A blog, now?

Let’s Define “Blog”

Once again we’ve all been exhorted to blog. I heeded the call this time partly because it’s been at least a year since I got to make a little lo-fi site like this. In deciding where to blog, the obvious choice for me was my old webshare on tilde.club, an experiment in nostalgic computing by Paul Ford (who heeded the call during the last cycle).

If I wanted to just make a website, though, I’d just make a website, but I also haven’t been writing much recently, and that’s a shame. Unfortunately, when you try to “get back into blogging” (I’ve had a number of blogs, but they were usually ~thematic~ and ended when I ran out of ideas or changed careers), you’re naturally out of practice so instead of something quietly interesting you inevitably go big and write something long and self-indulgent which would be a thinkpiece if published somewhere reputable.

I’m going to articulate a revisionist definition of “blog”.

Sally Haslanger suggests that there are at least three different ways one can go about defining a word. The first way is descriptive – going out and looking at how people actually use a word and recording those uses. This is why “literally” has two contrary meanings according to Merriam-Webster.

The second way is conceptual – trying to tease out the central concept blog from the word “blog”. Probably this is what Paul Ford was doing when he characterized blogging as “amateur prose written quickly and with neither guiding stricture nor sober editing”.

The third way is what Haslanger calls analytical and I call revisionist: here we take a somewhat vague word from common language and sharpen it for a purpose. Haslanger proposes a revisionist definition of “woman” wherein to be a woman is by definition to be oppressed, because her purpose is to abolish gender.

My purpose is to encourage resistance to centralized, corporate-controlled social networks. (lol)

Anil Dash has a long discussion (published, ironically, on Medium) about the infrastructure that’s been lost in the move towards centralized networks. He touches on one problem with corporate centralization, namely “the mass surveillance of user behaviors by both the giant companies as well as governmental agencies”. Beyond surveillance there is also the loss of control over one’s content: tweets, posts, and entire blogs can be deleted at the discretion of the owner, which is not actually you.

Of course Paul Ford could delete this blog if he wanted to, but I’m pretty sure he won’t. If I wanted more control over my content, though, I could install WordPress on a VM somewhere (like AWS) and blog there.

Of course Amazon could theoretically meddle with or delete my virtual server on AWS, or close my account for whatever reason. Digital Ocean and Linode are probably more trustworthy than Amazon, but that’s still ceding some control over my content to a private company. So I should probably set up a server in my closet and run the blog from there, right?

No, because that’s silly. And even then my domain could get shut down, or my ISP could block traffic to the blog, or who knows what else.

The point here is that absolute control over one’s content isn’t really possible; at some point you have to trust a third party.

(There’s a second point to be made: each step taken here to ensure greater control over your content requires more technical skill. It’s not fair or reasonable that anyone who just wants to blog freely should administer their own servers. Even attempts to streamline the process of, for example, setting up a secure WordPress blog, require familiarity with a UNIX-like command-line, SSH, the difference between Linux distributions, and so on. So it’s hardly surprising that most users prefer the proprietary, centralized networks that are easy and sometimes even pleasant to use. Tragically, it remains surprising to certain leaders in the Free Software movement, who view “convenience” as an unnecessary luxury rather than a prerequisite for almost everyone.)

So, taking the vague term “blog” with its history of decentralization, and with the above considerations, our revisionary definition of “blog” is this:

A source of digital content which is and can reasonably be expected to remain under control of its author(s).

What does this rule out? Any accounts on

  • Blogger
  • Facebook
  • Medium
  • Tumblr
  • Twitter

Etc. On the contrary, while Amazon, Digital Ocean, et al. could take control of your stuff, they probably won’t.

So we should blog more! And by “blog” I mean publish content to a Blog as defined above, and by “should” I mean “SHOULD” as defined in RFC 2119 and by “content” I mean 💩.

An interesting – and seemingly unwelcome – consequence of this definition is that it’s not a blog if it includes hate speech on a platform where hate speech is banned. Platforms should ban hate speech, so why is our revisionist definition of “blog” incompatible with such a ban?

