When I was a child, my father
hauled an abandoned antique printing press into our house one afternoon.
He was an artist and writer who had a habit of falling in love with
discarded tools, the same way I became routinely obsessed with broken
dogs and fallen birds. But this thing weighed over a ton
He'd become enamored with the way words from the press felt in
his hands, divided into chunks of lead characters. Sentences formed
like spines strung from vertebrae. I remember exactly how the blocks
of type felt when he placed them in my small hands -- they were
palm-sized then, but cold; sharp enough along the corners to puncture
skin. Heavier than the wooden alphabet building-blocks I played
I remember the acrid smell of black ink, and the slapping sounds
of my father spreading each blob into a thin film that coated wide
plates of assembled text. Gears made metallic groans when he heaved
his giant body into the wheel that set the press into motion, a
wheel as tall as he was, a wheel that smashed wet steel plates into
paper to form printed words.
The press was an elderly oddity: a fat, shut-in houseguest who
consumed two rooms, accompanied by floor-to-ceiling cabinets of
paper and type trays. Homes didn't have PCs in 1974, but there were
many more efficient ways to speak to the world. My father wrote
on a typewriter, and words were published in books, newspapers,
But words that came out of this press had a scent. A personality
you could feel with your fingers. Whatever my father's words were,
when they were printed this way they had history, as if he had squeezed
them through a time machine on their way to the sheets of vellum
His press is gone now, along with the typewriter and old house
they occupied. But I think about the press when I'm hunched over
my laptop in an airport, clicking the "post and publish"
key in Blogger
to post an entry on BoingBoing.
I think about that press when I'm half-awake in bed with my pocket
PC and a cup of coffee, cruising websites like Daypop, Blogdex,
Popdex, or Technorati to trace traffic patterns of some new digital
diversion making its way through hundreds of other weblogs that
I think about that press when I'm wading through an online journal
from some aliased stranger on the other side of the world, reading
words, downloading spoken narratives in someone else's language,
zooming through snapshots they've just phonecammed moments before,
from Tokyo, Tahiti, Tijuana; wherever they are.
I think about that press because it's pretty amazing that within
one human lifetime -- okay, mine -- we can trace the evolution
from lead blocks to weblogs. A simple publishing technology
that allows virtually anyone, anywhere, to publish whatever they
want whenever they want at virtually no cost, for immediate reach
to millions of readers anywhere in the world.
Just because words can be published effortlessly now doesn't mean
they'll be read, or worth reading. But instant online publishing
changes the way we communicate just as fundamentally as that printing
press did, when it first entered the world.
What are weblogs? Regularly-updated websites that
typically combine some mix of first-person commentary, web links,
images, and news clips, and present the blend in reverse chronological
order. Some are solo journals -- personal diaries open to the world;
websites that function like ultra-low-budget reality TV shows where
aspiring exhibitionists can document every personal detail of daily
life, from boyfriends to phone bills to what they ate for breakfast.
Other blogs are like collaborative online magazines that feature
multiple editorial voices. Blogs can be produced by anonymous individuals
with no professional writing experience just as easily as they can
by career journalists or celebrity technopundits.
Blogger, one of several popular do-it-yourself
publishing systems, boasts over a million registered users. The
number of newly-minted weblogs continues to grow daily, powered
by providers such as Movable Type, Radio Userland, and others.
New services from companies like Audblog allow bloggers to speak
audio entries to their sites by way of phoned-in narrative. Syndication
tools like RSS allow the contents of one blog to be distributed
to other blogs and websites, adding layers of diversity and inter-blog
dialogue to an evolving ecosystem of ideas.
The fast-spreading popularity of phonecams (mobile
phones with built-in digital cameras and internet access) and other
mobile imaging technologies has seeded blogging genres with newly-coined
buzzwords of their own: phonecamblogs, phlogs, and fotologs,
that publish images captured on the fly. As more cellphones are
released with mobile video capabilities -- and more Net users gain
access to faster broadband connections -- a boom in videoblogging
can't be too far away.
You could say that blogs evolved from the personal, tell-all homepages
pioneered by web personalities like Justin Hall in the mid-1990s.
The craze was popularized by companies like Geocities and Tripod
later that decade. But as free and dirt-cheap blog publishing services
proliferated, the number, diversity, and sophistication of weblogs
Many bloggers regard 2002 as the year the phenomenon
hit its first major popularity peak, and blogs hit the big-time
in 2003 with a number of milestones: among them, Google buys Pyra
Software, the makers of Blogger; AOL introduces a blogging service
to millions of subscribers; and the blogosphere's impact on conventional
media is felt more strongly than ever as an Iraqi youth named Salam Pax and a CNN foreign correspondent named Kevin Sites give voice
to contrasting human perspectives on the U.S. war in Iraq.
And as candidates now gear up for the 2004 U.S. presidential race,
weblogs have emerged as a more critical tool now than in any prior
election in history.
As their sphere of influence continues to grow, so do new attempts
to cash in. Public relations professionals representing technology
companies now regularly pitch high-profile bloggers, hoping to score
favorable client mentions on well-trafficked sites. The marketing
plans of American soft drink company Dr Pepper/Seven Up backfired
earlier this year when an attempt to woo bloggers into talking up
a new drink called "Raging Cow" were seen as exploitative
-- and inspired a boycott.
For most bloggers, blogging is an unpaid labor of love.
Some blogs include advertising or "tip jars" (online cash
donation systems), but the dilemma of how to earn a living from
blogging is largely unsolved. But serial entrepreneurs such as Jason
Calacanis -- whose tech business Silicon Alley Reporter magazine
I worked for during the dot-com boom -- are launching new ventures
that could create a sort of small-blog-business subculture. Calacanis'
new company, set for launch in September, 2003, will provide bloggers
whose sites cover specific business-to-business niches with tools
designed to enable them to make money from their blogs. If they're
successful, the line between conventional publishing and blogging
will become increasingly blurred .
Bloggers and journalists love to spar over the big-picture impact
of blogs -- whether or not they'll eventually replace conventional
journalism, how soon they'll be as common as email addresses, and
whether the boom in webcam blogs self-published by topless teens
is a sign of imminent cultural collapse.
I don't know. But when I remember my father's printing press; when
I think about the canvases he stretched to paint on with oil paint
and rabbit-skin glue; when I hold pieces of paper on which he typed
the words he'll be remembered by, I think this.
Blogs democratize ideas. They give an almost magical
volition to words, images, and sounds. They make art available
to new audiences. Unheard voices become accessible in a
way that wasn't possible before. And that is a good thing.
Text originally published in ArtFutura's 2003 catalog.