Never Mind The Bollocks, Here’s The Wonderchicken

I’ll be 40 years old next year, but I don’t, despite my worst fears, feel anything like that ancient. Thanks to my greatly reduced intake of things that are bad for me (from apocalyptic to merely terrifying), I feel physically better than I did throughout most of my 20s and early 30s. Ten years ago, my friends and I were already referring to ourselves as ‘aging punks,’ and possibly the only thing that has changed in that description, for me at least, is that ‘-ing’ has become ‘-ed’. This will become relevant, trust me.

This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco,
this ain’t no fooling around
This ain’t no Mudd club, or C. B. G. B.,
I ain’t got time for that now
Talking Heads, Life During Wartime

I’ve been casting about for a way to frame my thinking about weblogs and weblogging lately, as I’ve watched with a mild dismay apparently shared by others down the street about the way in which the tang and tenor in our neighbourhood of neighbourhoods have been changing in these post-blogdiluvian times. I hadn’t found the key I needed until this morning, and it was, amusingly, courtesy of Dave Winer.

(Now I have had my run-ins, as have many, apparently, with Mr Winer, for reasons I won’t bother detailing, as I am trying in many ways to be a better man — angry, cantankerous and likely to erupt in spontaneous ranting at any moment, sure, but a better angry man — and there’s no need to re-open old wounds. Suffice it to say that what follows has nothing to do with my personal feelings about Dave. No part of it should be construed as an attack on him, although it is always possible he might perceive it as such. That happens sometimes, I’ve noticed. The truth is that I’ve quite happily avoided thinking much about him, and presumably him about me, since back in October 2002. And that’s just fine. )

I have to thank Mr Winer for dripping that last droplet into my mental beaker, the one that supersaturated the solution and turned it crystalline with a barely audible thwonk!
When I got into the weblogging thing, yaar, back in the year of our lord 2000 I think it was, somewhat late to the party but carrying a few six-packs of the good stuff to ease the trauma of my gatecrashing, I was totally unaware that there were communities of people that had banded together, and who were as taken as I with the promise of it all. I was unaware that there were already stars in the personal-website firmament, unaware that there even was a firmament. I just stumbled onto Blogger somehow, drunker than a cheesetester on good scotch as I recall, and my geek cilia started wiggling, and off I went.

I didn’t know there were people building their own tools to make it even easier to become part of the revolution, to fling open those doors, to take over the world by giving everyone who might have something to say a way to say it and a stage on which to do it, regardless of how or how well they were going to say their piece. Voice, all of that. Access to the internet was the price of entry, of course, but the democracy of it all was breathtaking, even if it was democracy for rich kids, for the most part. That’s always been the way of it, after all.

It reminded me of punk rock. When I first encountered punk, back in 1982 or ’83, after having grown up in a tiny, media-starved and desperately uncool (if green and pleasant, at least away from the sawmills and clearcuts) northern village and having moved to Vancouver to go to university, the proverbial scales fell from my eyes. Thtink, plink. Berserk autodidact that I was, I’d already developed an effective sneer, a deep distrust and dislike for authority and political chicanery, a habit of arguing mercilessly and cruelly if the matter at hand was something I believed in and merely arguing vociferously if it wasn’t, and a nihilistic, risk-addicted, maniacally-boozing demeanor. I had, at the age of 18, though, not yet discovered that there were tens or hundreds of thousands of others with the same sorts of unpleasant societally-discouraged aberrations, and they’d been gathering together and making this mad, loud, ramshackle, gloriously angry music for years already.

