Monday, December 22

tiny letters

As a kind of counterbalance to things I’ve said lately about e-mail, I want to talk about some mass mailings I really love getting — things that feel like they make me a little smarter or a little better or a little less broken.

A bunch of them are using TinyLetter, which is a simple but evidently well-crafted service for sending newsletters. It’s possible (indeed, nearly inevitable) that one day this will go sour and some depressing person will use the presence of my address in a bunch of subscription lists maintained by TinyLetter to spam me,1 but in the mean time I’m enjoying them.

One of these I have mentioned before is 6, by Charlie Loyd, who I do not always agree with but who is almost always saying something I am interested in hearing. The dude makes me wish I were smart enough to have the kind of ideas he has, but somehow does this without making me feel any dumber. Like this:

The best guesses, and they are just guesses, suppose that most writing was invented in a very piecemeal way. This is hinted at by the way we can trace our letters back to pictograms, for example. Probably people were just drawing for a long time, then write-drawing rebuses for a while, and sort of communally pushed each other toward more abstract, fluent writing-writing. Not Ssiquaya! He had an existence proof, so to speak. He had evidence to believe that writing was possible, although not enough evidence to convince other reasonable people. And from that alone, independently, he invented systems in three major types of writing, one of which completely succeeded. Can you imagine that? To truly teach yourself to read and write? To never have someone say a word while pointing at it, to lay those tracks in front of your own moving train? I can’t. I can’t wrap my head around that much imagination, that much mental power and precision.

Also, sometimes he just really lays it down on the whole speaking-for-those-of-us-from-the-provinces front. A sample of this latter, from a paragraph later in the same newsletter:

I refer to the ability of the New York Times to both believe that it has free reference to the entire world, and to express fall-over-flat astonishment that people live and work and think and interact anywhere outside the Five Boroughs. The vigor of mind needed to patronize Kansans that hard and that shamelessly is simply astonishing. Sure, it’s gross and weird, but you have to admire the sheer difficulty of what they’re pulling off. They manage to make the fact that a town receives a classic rock station sound like quaint local color. How? All over the country, expert writers and editors are hunched over sentences like that one, peering through microscopes, debating, whiteboarding diagrams, pacing, running the words letter-by-letter through supercomputers, trying to understand how the NYT can strike tones that rude and foolish.

Another: Metafoundry, which almost always manages to make me think about something in a way I otherwise would have failed to do, and been worse for it.

Another: Pome, which is a daily bit of poetry. I don’t read every single one, but most of the time I read one, I’m reminded how much poetry I like, and how much I like poetry itself, and how much of the expression that I want to find in the world can be found in poems, and these are all things that it is for whatever reason desperately hard for me to remember in 2014.

I feel kind of weird writing about some of these mailings on the web (let alone quoting from them), even though they are openly subscribable and their archives can be found on the web if you take just a moment to look. I worry that maybe I’m on the edge of violating some expectation of a space that is not exactly private, but is also not entirely public in the way that the big, broadcast web and the big, broadcast mode of publishing and communicating on the web has become.

But then I guess that neither, exactly, is this web site that I’ve been haphazardly tending for so long. I feel ok talking a little about what people are writing in not-too-public spaces specifically because I have an audience, if it can even be called that, of close friends and scattered internet acquaintances of more-or-less demonstrated goodwill. There are no access controls on this page, but neither is it likely to be read by more than a few dozen people, most of them known to me. (On that very rare occasion when I do come to the attention of a few thousand readers, this site also fails to offer them a quick and easy platform for being horrible about anything, which is not exactly irrelevant to a continued sense of smallness and relative safety.)

I have been thinking a lot about the internet that feels decent and kind and safe enough for human presence. I’ve recently experienced it again in places like the tildeverse and little IRC channels on obscure, out of the way private servers: Places that are explicitly constrained by membership, or implicitly less-than-public by virtue of being known and interesting to only a few.

