Walking West

Friday, May 25, 2001

Aha. A solution to the XHMTL image maps and mouseovers validation problem: use both onmouseover/onmouseout and onfocus/onblur, for forwards and backwards compatibility, and the page will validate. Phew.


Neale Talbot has been quoted in an article in The Australian on weblogs:

Neale Talbot, a 24-year-old Sydney writer, describes himself whimsically as a bitter man in search of a publisher for his cynical novel about the IT industry (www.wrongwaygoback.com). "A lot of people say they [blog] for themselves. I say that's rubbish. Blogging is a public medium." Talbot believes most blog for glory.

Since I said 'I'm writing for myself' only a few days ago, it's only fair to defend myself from this brutal attack, particularly since our critic has cowardly hidden behind a broken URL (hah! Wrongwaygoback never existed, Talbot, and neither do you!).

Of course it's a public medium, and there's a small (usually very small) amount of glory involved. But if you 'blog for glory' and only for glory, your work will be the equivalent of the gossip columns of TV Week: superficial trash full of people who are famous only for being famous.

'Blogging for yourself' means writing what you want to write, about what turns you on, about what you feel deeply about. It's just a new spin on the old line about writing what you know. Because if you try and second-guess what your audience wants, you're doomed. You'll end up writing the equivalent of pulp fiction. And it won't work, because you have no reliable way of knowing who most of your audience are. You can't see them out there, except as hits on a stats page; you can only get a sense of who they are when they email you (or 'correspond via blog', if you read each other's work).

And in the long run, audience members come and go. They follow you for a while and then move on. If you're in this for the long run, the only audience member you know you'll have the whole way through is... yourself. So writing for your audience means writing for yourself, and any fleeting glory will pale compared to looking back on your past work and feeling satisfied with what you've written.

If you aren't writing for yourself, and you don't feel satisfied with what you've written, how on earth do you expect anyone else to enjoy it?


Freaky Trigger returns at a new domain, which means that I Hate Music has too. Meanwhile, Stewart takes a break.


Thursday, May 24, 2001

I remembered my PIN number this morning. Two days after I changed them all.


Okay, so the whole affair wasn't big, earth-shattering news. It was news-of-the-day in the weblogging community. That's where the hoax developed, that's where the story broke, that's where it played out, that's where it's being discussed. It's probably as fascinating to non-webloggers as local news from Des Moines is to me—not very. But that's fine. I watch my local news.

The worst result is that it seems to have hastened the collapse of MetaFilter, or at least its T-1 connection. Here's hoping that a solution emerges.

I'll just add that in the last paragraph of yesterday's post (below), I wasn't talking to myself—I don't for one moment think that this whole saga 'invalidates' weblogging. Just slipped into summing-up and preaching mode there; most of that post was rehashed from emails to the temporary Yahoo Groups list. And yes, I know that reading a novel doesn't mean that one really knows its author, any more than meeting them in real life; that requires the 'read everything until your eyes bleed' approach, I'm afraid, and even that would only work with people who've written consistently and copiously about themselves for years. Who'd be a biographer?

We now return you to your regular programming.


Wednesday, May 23, 2001

It's somewhat amusing that while various dramas are going on in my own life this week and this very day (more of which another time), I've spent the past couple of days, on and off, following the saga of someone who never existed. But I've done so because it raises such interesting questions, and just keeps on raising them. (MeFi is down again—a routing problem, apparently—so the links in previous posts won't work right now, but to see what's going on, try this faq, this collection of mirrored material, this list of links, and the continuing MeFi-spawned discussion at Yahoo groups.)

To recap: it appears that a young girl created a teenager called Kaycee, probably to attract boys, and posted webpages about her using photos of a popular local basketballer (without her knowledge). When her mother found out, instead of telling the kid to stop, she co-opted 'Kaycee' as a vehicle for her own poetry, feel-good ideas, and cancer-related grief. And she kept it going for a couple of years, until the inconsistencies in her story became unsustainable and the hoax came to light.

