Deconstructing “You’ve Got Blog”

NOTE: You’re reading the version of this article published in We’ve Got Blog (official site; Amazon). The original online posting is still available. ¶ See also: Correction.

It’s a fixture of life, as the 21st century begins its slow download into history, that media can and do refer to and build atop themselves, adding layers of remove from the source or original subject. Here’s a Canadian example: Bruce McDonald’s film Hard Core Logo (1996) was adapted as a screenplay by Noel Baker from a 1993 book of doggerel by Michael Turner, later to be adapted into a comic book by Nick Craine (1997) while Baker wrote Hard Core Roadshow (1997), a nonfiction book on making the movie.

How’s that for meta?

My contribution to this collection conforms to that trend, straddling a pair of distinct media: “Deconstructing ‘You’ve Got Blog,’ ” as you read it here, is an adaptation of a Web page (a “posting,” really, from November 2000) that analyzed a magazine article about Web sites.

I’ve done a lot of writing for the print medium as a journalist for magazines and newspapers; I’ve also written a book and a handful of scripts. I’ve been online since 1991 (look me up via a Google Groups search if you like), and I’ve written over 500 items for my own Web sites. I maintain four different Weblogs. But before working on this adaptation, it had never occurred to me how profoundly the qualities of the eventual medium shape one’s manner of expression.

The original posting used HTML structures like tables for a columnar layout and ordered and unordered lists (<ol></ol> and <ul></ul>) and block quotations (<blockquote></blockquote>) to organize topics. It may be a shibboleth for novice Web authors to use built-in formats like lists (because, we are told in a by advisors who are themselves bad writers in the first place, people scan Web pages rather than reading them), but I tend to view HTML structures as merely tools in one’s armamentarium, to be used or ignored at will. Yet since I opted for the path of HTML structure at the outset, what alterations are necessary to make the same piece work in a printed book?

Damned if I know. Even self-medication with the strongest drug I take, the double long espresso, failed to unleash an alternative from the recesses of my mind. It looks like you, dear reader, are stuck with a Weblike and decidedly untypographic amalgam of bullets and nested indention. I expect this may end up feeling as forced and ill-advised as aiming a camocorder at a high-school play and calling it a feature film. You have my apologies in advance. But look on the bright side: Twee literary theorists stand to gain a whole new domain for masters’ theses in problematizing the Web/print literary interface. Just be sure to give me a nice plug.

Our story begins

You’ve Got Blog,” Rebecca Mead’s trenchant analysis of the blog-abetted romance of Jason Kottke and Meg Hourihan, finally put us Weblogger kidz on the map big-time. The article is excellent, full stop. Mead accurately, fairly, and indeed winsomely encapsulates the blogging phenomenon through the tried-and-true narrative device of personifying an abstract process with a hero (and heroine). In fact, Mead got so many things right that the story works on multiple levels; the knowing reader can identify a few truths a blogging neophyte could not. Let’s explore, shall we?

  1. The unbearable incestuousness of blogging: “The other people who have blogs... read your blog, and if they like it they blog your blog on their own blog.”
  2. The A-List: “Jason Kottke... is widely admired among bloggers as a thoughtful critic of Web culture.... Getting blogged by Kottke, or by Meg Hourihan or one of her colleagues at Pyra, is the blog equivalent of having your book featured on Oprah.”
  3. Publicity stunt: I recall the topic of the relentlessly-counterblogged “memory” of a young girl riding her bicycle. An entry along these lines appeared in dozens of blogs:

    A little girl rides her bike up my street, streamers flapping from the handlebars, a cheerful basket fastened up front. As I get out of my car and start up the steps of the house, she waves and calls out “Hi, Mr. Cooley!” I pause on the steps and wave back as she continues down the block. She’ll make two or three more circles of the wide, grassy parkway that separates the north and south sides of our street and then, I imagine, go home for supper.

    This happens at least once a week, and has gone on for much of the summer.

