CJ Eller

Thinking about tools for thinking about thinking

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.


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


So I can just write. I can just catch little things, regardless of state of finish or polish. The inner editor isn't allowed in my pocket notebooks.

Nate Dickson prompts such interesting questions about the “inner editor.”

But I wonder whether we should be thinking more about transforming our “inner editor” rather than whether we should allow her into our writing. In such a case I cannot help but think of Michel de Montaigne. Translator M.A. Screech mentions a peculiar characteristic of Montaigne's writing:

Montaigne's numerous quotations are seldom integrated grammatically into his sentences. However long they may be we are meant to read them as asides – mentally holding our breath.

Montaigne can be quite off the cuff in his essays, obliquely approaching topics with lengthy historical anecdotes and philosophical excerpts. What should be noted here is that these quirks stood after Montaigne revised his essays. Twenty years of editing and these awkward phrasings stood. Why? What was going on with Montaigne's “inner editor”?

That twenty year process was probably more akin to tending a garden – pruning, watering, planting. Those quotations were not a bug but a feature, outgrowths Montaigne saw too beautiful to remove. And so they stand, baffling M.A. Screech but reminding us that we can welcome the messiness of writing by transforming our “inner editor” into an “inner gardener.”

A gardener checks for connections and relationships. Sure, check for spelling and grammar, but one does not always have to mistake a trailing idea for a weed. Let it be and see what happens. You can always take it out later. And that's another thing – an editor might comb through a piece once or twice but a gardener frequently comes back, planting new thoughts along side the one's there and sometimes planting new seeds.

I wonder how to attune more to that “inner gardener” when writing on the web. Because more often than not the “inner editor” takes hold, killing thoughts before they form, preventing me from pulling the trigger. Strange how the “inner editor” can seem completely anachronistic to the web as a medium. I am not writing a PhD thesis or an article in The New Yorker. This is just a post that can be edited and linked indefinitely.

Why not treat it like part of an ever expanding garden?

As I started to read Stoker's Dracula for the first time, a recurring detail caught my attention. Jonathan Harker's journal is interspersed with these reminders to himself:

(Mem., get recipe for Mina.)

(Mem., I must ask the Count all about them.)

(Mem., get recipe for this also.)

(Mem., I must ask the Count about these superstitions.)

(Mem., this diary seems horribly like the beginning of the “Arabian Nights,” for everything has to break off at cockcrow, or like the ghost of Hamlet's father.)

The term “Mem.” is shorthand for memorandum, a note serving as a means to prompt one's memory. Coincidentally enough, Wikitionary quotes Dracula as the sole example of the abbreviation. No wonder that it is marked as “now rare.” But while the shorthand might have fallen out of favor, the function of the memorandum has not. We just call it a “blog.”

Posts are like a Mem. that Harker penned in his journals. We are trying to remind ourselves about things and ideas through writing and hyperlinking. Returning to posts jogs our memory, leading not only to recollection but further conceptual development.

These memorandums are not confined to our own use either. They can be interacted with, referenced, and shared. Individual memorandums become networked memorandums on the web. This relates to an interesting discussion around internal and external validation when writing on the web. Are we writing for our own memory or for those of others? How do memorandums fit within networked writing?

I think Bix presents a compelling picture of networked journaling in his argument for dates in permalinks:

In a sense, blogs were never meant to be definitive.

They aren’t a destination, but a journey, and like the old paper journals which logged offline journeys, a weblog is meant to have dates. Presenting them in both the text itself and the permalink is a way to help the reader navigate their own journey through yours.

The story goes that Thomas Osborne, an English bookseller of the 18th century, found a lyric poem in French. It made such an impression on him that he commissioned a translation of it into English.

But there was a catch. Osborne did not realize that he was translating a translation. The lyric poem was Milton's Paradise Lost.

On first impression this story is an insult to Osborne's thoroughness. How would an English bookseller not know a translation of a premiere English work? Remove the layer of ridicule, however, and interesting parallels start to form.

How many times do we translate a translation without realizing it? This anecdote of Osborne was taken from Nicholas Basbanes' A Gentle Madness. Who knows where Basbanes got the story from and who that person got the story from. Not a translation from a different language but a translation from a different context.

