On Writing or: What Do I Need to Smoke to Understand Your Websites?

This is a verbatim quote.
(“This” refers to the second part of the title. The first one is a lame reference to Stephen King, of course).

It is a question asked by a former colleague some years ago who had been exposed to my proto-blog websites for the first time. These websites are subject to my ongoing Website Resurrection Project.

I had planned to give you a dull, corporate-status-report-style update on the project, but there is nothing more to say but: To my utmost surprise I am really maintaining these websites still, in addition to this blog, in addition to our so-called company blog and websites (hardly discernible as such) … and in addition to excessive usage of social media since last year.

The more interesting question is: Why?

Why am I writing (pseudo-)blogs and why am I engaged in so many different conversations?

This post has also been inspired by Michelle Hatzel’s post on Virtual Dwellings. (Edit: Posting not available as per 2019).

I confess, my very first website was a business website (even discernible as such) – this was in 1997, the golden age of IT, before the dotcom crash – and me an aspiring freelance IT consultant. The Y2K version of this (German) site is still available, tagged as archived.

Thus I am not a serial website creator and deleter – I migrated the old stuff over and over to several new platforms and my rule is not to delete anything and cross-link all my profiles and websites. I am fascinated by the intricacies of Digital Legacy, by the way. (Edit – 2019: article now behind paywall. So much for digital legacy!)

The only exception to this was taking large parts of the website offline and gradually ‘resurrecting’ them now. I dare say one of the reasons I am writing online is my desire to confront myself with my dated writing and thinking.

I am intrigued by ambiguity and by attempts to bridge chasms, most notably the ones running through my own (online?) persona. This was what made me craft the lengthy site title of this blog and this made me create three different sites back then – different in layout, style and content. In this blog I am aiming at exactly the opposite by combining everything.

Often I felt compelled to or obliged to write an ‘expert blog’, e.g. on cryptography and digital certificates. Theoretically this is the way to build an online community and reputation as the social media experts tell us, and you should give back to the community and add to the free repository of knowledge that had been invaluable to me as a professional.

But I already felt bored before I even got started. Though I do write about science and IT I cannot disentangle that from personal stories and weird associations.

I called my personal website e-stangl.at my personal console – replying to my individual WHOAMI – and that’s exactly what it was. I started experimenting with the interaction between language, content, layout and the technical underpinnings of websites. I have spent hours in moving something one pixel to the left or to the right and musing about which colors to pick in order to perfectly represent the spirit of a website. (Voice from the future – 2019: I consolidated this site with my other two sites in a single one – preserving all the content and also the old URLs, at least until 2019).

Adding a disclaimer I need to state my web tech knowledge is dated now and I don’t say that my sites are particularly beautiful or well done. But my own web design and web writing is one of the few things I ever tried my hands on that are devoid of my – otherwise all-encompassing and irritating – perfectionism.

My ancient websites are based on a homegrown ‘content management system’ that antedated some of typical blogging softwares’ features, but it lacked the options of adding categories and tags in a flexible way. This is due to my former belief in being able to really categorize in advance what you are going to write about. But I am an avid re-tagger and re-categorizer, and re-arranging my web content is really raking my personal Zen Garden.

Yes, there is nearly only navel-gazing at these websites, and – in a sense – this is an upside of making a website your fortress on the web, your personal dwelling. Though I had received unsolicited feedback via e-mail now and then, I know I am writing only for myself. Since these are technically not blogs and not hosted on a well-indexed platform they are basically not found. The whole point is writing with an imaginary public audience in mind that theoretically could read it, but not in your wildest dreams expecting any feedback ever.

I started this blog with the same ‘intentions’, but suddenly the fortress with its well-defined boundaries turned into a conversation. Years before I had loathed the concept of my comments published at other websites and other bloggers’ comments published to mine – blurring the boundaries between ‘mine’ and ‘your’ virtual territory. I imagined all kinds of stalkers and fringe scientists invading my websites. Unfortunately that did not happen.

Now I consider myself part of that large network and I don’t care about the boundaries. It is the process, the endless stream of different conversations that meet in a place that I might call my online dwelling. It is like a roundabout or crossroads, not like a building.

This is most likely the reason I plunged in to Facebook, Twitter and Google+ gleefully – as a rather late adopter. Again I finally ‘got’ the idea of resharing and retweeting existing content which seemed absurd and useless to me before: It is about being a thought leader DJ. I accepted that all human utterance is entirely plagiarism (Mark Twain) and came to terms with all of writing (any myself) being cliché. No, this time I won’t pingback to my article featuring Sandra Bullock as the nerdess. quoting my article about cliché has become cliché it its own right.