    My name, incidentally, is not Cooley, but she thinks it is. Ours is a neighborhood where most of the houses are at least a century old and are referred to by the names of their original owners or the most recent residents of long standing. The Parks House. The Chouteau House, across the street. We have lived here only eight years, so ours is still the Cooley House. We won’t get naming rights for another decade at the inside.

    The little girl has probably heard her parents or grandparents describe my home as the Cooley House, pointing it out on walks on sultry summer evenings before the sun slips leisurely behind the Arch and the city air begins to cool. With perfect logic, she assumes that because I live in the Cooley House, I must be Mr. Cooley.

    I do not know her name, but tonight, as the little girl excitedly pedals away, I wave and call to her back, “Hi, Sarah! Be careful, now!”

    She will be Sarah because the girl on the bike in my neighborhood when I was growing up was Sarah. She won’t get to be Britney or Courteney or Tiffany for another decade at the inside.

    (That was Brad Graham’s version from Bradlands.com. I fixed its misspellings and malapropisms.) In response to this promiscuous counterblogging, Rebecca Mead quotes Meg Hourihan is quoted thus: “I was especially struck by the number of people who thought it was a big prank pulled by the ‘popular’ kids to make fun of the uncool kids.” That clearly was not the intent, but the effect was the same, highlighting the incestuousness and insularity of the crème-de-la-blogging-crème.

  4. The Golden Age: Derek Powazek’s retrenchment from blogging “provoked a flurry of postings from neophyte bloggers, who feared they were facing the Twilight of Blogging before they had really had a chance to enjoy the Dawn of Blogging.” Setting aside for the moment that Powazek has been well and ably back in the blogging game since December 2000, this entire question revolves around a single word: audience.

“Yeah? So?”

Of course, if you are not actually predisposed to buy any of the foregoing, everything I have written so far may seem like unreconstructed whining. In fact, other bloggers described the posting thus:

(Here’s what Rebecca Mead had to say: “This seems to me to be very astute.” So, I mean, you tell me.)

In the New Yorker, Rebecca Mead quotes Jason Kottke: “He’d written that there were things going on in his life that were more personal than the stuff he usually wrote about in his Weblog. ‘Why don’t I just write it down somewhere private... a Word doc on my computer or in a paper diary?’ he asked himself, and his readers. ‘Somehow, that seems strange to me, though... The Web is the place for you to express your thoughts and feelings and such. To put those things elsewhere seems absurd.’ ” In keeping with the practice of documenting deep-seated feelings and experiences in plain public view, it’s time to explain why I wrote this companion piece.

You may think I’m jealous. Trust me, I’m not. Mildly envious, yes, but not jealous.

I wrote the original posting while working as an “office lady” (“OL”), to use the quaint Japanese locution. At age 35, I was a glorified secretary – a pink-collar profession where my genuinely vast software knowledge, impeccable writing skills, and 90-words-a-minute typing were useful, if not highly remunerated. In a particularly unchallenging assignment, I knew I had maybe three hours of actual work to finish in the run of a day; I was, moreover, unsupervised in my own veal-fattening pen, and everyone expected me to be typing away all day. I even had a copyholder, all the better to read the original Rebecca Mead article and engage in surgical-quality rhetorical curettage.

I was, at this point, not only a qualified writer–editor but a struggling “content consultant.” I started a fledgling content consultancy, named contenu.nu (“content” in French, plus the memorable reduplicative .nu domain, which the island of Niue has sold on the open market for years), with a few of my friends as allies, if not actual business partners. But they all had day jobs (mostly in the Web field), while all I had to show at contenu.nu was my kvetchy Weblog on online content, the NUblog, widely unread though maintained to this very day. I was barely making a living as an OL and was a failure at rounding up “content” business. Even OLing was sporadic, leaving me with extensive high-stress “free” time in which to pound out kvetchy content ruminations at 90 words a minute.

But all my friends, I reiterate, had day jobs, as did seemingly everyone else who ran a blog. The straw that broke this camel’s back was the knowledge that A-list bloggers, and many of those unlucky enough not to be on that list, led well-funded and more-or-less-rewarding lives in the Internet industry. How many times did we run across a blog posting like this hypothetical composite example?

