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The master tapes

Well, I am enjoying the browser extension called Fraidycat, which presents a lovely, anarchic opportunity: follow all the people you like, no matter what platform they’re using, without having accounts on those platforms. Basically, it’s an “RSS… or whatever” reader.

Fraidycat's flat cat logo

My key fraidy-follows are Robin Rendle’s notes, Elisabeth Nicula’s abject sublime, and the vaporwave contrail of Kicks Condor, the creator of Fraidycat, who asks us to please shut up about him now in a register that is somehow perfectly 1995 and 2020 all at once.

(You can, of course, put my site’s URL into Fraidycat and it works fine.)

I am, at the same time, rewatching the TV show Halt and Catch Fire—up to the third season now, timeline ratcheted into the late 80s, its protagonists living in San Francisco, building primitive online services — and I am feeling such sharp pangs of nostalgia for 80s and 90s computing.

Donna and Cameron from Halt and Catch Fire

Simultaneously with all that, I’m rereading Joanne McNeil’s new book Lurking, a history of the internet from the perspective of the user, which dwells deeply in that same time period, when the idea of an online “community” was shockingly new and the mechanisms of such a thing had not yet been machined into pinball smoothness. (I wrote a bit more about Joanne’s book in this newsletter.)

It’s a bracing combo, to use this software and watch this show and read this book alongside and/or against each other. I recommend it.

Warren Ellis is blogging about blogging. He writes:

“Personal publishing” can mean a multiplicity of things, and should. And it probably starts with owning or at least significantly renting your own transmitter and owning all the master tapes.

There is a criticism often leveled against this exhortation to run your own website, one that also works against my nostalgia for the internet of the 80s and 90s. I’ll offer my own articulation of it here:

Of course you liked the internet better then: there were fewer people on it, and they were all kinda like you. Of course you want to require people to run their own websites: that acts as a subtle throttle on who can participate. The things you complain about — centralization and templatization and, yes, corporatization — all follow naturally from the internet’s maturation, at last, into a truly public platform. The network you’re so nostalgic for? That was a private club. You can be forgiven for this. You were just a kid. You didn’t even realize you’d been invited.

Something along those lines. I hope it’s obvious: I think this criticism has teeth!

At the same time, I don’t think it gives people enough credit. If running your own website is like operating a nuclear reactor, then, yes: let’s give up on that. But what if it’s more like cooking dinner at home? That’s an activity that many people find challenging and/or intimidating, one with all sorts of social and economic ~encumbrances~, but even so, who would argue that it’s inappropriate to hope more people might learn to cook for themselves?

Maybe, after everything, we’ve actually ended up in a healthy place. Maybe the great gluey Katamari ball of technology has served us well. In 2020, you can, using nothing but the free app provided by Instagram, publish something very close to a multimedia magazine. Or, sitting at your laptop, you can produce a lightning-fast website all by yourself, every line of code calibrated just so, and host its files at a domain of your choosing. Or! You can do something in between, using a service like WordPress or Squarespace. This is not a bad range of options!

We didn’t lose anything. Here I am, reading blog posts, getting fired up, typing into a text file that will shortly become a web page. It could be the year 2000.

What is it, then, that I sometimes feel like I miss, here on the web of 2020? The sense of a potential audience? The confidence that this, right here, is the central ring, the arena where the internet’s attention is focused? Vanity, then. Can it really just be vanity?

No. I think it’s something else, and “what do I miss” is the wrong question, because the feeling isn’t an absence, but a presence. (It took me a while to figure this out.) One thing Halt and Catch Fire and Lurking have in common, one powerful ~vibe~ that binds them, is the depiction of an internet before Google or Facebook. An internet that is all archipelago, no mainland. An internet where you can still get lost.

In truth, I barely experienced that internet; Google had already launched by the time I got to college. So maybe the feeling isn’t nostalgia, really, but saudade—the longing for an imagined past.

Fraidycat fits into all this, because rather than grapple with those leviathans, rather than position itself as an alternative, it just… ignores them. I’m projecting, here, but the software and the constellation of websites around it, many of them discoverable from its creator’s blog, they almost seem to — I can’t find a better word than this: they cosplay a different internet.

Whether their scenario is a historical reenactment (albeit with higher-res images) or a seductive counterfactual, I don’t know. Whether it “matters,” I don’t know. I do know that I am enjoying my fraidy-follows, their slow pulse — people really are blogging, doing the dang thing — and the feeling of an old instinct waking up.

March 2020, Oakland

This post is part of a loose series:

  1. The master tapes (this post)
  2. Many subtle channels
  3. Thinking, not replying

You can explore my other blog posts.

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