CJ Eller

Thinking about tools for thinking about thinking

This post is part of Blogging Futures, a collaborative self-reflexive interblog conversation about the future of blogging. Feel free to join the conversation!

To make conversations more weblike than linear, more of a garden and less of a stream, to create “a broader web of related ideas”.

These sentiments from Chris Aldrich resonate with me. But how do we achieve this? Playing around with options to see what works best. Jared's sentiment hits the nail on the head here:

I enjoy tinkering with this site as much as I enjoy writing on it (if not more). A big part of the fun of blogging is hacking, at least for me. I'm definitely not suggesting that everyone needs to enjoy this, but talking about the technical sides of blogs is not only incredibly fun, but it's empowering. It makes how we make blogs more accessible and personal.

The fact that there is no “silver bullet” is the exciting part. All options are in play. What's more, we can combine them together to create possibilities that are more interesting than any single solution alone (Chris' suggestion of merging blogchains with webmentions comes to mind). A multiplicity of solutions can make blogs more accessible and personal for everyone involved.

If anything, this blogchain has reminded me about the power of tinkering when it comes to the web.

  • Techno-social tinkerers
  • Blogpunk tinkerers
  • Sociotechnical tinkerers
  • Blogging megastructure tinkerers
  • Metacognitive paradigm tinkerers
  • New blogging tinkerers

We need more of them, from all walks of life and of all technical backgrounds. Writing on the web is a more interesting place because of them. And if you're reading this, you are one of them.

So thank you. Keep on tinkering.

When I write a letter to my friend, I am sending it to her.

Now let's add a twist. I will write a letter and leave it unaddressed. The mailman I give it to doesn't mind this. In fact, unaddressed letters are his specialty. He takes my letter and roams about, destination unknown.

On his travels, a stranger sees the mailman, takes my letter from him, reads it, and starts writing a response. The letter and the response go to the mailman. He then delivers that response back to me. It turns out I can do the same with any unaddressed letter the mailman carries. So a game takes place, swapping and responding to unaddressed letters, a game that goes on indefinitely.

I think of that game as I interact on the web, a swirling collection of addressed and unaddressed letters in transit. Which unaddressed letters will I respond to? Who knows what response will turn into a series of addressed letters.

Part of the Blogging Futures course. Feel free to contribute to the conversation!

Infrastructure makes me think of not specific application but of broad application. How can we foster a multiplicity of blogging infrastructures?

Because there seems to be an understanding in this conversation that no single solution will solve our problems. Constant experimentation of writing possibilities is needed. For that to happen, we need places where that kind of activity can happen – where people can join in blogchains, where people can engage in anonymous publication as mentioned in the previous post, where people can get lost in labyrinths, where people can be a part of a new kind of republic of letters.

This is where I think the communities formed around FNS, Antilibraries, and Ribbon Farm come in. Through reading and participating in them I find myself thinking of alternative ways of how to thinking about and use the web. They give me newer paradigms from which to operate.

So perhaps I am contemplating what kind of communal infrastructure can allow us to better test out writing infrastructures.

Time and accident are committing daily havoc on the originals deposited in our public offices; the late war has done the work of centuries in this business; the lost cannot be recovered; but let us save what remains; not by vaults and locks, which fence them from the public eye and use in consigning them to the waste of time, but by such a multiplication of Copies as shall place them beyond the each of accident.

— Thomas Jefferson to Ebenezer Hazard, 18 February 1791

This comes as no surprise from the man who deemed the polygraph, a copying machine, as “the finest invention” of his age. The best defense is a good offense. Jefferson preferred proliferation over protection of an original source.

And now we have this networked polygraph called the web. This post cannot only be shared but dispersed across the web, mirrored as a static HTML site or as a Markdown file. I have many ways by which I can protect my writing from “time and accident.”

But the velocity of words have gotten to a point where “time and accident” reenter in ways unforeseen by Jefferson or his contemporaries. “Time and accident” now amounts to writing so much that what you are searching for is lost in the tonnage you've amassed on the web. All of the polygraphic tendencies in the world cannot help when we fall under the weight of our own words. It only makes it worse – just another straw on the camel's back.

