less rolling, less tumbling, more mindfulness

In my last post I explained that I’m thinking of moving away from my Tumblr because its frictionlessness, its ease of posting and re-posting, has become somewhat problematic for me. And I said there was another reason for moving away from it, but in fact I have at least two.

In my view, the number one thing that all the major social media do wrong is this: metrics. Follower and friend counts. I would greatly prefer not to know how many Twitter or Tumblr followers I have, and were I on Facebook I wouldn’t want to know how many “friends.” But the world of social media is a world of counting. The whole business reminds me of what Auden called “Infernal Science”:

One of our greatest spiritual dangers is our fancy that the Evil One takes a personal interest in our perdition. He doesn’t care a button about my soul, any more than Don Giovanni cared a button about Donna Elvira’s body. I am his “one-thousand-and-third-in-Spain.”

One can conceive of Heaven having a Telephone Directory, but it would have to be gigantic, for it would include the Proper name and address of every electron in the Universe. But Hell could not have one, for in Hell, as in prison and the army, its inhabitants are identified not by name but by number. They do not have numbers, they are numbers.

And once you start conceiving of your online social world as countable, it’s hard, as many, many people have noted, not to make decisions based on what will boost those numbers. Since the major social media platforms don’t even allow the possibility of hiding the numbers — it has probably never occurred to any of the people who work for such sites that a person might not want that data — you either have to find a way to ignore the numbers or stop using the service.

Which leads me to my second reason for moving away from Tumblr: the value of owning your turf — your turf also, not incidentally, being a place where you can take no notice of metrics. Thus Frank Chimero on changes he’s making in his online presence, based on, among other things, his realization that his being spread so thin online is making him grumpy:

While this callousness and irritability might be caused by the traits of certain environments online, it’s also just an attitude, so it can be modified. I can adjust how I look at the newness, change how I interact with these venues, and try to make a quieter, warmer, and slower place for my things. That’s good for the audience (I think), and good for my work and the things I share. You need to build a safe place so people don’t need to be on guard and stingy with their attention. If you can do that, we all get a breather.

It seems the best way for me to do this is to step out of the stream and “build my own house,” just like those architects. I don’t have to simplify or crop or be pulled out of context (unless I want that), which hopefully produces a fuller picture of who I am, what I like, and what I value. I’m returning to a personal site, which flips everything on its head. Rather than teasing things apart into silos, I can fuse together different kinds of content. Instead of having fewer sections to attend to distracted and busy individuals, I’ll add more (and hopefully introduce some friction, complexity, and depth) to reward those who want to invest their time. I won’t use analytics — actually, I won’t measure at all. What would I do with that data anyway? In this case, it’s just more noise. The singular thread that runs through everything is only “because I like it.”

So, I’m doubling down on my personal site in 2014. In light of the noisy, fragmented internet, I want a unified place for myself — the internet version of a quiet, cluttered cottage in the country.

This sounds great to me. So all I have to do is to figure out how to do this in my own life. I know I’ll be here; I know I’ll keep my Gospel of the Trees site up and running; but everything else is now negotiable. I will almost certainly do any personal blogging and posting of images, quotes, and the like to my own turf. Maybe I’ll even move my research notes from Pinboard to there, or move them offline entirely. Maybe I’ll make my Twitter account private, or create a new private one and leave the public one just for announcements and links.

It’s time for more mindfulness. And mindfulness can’t be done quickly.

rolling and tumbling

I’ve been writing lately about thinking — about, especially, the conditions under which thinking happens. Previous posts are, in order, here, here, here, and here. Now for another installment.

