CJ Eller

Thinking about tools for thinking about thinking

I remember reading that novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife Sophia shared a journal throughout their marriage. The Morgan Library and Museum gives context to this interesting practice:

For the Hawthornes, journal keeping was a family affair. Both Nathaniel and Sophia kept private records periodically throughout their lives, and when they married in July 1842 they began to keep a journal together, each making entries in turn. They wrote in the same notebook—a small blank volume with marbled-paper covers and a leather spine—read each other's entries, and built a joint narrative of their intimate life as partners in their new home, the Old Manse in Concord.

In a way, the Hawthorne's were interacting on the smallest social network imaginable – a personal journal where one other person can see your entries and can also write inside it. But the journal isn't personal any more. That act of another reading and writing beside you turns it into something else entirely.

This makes me wonder about one of Dino Bansigan's recent musings about writing on the web when compared to journaling:

For some reason, I cannot wrap my head around the concept of writing for myself, but at the same time writing to an audience. I feel like if I can just look at it from a different angle though, I would figure it out. The closest thing I can think of, is writing for myself but writing in such a way that the content is palatable to readers. But then, wouldn't I be writing to an audience?

That question leads me to a realization... that it might not even be possible to separate the two when you are posting on a public website. The very nature of a public website means that there is at least one reader, myself, and then there's everyone else online. Something like a “one to many” relationship between a post and readers. So, there's really no way to avoid an audience when posting to a public website. If I really wanted to just write for myself, then my offline bullet journal should suffice. However, I already have a bullet journal and yet I'm still posting here. So there's something else that I'm looking for that I'm not getting from an offline journal.

That “something else” might be something similar to the Hawthorne's. Of course it might not be on that intimate of a level, but to have another individual read our entries and build a joint narrative alongside us – a vision of writing on the web as writing in a shared journal.

I’ll agree that there is no silver bullet, but one pattern I’ve noticed is that it’s the “small pieces, loosely joined” that often have the greatest impact on the open web. Small pieces of technology that do something simple can often be extended or mixed with others to create a lot more innovation.

I want to emphasize the “loosely joined” part of the above from Chris' comment. We need more people loosely joining software together in ways that create more possibility for writing on the web. In his talk “Don't Make Things”, Darius Kazemi phrased it as “Don't Create, Mutate” – to not think about building from the ground up but extending and remixing what's already there.

Now that I think about it, this principle of “small pieces, loosely joined” is how this blogchain technically came to be. I wrote a wrapper around the Write.as API so that I could easily update a post on my blog. From there I used Glitch to create an app (using a Python web framework called Flask) that used a form to grab information from the chain contributor and update the blog post with it. That app was then embedded on the very same post it was updating. Nothing overly complicated – just using tools that are already there.

It seems to be a work of creating connective tissue, not stand-alone structures from the bottom up. A humble kind of work, more like tilling a garden than constructing a blogging megalopolis. One connection at a time. I think creating this connective tissue aligns with Jared's idea of accessibility and empowerment that come from tinkering with your own site. It allows people to engage without feeling discouraged, to make an impact without needing to know how to set up a virtual environment.

So that's what I'd like to try more of – creating connective tissue between writing software. Start small and continue small. One connection at a time.

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

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 ??? – 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

CJ Eller, Loosely Joined

Chris Aldrich, Read “An ongoing conversation” by Colin Walker

HH, Aggregators

Ben Sekulowicz-Barclay, The web’s agricultural revolution

Brendan Schlagel, Beyond Blogging: Sketches for Social Longform Writing

CJ Eller, Keep Rolling

Chris Aldrich, Reply to The Hyperchat Modality by Kicks Condor