It makes me wonder if the approach to proliferation has to be reconsidered. Do we need to scale back? Focus on a smaller oeuvre that we develop over time? Maybe a post that consistently grows into a longer essay?

Or do we need to throw caution to the wind and write, focusing on developing ideas that branch out and proliferate to others who take it and run wild? Do we need a url on an idea for it to inform our worldview?

I think this view's summation is best expressed in a passage from Julian Dibbell's “Portrait of a Blogger as a Young Man”:

Accept that the Web ultimately overwhelms all attempts to order it, as for now it seems we must, and you accept that the delicate thread of a personal point of view is often as not your most reliable guide through the chaos. The brittle logic of the hierarchical index has its indispensable uses, of course, as has the crude brute strength of the search engine. But when their limits are reached (and they always are), only the discriminating force of sensibility will do – and the more richly expressed the sensibility, the better.

Paraphrases always leave the interesting bits out. Take this popular quote attributed to Paul Valéry:

A poem is never finished; it is only abandoned.

I learned that it is actually a paraphrase of Valéry from W.H. Auden. A great soundbite but far from the actual quote. Here is the full, translated passage from an essay titled “Recollection”:

A work is never completed except by some accident such as weariness, satisfaction, the need to deliver, or death: for, in relation to who or what is making it, it can only be one stage in a series of inner transformations.

New meaty meanings come out of this. It is odd to think of completion like slipping on a banana peel, but Valéry doesn't see completion as the point. A poem does not want to stop transforming. When a poet leaves a work behind, she is nipping the bud of a generative process. The poet, however, would just call it meeting a deadline. The poem is published and she moves on.

But the history literature is full of people who tended to one work over time. Two of my favorite examples are Walt Whitman with Leaves of Grass and Michel de Montaigne's Essais. Both works went through many editions – the first looking nothing like the final. And both tended their respective works until a universal accident befell them – their death.

So I then think of the web, where words (and bits) want to propagate and spread. Sure, we write and publish words at a constant rate, but how often do we go back and facilitate the stages of a post's inner transformation?

Perhaps that is not the right way to think about it. We are working on a different scale than Valéry and his contemporaries were. The web can give rise to prodigious output that rivals writers of past centuries. How can we keep up with every post we write? It would turn into spinning 100+ plates. There is an enormity to our output that even the most attentive would struggle with.

So what do we do? We could look at inner transformation on a macro level rather than a micro level – from the inner transformation of a post to the inner transformation of broader themes. Tend to the connective tissue that keeps our posts together. Maybe one has to recognize certain posts that require more upkeep because they are corner stones, upholding the foundation of the ideas behind your writing.

The web necessitates an updated approach to what “inner stages of transformation” means for writing, especially for blogs as such a work that Valéry wrote about.

Part of the Blogging Futures course blogchain. Feel free to join the conversation!

I want to pull on a thread in this discussion. In his first post, Jared emphasizes a phrase I keep coming back to from Darius Kazemi – Social tools for social problems:

We have a pretty powerful base set of tools for creating relationships, email, links, and to a certain extent social networks like Twitter. What's missing is a mental framework for experimenting with social structures the way we experiment with content, and a set of models for thinking about creating doorways.

Brendan echoes this sentiment by referring to the mental framework that exists above the tangible frameworks that make up the web:

But we can also identify blogging by something less tangible, more of a stance or ethos for written exploration. I tend to think of blogging as “thinking out loud”, a combination of personal essay, journaling, brainstorming and public memo [...] [F]ramed this way, by shared ethos, I think blogging can manifest in a many different shapes than we’re used to, and open up some potent possibilities for collaboration and dialogue.

The last sentiment hits on an interesting premise – shared ethos, different possibilities. It reminds me of a musical genre like Punk. Therein are divergent sounds – the free jazz saxophone in The Stooges, the reggae influence on Bad Brains, and the melting pot sound of The Clash. And yet for all their sonic differences, these bands fall under punk. Why? Because punk is more than a checklist of sounds – it's a shared ethos between musician and listener alike.

