing in my book.

These stupid, pointless, self-important, dull, tedious, mindless fucks have collectively built a rhetorical, technological and cultural edifice without which a great many 'things of worth' would not have been made. And if you haven't noticed what those are yet, you're too busy bristling at a trivial neologism to pay attention.


Fossil Footprints

[14 Jul 03] As part of a burst of bibliography-building, I've been cleaning out hundreds of k worth of bookmarks, sifting through folders labelled 'IT Issues' and 'Web Development' last organised in 1999 or 2000 and dumped into ever since. It's a salutory experience, seeing all those links from pre-crash days bring up 404s, site-not-founds, and domain-poacher portals. Even whole operating systems have disappeared off the face of the Web. (I never got further than booting into Be on a spare Mac in my tech support days, seeing I had no actual reason to use it, but it was fun to do; like stopping over in an exotic airport and staring out the window at another country.)

It's annoying to notice how many once-free newspaper and magazine articles are now locked up in pay-per-view archives; sure, as if I'll pay five bucks to see three paras of rehashed Reuters copy. Sadly, this trend is only getting worse.

But it's fascinating to see what has the best record of longevity amongst these tech-oriented pages: weblog archives. The pages often remain, or are easily relocated in the archives thanks to file-naming conventions like '2000_08_01.html'; and the text is still there in its original context, if not its original design.

With all the derision that's been directed at webloggers by the noisier Slashdotters and their ilk, it's amusing to think that weblog commentary on the changing tech scene is more durable than the 'official' version. It could one day be easier to learn what the Be OS was like from the archives of a Be-using blogger than to track down a working copy of the OS.

With IP-hoarding companies locking up more and more of our collective culture and then losing the key (or the master tapes, or VC funding, or market share), our digital descendants may well end up like today's historians and biographers: filling the gaps in the record from the commentaries and dead links left on thousands of personal websites.


[10 Jun 03] de·mos n. 1. The common people; the populace. 2. The people or commons of an ancient Greek state, esp. of a democratic state, such as Athens. 3. The entire population of MetaTalk on a slow Tuesday.


ART. art. ART. art. ART. (Not Really. But Valuable.)

[16 Apr 03] A fascinating discussion. One that fills me with the urge to start a new blog in which every entry is filed under the category 'Creative Expression' and outlines the True and Real events of my every waking moment, as told from the viewpoint of Harvey the imaginary cat.

I don't really mean that; I'm being insincere.

Everything written below is a lie.

analys is
tear apart
ideas of art

Can you see the real mememememememememememe.


In Darkest Edinburgh

[13 Apr 03] As I was hinting to a friend over email the other day, you can get a bit apprehensive meeting people in the flesh who you've only known over the internet. You can't help wondering whether your judgement was totally wrong and they'll spend the whole time talking about port-scanning and cracking jokes in Klingon, even if everything they've said online suggests the opposite. And then you worry about sounding a bit Klingon yourself.

It's weird, because my first meeting of this kind turned out entirely for the best, when the context should clearly have meant otherwise: we knew each other through the mike oldfield mailing list, and some fans of mike oldfield have a well-earned reputation for being insufferable geeks: three-foot home-made sculptures of tubular bells in their bedroom, that sort of thing. And we met up at an Apple conference, for crying out loud. "I am not a stereotype!" I wanted to yell. "I can't tell my SCSI from my EIDE! I like going to art galleries!"

Neither of us even knew what the other looked like, except that we both had red hair. I was imagining some (insufferably?) geeky looking redhead like me. Not a burly bloke with a beard who would've fit right in with Leif Eriksson and crew. "Uh... Paul?" I ventured; "Rory!" he cried, "how are ya." And we've been great mates ever since.

(Paul's Viking appearance has stood him in good stead. He's defused more than one ugly situation in a dark alley by puffing up his chest under his M.U.A. sweater; and in recent years has developed a sideline of TV work as 'trucker number two' and the like. You may know him from the second row in the courtroom scenes in Sea Change...)

