Constraints Inform the Content

I don’t know where the number scheme came from [citation appreciated]. I’ve seen it used in novels, novellas, short stories, poetry, essays, and now tweets, but I couldn’t tell you its etymology. A few scant google searches revealed nothing, so it’s obviously lost to history (I am the worlds’ worst journalist). Maybe it has something to do with wanting to build on paragraphs, not just have them come after one another, but have the 2nd point be inside a capsule called 2,” which grew from the insight the writer came to inside 1.” Somehow this is clearer than just having one paragraph after another. I’ve used it before without fully understanding its point or power, and I’m using it now, understanding just as little.

But I’ve spent my entire life using tools without fully understanding their scope. When I began designing, I didn’t have a clue how to use Photoshop. I did things the wrong” way for years. Some things, I’m still doing wrong, but they work for me. I write in five different apps depending on my mood. It doesn’t work, but I don’t have a better method. So who am I to say how anyone should run their personal publishing platform? I’ve quit more services than most people have ever started. This isn’t what this is. This is exploration. This is rummaging. This is doing things wrong until you find a way, even if it’s never, ever right.

Some platforms have easier hooks than others. Posts on Facebook are especially difficult as they have no obvious way to link to them. You rarely see a blog post link to a specific post on Facebook, because doing so is a massive pain. Twitter has permalinks, but their search is poor. Tumblr is endlessly re-linkable, but authorship becomes questionable (and sometimes entirely lost through no fault of anyone). And while this is about doing something about what you read, it’s the kind of thing writers think about. Platforms inform the content, but maybe that’s better written this way: constraints inform the content. Writing in numbered paragraphs makes this piece conform to different constraints. I feel like I need to make a point every time. I feel I need to leave you wanting to go to the next one (this is how listicles work!)

I want to oscillate to two differing viewpoints about using Twitter as a place to deliver actual capital C content. During the seven years I’ve been on the service, I’ve tweeted about food, nothing, bullshit, important topics of the week, pro wrestling, cats, and politics. This hardly scratches the surface: there’s over 23,000 tweets to my name (say I used all 140 characters for each; I’ve typed over 3 million characters. Jesus). The first point is that Twitter is great at delivering updates and ephemera, but lousy at being a blog; you know, that place where good things are written. From Marco Arment:

I don’t think avoiding Twitter is pragmatic if your audience is there, but it’s also unwise to dump all of your writing into bite-size pieces that are almost immediately skimmed over, forgotten, and lost to the vast depth of the mostly unsearchable, practically inaccessible Twitter archive.

Marco makes a terrific point about Twitter’s archive: it’s awful. Twitter could delete every tweet from 2013 back and nobody would notice, because unless you’re scrolling your own feed it’s basically impossible to get back there. He’s also right about Tweets getting skimmed over. At least from a personal perspective, very few tweets stick with me. They don’t get lodged in my subconscious like a great song, a great book, or even a great commercial. Length has nothing to do with it; certain lines from poems stay with me for years. But I’d be damned if I could remember a tweet from yesterday, even my own. Even though the majority of my writing since 2008 has evidently been on the service, I don’t feel like tweets count.” 

But yet Twitter is my platform of choice when I want to write a sentence.

If you number a tweet, the idea is that there’s more to come. This thought cannot fit into one container, so we’re going to use two. Or three! Or lots. And this is weird, because I’d say almost everyone reads Twitter in reverse-chronological order and thus read this barrage of tweets backwards. That’s more or less where my irk with multiple-tweet arguments begin and end. 

