Category: Friendblogs

A Walkable Internet

Sometimes I think that popular media’s fascination with counterintuitive propositions is a big contributor to what got us into this mess. I use the word “media” there to mean more than just major publications, but we’ll get to that later. Also, sometimes, I like to think up counterintuitive propositions myself, like software doesn’t mean “code,” it means “a system for consolidating control of the means of production.” Or maybe the Internet can be defined as “that which will promise you what you want.”

Lucy Bellwood presenting a slide with the text Photo by Stefan Shepherd from Lucy’s extraordinary September 2016 talk, which I think about at least every other day.

I don’t offer these takes with any intent to defend them. I just think they’re useful mental calisthenics, valuable as alternative modes of thought to the definitions that creep into common idiomatic use: things like the Internet can be defined as “the most active population of large social media platforms.” I certainly use that shorthand myself, often in a scornful tone, despite my own attempts to stretch the popular conception of the Internet around the deconglomerated approaches that people these days call “IndieWeb.” One of the writers I admire, and linked to back in March when talking about this stuff, is Derek Guy of Die, Workwear and Put This On. Sometimes I sneak onto Twitter to see his dorky fashion memes, and today I discovered this, one of his more popular tweets of late. It has, as of this writing, numbers underneath it that far exceed its author’s follower count.

This is a gentle proposition, almost to the point of being anodyne. Maybe you disagree with it. I happen to agree, myself, as someone who has spent a number of years enjoying such a lifestyle; I agree in particular that it is luxurious, which is to say a luxury. One way I define luxury is an ephemeral privilege not to be taken for granted. Many people are systematically deprived of the privilege of walkability by the way that capital and its frequent servant, municipal policy, prioritize car travel and inherited wealth to create housing insecurity and food deserts. To me, that understanding seems built into the way these two sentences are constructed.

Three days after it was posted, I can sit here and watch the retweet and quote numbers on the post tick upward every time I breathe. I don’t think that’s due to positive attention.

I’m not here to write about how Twitter Is Bad. Even Twitter, as a body, agrees that Twitter Is Bad. I’ve written variations on that theme for ten years as of next month, and I can’t declare myself piously abstemious from social media when I’m quoting social media posts in my post about social media. The interests of capital demand that Twitter makes its graph lines go up; the simplest mechanism to make them go up is to incentivize conflict; the capital circulates through organizations until the system’s design iterates toward conflict optimization. Primed for bickering, just as the man says. The story of social media is the story of how billionaires made other people figure out how they could extract money from the late-twentieth-century invention of the real-time flame war.

I just feel bad for Guy because I like his work and have a bit of a parasocial relationship with him: he is, more or less, the person who taught me how to enjoy shopping and wearing clothes. (I know many other people are subject to worse for less online, every day. I mean it when I say it’s Bad out there.) If not for Die, Workwear, I don’t think I would ever have chosen to take this series of self-portraits, a couple years back, wearing things I bought and liked just for myself.


I posted those photos on Flickr, even though I have my own IndieWeb site where I can host as many photos as I want. Flickr is a social media platform. It’s a rarity, not in that it did not generate for its acquiring capitalists the graph numbers they wanted, but in that it was then left to molder in neglect instead of being defenestrated for its failure. I have strong disagreements about some recent choices by its current owners, whatever their best intentions. But at least it’s not Instagram. Flickr has, for many years, retained an interface bent toward the humane and curious, instead of capitulating to the wind-tunnel abrasion of those who value human life less than the ascendance of the line on the graph.

Another thing I posted on Flickr, back in 2018, was the set of photos I took with Kat on our trip to Budapest together. One of the places we visited was Szimpla Kert, a romkocsma or “ruin bar,” built almost twenty years ago in what was once the city’s Jewish quarter by people in its neighborhood who wanted to make something new out of something old. It was once a condemned shell of a building; now it’s a huge draw, with thousands of visitors on a given night, most of whom are tourists like us. Locals might disagree, but I did not find that its charm was diminished by the crowd. It was idiosyncratic, vibrant, complex, and unique. Hungary—like my country, and like the Internet—is a more worrisome place to live than it was a few years ago. But Szimpla seems to be thriving, in large part because it is knit tightly into its local community.