The short answer is that just because I’m setting forth a definition of “blog” with a political aim in mind, that doesn’t mean that everything that’s a blog is good and everything not a blog is bad.

In fact, most blogs are bad.

Leading a Horse

I don’t really know why all of a sudden I’m so cut up about @Horse_ebooks not being real. (Yes, in this context a spambot algorithm is real while a person isn’t.) When I first read Dan Sinker’s “Eulogy for a horse” I thought it was a bit over-dramatic, but then I started talking about the whole affair with other people and their grief seeped into me or something and now I’m actually pretty upset about a spambot account on Twitter turning out to be something other than a spambot.

Of course there are plenty of people who don’t care; either they claim to have known it wasn’t real since 2011 (granted, the evidence was there) or just don’t think it’s a big deal.

It’s not a big deal, really. A great twitter account turned out to be fake, and our faith in others shook a little.

But it’s still a shame.

What’s wrong with finding two men in a horse suit

I went back to Dan Sinker’s piece and this struck me as important (as important as any piece of commentary on something that’s not a big deal can be):

Why is it that everything wonderful ends up turning to shit and why can’t unicorns be real and fuck absolutely everything I hate it all.

OK, maybe that last one wasn’t a question.

But still. If this is art, art is about context. And I don’t know that I have enough context to know entirely how to feel.

Because I feel shitty.

And I feel confused about feeling shitty.

Buzzfeed being attached to this—even tangentially—I think plays deeply into that feeling, because that site is first-and-foremost about manipulating the science of clicks and likes, and if this is all @Horse was, then god help us all. But also “Performance art” feels like a cop-out, and the actual performance today—based on descriptions—reinforces that. You can’t just put a placard on a wall and call it art. I mean, I went to art school and so I know that you can, but you’d better back that up with the mother of all context. I don’t have that context yet, so I guess I’m skeptical, and I don’t want to be.

Because while @jitka’s right that the publicity from this will benefit BuzzFeed, a company that’s increasingly throwing in its lot with the radical right, what I’m sad about right now is that the New Yorker’s announcement this morning took away the context that made @Horse_ebooks special. Most of @Horse_ebooks’ most popular tweets are still funny, but the composition wasn’t any better than a lot of funny Twitter accounts, and a lot worse than some. What made @Horse_ebooks tweets so wonderful was the belief that a crummy algorithm designed to churn out text in order to evade Twitter’s spam filters could create such pretty nonsense.

And we lost that belief.

Which is why, even though @Horse_ebooks "got funnier" in September of 2011, earlier tweets from when it was still a real spambot suddenly seem preferable, actually better, because they’re real.

A Serious Piece About Why Noozhawk Shouldn't Be Taken Seriously

I had a little spat with Noozhawk publisher Bill Macfadyen over a piece I wrote for Santa Barbara Bullshit, poking fun at local columnist Paul Burri. Macfadyen said I was just making “personal attacks” and told me to come back when I was willing to “write about [the] issues.”

Fine. Let’s be serious for a few minutes.

Background: there are some terrible people in Santa Barbara

The issue I brought up with Macfadyen on Twitter was Paul Burri’s inspired proposal that Santa Barbara require homeless individuals to perform manual labor before forcing them to leave the city:

First, confiscate their beloved shopping carts and return them to their rightful owners—the supermarkets. Then assign them to roadkill or freeway cleanup, beach patrol of dog litter or hazardous waste sorting. Feed them lunches of baloney sandwiches on stale white bread, like Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona does, accompanied with nutritious broccoli, celery and spinach smoothies.

When their time is served, provide them with mandatory one-way transportation to Oxnard.

The fact that Burri apparently idolizes one of the most openly racist public figures in the United States should be enough to show that he’s not someone worth listening to, but his own pathetic, hateful, and unconstitutional proposal clearly has no place in civilized discourse concerning the welfare of the homeless population of our city.

Unfortunately, Bill Macfadyen thinks otherwise. Paul Burri has his own column on Noozhawk.