The greatest mystery to myself was probably why I am blogging in English. About 10 years ago I had suddenly decided I needed to have an English version of subversiv.at and e-stangl.at. [Voice from the future: Adding all those voice-from-the-future comments everything is getting tedious. Anyway, sites have been merged in 2015, and will be merged more in 2019]. I planned for a 1:1 correspondence of English and German pages and I failed epically on that: I dreaded keeping them in sync. The English version just never wanted to be a translation of the German one or vice versa. It was more like: Here is a keyword – now write down your free associations in German and English.

I am not sure if this explains anything but my English reading at that time comprised the following books that I still consider most influential.

The following website – my first English-only website has materialized itself out of the blue in 2005 after having devoured such books in parallel to your daily dose of ‘corporate communications’. It was about a ‘group project’ whose activities I had the honor to chronicle.

EPSI is a prestigious middle European Think Thank dedicated to: Elementary research, painting blogs, collecting space and doing something. (This was our logo)

For better or for worse: My brain switches to English when pondering on smart aliens who plan to subvert the corporate world, for example. I had written extremely weird stuff in German also – that triggered the quote used as header, but German and English weirdness cannot be translated into each other. As an important initiative in The Website Resurrection Project – I started commenting on my former, weird German ‘Subversive Newsletters’ in English, and I started adding ironic and sarcastic comments on my former Pivotal Articles in German such as my graduation speech.

This post has reflected an important characteristic of all my online writing: It is a about trains of random thoughts, loosely connected, and not all planned strategically. It is finally about a global conversation, not so much about exposing my monolithic work of art to the public.

If you do not know how to close a random post – add a quote:

We long for more connection between what we do for a living and what we genuinely care about, for work that’s more than clock-watching drudgery. We long for release from anonymity, to be seen as who we feel ourselves to be rather than as the sum of abstract metrics and parameters. We long to be part of a world that makes sense rather than accept the accidental alienation imposed by market forces too large to grasp, to even contemplate.

And this longing is not mere wistful nostalgia, not just some unreconstructed adolescent dream. It is living evidence of heart, of what makes us most human.

— Christopher Locke in Internet Apocalypso, Chapter 1 of The Cluetrain Manifesto

Getting a sense of humor does not mean putting some jokes on the corporate web site.
Rather, it requires big values, a little humility, straight talk, and a genuine point of view.

— Thesis Nr. 22 of 95 of The Cluetrain Manifesto

12 Comments Add yours

  1. Wow … I resonate with your quote from Locke. I read much of what you have written as reflecting on what it means to be human (Locke’s last line, indeed).

    We long for connection. We long for release from anonymity. We long to be part of a world.
    This is living evidence of heart, of what makes us most human.

    The second idea is perhaps most telling … we long for release from anonymity. We all want the world to know we exist. [And this is so very different for others within our animal kingdom.] We want and need to be heard. That reminds me of the most famous question, “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Do we exist apart from the connections we form with others? Can we exist without being perceived? Everything you describe reflects your efforts to be heard in your unique voice. Regardless of the message, regardless of the insights and meaning – we simply want others to know and appreciate us as individuals. Am I totally off base? I hope not.

    1. elkement says:

      I did not have any idea what this post should really be about when I started writing this morning. But I believe you have summarized it better than I had been able to: “… reflects your efforts to be heard in your unique voice. Regardless of the message, regardless of the insights and meaning – we simply want others to know and appreciate us as individuals …”.
      I enjoy the blogosphere because it is obviously possible to achieve that – and even more: to achieve that just by using words on ‘virtual paper’. It compensates most likely for not being understood by the lower-left-quadrant-fraction of humankind at times, in the so-called real life ;-) (… referring to our conversation on my last reblog…)

  2. M. Hatzel says:

    I agree with Maurice Barry, I’m also in awe. (And thanks for the ping back.)
    I like this “Now I consider myself part of that large network and I don’t care about the boundaries. It is the process, the endless stream of different conversations that meet in a place that I might call my online dwelling. It is like a roundabout or crossroads, not like a building.” It is really key that you connect this to the fortresses, and how those walls and boundaries dissolve in conversation.
    A very thought-provoking post, and a very exciting one, too. I’m having difficulty framing a comment, as my thoughts are pulled in all directions here. Future posts are becoming influenced as I consider.