One way to explain some of what I’ve been noticing are formulations my parents probably learned from their parents or grandparents: The “good fences make good neighbors” and “locks keep honest people honest” models of the world. And this is not altogether a bad way to understand things, especially when I think about the farming communities it’s situated in.

But thinking about small towns (like the one I grew up near, and the one I live in now) and small spaces on the net gets me back to something else that we talk about a lot in the technical world: Scale.

I’ve probably tried to talk about this before and failed, but it seems to me like most of the conversations you hear about scale, in the overlapping domains of software/systems and organization/business/politics, go like one or more of these:

  1. We are small. How can we get big?
  2. We are getting bigger. How should our systems handle that?
  3. We are big. How can we get huge?
  4. We are huge. How can we stay huge?
  5. We were huge. What happened?

Not all of these conversations presuppose that scale is a good thing. People will tell you that they want their company or project to stay small, that they like working on a small team, and so on. That they miss the days when x forum or x network was more intimate. But expansion is so much the economic logic of so many undertakings, and more users so much the metric of success for software/network projects, that these parts of the discussion usually feel more like ritual invocations than anything else. The inescapable is this idea:

  1. If we are huge, then money and power.

Even when the desire to limit growth or prioritize things other than more/bigger is expressed as policy, it rarely has teeth and tends to evaporate in the face of money (or perceived money).

All of which makes it hard for internet people to grapple with all the ways that scale can be poison, all the ways it amplifies and massively distributes the social pathology we are seeing so much of lately.

Misogyny and racism and griefer behavior as mass culture. Circular-firing-squad activist outrage discourse. The technical conversation as a relentless and unbelievably cruel turf war. This stuff has been both latent and active in the network for its entire history, but for a while it has been something almost like a natural disaster in progress. Which is an idea I invoke not so much to absolve the bad actors who nurture and coordinate and act as cogs in the distributed machinery of being a vicious shithead on the internet, but rather to help explain how they have come to occupy so much of the bandwidth.2

The internet used to be a patchwork of little protocols and little systems that turned out, as everything grew, to be intrinsically vulnerable to trolls, griefers, creepers, know-it-alls, spammers, and the near-mechanical certainty of outrage storms. For a long time I’ve talked about, for example, how e-mail was designed spammable and this is a fundamental breakage. I think everybody knows it. But then again as I’ve revisited some of those forms and withdrawn into small network scenes from big ones like twitter and reddit, I’ve started to wonder how much those structural vulnerabilities are the actual problem and how much is just the mathematical certainty of emergent pathology at scale.

To put it another way, I live a lot of the best and healthiest parts of my meatspace life in kitchens and living rooms and campgrounds. How many of these places wouldn’t be scenes of abject horror, or at least gravely damaged, if they were rebuilt as broadcast projections?

As an addendum, I think a bunch of the above is unconsciously ripped-off from, among other places (including most probably writers with TinyLetters I subscribe to and people with tilde.club blogs), Tiny Letters to the Web We Miss, by Joanne McNeil:

Self-publishing online was fluid and inviting in the early years because the community was self-selecting — the sort of people who would know what Blogspot was in 2003. I didn’t worry about my boss finding my blog. I didn’t worry about getting rape threats in the comments either. (Just thinking about how absurd that sentence would have sounded in 2003 is giving me a crater-sized hit of nostalgia.) We didn’t have the same worries over public personas, because the internet felt like it was just us.

Blogging before social media was like drinking with friends. If someone adjacent to your conversation said something interesting, you would pull up a chair and invite them in. Sometimes a friendly stranger would even buy you a drink.

1 Given that TinyLetter's owned by the MailChimp people, I'm going to assume bleedover and entanglement between databases and metrics tools of some kind. Oh well. At least it's a very-explicitly opt-in model on a per-list basis right now.

2 And maybe part of how I myself have found it so easy to be drawn into ugly flamewarrior nonsense on plenty of occasions. I got no excuses, but why is the temptation so strong, other than that I'm kind of a jerk?