I loved it. The music, not so much the fashion. I knew folks who went in for the whole ‘punk look,’ and I thought they were a bit laughable, but harmless, as long as they loved the music and the community. Pose(u)rs, was the word, but I kind of felt that those who called other people posers were almost as destructive to the spirit of the thing as the fashion-victims themselves. (Mark me, here. I’ll come back to this.) So I wore a leather jacket, and messed-up jeans, in pretty much my only concessions to the fashion side of the scene, and grew my hair hippy-long, which was anti-punk to be sure; I drank and did scary stupid dangerous things, and went to gigs, bothered my neighbours with bootleg cassettes cranked to the nuts, and papered my walls with gig posters, and made friends with musicians, and ate chemicals, and reviled the nazis, and generally gloried in what I’d been missing in my sh-tty little northern town throughout my teens — a sense of community, and more specifically a community to which I was happy to belong. Not a community of redneck wife-beating millworkers, this time, although it must be said I had many friends back in that segment of society too.

I felt much the same way about the weblogging thing, a couple of years back, especially when my writing began to get noticed and linked and emailed-about and commented-upon by people whose writing and thinking I in turn respected, and I started to understand how many communities there were within the greater world of the webloggers. There was a wild spirit of creativity running through the wires, it seemed to me, and I found myself a part of a loosely-joined (nudge, wink) group of dauntingly smart and well-spoken people, who didn’t seem, for the most part, to object to my more outrageous turns of phrase. I joined Metafilter, not long before it stopped becoming a Name Brand Weblogger Hub and grew into more of a general in-love-with-the-web community weblog in its own right, which introduced me to a whole constellation of bright webby people. It was exhiliarating, in much the same way as the World Of Punk had been as it opened up to me almost 20 years earlier.

It was welcome, too, because having lived the life of a real-world wanderer for the previous 15 years, a sense of community, community less transient than a group of backpackers coming together randomly in a bar in Indonesia or somewhere… well, that was something I was sorely missing. This parallel I felt to the alt-rock scene in which I forged my young identity all those years back was in no small part, I realize in retrospect, a driver for my over-the-top reaction to a nuts-and-bolts piece of writing by Megnut way back when (here, here, here). It was to me, I see now, as if a snide critic — no worse! a punk-rock luminary — had described the essence of punk as ‘play loud, fast and sloppy, behave outrageously once in a while, and throw in some random lefty politics and unfocussed anger, and bob’s yer uncle!’ It felt like the kind of reduction to appearance over substance that has always enraged me, and is something that even today I rail against as a core failing of Korean society, for example. Not that that’s what Megnut was guilty of in any sense, perhaps, but it pushed my buttons, and now I see why.

Anyway. These weblog people I found myself (virtually) amongst had banded together, it seemed to me, in part because people do that when they’re exploring new frontiers, when they’re not entirely sure of how to proceed but are in love with the new potential they see for a life lived in a way a little less ordinary, and when they suddenly find that there are other people out there who are doing the same thing. Out on the fringes, singing their songs.

Of course, bands break up, and personalities clash, and egos swell, and guitar players want to be front-men, and drummers explode, and new bands form, and old bands fade away and re-emerge years later to do farewell tour after farewell freaking tour. It is natural.
The weblogging gangs of old, the ones I felt a part of, well, they still are loosely bound, but the threads are so thin now that they are almost invisible.

It was, for a while, as if we were all fans of the punk, you see, together out there on the floor, drenched in sweat, pogoing, hurling beer cans, singing along, not really caring which band was up on the stage, just loving the hum and the throb and the tribal feeling of it all. Now it feels as if many of us have become fans of various specific bands, or have started our own and are struggling to gather our own crowds, or have decided to just keep it in the garage where it belongs, and damn having an audience. We don’t have time to go to each others’ gigs anymore. When everyone is in a band, there’s no one left to watch the shows.

That almost inevitably leads to irrelevance, though. Survey says. You sell yourself to the record company to try and get a distribution deal, you start to watch what you say, you suck up to the Big Boys, and try to be seen in the right places with the right powder dusting your nostrils. You lose the holy fire, you start thinking in terms of ‘product’, you tell yourself you’re going to ‘change it from the inside,’ but you’re part of the machine now, and it’s too late for you.

Okay, it might be time to try and pull the threads together, here.