Transmission across contexts over time is important. It allows an idea to propagate. I probably would have been ignorant of Osborne if it were not for Basbanes' telling. On the other hand, transmission can allow a story to morph into chimerical proportions. This Osborne anecdote is described by Basbanes as an “undocumented piece of gossip.” What we are left with is something that tows the line between apocryphal and truth.

But here is where translations of a translation are useful. They allow us to focus on aspects of a story without focusing on a story's validity. Sure, the Osborne story could be gossip, but it has acted as a fulcrum for exploring other ideas. * * And if the story were true, I am all the more curious to see Osborne's commissioned translation next to Milton's original. Who knows what similarities and differences would be uncovered? That is what we do when we write on the web. Everything we find interesting should be translated into our own context through our writing. Because who knows what service we bring to others by transmitting these ideas. They might not find that author or that concept otherwise.

I cannot help but think of a scenario where a person, not knowing Paradise Lost or Milton, comes across Osborne's translation first. Sounds a bit like navigating the web.

The space in a venn diagram where both a fading and a new technology overlap is most fascinating.

One that went under my radar is the time between hand-copied books and mass-printed books. This dichotomy came to mind in one figure – the 15th century printer and bookseller Vespasiano dè Bisticci. One of Vespasiano's jobs intersects nicely with this shift. Nicholas Basbanes particularly highlights it in A Gentle Madness:

Most telling of all is the work Vespasiano performed for Federico Montefeltro (1422-1482), duke of Urbino, a collector of exquisite tastes separated him from the seismic changes then afoot in Europe.

Those seismic changes? Mass-produced books coming from the printing press. Instead of using a private or public printing press, Montefeltro put his resources into a private scriptorium with Vespasiano at the head of its operations. Basbanes further highlights the details of this work:

[Vespasiano] spent fourteen years building a collection of all the Greek and Latin authors who had recently been discovered and had them all bound in crimson and silver. The duke insisted that each be in perfect condition and that each be unique. None of the printed books then coming into fashion was allowed in his library. All of his books had to be 'written with the pen,' Vespasiano recalled years later; anything else would have made the collector feel 'ashamed.' Florentine bibliophiles were fiercely proud of their calligraphic traditions, and did not warm immediately to the idea of books that were mass-produced.

There is more at stake here than producing more books at a quicker rate. It took Vespasiano fourteen years to build Montefeltro's library. Who knows how much sooner he could have got them with a private printer than by a private scriptorium. What strikes me about this historical anecdote is the tension between printed books and hand copied books. Why did Montefeltro not want mass-produced, printed books in his library? What was it about them that made him feel ashamed?

Embedded in technology are traditions and values that fly in the face of the increased utility of newer technologies.

There is a figure in English history who was known as a unique intellectual resource – not from his own words, but from the words he collected. Sir Robert Bruce Cotton amassed a library with such an extensive collection, from the sole surviving source of Beowulf to the Magna Carta, that writers flocked to study and borrow its contents. In A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books, Nicholas Basbanes explores the influence of Cotton's library on his contemporaries:

Many of the writers who used his library acknowledged their debt to him in print, including Richard Knolles, a historian and author of The Generall Historie of the Turkes, and Thomas Milles, in Catalogue of Honour. With Cotton's assistance, Sir Walter Raleigh wrote his Historie of the World while confined to the Tower on charges of treason; Sir Francis Bacon consulted Cotton while working on The History of Henry VII.

Even Shakespeare is rumored to have used Cotton's library. In short, as Basbanes declares,

Cotton's library was recognized as the most important source of factual information in the realm, an archive that was valued by his friends and feared by his enemies.

We do not use other people's libraries in the same way as writers used Cotton's. We cannot claim to be the kind of source of factual information that Cotton was. Not anymore.

So where does that leave us? I am struck by a comment Jon Udell once made – context is a service that we provide to others. Perhaps that is the form our libraries take on the web. Not of 10th century manuscripts but of contexts of thought. So a blog I consistently read is from an individual's unique context – how she is, what she is thinking, what she is reading, and who she is interacting with. That context then sits aside other contexts. Soon enough I have amassed a library of context. And when I blog, the many contexts of others I have been reflecting on shows through in the context I share.