I started what was used to be called a tumblelog but now is usually just called a Tumblr in March of 2007, so I was a fairly early adopter of what has since become an enormous social-media enterprise. I liked it right from the beginning because, in contrast to a conventional blog, its code promoted the posting and re-posting of … stuff. Quotations, images, music, snippets of conversation: all were trivially easy to get onto my site. I began to think of my Tumblr as a digital commonplace book, an idea I wrote about here and here. Looking at those essays, I see that I registered a note or two of caution. For instance:

When I post quotations and images to my tumblelog I suppose I’m succumbing to the temptation to cheat: I’m not writing anything out by hand; I’m not even typing the words, which is what I used to do when as a teenager I kept a sheaf of favorite quotations in a desk drawer. I’m just copying and pasting, which is nearly frictionless. I don’t have to think about whether I really want to record a passage or image: if it’s even vaguely or potentially interesting, in it goes. I might not even read it with care, much less give it the kind of attention that wold be required if I were to write it out by hand.

And this:

Keeping a commonplace book is easy, but using one? Not so much. I started my first one when I was a teenager, and day after day I wedged open books under a foot of my ancient Smith-Corona manual typewriter and banged out the day’s words of wisdom. I had somewhat different ideas then of what counted as wisdom. The mainstays of that era — Arthur C. Clarke and Carl Sagan were perhaps the dominant figures — haven’t made any appearances in my online world. But even then I suspected something that I now know to be true: The task of adding new lines and sentences and paragraphs to one’s collection can become an ever tempting substitute for reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting what’s already there. And wisdom that is not frequently revisited is wisdom wasted.

I really love posting to my Tumblr, and the “frictionless” quality of its code is a primary reason: with a few keystrokes and mouse-clicks I can fill the page with interesting tidbits and even the occasional profundity. And there’s an additional pleasure in seeing readers re-post things that I’ve dug up — I think my record for re-posts is this syllabus of W. H. Auden’s. (Images and short quotations generate the most re-posts and favorites, by the way.) I don’t have a great many readers of my Tumblr, but I think the ones who do read it enjoy it, at least to judge by the emails and tweets I’ve received on previous occasions when I went on Tumblr hiatus.

But I have come to think of these very pleasures as posing problems. Ease of posting makes me indiscriminate — I just throw anything up there that looks vaguely interesting, and then at the end of the day when I see that I’ve posted a dozen items I get this strange illusion of productivity. And sometimes when I want to post something especially important I find myself wishing that I hadn’t posted so much insignificant material that day, because I don’t want what’s important to get lost in the crowd. Moreover, once I start noticing the kinds of posts that get re-posted, it becomes a matter of discipline to ignore that and focus on what I think is interesting. I’ve started to believe that my relationship with my Tumblr isn’t altogether healthy, and — to circle back to the theme of this series of posts — that this particular technology may be encouraging me to post without thinking.

And there’s one more reason why I’m beginning to think that another model of online idea-presentation might be better for me. But that I’ll explain in my next post.

about Tumblr

“This Is Why Your Tumblr’s Down” — because, if I read the piece rightly, David Karp doesn’t want to spend the money to hire more engineers to keep the backend functioning smoothly.

Well, whatever. I started my tumblelog more than four years ago, and for a long time it was a great place for me to store and present quotations and images that caught my attention. At one point I decided to shut it down, but only because I was trying to simplify my online life; I missed posting things to it, and a number of people said they missed my posts, so I resumed.

But then last year the site started to go down more and more frequently. Days would go by without my being able to get to it. In frustration I moved everything over to Posterous, but that required me to spend too much time fiddling with formatting, and the site, while always up, was really slow. Back to Tumblr.

Which meant, back to not knowing whether the site would be up at any given time. Eventually I got tired of the uncertainty and just stopped trying to post to the site. I stopped trying to visit the Dashboard to see what others were posting. I didn’t make a conscious decision to do this; I just stopped bothering. For nearly four years I posted stuff to my tumblelog because I didn’t doubt what would happen if I did so; but when I went through an extended period when I couldn’t guess whether the site would be up or not, it just got to be too much trouble. Instead of posting things to Tumblr or Posterous for everyone to see, I just posted things to Pinboard for me to see. I am reading as much as ever and recording my reading, but I’ve just drifted out of the habit of using Tumblr.

This is what unreliability does: it changes your habits, even if you don’t make a conscious decision to abandon a service.