Friday, October 20, 2006

some kind of bloggerful

This post was written for the online journal Reconstruction as part of an issue on blogging.



Blogging in Theory and Practice

*written with Big Star blasting on the stereo and a poster of Heart on the wall. The poster is there for verisimilitude.*


I.
Around Christmas of 1993 my roommate brought home a state-of-the-art computer, an IBM-compatible 386 PC with a 66 Mhz processor and 256 megabytes of RAM. I don't recall any other stats, which is good, because surely it would destroy my mind to summon up all the details of that machine at once. Best of all, though, we had ourselves an internal modem and a dial-up internet connection. It may not have been much, but we could play Doom with our friends. We could talk with pale malformed weirdos on our local electronic bulletin board. And we could surf the web.

My favourite web site at the time was called Uroulette. It was an image of a roulette wheel that would, when clicked on, spit you out onto a random spot on the web. The sense of discovery was intoxicating at first, even if there wasn't a whole lot to see. An academic paper on rice-growing here, a scanned-in passport photo of some bearded guy there, and pages that were nothing but links to academic papers on rice-growing. We spent so much time roaming around the internet that we developed a game, which we would have called Circling the Web if we'd been the naming sort. The rules were simple: start at a random spot and head out, going link to link, constantly moving forward, until we found ourselves back at the site where we'd started. We were always surprised how short the journeys were. The web was tiny at the time, with all the familiar forms present but embryonic, curled up in watery cyberslumber.

That game would get boring incredibly quickly if played today. The web was smaller and sparser in 1994, but it was exciting to follow a hyperlink to another web page, even if it was just a resume for some computer science nerd, or a page of half-baked ideas in an ugly lemon-yellow Times New Roman centred on a background of blinking stars. It was still really cool. Even Netscape 2.0 was cool. A friend of ours had his very own webpage called "Chaos Vortex," which featured a few links to pages about computers and gaming. It was ugly and self-important and the bright red background was an abuse of HTML, but it still rocked our casbahs. It was also the first weblog I'd ever seen, a proto-blog, years before the term was coined, nearly a decade before I started one of my own.


II.
My first weblog, a mostly abandoned mine tunnel bored into cyberspace, was started in 2003 primarly as a way of relieving the pressure and boredom of my job. I worked at an independent production company as a researcher for a show on 20th century disasters, which meant that I had to phone rescuers, witnesses, survivors, and the families of the dead. If you enjoy calling people up cold and coaxing out the worst memories of their lives on a random Wednesday afternoon, then you're - well, you're just like me.

Against this daily flood of pain, loss, remorse and recrimination, I found myself needing more and more to build something to stanch or divert what I was experiencing, a counterstructure, a wall of good old goofiness. I started writing about the crappy twenty-four hour restaurant up the block from my office. My entries were usually written at work, in little bursts between phone calls. I wrote down conversations with my wife, wrote about the changing weather, gathered trivia from everywhere. I may have intended to build a wall, but it was shaping up more like a tower of trash. Like a great number of weblog authors, I had started a mental recycling project.


III.
It is my firm belief that blogs, like books of poetry or really good jokes, are useless. I mean that in the best sense of the word. Weblogs may hone your writing and debating skills. Some blogs advertise products and make money for their authors, some provide information for professionals, and it's said that the entirety of Web 2.0 is blog-based. I suppose that weblogs in the aggregate recapitulate the basic architecture of the web - small pieces loosely joined - and are therefore a useful object of thought and experiment, but I think of blogs chiefly as a literary form, a kind of refined speech that falls somewhere between the private and the published. Anyone who's posted a conversation or an anecdote on a blog knows how easy it is to reshape facts on the fly and produce a piece of instant lit.*

In fact, if weblogs have done anything, they've provided an astonishing volume of new literature, much of it an indistinguishable blend of memoir and fiction (It's no surprise that established journalists have been suspicious of weblogs - how can you compete with the speed and immediacy of a blog posting? How do you combat the inspired bullshit of bloggers?). Success in literary blogging is still measured by the book deal, but there are other markers of success, such as Heather Armstrong's ability to support her family via blogging.

At this point I'm sure someone is going to think, "Sure Mr. Node, but have you noticed how much of this 'new literature' is total crap? Goths of Livejournal, goths of Xanga, spinning out fantasies of self-absorption and adolescent triumph?" To which I say, Yup. Almost all of it is crap. The elements of blogging, as far as I'm concerned, are already junk. Our lives, our entire world, form a heap of trivia and disaster. To some degree we're stuck in the tragic position of Klee's "Angelus Novus", unable to reach back and mend the catastrophe of history. What we do have is memory and language, which, along with a high-speed connection, is all you need to reshape it, hold it up for your readers, plunge your hand in and rip out the joke. It fixes nothing, changes nothing: a completely useless task. But I can't stop doing it.


*By way of example, I really am listening to Big Star as I write this. But the poster of Heart exists only in my imagination.

10 comments:

bigfoot said...

I really really really enjoyed this article. Really.

palinode said...

Thanks, bigfoot.

I never thought I'd have cause to use that phrase.

Ordinary Janet said...

I prefer to think of blogging as a whole as a form of the collective human history. Think what a mine of information anthropologists 2,000 years from now will have on how we lived and thought in the early 21st century, and how hard it will be for them to distinguish fact from fiction. (wasn't there a story by Macaulay on the discovery in the future of a toilet seat and what they thought it was used for?) That is, if the information is still around and they have some means of reading it.

Anonymous said...

Hostes alienigeni me abduxerunt. Qui annus est?

NoShowMo said...

What great insight. I really enjoyed (and relate to) your perspective.

re: ordinary janet -- I think it will be great information for 2,000 years from now, but I'm also fascinated by what people will think of us even 20 years from now. Do we think blogging (the concept, obviously not the techology) is a permanent part of the culture for this century? Or will people get tired of reading and writing it?

palinode said...

Anonymous: Since I am a master of Latin, I can tell that you're saying: hostile foreigners abduct me. How old am I?

Good question. You are seven.

palinode said...

One afternoon I heard Puff Daddy's tribute to Tupac, that Police ripoff that uses the entire instrumental track from "I'll Be Watching You". Centuries from now, who will know the original from the copy? Or as Yeats said, how can we know the dancer from the dance?

Well, that last one is pretty easy, actually.

dorothy said...

Beautifully written, so perhaps not useless.

Eva said...

Your response to Anonymous was the funniest thing I've read on the on-line so far.

palinode said...

I meant it all in fun. And to prove that I am a bona fide Latin master.