What Is This Thing? What Is This Thing For?

The more I think about current and future projects for myself, the more I also think that anything we do, or anything worth teaching or learning requires us to answer two extremely basic questions about that subject:

  1. What is this thing?
  2. What is this thing for?

Almost too basic. But I think we often fail to set parameters around whatever subject matter we might be interested in, so our thoughts become muddled and disjointed. We are then led down several different paths, all of which don’t seem to amount to anything. We are then further led to a sense of overwhelm or despair because the topic at hand seems too difficult or unwieldy. To be sure, the topic at hand probably is unwieldy — we should be able to mitigate such a problem, however, if we spending time in thought about the given subject.

To wit, a personal example: blogging. Since attempting to build the writing-once-a-day habit, I’ve also thought extensively about the two questions above.

  1. What is a blog? What is blogging?
  2. What is a blog for? What should the purpose of a (or, perhaps better, my) blog be?

It’s kind of like teleological blogging. I don’t want to seriously engage in this activity if I can’t determine its purpose. Alan Jacobs has helped me significantly in this area. This morning, he published two posts (“new uses for old blogs”, and “the blog garden”) that, although written specifically about his personal publishing/writing situation, spoke to this area for me. He has continued along the trail of thought he laid out in his digital commons article; namely, making a distinction between maintaining a personal digital space as a type of architecture as opposed to the metaphor of gardening. The gardening metaphor is not only useful, but helpful in a time when most of us interact with a web that was created by others, rather than building it ourselves. He writes in “the blog garden”:

For some time now I’ve been thinking of writing a book about John Ruskin. And I still might. But I’ve been led to consider such a book by gradually gathering drawings and quotes by Ruskin on this blog (there are also a few Ruskin entries at Text Patterns). Suppose that, instead of architecturally writing that book, I simply contented cultivating my Ruskin garden? (See this post for the architecture/gardening distinction.) More images and more quotations, more reflection on those images and quotations. What might emerge?

In some ways this would be a return to what I did a few years ago with my Gospel of the Trees site, which arose because what I wanted to say about trees just couldn’t be made to fit into a book, in part because it refused to become a linear narrative or argument and in part because it was so image-dependent and book publishers don’t like the cost of that. But the advantage of a tag over a standalone site is that each post can have other tags as well, which lead down other paths of reflection and information, in a Zettelkasten sort of way.

That was a long quote, but I hope the point comes across. Jacobs, rather than wanting to shoehorn his writing about Ruskin into the form of a book (which takes an extended period of deep reflection and focus — neither of which are “bad”), is considering gathering material and reflecting upon that material in meaningful ways through a tagging system that has the potential to lead both the author and the audience down numerous rabbit trails. The connections that can be made in this kind of process (rather than a book, which is most often a single-path endeavor) are many and can sometimes be surprising.


So, what do I want blogging to be for me? Maybe not something so serious as what Jacobs is attempting. That’s a full-fledged project that I don’t have time for. What I’m hoping for, instead, is the ability to make connections I wouldn’t have made otherwise (through a tagging system), and to cultivate my understanding of different topics in a disciplined, meaningful way.

The Tyranny of Social Media over the Digital Commons

Well, I fell down the rabbit hole today. I woke up with a cold, and was able to catch up on some pieces I missed whilst on vacation last week. Alan Jacobs’s blog post on the beauty of RSS feeds in the age of curated algorithmic streams led me to his essay at The Hedgehog Review on cultivating the digital commons well. Then later I found an old essay of his at The New Atlantic on attention and technology. Then, of course, randomly, Cal Newport’s posted a small piece on the difference between a social internet and social media on Study Hacks.

Lots of links. Anyway, these all have me thinking about the appropriate ways of tending to the digital commons in a way that is not only beneficial to me (refocusing my attention to meaningful work) but also to my broader social community. Is Facebook, with its optimization towards selling my information to the highest bidder, really the best way to do that? I don’t think so. So, on a whim, I downloaded all my info from the network, and completely deleted my account (which they make incredibly difficult to do — if you want to do this it some point, go here, and click the “let us know” link under “How do I permanently delete my account?”). We’ll see how long I keep Twitter. I still like it too much to give it up, but that’s also what smokers say who know they need to quit and just refuse to do so.

Further, I’m considering building my own website/platform that includes my blog, but is more than that. I’m not under any delusion that people will be interested in what’s there, or anxiously waiting for me to post blogs, etc. However, I think it’s a way to tend to the social, digital commons, and further attempt to (re)build towards an open, free internet. People are not commodities, and that includes in the digital realm.

Maybe I’m being idealistic, or “tech-Amish” as Jacobs says, or Chicken Little-ish. I don’t tend to think so. For too long, my attention has been taken away from building a meaningful, digital space of my own that isn’t controlled by some insanely humongous corporation, where my data is being mined and sold for money.