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 with upstairs.
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 extra-bright white.
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
(http://www.blogger.com) 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
(http://www.daypop.com) , Blogdex, Popdex
(http://www.popdex.com) , or Technorati
(http://www.technorati.com) to trace traffic patterns of
some new digital diversion making its way through hundreds of
other weblogs that morning.
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 (http://www.movabletype.org/), Radio
Userland (http://radio.userland.com/), 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 grew.
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
Pax(http://www.dearraed.blogspot.com/) and a CNN foreign correspondent
Sites (http://www.kevinsites.net/) 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
Text originally published in ArtFutura's 2003 catalog.