There Is No Cat

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Friday, February 17, 2006

A story

So the half dozen or so of you who visit this site regularly and the dozen or two who came here because of a cryptic link on Doc Searls' site have read my brilliantly reasoned explanation of why blogs suck at conversation and either nodded your heads or nodded off. Those of you who nodded your heads probably followed that with something like, "Okay, Mr. Wise Guy, so blogs and the web suck at conversation. But there's 27 million blogs out there, so they must be good for something, no?"

And it's true, blogs and the web are indeed good for something.

Some years back Christina Wodtke, a leading light in the Information Architecture world, had an e-mail newsletter called "Gleanings" about, well, information architecture, something I took a strong interest in because I'm a magpie and I'll take insights into how to make good web sites wherever I can find them, and the IA community seemed to have a lot of good insights. At one point, she went on vacation for a few weeks and asked her readers to volunteer to guest edit an issue. I raised my hand, and among the items in the issue I edited was a rumination on the history of television, and the first person who made television that was really television, Ernie Kovacs:

I've long felt that the web is just waiting for our very own Ernie Kovacs to finally show us how this all should be done. Who's Ernie Kovacs, you ask? Basically, he was the first person to make television as television, rather than as radio with pictures or plays in front of cameras. He was a comic genius, and invented much of the visual vocabulary of television that we take for granted today. His "Eugene", a half-hour completely without dialog, was absolutely amazing, and the sight gags he invented to take advantage of the medium are still being recycled to this day.

Not long after that, I decided that I had found my Ernie Kovacs of the web, Derek Powazek, and his site, Fray:

Fray began in September, 1996, with one simple idea: That the web was the ultimate conduit for personal storytelling. We saw a future web full of personal voices, where everyone has the power to tell their stories.

Nine years later, that's the web we have. Personal sites, homepages, and blogs are blooming like flowers on every topic imaginable. From the sublime to the silly, the beautiful to the banal, there are more personal voices on the web today than anyone ever could have imagined. Maybe we can take a tiny bit of credit for that.

That's what blogs and the web are good for: telling stories.

I remembered this last night as I was trying to go to sleep, pondering what I had posted, and also a post by Kathryn Cramer asking what blogs were for. (Since Kathryn edits stories professionally, I'm kind of surprised she didn't come to that conclusion herself....)

Storytelling is as primal for humans as conversation. It's something we've done for millenia. The two things are related, but they're different. Conversations are about the give and take of two or more people. Storytelling is more about performance and reaction. Conversation is collaboration, storytelling less so. The idea of the web as storytelling platform was in vogue in the late '90s, with conferences being held, but that idea seems to have faded as the idea that the web is about conversation has grown. I think that's a mistake. Stories are the real currency of the web. Other tools on the Internet are more about conversation.

I wrote before about the reasons the web is poorly suited for conversation. But the characteristics that make it so, the fragmentation, the asynchronicity, the sense of place relating to person instead of topic, make it well suited for storytelling, or at least don't harm storytelling the way they harm conversation. The farther from real time a conversation gets, the more difficult it becomes to sustain. But a story can survive that; centuries and millenia of books testify to that.

I've been finding myself increasingly disenchanted with the web because I've experienced these great community building conversational tools, and the web wasn't living up to them or to the hype of it as a conversational medium. Now that I remember what the web is good for, maybe I won't be so disenchanted, and can focus my desire for conversation at tools that do a decent job of supporting it like e-mail, IM, and IRC.

That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

Posted at 6:27 PM

Comments

Note: I’m tired of clearing the spam from my comments, so comments are no longer accepted.

exactly!

I think that's why I grasped the whole weblog thing...maybe more than I would've Usenet (missed that one), because storytelling is something I grok.

and to some extent why I'm happy telling my little stories to anybody or nobody. (or my kid sis, mostly.)

Posted by Elaine at 8:17 PM, February 20, 2006 [Link]

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What do you mean there is no cat?

"You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very, very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in Los Angeles. Do you understand this? And radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no cat."

- Albert Einstein, explaining radio


There used to be a cat

[ photo of Mischief, a black and white cat ]

Mischief, 1988 - December 20, 2003

[ photo of Sylvester, a black and white cat ]

Sylvester (the Dorito Fiend), who died at Thanksgiving, 2000.


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