The talking-points raised by this case are just endless, in so many directions—hence the appearance of several hundred posts on the subject at MeFi in the space of a few days. But now that the dust is settling, a couple of things have stayed with me.

First, it's perhaps a little too easy to dismiss all of those who were suckered by the Kaycee weblog as gullible feel-good types. When one reads whole chunks of the archives in short succession, as many of us have been doing these past couple of days, it all comes across as way too cutesy; but I would guess that many otherwise-skeptical people are open to small doses of 'hello birds, hello sky' feel-good stuff once in a while. And that's exactly what a weblog gives you. Small doses, trickled out every day or two. Not all of it in one hit.

Many of those who took 'Kaycee' at face value were big names in the weblogging world—major surfers of the web. Surely they'd know better, you'd think? Well, no: these are people who, in all likelihood, follow dozens of weblogs every day, and have seen hundreds in their time; against that background, Kaycee's short entries about 'bright sunshiny days' were less likely to form a glaring pattern of phoniness. They simply got lost in the static, leaving many readers with only a vague impression of a happy-natured girl fighting a bad disease.

After all, who usually reads over weblog archives in one hit? Try it with your own sometime, if you're a weblogger, and you might be surprised—pleasantly or unpleasantly—by how they come across when taken as a whole, as opposed to bit by daily bit.

It's amazing that this case has been cracked, considering how easily it could have remained a mystery had a few key elements been missing: namely, the daughter-created Kaycee pages with photos full of clues, the surname of the family let slip in a New York Times article linked in Kaycee's weblog, and the P.O. Box address at the bottom of her blog. Without those, the real author would almost certainly never have been uncovered; she could have stomped on people's emotions and sense of reality and gotten away with it completely.

But if she'd left off the P.O. Box, any photos, and any other means of verification, and if she had consistently refused any form of non-email contact, would she have been so readily believed? I doubt it. Her story could well have come unstuck much more quickly.

In a way, the P.O. Box was the perfect cover (for as long as it lasted): people saw an address on the weblog and thought, 'Well, that's a real person.' Even though it's a P.O. Box, most of us would know (or assume) that those can be traced, so perhaps we also assume that its traceability implies honesty—'I'm not making it impossible for you to find me, just not making it too easy so that weirdos don't turn up on my front door.' Most webloggers keep their street addresses off their own weblogs and sites, so the lack of one for 'Kaycee' didn't ring any alarm bells.

The message of the Kaycee saga for me, then, isn't that we can never know if someone is who they say they are online, or that we should never trust them—the first is obvious, and the second is too extreme. It's that we can't really know someone via the web on the basis of small pieces of evidence—even if we're getting a new small piece every day over a long period. It's only when we sit down and read a lot of their writing—everything they've ever written, if we can; read until our eyes bleed—that we can approach that state of 'knowing'.

The trouble is, while writing a small piece every day is a great way of building up a body of work about yourself and your thoughts, reading that way has, it turns out, the potential to leave us with the wrong impressions. Which calls the whole business of journal-style weblogging into question. If readers aren't getting what writers are intending—a full, rounded picture of a real life, or even any proper sense of whether you're real or not—then what's the point of writing this way?

In the about page of my first weblog, I wrote 'if you really want to know more [about me], read [my novel]'—and that's fiction. Now I can see that I was right. Read 60,000 of my words in one hit, whether it's that novel or the archives of these logs, and you'll know whether or not I'm 'real'; but follow this log off-and-on every now and then, and you won't.

I don't think this has invalidated the whole business of weblogging: there are other reasons to follow weblogs, the same way there are reasons to follow newspaper columnists. But this whole idea of 'knowing' someone through their weblog—to the point where you send them get-well presents (dare I mention Amazon wishlists?)—has just been blown out of the water. And that's probably a healthy lesson for all of us.


Tuesday, May 22, 2001

Closure! I need closure on that anec...

Oh yeahhhhh. Now this is some closure.