Szimpla Kert

“Szimpla Kert” translates to “simple garden.” I have a little experience with the allure of gardening, and also how much work a garden takes to maintain; I’m sure the people running Szimpla work very hard. But an interesting way of looking at a garden, to me, is a space for growth that you can only attempt to control.

In the middle of drafting this increasingly long post, Kat asked me if I wanted to take a walk up to her garden bed, which is part of a community plot a ways to the north of us. I was glad to agree. I helped water the tomatoes and the kale, and ate a sugar snap pea Kat grew herself right off its vine, and on the way back I picked up dinner from our favorite tiny takeout noodle place. It took over an hour to make the full loop and return home, and I was grateful for every step. An unhurried walk was exactly what my summer evening needed. I luxuriated in its languidness, because I could.

When you put something in a wind tunnel, you’re not doing so because you value the languid. I am far from the first person to say that maybe we could use a little more friction in the paths we take to interact with each other online. Friction can be hindering or even damaging, and certainly annoying; I’m not talking about the way we’ve somehow reinvented popup ads as newsletter bugboxes and notification requests. I just want to point out that friction is also how our feet (or assistive devices) interact with the ground. We can’t move ourselves forward without it.

It’s a privilege to have the skills, money, time and wherewithal to garden. You need all those kinds of privilege to run your own website, too. I think social media platforms sold us on the idea that they were making that privilege more equitable—that reducing friction was the same thing as increasing access. I don’t buy that anymore. I don’t want the path between my house and the noodle restaurant to be a conveyor belt or a water slide; I just want an urban design that means it’s not too far from me, with level pavement and curb cuts and some streets closed to cars on the way. I want a neighborhood that values its residents and itself.

This is why I’m as just interested in edifices like Szimpla Kert and Flickr as I am in the tildeverse and social CMS plugins and building the IndieWeb anew. Portland is the most walkable city I’ve lived in, and it ended up that way kind of by accident: the founders optimized for extra corner lots out of capitalist greed, but the emergent effect was a porous grid that leaves more space for walkers and wheelchairs and buses and bikes. The street finds its own uses for things, and people find their own uses for the street. Sometimes people close a street to traffic, at least for a little while. And sometimes people grow things there.

I don’t expect the Internet we know will ever stop pumping out accelerants for flame wars directed at people who just felt like saying something nice about a walk to the grocery store. That paradigm is working for the owners of the means of production, for now, though it’s also unsustainable in a frightening way. (I will never again look at a seething crowd, online or off, without thinking twice about the word “viral.”) But if someone who lives in Chicago can’t entirely ignore what suburban white people get up to in the Loop on St. Patrick’s Day, then one doesn’t have to go out of one’s way to join in, either.

I’m ready to move on from the Information Superhighway. I don’t even like regular superhighways. The Internet where I want to spend my time and attention is one that considers the pedestrian and unscaled, with well-knit links between the old and the new, with exploration and reclamation of disused spaces, and with affordances built to serve our digital neighbors. I’m willing to walk to get there.

A front-end developer and former colleague I admire once said, in a meeting, “I believe my first responsibility is to the network.” It was a striking statement, and one I have thought about often in the years since. That mode of thought has some solid reasoning behind it, including a finite drag-reduction plan I can support: winnowing redundant HTTP requests increases accessibility for people with limited bandwidth. But it’s also a useful mental calisthenic when applied to one’s own community, physical or digital. Each of us is a knot tying others together. The maintenance of those bonds is a job we can use machines to help with, but it is not a job I think we should cede to any platform whose interests are not our own.

The Internet will promise you what you want, and the Internet will not give it to you. Here I am, on the Internet, promising you that people wielding picnics have put a stop to superhighways before.

IncompletePhoto by Diego Jimenez; all rights reserved.

Fifteen years ago this summer, I was exercising a tremendous privilege by living and working in London, in the spare room of an apartment that belonged to friends I met online. They were part of a group that met regularly to walk between subway stations, tracing the tunnel route overground, which they called Tube Walks. There was no purpose to the trips except to get some fresh air, see some things one might not otherwise have seen, and post the photos one took on Flickr.

My five months south of the Thames were my first real experience of a walkable life. I grew up in suburbs, struggled without a car in Louisville, and then, for the first time, discovered a place where I could amble fifteen minutes to the little library, or the great big park, or the neighborhood market, which would sell me just enough groceries for a single dinner. Battersea is not a bourgeois neighborhood, but it’s rich in growth and in history. It changed what I wanted from my life.

