The view from the long tail

Part of the allure of blogs – for those who still write them – is that it’s a thing you work at over time, and gradually there’s this accretion of work and content and meaning that has a heft. It’s the accumulation that leads, for once, to something that feels more like an asset than debt, and it’s meant to lead somewhere really special and powerful and possibly to the best book deal a fashion blogger in Minnesota could hope for. Read Kottke, for instance. And damn. That’s a great blog. And it keeps going. And sometimes he even has a point of view! And his contemporaries – the other ones still blogging – often end up also saying things. But primarily, it’s there for this experience of finding, and distilling what’s found into a breathless paragraph or two.

If you put enough found things in a row, that’s called curation. And somewhere along the way, if you do it enough, repeated content discovery combined with uninterrogated influences and unspoken commitments will lead directly and magically to something important: a viewpoint.

Kottke and all good bloggers write from this viewpoint, which we should call the view from the blogosphere. A typical post is from today: a ukelele playing kid shreds.

Feng E started playing the ukelele when he was just five years old. His father pushed him into it but saying that he wouldn’t play Legos with the boy unless he took up the instrument. Six years later, he can casually slay Zombie by The Cranberries in the back of a car.

It feels just as likely that that could have been accompanied by a sciencey article about how 10,000 hours of practice leads to unexpected brilliance. Which is, of course, what the blog argues: that the slow accretion of effort that turns, magically, into meaning, with no need for original contribution and all its sticky icky vulnerabilities. It’s hard work, but it’s worth it. So just stick to it.

Kottke has been blogging for a long time. And along the way, his content has ended up doing a lot of this self-proselytization for blogs. The ukelele kid isn’t the only thing he posted whose subtext is his process, his approach, his view from the blogosphere. Austin Kleon isn’t so far away from that, either. I’m not sure what art he makes, but I do know he writes a blog about making art, and that often turns into books about making art. Books from listicles. Books that make explicit and normative the exact methods of their creation. Books that offer the instructions for a thousand more blogs and a thousand more books based on them.

Is this getting a little dizzying to you, too? Blogs seem to me to be the lint rollers of the internet: capable of picking up and displaying greatly interesting fibres, incapable of interrogating what left them behind.

Jordan Peterson wrote the original list of his bullshit on Quora. Was that a blog? When someone sits down at the hellmouth of angry young male anomie and publishes a post that speaks directly to the zeitgeist of grievance formed in it, I think we can only say that yes. That is blogging, because more than it being any piece of content, it is an engine for more of the same.

The whole power of the internet is that we get to sit in the stew of conversation here and then just make our own stuff. The whole economic engine of it runs off that very fact, that, and the whole “many hands make short work” thing too. Out of the endless resources of infinite humans comes product. Valuable startups emerge from funny little things like AJAX and undergrad horniness and a bit of seed capital that makes it all seem intentional. Books emerge from the incubator of curation, shaped into saleability with the help of an editor and strong norms around what makes people continue reading self-help.

Why? Why this seemingly inevitable commoditization of our most boring, puritan instincts towards constantly having to work? Because we gotta survive, baby. We gotta not die. The shape of the internet may mean the top 0.00001% kill it, and everyone else along the long tail has to call it a side hustle, but damn if it also isn’t the only ticket we have to punch.

Again, here’s the shape of it: you’re supposed to magically get rich with and from meaning if you, like an automaton, select and feebly describe the images and videos you’ve discovered on the internet. You’re supposed to make art that changes lives by simply following the exact procedure to make vulnerable art – a procedure made explicit by a person whose art practice predominantly creates self-help books, and not art. You’re supposed to get great at ukelele because your dad threatens to stop playing Lego with you. And your startup will succeed because playing around with technology is all Mark Zuckerberg did, too, and look how well he’s done.

All of these stories strike me as fundamentally ignorant of how and why people actually do new, vulnerable, painful and weird things – as opposed to things merely branded as such. But that’s not what the internet wants you to do. The internet and all the most powerful people on it want you to believe it already has the answer, and if you simply continue to pursue truth in its territory, you will simply reveal what you must do and must say. Without believing that, no startup would ever be founded, and no blog ever stuck with.

Be very, very suspicious of people who say that you simply need to stick to something after failing for all the structural reasons that benefit them. Be very suspicious of those whose voice carries from their high tower to the furthest ends of the long tail. Be suspicious if finding meaning and hope requires simply following the instructions that they did.

Be suspicious if you’re a monkey, and the person handing you a typewriter is named Shakespeare.