It is at once an individual library and a public library. And perhaps that is what the web is in a nutshell.

Bix brings up an interesting article about a new library in Long Island City that took 20 years and $41 million to make. But that was not the interesting part. Bix keyed in on this quote from Elisabeth de Bourbon, a spokesperson for the Queens Public Library and a retort from a city resident:

“Our staff has been and will continue to retrieve books for customers, and we are going to offer devices that will allow customers to browse the materials available in those areas.”


[Joe] Bachner, who asked about accessibility during his visit, said the library's offer to fetch books misses the point.

“Browsing is part of the enjoyment of going to the library,” he said.

Browsing is part of the enjoyment. But I find it ironic that I do more of the opposite here – Bix read the article and I grabbed a quotation of the article from him. No need to browse. Then again, I was browsing his blog and happened across the post. And I know not how he came across the article in question – perhaps in a similar way as I did or perhaps not (unless if you care to explain Bix).

This brings up an interesting point – “browse” is not a catch-all term. There are many different types of browsing one can do. The person who asks for the librarian to retrieve a book for her could have browsed an online newsletter and came across the book. Is that the same kind of browsing as combing the fiction shelves?

How can we better attune ourselves to the different forms of browsing? How can knowing these inform how we operate on the web and outside of it?

A response to this letter. If you would like to respond to this or any post, feel free to write in here.

Hi Miso,

I like the idea of long form comments too. I wonder if part of the negativity of some comments is the lack of length. Then again, much vitriol has been written in more than 280 characters. Sometimes long form gives people more time to sharpen their spears than to create fruitful discourse. So while important, I do not think length is the keystone.

Perhaps it is a matter of asking what the rules of engagement are. What is the context for that 280 characters? What is the context for the long form responses? In this case, I like to think that responding to your post is like responding to a letter from a friend rather than a couple of cryptic sentences. I am in a different headspace. I slow down, trying to be more thoughtful in how I respond to your ideas. It reminds me of the relation between physical places to our own well-being, something Bix has poignantly referenced many times in his blog and I have responded to.

And you bring up a fascinating idea of not worrying about whether you can find a post where someone quotes you. It makes me think of notifications and whether they are needed all of the time. If we think again about the physical places analogy, there are many delightful happenstances that occur as we walk around a city – a coffee shop we never knew of before, an enthralling street performer, a wonderful conversation with a person on a bench. These things are not preceded by notifications. They just happen unexpectedly.

Maybe we do not need to be alerted every time our posts are mentioned elsewhere. Private messaging, or a function akin to this letter to the editor system, is great for direct one-to-one communication. That is what I should know about – there is a letter in my mailbox by someone who wants to get in touch with me. But maybe having the other part of it be open-ended, mentions and quotations without notifications, leaves room for a sense of renewed discovery on the web.

Read.write.as, then, acts as a little town square of sorts where, as you said, you go about “looking to see what other writer are talking about, seeing if you have been mentioned, seeing if a conversation is progressing.” That to me is a place on the web worth dwelling in. Thanks for contributing to that feeling Miso.

Best, CJ

The first letter to the editor. If you want to write in about anything I have written, please feel free to do so.

By miso

I like the idea of long-form comments. I never really tend to read comment sections on other platforms because I know most of its content is either reactionary or just trolling. Well, it's not true. Sometimes I do open it for fun, to see how many people commented something that's nothing to do with the main purpose of the article.

As you have written on Engagement has it hard, engagement is indeed hard. I've also came to a similar conclusion on Engaging with posts on fediverse. I got very surprised when I moved into write.as to see that other people were actually quoting me on their posts and were adding to the discussion. I don't think I've quite seen this somewhere else. I like this idea of opening read.write.as and looking to see what other writer are talking about, seeing if you have been mentioned, seeing if a conversation is progressing. Yet it's so easy to miss something. If you don't read everything, you might miss out on someone quoting you. Is it a bad thing? I would have said so a while ago. I'm not sure anymore. It creates excitement.

My hope is that such a system will beget real engagement here. It does not have to scale. It just has to matter.

I couldn't agree more what that statement.