Rio just came out with a new MP3 player shaped like a walnut – and about the same size. They say it’ll sync with my Palm, which is too damn new for me to have synced it with my old Palm, let alone the Cube or the PowerBook. Anyway, something to pick up after Saturday brunch with the blog crew. Maybe I should retire my iPod….

I’d be less inclined to complain if I’d been able to share in the Internet bounty in even the most trivial way. None of us Webloggers is particularly wealthy; few of us became dot-com millionaires. It’s just that everyone but me got to make a living. It bugged me that the A-list kids were not really any smarter, or any better at Web design, or had anything particularly better to say than so many of the plebes. Their fame is inexplicable, but famous they were and are – and they were able to keep their heads above water. It’s that combination I resented.

Elizabeth Taylor was at least beautiful and could act, when not knocking back the sauce and buying diamonds by the barrel. What enabled an anointed cadre of objectively undifferentiable Webloggers to be viewed as demigods escapes me. And it does in fact chafe against my egalitarian instincts. Many of us are as good as they are. (There. I put myself in one of the camps. And not the one that elicits profiles in the New Yorker.)

It is no longer fair to say, as my original posting did, that “we can look forward to further triumphs and prosperity for Jason, Meg, Derek, and the other quarterbacks and cheerleaders of Weblog High. Successful people remain successful.” Meg Hourihan was forced to go freelance (a euphemism that rivals “denies wrongdoing” and “left to pursue other interests”) after her employer Pyra, inventor of the mighty Blogger application, was driven into a snowbank by mismanagement. But she’s the exception: A-list bloggers have, in general, remained on the A-list and remained employed. And besides, doesn’t she have a boyfriend who enjoys continued adulation and a good job?

Meg Hourihan writes (at the very late date of 2003.01.22): “I was not ‘forced to go freelance.’ I was not forced to do anything at all. I made a decision to resign from Pyra. Very quickly after my resignation, I accepted a full-time position with another company in the Bay Area. I was laid-off from that job at the end of May, 2001. From that point through October 2002, I worked as both a freelance writer (for O’Reilly & Associates, New Architect magazine, and John C. Wiley & Sons) and a Web consultant (for several companies in the Bay Area, including a major Fortune 500 company).” Corrections noted. (See also a posting on her site.)

She continues: “Regarding my having ‘a boyfriend who enjoys...a good job,’ this was also incorrect. Jason has had no full-time job since August, 2001.” It was a rhetorical question, and steady contract or freelance work, to draw an example, would still be “a good job.” You don’t have to hold down an actual salaried nine-to-five position to have “a good job.”

Meg confirms, however, that Jason is still “[her] boyfriend.”

If I’d been able to get a piece of that action when I originally wrote the piece, I’d have been right in there rootin’ the A-list on. I’m a journalist; of course I approve of worthy people getting good press. The origin of this deconstruction, then, is a form of economic resentment. And if you think I make this admission lightly, especially in a book that may still be around in 20 years, you underestimate how I felt about being poor at the time. Really, my feelings have not changed even as my lot in life has improved. I never managed to land a Web job, but I wrote a book – Building Accessible Websites, on Web accessibility – and started doing accessibility consulting. I hope that, at some future time, a duo comprised of an economist and an anthropologist will write a history of the employment jungle that was the Internet “bubble.”

A blog is a form of exteriorized psychology. It’s a part of you, or of your psyche; while a titanium hip joint or a pacemaker might bring technology inside the corporeal you, a Weblog uses technology to bring the psychological you outside of it. Your Weblog acts as a new limb, a new mouth, and a new hemisphere of the brain. Once those new organs come into being, you’re no more likely to remove or amputate them than the original organic equipment they augment. I continue to write Weblogs – not for money, not for renown, not for anyone but myself.

Another NOTE: In retrospect, I think the closing sentence is a bit of grandstanding and may well contradict the facts as laid out in the rest of the article. I’m somewhat embarrassed by it.

Updated 2003.01.22 ¶ 2007.07.15

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See also: Original version