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October 22, 2003

Death of a Mailing List

Posted by Mike on October 22, 2003 3:03 PM

A while back, I set up a mailing list called "Scoop." I was out to see how far and wide the list would grow in terms of membership, and to keep in touch with friends. It was a pretty hands-off affair: I didn't dictate any particular behaviors, and I wanted to see if issues of netiquette would be resolved by the group dictating its own norms. I ended up getting pretty wrapped up in PuddingTime!, and the list eventually ran out of steam.

Yesterday I sent out a brief "end of life" mail for Scoop, which hasn't seen a new post since June, inviting subscribers to unsubscribe (or vote for its ongoing existence by not unsubscribing), with the caveat that I'd like to resurrect Scoop once people have had a few days to get around to killing their subscriptions. What I said, in part was:

"I'm discovering the limits of the weblog form for what I'd like to do, which is have discussions. Blogging is fun and all, and I've learned a lot about design and done a lot of thinking about stuff I hadn't had a reason to, but there's something very 'ex cathedra without the cathedral' about the whole blog enterprise that leaves me not commenting much on what I'm interested in because the act of putting stuff up on a web page seems so... formal."

This is, longer-time readers will note, a different take from my last post on the matter of blogging, in which I likened blogs to collages, and said of them:

"...people can eventually draw a thin, silvery little strand of connectedness to your collage... a relationship that is like the Web itself, but with links that are merely presented as hyperlinks when what they really are is expressions of some sort of kinship. I post a snarky one-liner about Andrew Sullivan wetting his pants at the prospect of going to war with Iran, and Snappy the Clam notes it, too, saying he got it from me, and he sends along a ping to let me (and people reading PuddingTime!) know: it's a small act of community, a way for a stranger to say "over here! I'm with you on that one!" There's a little self-serving "look over here for more like this!" or sometimes "look over here for why this clown you're reading is fucked!" going on now and then, but it establishes a state of relatedness and a sense that our ideas have become part of another collage of self-identification."

In the past seven months, I've given blogging a try based on that premise, and discovered a few things:

At the end of the day, as my free time slowly evaporates (I'm maintaining a pretty hefty amount of work on top of a full-time class load this fall), what I'm after isn't a place to air my views in public or wow the world with my outrageously good taste in links. I'm after a conversation that's personal, civil, and perhaps a little more private than the simple obscurity of maintaining a minor blog, because that privacy affords the opportunity to make mistakes and play around with ideas.

The other half of the equation is that whole "ex cathedra without the cathedral" bit. Try as I might, my sense of publishing to any public medium (like the web, or a newspaper, or a public bulletin board) is that there's an implied level of weight to the act of publication. It signifies something to commit words to a public venue. There's an implicit comment in the act: "Pay attention, this is important. You need to know this."

Perhaps it's the uncertainty of impending parenthood, my re-immersion in school, a moderately humbling setback on the professional front, or simple humility, but it's getting harder for me to argue that much of what I've got to say here is particularly worthy of preservation for the ages. As an e-mail to a small group of friends? Sure... that's what friends do: They bend each others' ears with the trivial and commonplace. As an enterprise where considerable technical skill and time are consumed for the purpose of publishing, presenting, and syndicating that stuff? I'm less confident cluttering the web is the right thing to do, even if it is "cheap" at first glance, and even if the web is technically unclutterable (or simply cluttered beyond repair at this point).

Perhaps it's also the large volume of trivia I disseminate here, and its impact on other outlets. I've written one book, and it was satisfying to hold it in my hands when it was done, even though I swore at the time I'd never do it again. A little ways down the road, I'm less sure of that. I got an oblique "What are you going to be when you grow up?" question a few days ago, and realized that it'd better be a writer, or I'll end up pretty unhappy. I can just about resign myself to letting friends see writing that matters to me before it's "done," but that's an intolerable prospect when the potential audience widens to random passers-by. Some people thrive on public performance. I find it messes up my inner compass beyond reckoning. If I spend my creative time throttling my output so I can bear to put it up on the web, I'm squandering it. And I'm already halfway through my allotted three score and ten.

I don't think this means "it's the death of PuddingTime!," but rather that I've got an eye on how to trim out some of the trivia and reapproach with an eye to using it for things on which I've devoted a lot of time and attention. If I'm going to presume a claim on your reading time, it's the least I can do.