still in love

Will Wilkinson has a short and sweet and lovely appreciation of old-school blogging up on his reborn personal blog. I dig it a lot, and I entirely endorse his point about writing and the self.

Blogging has always been described as being egalitarian or democratizing in an entirely bullshit way. Maybe in, like, 2000 blogging was an egalitarian space, but by the time any reasonably easy-to-use blogging software was released– by the time anyone in the mainstream media had really heard of blogging at all– it was pretty straightforwardly a crystallized hierarchy. Network effects are like that. Because as much as it might necessarily be true that you have to have good stuff to link to in order to participate “in the conversation,” it’s also true that the perceived value of those links is itself a function of artificial scarcity; if you just throw them around, nobody cares. In the early days of blogging, the perception of a blogging elite was created by the people who already had blogs acting like an elite. The value of being part of that elite lay in the people within putting up the velvet rope, and so they did. That’s not really sinister. It’s just how people work.

Of course, by now, as Will says, most of those old-school bloggers have been bought out, in one way or another. This, too, is merely human, rather than sinister. It turns out bloggers need to eat. Most people, I think, recognize how calcified the landscape is now. Still, there remains a romantic notion that blogging was a vehicle through which anybody could  rise up with a Blogger account and a dream.

Well: as a boy who once had a Blogger account, let me disabuse you of that notion. Not because of my obscurity, but because of my experiences. If someone were to ask me what has been most surprising part of getting, off and on, to argue with the taste makers and news shakers, I would say that it’s the regularity with which they revert to straightforward, old-fashioned big-timing. You’d be amazed. I cannot tell you how many times people in the savvy set have, when I’ve criticized them, resorted to saying simply, “I am a big deal, and you are not.” Which, generally, has something to do with their publication, or their organization, or their orbit among the rest of the luminaries. It has happened again and again: “you say I am guilty of this. But who are you?” Just some dude. Always, just some dude.

I knew early on that the notion of the death of old media, once so popular, was a fantasy. I knew because reverting to the old status hierarchies was then, as now, a go-to move of the threatened, and threatened people’s reactions are always honest. That these were frequently the same people who pushed the narrative that the online world was an egalitarian space was not really surprising. On the contrary, it was natural: the notion of egalitarianism is initially useful for those who have broken in, because it is necessary for their self-conception as someone who made it on merit, but becomes inconvenient once they want to use their elevation as leverage. Americans always want to have been poor but to have become rich. Again, just human. I don’t blame them.

But for all that there is another, more honest way in which old-school blogging has become actually egalitarian, grimy and uncool in the way real egalitarianism is. I like blogging now because whatever vestigial coolness it once had was gone. So now it really is what it was once sold as: just a repository of words. And there is a real, quiet, unsexy kind of egalitarianism in just words, a very basic fairness that doesn’t function as a social mechanism even in an online space where everything is some message about who you’re with. I’ve written a few times for Medium, and somebody said to me, conspiratorially, at a party, “You know, Medium’s very uncool.” And I just had no idea! God, the freedom! Joy for me is living outside of signalling.

There’s this movement afoot, finally, to shame people for constantly complaining about “haters,” a term that usually just means “critics whose criticisms I can’t answer.” I’m glad. But there’s a germ of a smarter idea in complaints about haters, a way to understand the real human value of your critics. A kid wrote me around Christmas time, asked me about building a life writing, said “People have advice for being successful, but they don’t have advice for being unsuccessful.” (He knows me well.) So I told him: pay closer attention to the people who criticize you than they pay to you. Take their arguments more seriously than they take yours. Let them get to you, for awhile. Let them worm around in your brain and burrow. But then, allow yourself to recognize what they found threatening about you in the first place. If the ethic of “haters gonna hate” involves ignoring criticism, then the alternative is to so deeply consider that criticism that you can see through to the beating human insecurity on the other side. If there wasn’t somebody smirking at you somewhere, how would you know you said anything at all?

I’ve tried to tell people: any independence that can be recognized by others as “the good kind” of independence is not independence at all. Only that which genuinely provokes people is really provocative. I’m not saying that I’m an independent outlaw rather than a pretentious mess. I’m saying that there’s no difference. The only way to really value the infinite possibility of human expression is to see it working in the writer you hate the most. Otherwise, it’s all bullshit, it’s all high school.

I told the kid: remember that the strong never tell you they’re strong. Only weak people do that. I told him that if he’s able he should use writing as a way to get money, access, and fame. But barring that, he should settle on the capacity to threaten. I can dismiss someone in the deepest, most comprehensive way I know. I can decide that they are totally compromised. I can tell myself I’ll never take them seriously again. And then, boom– their words are right, and to my surprise, they’ve wounded me once again. You have to be content with the knowledge that the people who dismiss you feel moved to do so. That’s what words can do.

I guess all I’m saying is: I get to decide, what I write here. And whatever the value of Being Somebody, that’s what you give up. I know so many young kids writing, somehow. And they’re really beautiful and smart and funny. They’re for real. But most of them have never even thought of writing for a purpose other than Being Somebody, and I don’t think they’ll ever understand this kind of freedom.

Wilkinson, man. He can drive me really fucking crazy, you know? I mean, sometimes, that dude. It’s maddening. But I am compelled to tell you that he’s a lovely fellow. He really is. And when I read his words, if I am being most fully myself, I can squint a little bit and say, ah. There you are. There you are. There you are.

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