This is where a genre like punk can be so empowering. It is built upon an ethos, not on virtuosic skill or having the right equipment. Punk embraces the amateur spirit of music, creating possibilities for people through a DIY attitude.

Again I go back to what Jared wrote:

What's missing is a mental framework for experimenting with social structures the way we experiment with content [...]

Having a useful mental framework should, like punk, enable everyone and anyone to create what Tom calls “Minimum Viable Structures” – ways that we can experiment with blogging infrastructure. It does not have to be technical. It does not have to be fully functional. It can be messy. The point is that we can iterate on it over time, using our mental framework as an inner compass to slowly navigate more towards true north.

I wonder how this ethos can be more fully developed. Tom Critchlow's blogpunk seems like a promising lens from which to build upon.

Part of the Blogging Futures course blogchain. Feel free to participate!

The garden metaphor is a compelling vision for what a blog can be. It implies that our thoughts can grow over time with the right kind of nurturing care. I see people across the web nurturing these kind of thought gardens with their blogs and wikis.

But sometimes it feels as though these gardens are enclosed. Sure, a blog might allow comments, but this feels as though we are operating on a layer above the soil. Are others planting anything new, tending to the weeds in our garden, or are they talking to us from the fence that separates our garden from them? Sure, nice conversations can come from that, but all I can think of is the line in Robert Frost's “The Mending Wall”:

Good fences make good neighbors.

When the fences define the interaction we have, then how can we say we are good neighbors, let alone friends? What if we flipped the quote entirely?

Good neighbors make good fences.

A good neighbor would at least add a swinging gate to her fence, allowing neighbors to enter and leave. And if everyone's garden had such doorways, a community of gardens could start taking place.

But what do those doorways look like for blogs? What does it mean for others to contribute to our blogs? What could that look like?

A learning adventure exploring alternative forms of blogging

This course is a group odyssey around a simple question: how can we expand upon blogging as a medium?

Blogging dead, long live blogging!

Enrollment

All you need is a way to publish a post! A blog works best but you don't need one to enroll. There are many great anonymous publishing platforms out there like Write.as, text.fyi, and Telegraph.

Structure

The course is structured like a giant ongoing discussion made through blog posts. Each week there will be a prompt post which will include some questions and resources to riff off of. They can be found in the blogchain towards the bottom.

When writing, simply add a link to this post at the beginning/end so others can join in. You could do something like this:

Part of the Blogging Futures course blogchain. Feel free to join!

Once your post is published, you will want to add it to the blogchain so others can read and participate in the developing conversation. You can add your post to the blogchain through this form:

(If the app is ever down, just respond with a link to your post on this thread and I will make sure to add your post to the chain!)

Once submitted, your post will appear below. You are not limited to a number of posts per week, so feel free to write as much as possible. Since the goal is to have a developing conversation across posts, linking to others in the thread and responding to their thoughts is encouraged.

Happy writing!


Blogchain

10/30 to 11/6 – Prompt 1 - Paradigms

CJ Eller, Community of Gardens

Tom Critchlow, New Blogging 2 – Open Blogchains

Jared, Paradigms for blogging social infrastructure

Brendan Schlagel, Proposal for Near-Future Blogging Megastructures

CJ Eller, Towards an ethos

Azlen Elza, Writing as Distilled Thought

11/6 to 11/13 – Prompt 2 - Infrastructure

Anonymous, An Infrastructure of Paper

CJ Eller, Infrastructure for Infrastructures

Jared, Sociotechnical and technosocial infrastructure

11/13 to 11/22 – Prompt 3 - Reflection

Chris Aldrich, On Blogging Futures

CJ Eller, Tinkering

Chris Aldrich, Thoughts and annotations on Brendan Schlagel's Proposal for Near-Future Blogging Megastructures

Chris Aldrich, Brief response to Prompt 3 – Reflection

Chris Aldrich, Thoughts and annotations on CJ Eller's Tinkering

Part 2 of 2 of the Modding on the Social Level blogchain

Thinking further, the game of Cops and Robbers in Halo operates on a layer of rules.