Now, Dave Winer said

More proof blogs aren’t parties, they’re publications. If you try to make it social, about friends, and parties, you end up with a party where a lot of pre-adolescent males bark at each other, and a few hawkers try to sell penis enlargers, and no emotionally whole adult would be caught dead at. I been down this path. The road leads to Slashdot.

Aside from being primly elitist, this is just plain wrong from all sorts of angles, but I think provides a decent illustration of what I’ve been trying to say. Again, it helped me figure out my misgivings about the current State of The Blogs, so I thank him for saying it. So, you know, it’s good, even if I think it’s completely wrongheaded.

Let’s look at it – first, the idea that weblogs are anything that can be expressed in one word (like ‘publication’), or even in the air pocket that sits in the middle of a falsely dualistic opposition between two unrelated words (like ‘party’ and ‘publication’), is bollocks. But never mind the bollocks, here’s the wonderchicken.

What really bothers me is that Dave is generally perceived, with good reason, even by those who dislike the man, as an Elder Statesman of sorts. Hell, he’s been anointed by f–king Harvard, right? What else would I expect him to say? That weblogs are like snorting coke off the bellies of teenage hookers? You can’t get much further from the punk DIY ethos than Harvard, right?

I would expect, I suppose, that rather than saying ‘weblogs are not X, they are Y’ that he’d say ‘Weblogs are whatever the hell you want them to be. Go mad with creative ferment, young ones, unleash the furies, rewrite yourselves and the world, make what you will of these tools and this time. Now, my weblog, that’s a publication, not a party, but your mileage might vary.’
Perhaps that’s what he meant.

Look, I agree with Dave Eggers about saying ‘no’ —

No is for wimps. No is for pussies. No is to live small and embittered, cherishing the opportunities you missed because they might have sent the wrong message.

— it’s something that I wrote about in the sort-of eulogy I wrote for my friend Rick, who died after the Bali bomb in 2002, something that he believed, and something I have believed for many, many years too. Say yes, say it again, sing it, scream it, or get out of the way, grandpa. It was not the shouted nihilistic ‘no!’ that attracted me to the ideas underpinning the flowering of punk rock decades ago, it was the implied bellowed ‘yes! we’ll rebuild our lives the way we want them!’ that I loved. And that I mourned, as it became a fashion, a commodity, and sank back underground again. But the lesson never left me.
Weblogs are a party, damn it, and sometimes they’re publications too, or instead, and sometimes they’re diaries, sometimes they’re pieces of art, sometimes they’re tools for self-promotion, sometimes they’re money-maknig ventures, sometimes they’re monuments to ego, sometimes they’re massive wanks, sometimes they’re public services, sometimes they’re dedications of faith, sometimes they’re communities. Always, they are a public face, one chosen and crafted to varying degrees, of the people who write them. They are avatars, masks, or revelations of our deepest selves. They are political or philosophical, merrily inebriate or sententiously sober. Do not listen to those who would tell you what they are not.

These people will destroy your soul. Classification is for insects.

My name’s wonderchicken, and I am a wild party.

It is the rising current of feeling that weblogs aren’t a party (or aren’t journalism, or aren’t a floor wax, or aren’t a dessert topping), that they’re something important and serious, that is seriously harshing my buzz. “Let’s all take this more seriously”, is the message I get from far too many these days, “because then, well, what I do must be Serious Stuff, right? We’re all adults here, aren’t we?”
Stop it, you bastards.

Your $500 blog conferences, your NeckFlex For President consultancies, your sad tawdry whoredances with the old media moronocracy devil, your repetitive linkery to the same tired wanna-be self-declared pundits you met at the last convention, your careful management of a media face that is, in the end, marketable, it makes me want to puke. It kills the spirit of this thing that I was so in love with, and turns it, as avarice and self-regard always does, to sh-t.

I’m not actually saying stop it, when I say stop it, of course. Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law, and all that. But I am regretful, and resentful, even though I know that it’s inevitable. It is the way things go, in this cashed-in century.

