CJ Eller

Community Manager @ Write.as — Classical guitar by training, Software by accident

Are.na takes text and puts it into blocks. What immediately comes from this is to think of drafting posts more like construction — putting building blocks of text together to form a structure. A channel becomes a blog post.

But there's more to Are.na than this. Behind the noun of blocks is the verb of connection. Blocks can belong to multiple channels. This adds a layer of intrigue to the model of channel as blog post. If a block can belong to many channels, a paragraph can be a part of many blog posts.

Let's test this idea out. If you click on this paragraph, it will lead to a post that uses this paragraph as the leading thought. On Are.na, this is a text block that connects this channel with another channel.These connected text blocks could act as footnotes or references in other posts. But they can just as well be another paragraph in a post — this recycling of past writing into other posts excites me. It is thinking not only in the realm of chaining posts together (blogchains) but in chaining paragraphs together, adding wiki-like qualities to publishing on your blog.

A couple years back I did a 100 day writing challenge with a good friend. Each of us took to our Wordpress blog and posted each day in the ensuing months. I remember checking in each day to see what she'd written on her blog. We'd check in on the phone from time to time to see how the experience was going. At the end of the 100 days, she stopped frequently updating her Wordpress blog. I wish I gave her more encouragement to keep going.

Another recollection — my mom used to follow my old Wordpress blog by email subscription. Sometimes she'd call me out of the blue to discuss a post I'd written that day. It was a way for her to reach out & break through talking about mundane, day-to-day tings. Why don't I give her a way to follow my new blog? I always look back on those phone calls fondly.

Talking with a friend a couple weeks ago, he mentioned starting to write again on a blog. What drew him to do this? The blog served as an outlet for subjects that he rarely talked about even with his own friends or family. This was his way of getting those ideas out there. I read it regularly now. My hope is to talk about some of those posts with him on the phone — maybe even write a response to one or two on my blog or elsewhere.

These memories make me think of how blogging can act as another form of communication among friends — not only friends you make online but friends you've built connections with in person over years. It can be like exchanging public letters. But at other times it can be an arena for the person to think through ideas that have been stewing for days, weeks, months, years even.

What could a friend come up with if given this outlet? An interesting idea comes up during a conversation and I wish my friend had an outlet to develop that thought further. A blog could be such a vehicle. You get another glimpse of who a friend is — perhaps a side they are rarely able to express in normal conversation. Come to think of it, I rarely discuss what I write about on my blog with even my own friends or family! Nevertheless those ideas are a part of my identity, so I publish them here.

This isn't to say that you should share your blog with your friends and family. One of the virtues of writing online is that it can be an anonymous haven for reflection. But I wonder what having that other public outlet could mean. Not public in that other strangers read it. Public in that you selectively invite friends & family to read your blog. Then, your friends & family invite you to read their blogs. It could be a couple friends you do this with or, like me, you invite your mother to subscribe to your blog. What could happen from such small yet intentional exchanges of writing across the web?

Not a replacement of in-person interaction or Zoom or email or phone calls, but a hopefully positive augmentation to our standard modes of communication with the people we care about most.

My web presence can be described in a sliver of a sliver — a slim passage from Roland Barthes' slim volume Empire of Signs.

Barthes makes the observation that Japanese food is served fragmented, “raw.” The eater has to manipulate what she is eating to bring everything together:

The painting was actually only a palette with which you are going to play in the course of your meal, taking up here a pinch of vegetables, there of rice, and over there of condiment, here a sip of soup, according to a free alternation

Barthes describes this “raw” preparation further by comparing it to the “cooked” Western practice:

[Y]ou yourself make what it is you eat; the dish is no longer a reified product, whose preparation is, among us, modestly distanced in time and in space (meals elaborated in advance behind the partition of a kitchen, secret room where everything is permitted, provided the product emerges from it all the more composed, embellished, embalmed, shellacked).

My web appears fully cooked. I don't self host my blog & use plenty of other services that do the technical heavy lifting for me. And yet this is where Barthes' clear distinction between raw & cooked blurs — because the most interesting part of the web for me is discovering how to see the painting as a palette, how to make a platform both the plate of food and the chopsticks.