On the fundamental layer we were in a server that was set up for Capture the Flag. Both teams had flags at their base. Our goal was to capture their flag, bring it back to our base, and do this 3 times before the other team did. But we disregarded these rules entirely, vouching for Cops and Robbers, a game that had a set of rules but no endgame. There was no winner or loser like in CTF. We just wanted to keep the game going for as long as people were in the server.

This calls to mind a dichotomy popularized by James Carse – finite and infinite games. The game modes in multiplayer shooters like Halo are built on finite games. Rules are in place for a game where there is a winner and a loser. Capture the Flag fits this category. One team wins, the other loses, the game stops. Cops and Robbers, on the other hand, is an infinite game. Rules are in place for the game to continue indefinitely. There are no winners and losers, only cops and robbers. And maybe most of this (in)finite game theory is already familiar to you.

What I am interested is how games operate and transform along this spectrum. For example, we see infinite games become finite games all the time in sports. Skateboarding could be such an example – an outcast endeavor turned mainstream with competitions ranging from local contests to the X-games.

But what about the reverse operation? How does a finite game blossom into an infinite game? Is it a transformation or is it simply a layer on top of the finite game? This is a compelling question on multiple levels. For one, web interactions have been given metrics that resemble finite games. Views and likes become the score we keep. Add money to the equation and it becomes a full-blown competition. There is a want to reduce these characteristics in order to make the web a more welcoming place. In short, we want to make the web more of an infinite game than a finite game. Understanding how this process works could help us achieve the desired outcome of a better web.

However, it will take more than removing notifications and likes. A layer beneath the UX/UI needs to be dealt with – the rules we make on top of the game we are playing. Because you could technically be playing on a Capture the Flag server but choose to play Cops and Robbers instead. The CTF server, a place for a finite game, becomes a place to instate your own rules – an infinite game. And perhaps that is what we need on the web more than ever. The infrastructure is there. We need to realign what game and, fundamentally, what rules, that infrastructure serves.

#MotSL

Part 1 of 2 of the Modding on the Social Level blogchain

It was middle school, playing Halo on the PC. I joined a server playing “Capture the Flag.” But it wasn't “Capture the Flag” at all. Someone in the game chat told me that we were playing another game – “Cops & Robbers.” The blue team were the “Cops” and the red team were the “Robbers”.

“So how does a robber get arrested?” I asked. Just hold crouch to signal to the cop you've given up. The cop would escort you back to the blue team base. The arrested could then wait for their team to break them out or they could try to escape themselves. Hell, they could even just do the time, chatting with the cop on guard. The simplicity of the rules amazed me.

Everything held together miraculously. Sure, some people disregarded the rules or just attempted to play “Capture the Flag” anyway, but these people were in the minority. Everyone was engaged in the game, creating fictional scenarios around the maps and taking on identities like police commander and hitman. A community formed around the game that lasted for years.

I used to look back on those years of playing Halo “Cops & Robbers” with embarrassment. It took up a lot of time that could've been spent elsewhere. Hindsight isn't 20/20 from the start though. Only now do I see how formative this early experience was. Sure, there were early examples of web community building, but something else rises to the top of my mind.

Modding has been a popular form of giving a game new life. It is an involved process, adding or modifying assets that change the core game. Programming and game engine knowhow is a minimum requirement.

But something else was happening when we played “Cops & Robbers” in Halo. It wasn't modding in the traditional sense. Nothing in the core game was changed. Instead, we were playing on top of the game infrastructure, creating a new set of rules that were to be abided by. These mods were not operating on the software level but on the social level. Anyone could have created them (and many people did C&R offshoots). It was just a matter of creating the right conditions for the rules to be maintained over time.

These kind of social-level mods give me optimism for new forms of writing on the web. Perhaps we don't need to reinvent things on the software level. Perhaps we should focus our attention on the social level. Take shared blogchains for instance. They take the traditional form of a blog but add another twist – there is a series where multiple people can contribute to it, linking to previous entries in their post. Shared blogchains work upon rules that are built upon the established infrastructure of blogs. Its novelty does not register on a software level but on a social level – “Oh, I didn't think of organizing writing between people in that way.”

To me this all hits at a simple but powerful principle echoed by Darius Kazemi in his guide Run Your Own Social:

Social solutions for social problems

#MotSL