    1. elkement says:

      Wow Michelle, thanks – this is quite a compliment!! You are an English major and a great writer (… and such topics being a specialty of yours!), so you really know about language!
      I really looking forward to future post of yours on related topics. I would be very much interested in your take on second languages in particular. I suppose you speak French?
      For example – trying to translate the sentence you quoted to German creates something which is way too pathetic and overly serious. Very similar to the issues I had with the German version of Max Ehrmann’s Desiderata I mentioned in my comment on postmoderndonkey’s post: http://postmoderndonkey.wordpress.com/2013/03/31/a-good-day-for-another-pass-over-the-desiderata-to-resurrect-my-relationship-with-the-wondrous-universe-within-and-without-me/
      Recently I have written a ‘post’ on my German ‘science’ / ‘most normal’ website about my social web experiences and the bloggiversary – not that different on principle from what I am musing about on this blog. Yet it turned out to result in something … quite solemn. This kind of solemnity the German language seems to be able to convey is great – e.g. I had been a big fan of Goethe’s Faust ever since. I would not say this post gave a false impression of my feelings, but it just exhibited the more serious part (?)
      Very difficult to get this across – in either language. I am eagerly awaiting the expert-in-theory-of-language’s posts about such issues!

      1. M. Hatzel says:

        I have always struggled with languages. Perhaps this is the fate of a land-locked prairie girl being raised in a homogeneous culture. Maybe, because I struggle with learning new languages (French is my best success, an intermediate level) that I spend so much time considering words, and the interesting problems and possibilities that arise in language. But even with that said, I do understand the difficulty of nuance and tension that arises in translation. The cultural constructs of a context (i.e. region) are built into dialect, and become complex, integrated layers of meaning. It as though language transcends itself, beyond mere mechanics, to reflect a deeper emotional and psychological experience. Thus, the two different moods of your blog posts can both be true even while different (even contradictory, in a sense) because they reflect the multifaceted complexity of what it is to be human.

        In my last post I hesitated to use the word ‘paradigm’ because of its origins in science, and that the concept was never intended to become part of the social sciences. Yet, paradigm shifts in broader cultural thinking happen, and I think they can be measured in language (this is my idea of it, I’ll have to read more to see what better thinkers have to say ;) ).

  3. my own (online?) persona– So do we move toward definition or expansion of our personas through thought and communication?

    1. elkement says:

      I have probably borrowed the term online persona from David Weinberger and his book on the impact of the web on culture and communication called http://www.smallpieces.com/index.php.
      Though I can’t recall it correctly and my own thoughts might get entangled with his, I believe he said something along the lines: Establishing your virtual home is not about providing an exact image of who you really are, but it is not about deliberately deceiving readers either. It is about experimenting with exposing particular aspects of your persona and actually shape this persona by the interaction with others. (Mr. Weinberger, if you honor my blogging by reading it – I hope I will re-read your book someday and might give a better summary…)

      So I would say: Yes, we expand our personas through thought and communication and the internet and social web tools in particular provide the technical infrastructure to facilitate this.

      1. Identity is such an interesting thing. How does a thing in constant evolution, expanding through biological, mental, experiential and social elements (to name a few) every moment dare to define itself? Humans must maintain their courage to believe in identity, I suppose, or we would devolve into uncertainty and a lack of identity and psychotic break.

        1. elkement says:

          Thanks, postmoderndonkey, for the interesting discussion! Yes, it seems we need to re-invent ourselves all the time in order to maintain something as identity. I have once read that experts in brain science consider neurons re-creating ‘mind’ (?) every second through their never-ending activities (in contrast to the dated metaphor of memory as a passive storage). I know I am not using terms consistent here – mind, memory etc.

          1. Brilliant inconsistency is your m.o.

  4. You know, I don’t always consider the fact that English is not your first language. That’s amazing as we tend to think mainly in one language. The sign of real multilingualism is when we can think in two. I am in awe over how you can do that.

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, Maurice, that’s very kind! In The Cluetrain Manifesto which i indulge in quoting so often, Christopher Locke tells the story about he turned from ‘phony PR guy’ to ‘subversive online writer’. He doesn’t say it in this way exactly, these are the tags I would attribute to him. Anyway, he talks about the moment he – suddenly and accidentally – discovered what he called ‘his voice’: the way he wanted to address the public – in a conversational tone and making heavy use of humor (that corporation typically lack. One of my favorites quotes in the book is about “corporations that have surgically implanted a lawyer where their sense of humor used to be”)
      In can relate a lot to this: I felt a deep need, a sudden urge to turn my experiences in the kafaesque (Dilbertesque) corporate world to something that is truly my way of tackling it – with dark humor, strange associations, and playing with the so-called appropriate languages in an abysmal or bizarre way. And this particular voice of mine was an English one, to my own surprise.
      On the other hand I miss a lot of words denoting everyday stuff, such as all kinds of gadgets you find in a mechanical workshop, or even in the kitchen. OK – many of them I probably do not know in German as well.
      Thanks again for your comment!

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