London, like Budapest, like Chicago, is a city that has burned down before. People built it back up again, and they didn’t always improve things when they did. But it’s still there, still made up of neighborhoods, still full of old things and new things you could spend a lifetime discovering. And small things, too, growing out of the cracks, just to see how far they can get.

Not sure where this little guy thinks he's going

Daniel Burnham, who bears responsibility for much of the shape of post-fire Chicago, claimed inspiration from the city’s motto of Urbs in Horto: that is, City in a Garden. (Which I didn’t even know, myself, until Kat gently pointed it out to me while proofreading this post.) Burnham was also posthumously accorded the famous imperative to “make no little plans.” But I like little plans, defined as the plans I can see myself actually following.

I didn’t know where this post was going where I started it, and now it’s the longest thing I’ve ever published on this blog. If you read the whole thing, then please take a moment of your day and write me to tell me about a website that you make, or that you like, or that you want to exist. I’ll write back. More than ever, I want to reclaim my friendships from the machinery of media, and acknowledge directly the value that you give to my days.

It’s actually “Twitters Brendan”

When I was a kid I had asthma. Growing up largely fixed that, but I still got attacks when I went running in cold weather; since running is the only exercise I enjoy or have ever been good at, I got into the habit of slacking off as the weather got colder. In late fall, for many years, I’d slip into a comfortable lethargy, stop caring about what I ate or how much I moved, and gain a bunch of weight that I’d then try to work off in the spring.

After I started recognizing this pattern I wanted to change it. Because the only motivation I understand is self-mockery on the Internet, last September I made a new Twitter account, WinterBrendan. I’d post as him when I caught myself in moments of sloth, gluttony and self-loathing. He hasn’t actually written that much, which is a good thing! It kind of worked, and I ate a lot better and worked out more (aided by the fact that I figured out how to run without asthma, which deserves its own post).

But WinterBrendan was only the beginning.

Within two weeks of his appearance, SOMEONE WHO SHALL NOT BE NAMED created SpringBrendan, which is the worst thing that has ever happened. SpringBrendan is a machine gun of incredibly lewd jokes, which, well, fine, except all those jokes have my face on them and people instinctively believe I am writing them. The worst part is that he’s fucking hilarious. The only thing worse than people scolding you for coming up with horrible things is people praising you for coming up with horrible things when you did not, and indeed could not.

There are apparently people who still don’t believe I don’t write SpringBrendan. Look! Here! I AM NOT SPRINGBRENDAN. YOU CAN TELL BECAUSE HE IS FUNNY, AND LIKES HIMSELF.

Unfortunately everyone else likes him too. Around the time this was going on, I realized I was coming up on my ten thousandth tweet. Because my friends (and their friends, and total strangers) seemed to enjoy seeing my face plastered on any old garbage, I took a grumpy few hours and wrote my first Twitter client, RealBrendan. It was pretty simple: a text box that hooked up to my actual account and posted whatever you typed. My 9,999th tweet was a link to it, and my 10,000th was “Go.” Then I went to lunch with a friend.

When I got back I was in Twitter jail.

As soon as people realized it was legit, they had unleashed a hideous torrent of raw, anonymous Internet. I once thought of my followers as a carefully curated selection of clever, thoughtful people with taste; now I know better. RealBrendan only went silent when it hit the ceiling for allowable-tweets-per-hour, which turns out to be 128. I got a lot of texts along the lines of “are you okay???” and “WHAT ARE DOING, TURN OFF,” and one person even figured out how to send DMs as me. Exciting! (If you authorize the Exquisite Tweets app, you can read a complete archive of the horror.)

I revoked the app and was allowed back on Twitter the following morning. I did feel a certain sick fascination with what had happened the day before, so I tinkered with the machinery so that it would maintain a queue and post at a more reasonable rate, then hooked it up to its own new account. Once people figured out there was no more immediate gratification, the torrent dropped to a trickle, but now there’s this kind of anonymous group-fiction thing going and it’s kind of fun.

Because ideas are unkillable, there are other accounts as well, and once again I DO NOT CONTROL ANY OF THEM. Summer called them Brendan-shards, which prompted me to start thinking of them as my Horcruxes, because it would be awfully hard to track them all down and also each one represents a horrific murder. They are GrampaBrendan, JoelBrendan and BrendansMcdald, and I strongly encourage you not to follow any them. Or the other ones. Or the actual BrendanAdkins, really.