I really like Jeet Heer. I began following him because of my friend Matt Blair, who tweets so well it makes me angry. Jeet tweets in multiples so much he’s put it in his profile. I don’t know how this happened, but myself and several others all seemed to ask him at the same time why he tweeted long, multiple entries to form a single argument rather than write a blog. He replied in his fashion, which can be seen here as a storify. The part of his argument that got me was about footnotes:

21. What Adorno said about footnotes is true of tweets as well: it’s a form for thoughts that might not live elsewhere.

I kinda love footnotes, and I get it. Twitter essays are arguments in a margin. It’s not something I would do, but maybe in the future? It seems like it might annoy people. I don’t want to annoy people, do I? Going by history, that would be exactly what it looks like I like doing. I jump from platform to platform, rebranding, changing email addresses, my name even. There have definitely been people in my life who go screw that guy,” or at the very least where the hell did he go, anyway?” 

But what I really get is that Heer has found a platform that works, even if it’s not the right” one. 

And this is where it becomes a thing I worry about. I have the history of moving around so much because that’s partially what’s inspired me, and this has been a slow poison that’s followed my career. For new readers, all I have is my own word to tell you that I have been blogging in one fashion or another since 2002, and that even my seven-year Twitter account is only one of four I’ve had over that time, two of which no longer exist. I have done well to erase myself. I have done a remarkable job of making people think I don’t care about them or myself.

If I have any excuse for this behaviour, it’s that I have been in search of the best box, and my failure to find it has led to a few revelations about work and art. I thought I found the best container in Lattice, and when that came to a quick end I fell into a sort of depression about the issue. I’m not happy with blogs, twitter, print, ePubs, newsletters, news_papers_. None of it feels like the right thing, like any sort of real culmination of hundreds of years of literary distribution technology. 

My revelation was not that it’s the content that matters, not the container. The container very much matters, because it (say it with me) informs the content. The book I write in Scrivener and put on a Kindle is a different book than the one I’d write on a typewriter and send to a real publisher (in the 50s, presumably). The short story I write on my phone’s keyboard and put up on Wattpad is a totally different beast than the one I speak orally into a tape recorder. And the tweet I save in Onenote to publish later will be a different kind of tweet than the one I write and hit send without once checking to see if something is amiss. And this is a system I would not recommend to any sane person or even to myself. This isn’t the right way to do things. 

No, my revelation was that I’m not a container man. I’m not even particularly sure if I’m a writing man, but it’s what I like to do more than the other things. What’s a little sad is that the blog of all things is the best thing I’ve found. It’s the most versatile, flexible, searchable, and conversely hide-able if it all goes south. But I’m not an expert on this. I only have my own experience. 

I like Film-Crit Hulk. His essays about cinema are engaging, thorough, and humane. But it is infuriating reading him, because he writes in character,” in all caps, third person, and using hulk smash”-style truncation. These things are obstacles to enjoying his work. Now, Film-Crit Hulk has his reasons for writing the way he does, but I still find it annoying. 

The thing is, people find a way. If you really, really hate his style, there’s a chrome extension that removes the all-caps, and even replaces HULK with I” so the sentences read more naturally. I have no idea if Film-Crit Hulk hates this thing, but if I had worked to create a style I’d be a little miffed if people went out of their way to cheat their way out of it. I wonder if that’s how people on Twitter think of Storify, as this hack bolted on to make sense of their arguments on a medium they don’t fully grasp.

These kinds of hacks are everywhere. There are loads of ways to make things easier” to read. Evernote Clearly is one I use from time to time, which I pair with a read-later service (Instapaper). These things are hacks to move content from a place where the author intended to a place you, the reader, prefer. It’s a preference. What I’ve only recently realized is that the writer now has one less thing to worry about. Aesthetics and style are important, but the writer no longer has to worry about cribbing their own sense of style (and perhaps even their natural workflow) to make sure that things look and read fine. Readers (at least the fiddly ones) are going to take care of that. This opens up guys like Film-Crit Hulk, Heer Jeet, short-form bloggers to do what they do best: write really fucking well. 

I used to worry if people could properly subscribe via RSS. I’m not going to worry about that anymore. I’m not going to worry if people like blogs, or fiction mixed with non-fiction, categorization or even particularly the metadata. I’m not going to worry about where the numbers came from. I’m just going to type into this box.


November 6, 2014