Gaah. Must thrust that Kaycee nonsense from my mind. Go and read this transcript of a good talk by Richard Stallman last month on copyright.


MetaFilter's server was, not surprisingly, hammered all day by people refreshing the Kaycee threads (guilty, yr'honour), and Matt Haughey had to temporarily replace the index page with a sorry note; but it's back up now, including the latest. Unfortunately, some of the new evidence unearthed in that thread is also being swamped by eager MeFi detectives. It's one of those cases where you want to keep following it all closely before the evidence goes offline, as has already happened with the primary source.

It's an extraordinary case. I haven't felt this compelled to watch an unfolding drama since the day the Gulf War started. I realise it pales in comparison with something like that, but the weblogging world—well, that's my hometown.

It goes so directly to the heart of what so many of us doing: putting our lives online; connecting with others who are doing the same. If it's all shadow theatre, what's the point? I'm not as perturbed as some people clearly are, and it won't stop me doing what I do, but these are fascinating questions to grapple with, and the Kaycee saga brings them all out.

For what it's worth, I was never a fan; go through the archives here and you'll find nary a mention, not even when she carked it. (Whoops. Shouldn't speak ill of the imaginary dead.) I remember reading an entry or two back when the September 2000 MeFi thread announced her 'existence', and just writing it off as Pollyanna stuff. I went back again when another thread announced she had died, and, yes, felt a pang of sympathy, while at the same time thinking how corny it was to be quoting Carpenters lyrics and 'I Can See Clearly Now'.

It did get me thinking— not about how horribly sad it all was, but about what would happen to this site if I died. Nobody knows my passwords. Someone might figure some of them out eventually, if they went through all my papers, but most likely, it would just stay the same until the hosting expired. Someone might find a way to post a short note, but not until weeks or months afterwards. Certainly not the day afterwards. Because—I hope—the day after I die, my family's first thought won't be to race to a computer and update a bloody website. This seems so obvious now, yet I was blithely taken in like the rest (although I never gave it that much thought), instead of having big skeptical alarm bells going off in my head.

So, it's another internet hoax—what else is new?

I guess it's just that someone has made a joke out of a pretty big deal, which is coming to terms with terminal illness. They've chipped away with their chirpiness at our understanding of what it's really like to be sick and to be facing death. They've added one more thread to the blanket of unreality that smothers us every day.

And what does that mean for the rest of us? Those living ordinary lives and facing everyday obstacles? The hoaxer simultaneously diminished her readers' sense of their own worth—'I'm not as brave as Kaycee'—while clouding their sense of what bravery actually is, what it's actually like to be brave—and even of whether 'bravery' is the right word to be using in this context. That's a lot of damage to be undone.

And for those of us trying to write honestly about the important and difficult things in our lives—which, having read a lot of blogs (and having written one) for a long time now, I would say most webloggers do once or twice a year, not once or twice a week—well, it makes those efforts seem pretty trivial, doesn't it? Your life was never as compelling as Kaycee's, and now that she's been exposed as fake no-one will believe you anyway.

Screw it. I'm writing for myself. Believe whatever you want.


Monday, May 21, 2001

My first phildickian realitypanic experience online. aflakete

You have made a friggin Frankenstein. Chosen the parts you wanted out of ill people and created one packaged perky blonde with bottomless optimism. justagirl

If we had never found out, might we not judge those we encounter in real life (just a bit) as not being able to measure up to Kaycee's constant bravery and cheerfulness? thirteen

I'm really bothered by this. I'm bothered someone pulled this bullshit, I'm bothered so many people got hurt by it, I'm bothered that we will probably never know just what happened or who's responsible. And I'm bothered that three people's memories might have been so thoroughly dishonored. solistrato

A summary of the Kaycee saga.


Sunday, May 20, 2001

Fooling around with Photoshop and image maps led me to create this virtual postcard from a weekend trip a couple of months ago (disturbingly like some of those for sale along the Great Ocean Road):

Port Campbell National Park

First Second Third Fourth Fifth


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