I also know that, as with the music, those who became part of this wild whirlwind, not for fashion or self-aggrandizement, not for power or money (although perhaps for the blow-jobs and free drugs, for which, it must be said, I’m still waiting in vain), but because they had burning gods inside them that were clawing at the inside of their foreheads screaming to get out, well, they’ll continue to create, and more and more they’ll point and chuckle indulgently and ignore the Self-Selected and the Sententious. And the SSS will recede, blithering, from the core of the living culture, until, once again, they are irrelevant. The script-kiddies are right, you see, but only about some of us.

Punk can also be about Wittgenstein. Don’t get me wrong – housewives can be punk, and librarians, priests and, crikey, even known homosexuals can be punk! Can Harvard be punk? Well, yeah, maybe it can be too. Maybe.

Jeneane suggested that the scriptkiddies enjoy more sense of community than us old compatriots do at the moment, and you know what? She’s right. Why? ‘Cause they’re still punk, and our little revolution is being marginalized and co-opted by the climbers.

I’m not suggesting that weblogs should literally be punkrock, right? OK? Geddit? I’m just talkin’ here.

I have no problem with Joi Ito either, although I point at him above — I listened to the Chris Lydon interviews a while back, and he is someone I think I’d very much like to know, based on what he had to say. I haven’t been reading his writing, much (or much of anything blogly until I started again recently, to be honest) although I do plan to start. I found myself nodding as I listened to him talking, and backtracking to listen to some bits again. I rarely do this. I’m not used to people being smarter than me. He represents a new bird, to me, and one that is punk in the best way, in the way I loved the most way back when, in the smart-as-hell Hüsker Dü kinda way. At least I hope that to be true.

In the end, it probably doesn’t matter, as the wave of co-optation and consolidation swings through the communities. But what he had to say and the elegance and clarity with which he expressed it was, for example, in stark opposition to the way that Glenn Reynolds, who, although he may or may not be a plodding thud-dullard, certainly sounded like one when he parried an unwanted political observation of Chris’s with ‘No, no, that’s…no. No. Durrrr.’ Repeatedly. I imagined him with fingers in his ears, going ‘nyah nyah I can’t hear you’. (I exaggerate for effect, a little, perhaps.)

We could use more like Joi Ito, I reckon.

Still, there is something he wrote recently and that I am compelled to disagree with that must be woven into my story here. Joi echoed (and Shelley pushed back against) that old chestnut from Rebecca Blood (amongst other ‘write better’ type stuff), and proposed that those who are ‘serious’ about their weblogs should endeavour to write well. I say the hell with that. Write well, write badly, whatever, just create. If you are saying things that stir people, they will respond.

If you can’t write well, write with such passionate muscularity that people stand back and go ‘whoa!’ Make things, reach out to people. If you write well, keep doing it, and get better, and don’t kiss ass for personal gain. If not, just go, bash that keyboard, make a hideous, amateurish squall, one to which, if it has some kernel of glorious truthtelling, people will respond. The mass amateurization of nearly everything is good. If you’re a gifted amateur, the world will beat a path to your, er, door.

But let me return now to my mention, far upstream, of how I had little love for alternato-types who pointed, all j’accuse-y, and called other people ‘posers’, back in the day. It is, and was, almost as lame as calling someone a ‘sell-out’. It may seem that that’s what I’m doing here, pointing the Big Foam Sell-Out Finger, but I’m not. I’m just stirring the pot. Things have gotten f–king boring around here lately, and some egos are way out of control, and who better than the wonderchicken to try for a little reality-distortion-field adjustment?

If David Weinberger (to pick an example) wants to shill for Dean, more power to him, by crikey! I’d give my left nut to see the Bushbot gone, too, of course, but I’m not so sure that Howard Dean is the solution. Armed insurrection, now, that might be a noble cause…anyway, I still love reading what he has to say, when I occasionally swing by JOHO. If Dave Winer wants to ponce around Harvard (as long as he’s not telling me what a weblog isn’t), then I say ponce away! You go, girl! If this guy thinks blogging should be all about ‘creating value’ and ‘return on investment’, well, why the hell not?