It started with web API's — being able to access data created on a platform and doing interesting things with it. Then tools like Glitch came around that made it simple to create small yet expressive web apps. As long as I knew how to write the underlying code, Glitch could take care of deployment for me. So with API's I can take a pinch from my blog, put the posts into Are.na, and rearrange it all to my liking through an intermediary Glitch app. This all operates in a strange amalgam of raw & cooked — not having full access to platforms' underlying codebase yet being able to manipulate enough of the data created on it to do interesting things. That's enough for me to engage with the web in a way I want to.

Fascinating questions come from this line of thinking, all around how to observe & act upon blogs within this raw and cooked spectrum. How can you look at a blog (post) as raw rather than cooked? Maybe it's in approaches akin to the from blog to blocks experiment? In extended forms like blogchains? Likewise, how can you take raw data and cook it into something like a blog (post)? What would the process, let alone end product, even look like?

A while ago I created a Python script that threw a chunk of my blog posts into Are.na. Each post was turned into a text block that was placed in a channel called “CJ's Blog.” Satisfied, I left the experiment sit for a while. After checking back one day, a notification appeared:

Lluvia Machuca added Bricks and Software to Design.

What did that notification mean?

“Bricks and Software” was one of my blog posts that I turned into a text block. I hadn't revisited that post for a long time. Lluvia Machuca connected my post to her own channel called “Design.” Going there, I am taken aback by the associative trail of media that Lluvia is creating. At first the presence of my post makes no sense in this channel. But then I find myself thinking about what I wrote in context to these quotes and images and diagrams. New ideas start to emerge.

This was an altogether different experience than if Lluvia simply “liked” my post. The way interactions happen on Are.na, connecting other people's blocks to your channels, allow my words to live a stranger life than they simply did as blog posts. Crossposting augments my writing to not only exist as something else (blocks) but to interact with more types of media (not just other words but images and video) in a different way (connecting blocks to other blocks).

This experiment can continue on many paths — adding & deleting more blog posts to my channel, creating new channels from those existing posts, interacting more with other blocks & channels on Are.na to introduce more multimedia collision. Wherever it goes, it excites me to even see a glimpse of what the potential of crossposting can look like.

How do we preserve the history of a community? What it was? Who made up its members?

The “Oneg Shabbat” archives found after WWII is one answer. These records of Jewish life under Nazi occupation & Holocaust were unearthed from a few milk cans and tin boxes in Warsaw. Organized by historian and community figure Dr. Emanuel Ringelblum, the “Oneg Shabbat” archives were meant to record life across the political, religious, and social spectrum. Glenn Adamson outlines the painstaking process of the archive's creation in Fewer, Better Things:

Working with others in the neighborhood, he collected thirty-five thousand documents in all over a period of two and a half years. As the historian Peter Miller recounts, the collection was very diverse and heartbreaking in its quotidian detail: “tram tickets, programs to school plays, restaurant menus, maps of the complex doorbell schemes needed to accommodate the reality of 30 percent of a city's population forced into less than 3 percent of its space.” Some inhabitants contributed essays and economic analyses of life in the ghetto, with titles like “Processes of the Adaptation of the Jewish Artisan to Wartime Conditions” and “On Jewish Barbers.”

As Adamson continues, these records would become the sole source for a particular community at a particular time in a particular place:

When Ringelblum buried these records to evade discovery by the Nazis, he no doubt hoped he might be able to return to them himself, but probably also feared that they might never be recovered. In fact, though only a few years passed before the archive was found, his worst fears had been realized. Warsaw's Jewish population was all but wiped out, and with them, their collective memory, apart from the contents of these precious vessels. As Miller put it, had the archive not been assembled and preserved, “then no one would believe that such a place had existed; not on the moon, but right here, in the center of the earth's most sophisticated continent.” Most objects from the past, thank goodness, are not so tragic. But the story of the Warsaw ghetto, the condensation of all that life as it was lived, amply attests to the potency of material evidence.

The potency of material evidence. We do not put our records into milk cans but into electronic milk cans – computers of all shapes and sizes. Thankfully the majority of us do not live under the occupation of a genocidal regime. These are different times with different technologies. However, the question of preservation still gnaws at me. As I contribute to a forum, I wonder how it will be preserved for future generations to see how online communities functioned. As I write this post, I wonder how this blog will be preserved for my grandkids to see what I was thinking during this time. Because, as Joel Dueck explains, there is this “Unbearable Lightness of Web Pages” (source):

Web pages are ghosts: they’re like images projected onto a wall. They aren’t durable. If you turn off the projector (i.e. web server), the picture disappears. If you know how to run a projector, and you can keep it running all the time, you can have a web site.