Not every meeting with internet people is cause for apprehension, though. If you're meeting them at random at an event of some kind, that's fine. If you only know them a little, that's fine too; you might even want to get to know them better, online or off, after you meet. But when you've known each other for years online, emailed each other, left comments on each other's sites, all of that, there's a bit more at stake. You don't want to be let down, or be a let-down. Thank God Stanley and Livingstone didn't have weblogs.

Fortunately, my friend felt the same, and the subject of port-scanning didn't come up once.



[14 Mar 03] Tom of, who's been metablogging like crazy lately, has just revisited the subject of trackbacks; which, seeing that I finally got around to changing my trackback system to mimic his a couple of days ago (trackbacks embedded at the end of posts, though not relying solely on autodiscovery as he recommends), got me (re-)thinking.

I explained trackbacks a while ago (in the comments on this post) as an automated version of emailing someone to let them know you'd posted a comment on an entry of theirs, and having them insert an 'update' link at the end of said entry to say that you'd commented on it. Which makes me wonder what the point of having it is at all.

As an automated system, it's open to the sort of advertising abuse Tom points out (although the blog owner can always delete such pings if he or she wishes). But worse, it gives the appearance of conversation when actually there is none. If a blog receives a stack of pings, it looks as if its author is engaged in conversation when actually his or her blog is just being used as a bulletin board. If the author was truly engaged in the discussion, he or she would be talking back in separate posts or comments on the blog, and would be dropping links to other blogs into those as a matter of course.

Automating this process may relieve the owner of the pinged blog of any sense of obligation to hold up their side of the conversation. If they don't want to hold up their side of the conversation, that's fine, but to give the appearance that they are by hosting a bunch of trackback links is a little misleading. And if they do go further than hosting a trackback link by actually commenting on it, well, isn't that the sort of manual linking-back that trackback is supposed to replace?

I can see trackback making sense in group blogs like MeFi where there's no single author being engaged in conversation. I can even see it making sense in high-profile single-author blogs where a community grows up around the blog whose members want to talk among themselves with or without the author's involvement (although surely comments boxes are sufficient for that; you can link to your blog posts in a comment if necessary). But it makes no sense as a substitute for actively taking part in inter-blog conversation.

The only argument for it might be that a trackback ping is more discreet than a direct email, a cough behind the hand rather than an outright request for recognition and response; yet that seems ridiculous. Those on the receiving end of a ping know that it was deliberately sent by another human being seeking their attention (or free publicity). How is that more discreet than a one-line email saying "Hi, I liked your post on XYZ, you might like to read my response here"?

So, after tweaking the trackback system here two days ago, today I'm pulling the whole thing out.


[21 Feb 03] One of the best MeFi-related commentaries I've ever read, on the unfolding forwarded-email saga. (Via MetaTalk, where I added this.)


[18 Feb 03] Shelley Powers at Burningbird has taken blog comment management to the next level. Her new PHP-driven links page allows readers to see every comment associated with a particular URL that has been posted to her site. A brilliant feature for weblog neighbourhoods, which if widely implemented could cut down on the fragmenting effect of scattering our comments far and wide.


The Machine That Goes Ping

[11 Feb 03] Despite the concerns raised by Tom Coates and his readers, I might implement SimpleComments here to merge trackback pings into the comments box, if only because the unloved 'tb' link at the end of these posts annoyeth me (and inadvertently reminds me of George Orwell's sad fate). We'll see.


Insert Insight Here

[ 6 Feb 03] A piece in the Guardian [via Exploding Fist] argues that the best blogs are written with conversation in mind:

Weblogs can approach the quality and texture of real conversations. Great bloggers leave lots of gaps and readers rush to fill them, producing insight in the synthesis of the original words and the reader's response. The whole really is greater than the sum of the parts.

You don't say?


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