saying everything’s on the internet is great if you know how to use the internet. People who say it’s all on Google probably haven’t spent a lot of time watching people try to find what they want on Google. It’s challenging. There’s a lot of syntax to know, you’ve got know how to use a mouse, you’ve got to understand clicking, what’s a tab, what happens when I do this that and the other (thing), and there really isn’t a social institution dedicated to helping you figure it out. And then, that’s just for digitally divided folks, but for average folks who know how to use a computer, they still need to know how to be discerning about the information they get.
“Don’t be evil” or not, Google has a great deal of power over Internet culture. One example is the way that Google discourages searchers from marking up their search (with quotes, Boolean logic, restrictions like “only from the following domain,” etc.) Google Advanced Search was removed first from their main page and then from their list of other Google tooks on google.com, and their algorithm takes more and more freedom to ignore quotes and deliver sites with only partial matches. Rather than encouraging users to become skilled searchers, it teaches them to type quickly and trust the algorithm.
Geeky communities attract people who milk them for money, sex, and throngs of adoring flatterers. In the Anglo world I can trace this from New York science-fiction fandom in the 1940s through some of the groups I knew face-to-face in Canada to the Southern California tech world (and the closely related SoCal kink and porn worlds) in the 2010s. There are theories why this happens such as Michael Suileabhain-Wilson’s “Geek Social Fallacies” (2003). But today I would like you to read an essay on how to build a community of plumbers working side by side not rock stars and groupies, a community that the parasites bounce off like a mosquito landing on a buckskin jacket.
Books are precious things, and Doctor Manning finally has time to read them for fun again (and to really read them, not just skim them looking for facts or quotes). At the end of this year and the start of another, as I sit in rainy Innsbruck, I would like to tell my gentle readers about some of the ones I read in 2019.
I read Victoria Corva’s very relatable young adult fantasy Books and Bone (self-published, 2019) about a town cartographer trying to follow a vocation which she can’t prove is more than a myth. Read more
Many of the problems with Internet communities today stem from the fact that they are in places which don’t belong to the members. Youtube and twitter are nothing without their users, but Youtube and twitter are free to reject someone or change their standards of what is acceptable at any time, and users have no grounds to challenge them. Years of work can be deleted or hidden in a moment if the owner sees fit, and standards of behaviour designed to keep billions of people clicking are never going to be the ones which a small group of nerdy people chose for themselves. Moreover, its not in the interest of these companies to let users export their work in a convenient format.
Alexiares suggests that a good first step would be moving to services hosted by the post office or the public library. The public post has its problems, like the times it was used to block the spread of birth control information and equipment, but libraries and the post office at least have a tradition of offering service and privacy to everyone on equal terms, and are at least based in the same country with the same laws as their users. I don’t think that Germans and Americans will ever agree on what is protected free speech, or people in Ontario and people in Fars will agree on who can bare which bits. So decentralizing onto services like mastodon could help.
When I think back, though, it seems to me that this is a much older problem than centralized social media. In the 2000s, communities sprang up in places like the comments sections of blogs or the off-topic section of forums. Often, the owners of those sites are not happy about this at all, because moderation is work and organizing moderators is work and they have plenty of underpaid work of their own to do (the Tayler family of webcartoonists shut down comments on their main site for this reason). Other times, they create a monthly thread or a members-only subforum to let their readers get it out of their system. But they have do do something because people often use an online space designed for one activity for another.
This year I became Dr. Manning, saw my first journal article printed, went hiking with friends, and discovered that Assyriologists are surprisingly interested in talks about swords. Visits to this site increased about 10% despite my slower posting. The most visited pages were Learning Sumerian is Hard, How Heavy Were Doublets and Pourpoints?, my description of how the historical fencers drifted away from me, Fashion in the Age of Datini, and From Aleph Bet to Alphabet.
This fall produced the usual crop of people wondering if keeping a personal website is anachronistic. I don’t see anything wrong with being anachronistic, and as I look at the political economy of the Internet this decade, I see some things which maybe they have not considered. Read more
Another year ends in the manner of the one which ended Xenophon’s Hellenica: after terrible battles and startling results, there is not peace but confusion and disorder. Xenophon’s perplexity lead to a Sacred War, 300 dead lions on the plain of Chaeronea, and the King dead in an abandoned carriage as his conqueror bent down and took his seal with clean white hands. As for me, I am getting to know the local deer and my old library.
I have now been blogging for three years, three months, and a day. Traffic has roughly doubled every year since 2014 to the dizzying heights of 20 unique visitors and 40 page views per day and ten comments a month. My post on learning Sumerian is still popular, as is my outline of “Armour of the English Knight,” my confession of error about the historical fencers, and my posts on whether we have any evidence that the Greeks used glued linen armour and on the scale armour from Golyamata Mogila. No other posts received more than 300 visits in the year.
Amongst people who like to write on the internet in English, there is a meme that 2016 has been an especially bad year. For many people, that is political news and the death of favourite celebrities. For me, it is sickness, a serious illness in my family, and watching people react to that political news in ways which are very human but make the problem worse. From ever-fiercer posturing against evil outsiders, to shouting louder and louder about the meaning of events, to sitting down and writing another column which attempts to predict the future using the same methods which just failed to predict the present, a lot of people are doubling down on strategies which they know do not work. But as I look back, I notice a big contrast between the real world that I live in and the artificial world of the media (from blogs to newspapers).