Considering the state of news media in Santa Barbara, however, this is less surprising than it should be. Most opinion pieces track the mindset of the privileged, and are correspondingly racist, sexist, and classist. The racism is less open than it used to be, taking now the form of support for gang injunctions and closed borders or else targeted at the most invisible members of society. The sexism is mostly benevolent, but class-based hatred directed at the homeless remains not only condoned but encouraged.

It often seems that the sole purpose of the Santa Barbara View in particular, taglined with the NIMBY-ism “Keep Santa Barbara Santa Barbara”, is to stoke anger at the marginalized and powerless among us. They devote a rather alarming amount of space to discussion of “solutions” to the homeless “problem” and, after a recent incident at the local skate park, ran a poll titled “Is it time to close Skater’s Point in Santa Barbara?”. As of the evening of 10 July, almost two-thirds of respondents expressed their desire that the city bulldoze $830,000 dollars of construction because of some water balloons.

Bill Macfadyen did not look upon these privileged tears with the contempt they deserve. Instead he sided with the bulldozer crowd, suggesting that the city “just dump sand in the damn thing.”

So there’s a fair amount of convergence between Noozhawk and the Santa Barbara View (and Edhat commenters) when it comes to vilifying the oppressed. But while the View is more openly hostile to the young and homeless, they’ve never given a platform for someone to suggest that a local government not only arrest and detain people without charges, but compel them to perform manual labor before forcibly removing them from their place of current residence.

So I called Macfadyen out on Twitter.

But so what? People have a right to their opinions, don’t they?

(I made a typo in that tweet: Paul Burri’s Twitter name is BronxPaul.)

His reply:

Silly me! I had no idea!

Now, whatever Macfadyen says about free speech and whatever it says in Noozhawk’s disclaimer that opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by the organization, there are surely things that the website would not publish. I would be very surprised if, for example, a piece comparing supporters of Trayvon Martin to the KKK, which appeared in Taki’s Magazine, would be accepted by the Noozhawk editors. It would not be allowed because, even if the publisher and editors of Noozhawk explicitly stated that they disagreed with a piece in the strongest terms, their printing it would send the message that it’s a valid opinion to have. It would legitimize the idea that black people are the real racists, even if there is no actual endorsement. The Noozhawk editors, I think, understand this. (The editors of Taki’s probably do too, but they’re even more racist than Joe Arpaio.)

The fact that there almost certainly are limits to what Noozhawk will publish is why I was so troubled by Paul Burri’s column. Its being posted signals that Noozhawk thinks that the rightness of rounding up undesirable citizens into work gangs is something that reasonable people can disagree about.

It’s not. It’s not a position that should be rationally discussed anywhere. The only appropriate attitude to take toward Paul Burri’s Noozhawk column is scorn. And that’s why I won’t be accepting Macfadyen’s offer to write a rebuttal. Some things aren’t up for debate.

But we can still laugh at them

“Oh! shocking!” cried Miss Bingley. “I never heard any thing so abominable. How shall we punish him for such a speech?”

*“Nothing so easy, if you have but the inclination,” said Elizabeth. “We can all plague and punish one another. Teaze him—laugh at him.—Intimate as you are, you must know how it is to be done.”*

Mr. Darcy might not leave himself open for ridicule, but Mr. Burri does, and I have tried, successfully or not, to take advantage of that. What Macfadyen calls “personal attacks” are attempts by me to represent Paul Burri for what he is—an ignorant old man who looks up to other ignorant old men and who should not be listened to. No matter how much of his views concerning the homeless is the result of thoughtlessness as opposed to actual malice, they are dangerous when treated as legitimate by supposedly respectable news outlets. They normalize the idea that homeless individuals are parasites who do not deserve the same rights that others enjoy.

Paul Burri should not be listened to, and his opinions should not be respected. By giving him a platform, Noozhawk is actively undermining support for the welfare of other people and contributing to the narrative that those who find themselves without a home aren’t quite as valuable as the rest of us.

So instead of talking with them, I’m laughing at Paul Burri and other members of our community who aren’t willing to acknowledge the homeless as equals. By making them look ridiculous, their potentially deadly opinions might carry less weight with those who read what I write at SBBS. And maybe, eventually, we’ll stop caring about what they think altogether.