OK, on second thought, that last guy needs to be slapped in the head.

Still, my point is that even if you are puerile enough to believe that someone else ‘selling out’ hurts you somehow, well, that’s pretty hard to justify, son. See also : nuh-uh. When someone stops fighting against the current, goes limp, and, you know, gets a hog rectum implanted where their mouth used to be, or goes the full cortical advertising-augmentation route, starts serving the Machine and wiping their chin with toilet paper, well, hey, it makes the rest of us look better by comparison, doesn’t it? Hell, at least I’m not one of those pigbuttmouth people with those creepy whipcord antennas, right?

Another quote from Eggers —

There is a point in one’s life when one cares about selling out and not selling out. One worries whether or not wearing a certain shirt means that they are behind the curve or ahead of it, or that having certain music in one’s collection means that they are impressive, or unimpressive.
Thankfully, for some, this all passes. I am here to tell you that I have, a few years ago, found my way out of that thicket of comparison and relentless suspicion and judgment. And it is a nice feeling. Because, in the end, no one will ever give a sh-t who has kept sh-t ‘real’ except the two or three people, sitting in their apartments, bitter and self-devouring, who take it upon themselves to wonder about such things. The keeping real of sh-t matters to some people, but it does not matter to me. It’s fashion, and I don’t like fashion, because fashion does not matter.
What matters is that you do good work. What matters is that you produce things that are true and will stand. What matters is that the Flaming Lips’s new album is ravishing and I’ve listened to it a thousand times already, sometimes for days on end, and it enriches me and makes me want to save people. What matters is that it will stand forever, long after any narrow-hearted curmudgeons have forgotten their appearance on goddamn 90210. What matters is not the perception, nor the fashion, not who’s up and who’s down, but what someone has done and if they meant it. What matters is that you want to see and make and do, on as grand a scale as you want, regardless of what the tiny voices of tiny people say. Do not be critics, you people, I beg you. I was a critic and I wish I could take it all back because it came from a smelly and ignorant place in me, and spoke with a voice that was all rage and envy. Do not dismiss a book until you have written one, and do not dismiss a movie until you have made one, and do not dismiss a person until you have met them. It is a f–kload of work to be open-minded and generous and understanding and forgiving and accepting, but Christ, that is what matters. What matters is saying yes.

And that, my friends, is Punk f–king Rock.

Punk got co-opted and marketed and corporatized, and it damn near died, as all Big Ideas do. That’s not to say that small-p punk is not still alive. It is, down in the ditches, where the spirit that drove the rage has morphed and moved on and dropped back under the monkeymass radar. Music and community is being made now that might not fit so easily into the same easy label, but there are folks out there making stuff that builds on and extends the best of the punk alt-rock scene from 20 years ago and more. Some of ’em are more relevant than others, sure, but the passion’s still out there. The anger, the love, the frustration, the woohoo. The party rolls on, even though the faces have changed.

Weblogging is also being co-opted and marketed and corporatized, but it won’t die either. The small communities that grew out of earlier days are being diluted and voices are growing fainter, partly because of the natural life cycle of these things, and partly because there are those who are making it palatable and bland for the media moronocracy to digest, and that’s what the media moronocracy wants, so that’s what it gets.

Jeneane said it too, and Shelley echoed it

You see, there was nothing to gain through blogging in the early days. It was my voice informing her voice informing his voice: our whole was greater, but our parts were pretty cool too. There was nothing to lose, specifically, or to benefit from. There weren’t as many pundits and VCs and CEOs and politicians and top dogs playing. WE were all top dogs by virtue of being someplace those types weren’t.

Although its public face may suck pretty bad for a while, and you may need to dig a bit deeper to find its soul, there will always be those in the Fields of Blog who will tell you what they really think, and some of those will move you while doing it, regardless of how well they write. And they’ll do it without having to look over their shoulders. ’cause it’s a f–king party, pops, and you’re invited.