against the default mode of expression
Hello, friends. You’re still here. I’m still here. That’s something. Let’s celebrate the little victories.
Alec Baldwin: You never wanted to do a play?
Jerry Seinfeld: Nah. I did a play. Why should I wait for someone else to talk?
—Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee
Blogs broke the Web. It’s true. The Web used to be a place where anyone could participate and the only limit was your imagination. All you had to do was learn a little “hypertext markup language.” As Amy Hoy explains:
We built every new page by hand. When we had more than one web page, we built the navigation by hand. We managed our Table of Contents by hand. We broke out our calculators to code boundaries for our image maps. We talked unironically about “hyperlinks.”
Sure, publishing anything was a pain, but there were no rules and you enjoyed complete control. The only obstacle between you and your creative vision was know-how and elbow grease. If you wanted to present your words and images in a certain way, you knew it was possible—somehow.
Eventually, the “web diary” format appeared. Posts in reverse-chronological order. This, too, involved manual labor—until Movable Type arrived on the scene:
All [Movable Type] did was exploit the power of Perl scripts to do the same exact work we all used to do by hand: spit out static HTML files.
Culturally, though, it was devastating. Suddenly people weren’t creating homepages or even web pages. They were writing web content in form fields and text areas inside a web page. Suddenly, instead of building their own system, they were working inside one. A system someone else built…It was a trap.
I resisted Hoy’s argument at first—mostly because I’ve got serious Movable Type nostalgia—but she makes an excellent point:
When you produce your whole site by hand, from HEAD to /BODY, you begin in a world of infinite possibility. You can tailor your content exactly how you like it, and organize it in any way you please. Every design decision you make represents roughly equal work because, heck, you’ve gotta do it by hand either way. Whether it’s reverse chronological entries or a tidy table of contents. You might as well do what you want. But once you are given a tool that operates effortlessly—but only in a certain way—every choice that deviates from the standard represents a major cost [emphasis mine].
Beware those default settings.
There’s something here that applies to everything we create. Making stuff is hard. Tools that make it easier to make and share our work are hard to resist, but we can’t afford to be blind to the way they narrow the possibilities.
Take podcasting. In the early days, circa 2004, the format demanded a similar degree of manual labor and technical expertise. You had to build stuff by hand. (Listening to podcasts wasn’t all that easy, either.) The hurdles slowed mass adoption, sure, but the lack of “One System to Rule Them All” unleashed a tremendous amount of experimentation and innovation. No one knew what a podcast was yet. Things were still up for grabs.
Then, in 2005, Apple incorporated podcasts into the iTunes Store. Making, sharing, and listening to podcasts got a lot easier overnight. To facilitate discovery, Apple used lists. Top lists, most lists, etc. And those lists filled up with NPR. These weren’t podcasts. These were re-purposed radio episodes created by radio professionals according to the standards of the format and usually broadcast on the radio first.
Later on, I sat in a meeting with a publishing executive who wanted our company to jump on the podcasting bandwagon. At the time, I was already doing a podcast for our imprint: 20-minute interviews with authors. She insisted that we expand the show to a full hour, with ads between each segment.
“Do we actually want to place ads in our podcast?” I asked. “For what—our books?” It didn’t matter, she told me. That’s just what they do on the radio.
I stopped podcasting not long after. The air had gone out of the room. At the time, I couldn’t believe how quickly many in the first wave of indie podcasts hit the skids and went offline, too. Systems scale, but they can be incredibly stifling.
Can you imagine a world where posts in reverse-chronological order never became the dominant model for online publishing? Are there other, better approaches to sharing your work that you haven’t considered simply because the dominant tools prefer not to function that way?
How would you share your work if you were willing to invest a little effort in deviating from the standard? This week, let’s think about all those “defaults” we’re taking for granted. Heck, even typing words into a computer limits your expression relative to pen on paper. Where would a little elbow grease and know-how open a world of creative possibility for you?
Read Hoy’s full essay at Stacking the Bricks.
Also, did you know I have a book coming out? (h/t Josh,who actually does have a book coming out)