Please RT.

“Nobody expects to be punched in the face by a man’s beard.”

This is linked on his guest post but it needs additional emphasis! After years of my pestering him about it, Bill O’Neil has FUCKING FINALLY gotten around to setting up a dedicated story blog. Bill/William/whoever was making me want to shred everything I ever wrote and set it on fire in a toilet while he was still in high school, so I’m (mostly) glad to finally be able to slot him into Google Reader. If you don’t do the same then you’ll just have to accept that you and I have different tastes!

Three things make a roundup

Ersatz blogrolling

The main side effect of the Penny Arcade bump for Ommatidia has been a notification avalanche–via email or Technorati–of other people who have started (or were already doing) tiny story blogs in a similar vein. I think this is awesome, but honestly I lose track of which site is which, and even I can only read so much blink fiction in a day.

So here’s an offer: if you’re doing tiny stories on some sort of schedule, email me with a link and a little summary and I’ll add you to the directory page I’m putting together now. I am not promising to subscribe to all of them, for the aforementioned reasons, but I will go through once a month to check them all, maybe make a recommendation, and clean out the dead ones. (If you have emailed me about your story blog, and it’s still going, and you want it to be on the list, I would appreciate it if you’d email me again.)

Besides the obvious, I’ll start it off with just such a recommendation: The Two Minutes Project, comprising Two Minutes Less a Third and Chasing Concordia. Very short stories and very short songs! Read The Eternal Question if you need convincing, which you shouldn’t, dammit you have got to start TRUSTING me someday.

My neighborhood is named after a vampire slayer

After nearly two months in one sort of transition or another, I have achieved something like a temporary stability: I even bought a flat hard bed, manufactured (I am given to understand) by svirfneblin. All of which is to say my name is on a lease, my belongings no longer fit in the Fit and I like it here very much. I live with the very droll Kara, at least until she discovers I used to play Warcraft and kicks me out, and I’m slowly coming around to the idea of a bike.

I promise I’ll get the rest of the Hugner pictures up soon.

Other people that write good

UJ wrote a fantastic response to my “Christ of the Barricades” challenge, and Will wrote a prequel to Beloit, saved here from the LJ feed:

Tarnished as it is, the dirty chrome armour of the Heliocrashers shines as they blast through the wall: Erythrophobia zaps at a guard, but canon says that sonoluminescence doesn’t cause bubble fusion. So she punches him through a wall.

The other ‘crashers are covering her while she sets a charge against the generator’s critical weak point when canon oozes out of a grate and tears Erythrophobia in half. The charge doesn’t detonate because canon says they use fusion to fly, not fight: instead, her top half flies into a duct and her suit’s failing containment does the job just as well.

And then there’s stuff like Sumana’s MC Masala, which… you know about MC Masala, right? And Leonard is getting the kind of rejection letters most of us would kill for, for a story you will (when you get to see it) kill to have come up with.

There’s no unifying characteristic between the amazing writers with whom I associate, no New School or Movement, even though I keep trying to assign one. I guess I’m just going to have to publish all you guys?

I only found out by way of Jon and Amanda that my second cousin Dawn blogs. Her writing is frank, observant, self-deprecating and frequently caustic. It’s also really, really funny:

“Does this say something about my friend group?

I lost my virginity in room 116 of the Economy Inn in Danville, KY. Centre College students called it the pink hotel, in reference to the color of the neon lights decorating its roof. Oh, and immediately after the completion of the act my loving then-boyfriend (also a virgin) looked at me and said, ‘You know, that was alright, but I’m definitely glad I didn’t wait to get married.’

After taking Heather’s virginity, her boyfriend said, ‘Well, you had to pay for your dinner somehow.’

An anonymous friend lost her virginity to her 31-year-old manager at the Honey-Baked Ham store.

Katherine lost her virginity to a boy nick-named ‘Soup Can’. She cried the whole time.

My personal consolation is that the Pink Hotel has since been bull-dozed to the ground.”

She and I went to Centre together, and we were always friendly, but also a few degrees of network-separation apart. If you read this, Dawn, I’d like to state that I officially regret not hanging out with you more.