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December 3, 2002

Dear Doc

Posted by Mike on December 3, 2002 5:09 PM

Shame mingled with pleasure as my humble effort here is noticed by an actual blogger even as I forget to toss the obligatory link into the entry he noticed.

So I called Doc Searls "Doc 'Google Google on the Wall' Searls," which is sort of oblique. In the spirit of clarification, I'll once and for all just get it out of my system (hit the MORE link below):

Update: Doc says we're all renters, with not a single homesteader in the lot of us. But the sum of the Internet in terms of domains, pages, and servers isn't the early pristine farmland at stake. I wonder if Farmer Kibo isn't the one who'll have the bronze statue and coonskin hat in the town square we build. Update 2: Doc noted someone else agrees, in part.

Dear Doc,

What the hell is it with you and Google? More specifically, what the hell is it with you and you & Google?

O.k. Enough. I'm twelve pages into the search and I just came across the entry that made me notice in the first place, so I'll stop there.

Before going any deeper, I'll own up to two bits of hypocrisy in this whole post:

  1. Any scolding from me about Google obsession is a matter of supreme relativism. Every time I mention PuddingWiki, I point out how fabulously high it ranks on some searches.
  2. About once every three months, I search for my book.

There's also the issue of my name, which averages out to be something like the 15th most common in the country. In terms of Google, I don't know if it's even possible for anyone named "Michael Hall" to be one of Jesus' special snowflakes, so maybe it's all sour grapes that I could remedy by changing my name to "Whopper Hall" or "Papa Doc Hall" or something.

But Doc, you're just... more into the whole thing. And you blog about it.

Why? What does it mean? What are your readers supposed to take away with them after reading "57,700 documents with my name on the Web"?

I'm asking because lately I've been dabbling with my own humble infocolony, which has been happening in fits and starts, here and there, for a couple of years, based almost entirely on a profound enthusiasm I had for weblogs three years ago, when they weren't what they are now.

Things have changed enough that my progressive-to-radical friends don't see the case for personal publishing. For every useful blogger takedown/deconstruction of a virulent bit of "mainstream media" stupidity, there are a dozen bite-sized "my little dog" entries that aren't even always about what people care about as much as they are what people happen to have noticed while seated at their computers. For every useful link or mini-review of a good site, we get dozens of inane shout-outs sent for no better reason than, perhaps, raising one's linkage so Google will notice, so we can blog about Google noticing.

If "blogging" (and the word is beginning to dissolve into meaninglessness the more I think about it today... like chanting your own name eventually makes it seem like a really silly and alien word) is so trivial, common, and predictably trite, what's the value?

Or is its eventual valuelessness the real racket here?

I recently read part of a book about the founding of my latest home, Portland, OR. The author describes what the land was like when Portland was a dock and a couple of farms. You can walk around down there, in the part of town that was farms and a dock and trees. It's not a huge act of imagining to realize that whoever was there in downtown Portland first was in a position to make untold amounts of money.

I didn't read far enough to find out if the original farmers sold cheap to pay off gambling debts or passed the land on to their children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, who held out until some developer was so insane with greed that he made them and all their descendants wealthy in perpetuity. But if you look across the street from some of those spots where the farmers first tilled the land without thinking about riches as much as they thought about survival and, perhaps, simple prosperity, you can see into a park, where bums sleep on benches, and over the river, where we're a city that rents from whoever ended up being Portland's real "first movers."

The people who homesteaded the blogosphere (sorry, esr) didn't come to the Web in covered wagons, and it took much less than two centuries for the highways to stretch out from the populous east/meat-space to bring even more settlers to the banks of the (metaphorical) Willamette. In Oregon, the first farmers or their children probably sold dear as the land around them grew crowded, and moved on to the west hills, where their great-great-great-grandchildren sip lattes on the deck, looking down on a city of second-, third- and fourth movers, renters, and bums. Don't see any bums from your uptown loft on the banks of the virtual Willamette? Look under the cardboard boxes.

Is this obsession with Google placement the result of special understandings by a canny early mover in the blogosphere? Insulation against the day there isn't specialness because there are ten billion people on planet Earth and they all blog? Is it a marketer's justifiable concern with how well "Brand Doc" is selling this week and whether it faces dilution at the hands of another Doc? Is it a simple reminder to your readers that outside the pages of your blog, a blog like so many others, you are somebody? Andrew Sullivan, Glenn Reynolds, and others periodically imply blogging is a loss-leader for the work they can sell: are we being reminded that you've got opinions the unstinting eye of Google, with its implied ad populum valuation of your work, deems salable?

Perhaps these are rude questions, like it would be rude to say "Goddamn you spend a lot of time in front of the mirror!" to a coworker. On the other hand, you're fourth in the rankings when I Google 'weblog.' You're Farmer Searls, and we'll someday remember you on Founders' Day with giant Doc floats and a bronze Doc statue with a coonskin hat. Hell, you tell people whether what they're doing is blogging at all. So you're a subject matter expert, and I'm asking:

What the hell does it all mean? Why do you care? Why do we care? What am I missing? Why don't I Get It?