But as soon as there’s no one to babysit the projector, it eventually gets turned off, and everything you made with it goes away. If the outage is permanent, the disappearance is too. This is happening all the time, as servers fail, or companies are acquired and shut down.

That's why I'm floored by the “Oneg Shabbat” archive. A few milk cans and tin boxes carry what Adamson calls the freighted history of a whole community. It isn't made up of abstractions on a projector. These are pulp squares with ink on them — essays and menus and report cards and maps all crammed into tin containers dug into the ground. And what are the chances that the archive was unearthed in the first place?

But I sense that this was what Ringelblum and Jewish community in the Warsaw ghetto intended. By creating a capsule that was meant to be unearthed, they created the means to preserve a history and culture for future generations to acknowledge & act upon. That kind of work strikes me as more important as we continue to put our records on these projectors. I won't stop publishing to this blog or elsewhere on the web. Others won't stop either. All the while I yearn for what Dueck refers to as durable writing, that which can be unearthed for future generations to see.

So how do we better create potent material evidence out of our web artifacts?

An entry in the Bandcamp Blogging Bandwagon. Join in here.

There's something to having friends who make things that you can enjoy on a daily basis. Their work recreates an ambient presence of who they are and what they mean to you. I am grateful to have friendships with musicians, and during these times it means more now than ever to support them.

Today, Bandcamp is waiving their revenue shares for sales of artists' music. Prompted by this, Tom Critchlow announced “The Bandcamp Blogging Bandwagon”, an urging to bloggers to share Bandcamp artists' work for the day to drive discovery & interest to indie artists. As Tom puts it,

In these times we need cozy blogging structures and we need support for independents more than ever.

In light of that I am going to go through the shelf in my online living room and recommend some of my friends' music on Bandcamp. These are people who have meant a great deal to me but who I feel I've neglected due to distance in many forms. For one, we are all scattered across the country. For another, I took a different career trajectory — going from studying for a Doctorate in Music (classical guitar performance to be specific) to working in software. This shift alienated me from the music scenes I was once a part of, let alone not playing as regularly as I used to.

So may these recommendations not only be an homage to these musical friendships but a reinforcement of them. Even if I don't reach out as much as I used to, may this gesture not only help them a little but also encourage me to get back in touch. Times like these remind you of what's most important. As Bix illustrated, you can still be social with social distancing. And that's especially true with those you care about who you feel distanced with.

Someone to Ride the River With

Great bluegrass/folk style music from great friends. I know Terence and Jamie from my time at grad school. Both had a warmth to them that was inspiring to say the least. I learned so much of how to be a musician and a person from Terence. The least you can do is buy their music. This album in particular is with a phenomenal supporting band — crazy mandolin and extremely tasteful bass playing. (Link if embed takes a while)

Nancy

This band was a bit of a surprise to me — Terence & Jamie of the above band are joined with three other friends in an indie-alternative-folk band that's a blast to listen to. The same great songwriting of STRTRW with an awesome electric sound. Two of the three joining them are good friends of mine too — Galen & Denver. I studied classical guitar with Denver and Galen & I organized this crazy music series called “The Wheel.” The concept of it was that, instead of a set list of performing acts, people would spin this giant wheel created by Galen that would determine who the next act would be. There were also spots on the wheel for out-there musical challenges that mixed things up. (Link)

Maxwell Denny

Whenever I find someone who also likes The Bad Plus & John Zorn, I know we'll be good friends. I met Max while in grad school, him being an undergrad at the time. His musical tastes and experimental bent made him a kindred soul. I got to be a part of a lot of fascinating performances of Max's music. One which I'll never forget was providing dynamic music for a short play with two other guitarists. We also organized a monthly series of concerts at a local art gallery for a year. So many wonderful memories of that too — from quirky singing circles to beautiful classical music. His music is adventurously inventive. (Link)

Hudson Abadeer

This is from my good friend Ryan. Been grateful to jam with him on many occasions and be in a couple of bands with. The crazy thins is that he's an amazing drummer, one of the best that I know, but this project his singer-songwriter stuff. I got to see this project progress into some amazing music that to this day I still hum to myself. Even his guitar playing has gotten to a point that I wonder how he comes up with some of the riffs to his tune. It's sort of been on a hiatus but I hope he continues it one day. Maybe I'll have to talk to him about that. (Link)

If using a search engine can be like drinking from a fire hose, Internet surfing using a Web ring is like sharing a cup of tea with a group of strangers who are batty about a favorite hobby, like collecting Australian emergency-squad insignia.

