intimidating but also intimate / reflections on formative time in a revenant medium

Metablogging is the most (self-)indulgent form of blogging—a bit of (self-demonstrating/self-performing) wisdom that was already a well-worn cliche when Technorati was still a thing that people cared about. But we are products of our milieu, are we not?

Adam Kotsko would agree, I think—and this reflective bit of his from earlier this week flipped me into a similarly reflective mode at this inevitably reflective time of year. Responding to WordPress’s recent hard push on the new post-composition UI, and his instinctive annoyance at a change he feels he neither wants nor needs, Kotsko wonders:

Why can’t I just move on? Why this attachment to an outdated publication model, such that a website redesign can quite sincerely ruin my afternoon? It’s because blogging isn’t just another tool to me. It was my way out. It allowed me to build up a social network and a reputation that I never could have achieved otherwise. I realize that a big part of this was the dumb luck of getting into blogging just slightly before it hit the bigtime, but it also reflects a lot of hard work and energy on my part…

I read that and got an instant hit of recognition. Our journeys have been pretty different, and we started at slightly different times and from very different places, but there’s nonetheless a good chunk of commonality in our experience based on our both having dived into the cresting wave of bloggage back when it felt like something that might take us somewhere. (Indeed, I recall being both admirous of and intimidated by Kotsko back in the day, because it felt like he was laying track way better than I was, and his rhetorical chops, then as now, were way out in front of my own.)

In both cases, blogging did take us somewhere—though in neither case did that happen in quite the way we initially thought it would:

For the better part of the 2000s, blogging was my life, and it has turned out to be the condition of possibility and condition of impossibility for the life that followed. People sometimes wonder how I am able to write so much, and the answer is basically that I have written a substantial amount every single day since I was in junior high. First it was comic books, then in high school I switched to journaling, and then in college I switched to writing for a personal website and subsequently blogs. It was the blog, though, that really shifted me into high gear because I knew each time that I was writing for a critical audience, who could respond to me immediately if they so chose. It was intimidating but also intimate — falsely so, in many ways, as I often found that unsympathetic readers found their way to my stuff without making themselves known, including influential people who based their conception of me on the tone of what amounted to a pub conversation among friends.

Back when I was still running Futurismic (and—largely unknowingly, due to my considerable political naivete at the time—turning it from an aspirant but very much second-tier libertarian-tech-and-sci-fi webzine to an enduringly second-tier but left-leaning contra-Panglossian critical-futures-and-sci-fi webzine) I spent maybe three or four hours reading RSS feeds and cranking out two or three posts every day, six days a week. During the period of my doing so, I made a total US$ sum of ad revenue in the mid-three-figure range, and I had to fight like hell—and engage in some minor attempts at public shaming—to actually get the cheque out of the cowboy operator who owed it me. All that work was effectively subsidized by the little bits of freelance writing and web development work that I managed to scrape up along the way. But I accepted that, because I saw it as my chance to do my apprenticeship in public and without a mentor or entry-level break, neither of which were forthcoming. I did my ten thousand hours as a writer—in fact, I probably did closer to twice that many. I learned to write in public.

As such, I also learned to argue in public, and in so doing I learned a style that has been both an advantage and a disadvantage in my subsequent academic career. (By way of example: my oft-lamented doctoral thesis, I realise with hindsight, might have had a much easier ride if I didn’t write and think like a blogger.) But at the same time, I wouldn’t have pushed into the thought-spaces that I pushed into if I hadn’t learned that novelty is what gets you noticed… and it was that knack for novelty, acquired in the trenches of the blogwars, that got me my make-or-break RA gig around the same time I started my Masters. I wrote myself into existence, in a way… flaws and all.

