(2020-03-05) Sloan The Master Tapes

Robin Sloan: 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.

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.

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.)

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.

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?

There is a criticism often leveled against this exhortation to run your own website; it also works against my nostalgia for the internet of the 80s and 90s. That criticism goes: 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.

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!

What is it, then, that I sometimes feel like I miss, here on the web of 2020?

“what do I miss” is the wrong question, because the feeling isn’t an absence, but a presence

An internet where you can still get lost

Fraidycat fits into all this, because rather than grapple with those leviathans, rather than position itself as an alternative, it just… ignores them.

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