— Tina Kelley , “Surfing in Circles and Loving It” (source)

Let's get one thing straight. Firehoses are useful. If you aim that concentrated blast at a fire then it more than likely will quell the flames. I feel this way with social media, especially Twitter. Bix phrases it well here:

Here’s what I’ve realized: for the things I get out of Twitter, Twitter is very good at those things. For example, quick but in-depth input and information from experts when overwhelming bits of news are happening. Experts I would not otherwise known or have heard about; that’s a service I can use.

Aim the concentrated blast of Twitter at some subject and it will surprise you with insight. But what happens when you decide to drink from it? Same as what happens with a firehose. There's a disconnect, something that Bix touches on later in his post:

What I’m missing from my internet experience is that thing I’ve talked about over and over, on and off, since I started blogging again: that sense of place.

When I think of that sense of place, I think of sharing a cup of tea. Not with a group of strangers but rather with a small group of like-hearted people. I can also imagine not being with anyone at all, sitting with my cup of tea within the cozy recesses of my home. This warmth comes from drinking tea. It's restorative and intimate act, whether you are with people or not. I think this is what Tom Critchlow is getting at in the preface to “Blog Patterns” (source):

This post is a retreat from the crazy world into the domestic cozy self-care of fiddling with my blog.

I think this is what intrigued Tina Kelley about Web rings. Here were these tight knit communities of sites loosely connected by hyperlinks that embodied a coziness distinct from search engines. They had sense of place that Kelley could only describe as if you were having a cup of tea. There is, like Tom put it, a sense of self-care from fiddling with a blog. The same could be said for contributing to a forum or creating a web app on Glitch.

I think we need more cups of tea than drinks from firehoses.

Part of what makes contributing to a Discourse forum a genuine joy for me is the writing experience. Many worthwhile opportunities in my life have stemmed from using this forum software. Why? Of course it was the communities, the social aspect I’ve written about again and again. But I want to give the software some credit here. Discourse’s editor made writing up topics and replies pleasurable, enabling me to participate in communities that I never thought I’d be a part of, in ways I couldn’t anticipate. This gratefulness led to an interesting question.

If you like the Discourse editor so much, why not publish to your blog from it?

So this post here is the product of an answer to that question. I created a simple Glitch app that takes advantage of Discourse’s nifty webhook feature. When the app receives a webhook, it takes the text from the Discourse message and posts it to my Write.as blog. But how does it know which message to publish to your blog? Because a webhook is a fire hose of data coming in. This webhook in particular was set to trigger at a Post event. That means every time a post is published or deleted or updated, the webhook will send each post’s data to my Glitch app. Every post action that happened on the forum – a fire hose indeed. So I needed to write some code that would find a droplet from the cascade of water coming from the hose.

My solution? Give the app some if/else logic. If the message sent from the webhook was authored by this user (me) and the message has this title (“Message to myself”), then take the message’s data and make a blog post from it. If not, then don’t do anything with the message. This specificity allowed me to then play around with the message data so that it formatted correctly on my blog.

The app still has some kinks to work through but I thought it exercised a curiosity of mine – being able to publish to my blog from any editor. There are so many text editors out there, each for different purposes and with different strengths to boot. Why not be able to craft some connective tissue in-between so you can publish to your blog from any where? Why not create a hypertext polygraph?

What tends to get lost in our world is membership, which is neither solitary nor anonymous.

This point from Alan Jacobs' How to Think is prescient for the web. I sometimes feel like I am both screaming into the void and a drop in the ocean. Jacobs uses a prescient passage from C.S. Lewis' “The Inner Ring” to explain membership further:

How true membership in a body differs from inclusion in a collective may be seen in the structure of a family. The grandfather, the parents, the grown-up son, the child, the dog, and the cat are true members (in the organic sense), precisely because they are not members or units of a homogenous class. They are not interchangeable. Each person is almost a species in himself [...] If you subtract any one member, you have not simply reduced the family in number; you have inflicted an injury on its structure.

