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Dave Winer: “I’m a mystic about What It All Means.”

January 7th, 2010 · 1 Comment · Talents, Innovators

EncrierNo Ars Poetica ever created poets. Creative writing classes rarely generate novelists. Do “how-to-write-a-post” recommendations work better? Yes, for posts that report industry messages (how to best sell a soap, promote or describe the latest and greatest products or trends, etc.) – i.e. when “blogging” is the expanded version of an annotated PowerPoint presentation, mini-tutorials, or downsized versions of journalistic articles. Yet, while commoditized blogging represents the quasi-totality of today’s blog production, there are auteur-blogs, just as there are auteur-films. It’s the case of Dave Winer’s Scripting News.

Now and then, we come across posts that have an authentic literary quality. For me, one of the most remarkable and consistent authors, year after year, is Dave Winer. Last November, as he was wishing “Happy Thanksgiving everybody!”, as most every year since 1994, he gave me the very single reason why I have always liked reading what he writes, almost regardless of his subject matter: “Me,” he says, “I’m a mystic about What It All Means.”

Dave Winer’s posts are always based on a personal experience (what he sees, what he programs, what he expects, etc.); however, and contrary to the self-centered manner of a number of tech gurus, his self-centricity is that of a cameraman providing the perspective from which he is reporting what he sees or feels, thus setting up the decor and lighting as he invites you to explore. Self-centricity is by no means egotism. Dave Winer has a sizeable ego, sure, but really no more than most good writers actually have. He stands his ground. He has opinions on things or people with which one may not necessarily agree. And so what? Do we agree with everything great artists do or say? When people focus on “what it all means,” they are unlikely to build unanimity, and the demystification process that governs the investigation of things around us can come across as either paranoid or enlightening depending on where you stand. This art-of-writing from a viewpoint is the essence of literature. Literature-grade blogging is no exception.

As Matt Mullenweg said in his selection of 10 blogs that make you think, Dave Winer’s writings make you “think.” What does this really mean? The best response comes from Winer himself in a remarkable note about Julia Child, whom he views as a “natural-born blogger,” even though she wrote before the blogging era: “A blogger isn’t just someone who uses blogging software, at least not to me. A blogger is someone who takes matters into his or her own hands. Someone who sees a problem that no one is trying to solve, one that desperately needs solving, that begs to be solved, and because the tools are so inexpensive that they no longer present a barrier, they are available to the heroic individual. As far as I can tell, Julia Child was just such a person. Blogging software didn’t exist when she was pioneering, but it seems that if it did she would have used it.”  In the same piece, he also mentions that “The story of the nobility of blogging largely remains, imho, untold,” a statement with which I also agree. I see two intertwined reasons to this: It is still a new genre and identifying the intrinsic characteristics of a new genre is always difficult.

People have started to write the history of blogging recently. One of the most detailed books may be Scott Rosenberg’s Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It’s Becoming, and Why It Matters. The book (which I discussed in an earlier post) reads like an epic about the blogosphere’s first protagonists. However, it is possible that the premium granted to early adopters may have hindered the actual positioning of blogging into a fully-fledged literary genre – and this for two main reasons:

–   First, because of an easy confusion between the means and the content. Lots of people were early adopters of typewriters and certainly gained temporary fame because of it. Obviously, very few, if any, delivered a text comparable to Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi (the first typewritten manuscript according to historian Darryl Rehr).

–   Secondly, because of the customary association of any new genre with existing categories. Just as video initially came across of the poor relative of cinema, “blogging” has come to designate the act of writing virtually anything on the Web, and a substitute for or alternative to personal diaries, industry reporting, or news or opinion columns. If the “the story of the nobility of blogging remains largely untold,” it’s also because it’s rarely perceived as a fully-fledged genre, as an art form of its own. 

The story of the nobility of blogging will be hard to come by and may take some time. Just think how hard it is to write the story of the nobility of poetry, essay, or novel. But maybe it’s possible to start to create a blog anthology organized along two of the main characteristics, that, in my opinion, drive the intrinsic quality of a blog, regardless of the topic:

–   Authored by a real person. Blogs can be close to the diary genre, with clear differences, however. As in a diary entry, a post reflects the true feeling of a person, yet, and contrary to most diaries, the purpose of a blog may not be to simply vent one’s feelings, but rather to express a deep emotional engagement in experiences that are also of value to others. When blogs appeared in the mid-nineties, I had the distinct impression that blogging was a reincarnation of what the Beat generation had brought to the world, the pulse of a/the world through the mind of a writer. That’s why I like Dave Winer’s notion of a blogger as “heroic individual.”

–   A person in quest of his/her own authenticity and identity. Great bloggers have a recognizable style from a linguistic standpoint, some form of artistic idiosyncrasy, regardless of the topic, that is hard to isolate. It conveys the sense of uniqueness of a writer in the process of self-definition through his/her writing. Lots of people write interesting things, and write them well, but they do so as implicit or explicit spokespersons of a magazine, a company, or the brand that they represent (including their own brand). The vast majority of bloggers wants to or must be consistent with the image they project or want to project rather than with who they are as individuals, and are abstractions of themselves. Again, what they say may be remarkable, but they express themselves as expected by their public/audience. Louis L’Amour or Zane Grey may be extraordinary novelists in the Western fiction genre, but they do not necessarily incarnate the nobility of novel-writing as Steinbeck does.

Dave Winer has a unique place in the history of blogging, as both a major contributor to the most fundamental technologies for online publication and as a major writer himself (with close to a thousand contributions since 1994). The transparent interaction between the mind of the technologist and of the writer creating technology as part of his communication process (which, according to me, started as early as his days at LivingVideoText with its concept of idea processor) did shape the history of blogging, and made blogging the most pervasive literary genre in the history of the all means of expression. Dave Winer has accumulated all the possible kudos as “The father of modern-day content distribution,” blogging, podcasting and RSS. I would venture to say that he is also definitely a part of what is often called “experimental literature” in this country, i.e. when writers change given forms and invent a whole new style – think of Joyce, Borgès, Cortázar. 

Marylene Delbourg-Delphis


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