Well, selah. Much as Kotsko notes of his own dynamic, in a post from earlier in the year, I was a twenty-something blogbro with a selection of chips on my shoulder in a period when blogbro-dom was rewarded in ways that probably weren’t great for my character in the long run. And, y’know, hey: twenty-somethings gonna twenty-something, amirite? Though I was still twenty-somethinging well into my thirties, which is rather less forgivable. I had learned to play a small set of abrasive riffs particularly well, and—much as in my actual guitar-playing, such as it is—relied on them far too heavily for far too long. I have some explanations for that, though not really any excuses. I like to think I’ve become a broader writer/thinker over the last decade, but the curve took a long while to start climbing, and there’s a lot of work still to do. Kotsko again:

I wound up burning bridges, probably too many, by putting myself out there so aggressively when still had so much growing up to do. I only learned about the job at Shimer College because of my blogging, but I have also probably missed out on a lot of opportunities due to the reputation for brashness that my blogging won me. Sometimes I have even suspected that the very fact that I built up a reputation as a thinker and writer on my own, outside of “proper channels,” has hurt my academic career, even aside from the content of what I was writing. But there are a lot of people who went through “proper channels” and have nothing to show for it. In a world with no guarantees — which my exposure to contingent faculty through blogging showed me I was entering into — the only “strategy” is to do what you really want, while you have the chance to do so. I haven’t exactly been “rewarded” for that strategy, but I have kept on living to fight another day — most often neither despite or because of it, but through sheer good fortune.

As I suggest above, and in a similar manner to Kotsko, my own shaping-by-blogging is likewise something of a disadvantage to me, academically… but at the same time, if it wasn’t for that self-shaping experience, then I wouldn’t have an academic career for it to compromise, or the skills to bluff through and fake it until I (hopefully) make it.

All of which is to say: I too am attached to blogging as a medium in a manner that I can rationalise until the cows come home, but which perhaps ultimately boils down to it having been the context of my life and aspirations at a formative and fortunately-timed moment of half-accidental career development. I too resent the banalisation of socnet discourse, because I (probably very mistakenly) hark back to an idealised golden era in which our heated arguments took days and thousands of words to play out rather than hours and dozens. I can’t let it go any more than I can let go my affection for miserabilist grunge-rock. I’ve learned to love newer things since, and I don’t listen to it so much as I used to (if you’ll excuse the over-extension of the metaphor), but it’s still the foundation of everything that I’ve done since. How could it be any other way? The self, assuming there is such a thing, is emergent; the starting parameters inevitably remain implicit in the latest iterations. And with the self-system as with the contextual metasystem: the way out is through, and also endless—a utopian direction of travel rather than a destination that can ever be reached.

But enough navel-gazing. People have been saying that blogging is making a comeback since long before it had even fully faded away, so I’m retaining a healthy (and somewhat prophylactic) scepticism about the most recent resurfacing of that particular signal—“we won’t get fooled again”, as the song goes. But maybe the hellscape of the year that has been 2020 will provide the momentum that’s needed for that dialectic to spin around once more; if you want yer signs and portents, then they’re out there.

(Perhaps the strongest of those was summed up very accurately by a recent backchannel message from Jay Springett, who was pointing out a sudden fashion among newsletter-writers for building taxonomy pages linking out to their archives… but then again, I know my Douglas Adams, and thus have some well-founded opinions about the propensity for people to attempt to reinvent the wheel, and to get stuck on entirely the wrong aspects of the problem. Well, I guess we’ll see.)

One way or another, much like Kotsko, I think—and indeed hope—I’ll keep blogging, even if I don’t have the time or mental stamina to do it as much as I once did. There’s only so much composition bandwidth the ol’ brainmeat can muster in a single day, and academia is—thankfully, and happily—taking up the majority of that right now, and for the foreseeable.

If blogging ever does make its comeback, it will of course never be “blogging” as we experienced it Back In The Day. I guess I have sufficient wisdom to recognise that to be as good a thing as it is an inevitable thing—even as I have sufficient nostalgia for a formative and desperate time of my life to wish, just a little bit, that we could go back to what now seems like a more innocent and antediluvian culture.

World keeps spinnin’, don’t it? That’s our curse, as a species, but it’s also our blessing.

Happy new year.

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