Lewis' definition can also apply to other tight-knit groups. “Each [person] is accepted for his own distinctive contribution to the group: if it were less distinctive,” Jacobs writes, “it would be less valuable.” Membership respects your individuality while not leaving you completely isolated. Membership respects you as a unique contribution to the group rather than as another body in the crowd. Between solitude and anonymity stands membership.

And I agree with Jacobs – membership tends to get lost in our world, especially on the web. Am I truly a member of a Facebook group? Am I truly a member of a forum? Sometimes you get a semblance of membership but leave with a counterfeit experience. Other times you get membership where you least expect it. Jacobs, for instance, mentions how he found membership in a motley of “like-hearted” folks on Twitter:

I had chosen to interact with people (on Twitter) who had very little in common except that I knew – from experience – that they wouldn't write me out of their own personal Books of Life if I said something they strongly disagreed with. That is, I am confident that I am a member (in the organic sense) of a curious little online body, and that has been a real encouragement to me. Sometimes I even try out writing ideas on them – typically only a few are able to answer (they have lives), but when they do answer I know it'll emerge from genuine thought, not merely emotional or visceral reaction. These people, again, are not necessarily like-minded, but they are temperamentally disposed to openness and have habits of listening – and in that sense are wonderfully like-hearted.

This example brings home the point that while technology can facilitate it, membership is social at its core. How can membership be encouraged? How can one build membership within a group? It doesn't matter if you're on Twitter or on an obscure forum. Such questions require a personal touch, a commitment to striving for true membership as opposed to false belonging. It also requires a dash of prudence – does one have to strive for membership all the time, with everything and with everyone? When is it and not appropriate?

These questions cannot be solved by a bug fix or a new web framework. But that's the point. I am reminded of a sub-header in Darius Kazemi's Run Your Own Social that sums this up:

Social solutions to social problems

I've been recently enjoying Dino's Game Log, a series of posts where he documents his video game sessions. Reading these posts come at a time for me when gaming has turned into a frustrating hobby. That frustration comes from the competitive nature of a team-based multiplayer game I play – Overwatch. Win-loss ratios swing wildly from session to session. Sometimes you'll lose five games straight before winning one. Those lows can be particularly brutal. Why do I choose to spend my free time playing a game that makes me do anything but relax? But I know it's not the game – it's me. My competitiveness sucks any joy from the experience.

And that's where Dino's Game Log came in. There's an awareness in them that serves as a refreshing contrast to my own toxic attachment to the game's outcomes. I only cared about my win-loss ratio during each session. Nothing else. But here was Dino making observations about mechanics and highlighting moments in the games he played. Reading his posts felt like seeing what I should focus on when I play. Not what's out of my control but what's within it – the little wins, fascinating patterns, subtle mechanics. Those are within the power of observation. All I need to do is be intentional about writing them down, about thinking them through like I would anything else. There's a power to writing things down. If it can work with certain facets of our inner and outer life, why not with video games?

I intend to write about each gaming session in my paper journal. It will be an interesting experiment to see if knowing I will write about the session will attune my mind to focus on things other than the win-loss ration. Maybe then gaming will be what it was suppose to be all along – leisure.

Beneath the visual surface of your computer is an old and powerful magic, a silent but quick stream of energy that the computer draws from for power. This magic is hidden but always present, like the sacred well held in the base of a cathedral.

This hidden place has many names: Shell, Terminal, Bash, Zsh, The Command Line. All of these names are correct, but incomplete; accurate to a part, but unable to describe the whole. Like all magical things, there are aspects of the command line always beyond our articulation.

Too, Like so many magical things, the secular world will always try to deform and defang it. Modern tech culture will describe the command line as an obscure productivity tool; something you learn only to impress other tech folk (a meaningless activity) or to become a “power user” (a meaningless phrase). Conventional tech wisdom will tell you that the command line is an intimidating, obscure, imposing place — impossible to learn and dangerous to use. This is only an attempt to hide its true nature: the command line is a place made entirely of our first occult technology, the word.

The command line is pure language, and to exist in it is to practice all the reality-shifting and world manifesting power of metaphor and dialogue. This is a place of empowerment, tangible creativity, and mystic bewilderment. While it can be dangerous, it’s also exceedingly helfpul if you know how to listen.