Blogs are everywhere. They have exposed truths and spread rumors. Made and lost fortunes. Brought couples together and torn them apart. Toppled cabinet members and sparked grassroots movements. Immediate, intimate, and influential, they have put the power of personal publishing into everyone’s hands. Regularly dismissed as trivial and ephemeral, they have proved that they are here to stay.
In Say Everything, Scott Rosenberg chronicles blogging’s unplanned rise and improbable triumph, tracing its impact on politics, business, the media, and our personal lives. He offers close-ups of innovators such as Blogger founder Evan Williams, investigative journalist Josh Marshall, exhibitionist diarist Justin Hall, software visionary Dave Winer, "mommyblogger" Heather Armstrong, and many others.
These blogging pioneers were the first to face new dilemmas that have become common in the era of Google and Facebook, and their stories offer vital insights and warnings as we navigate the future. How much of our lives should we reveal on the Web? Is anonymity a boon or a curse? Which voices can we trust? What does authenticity look like on a stage where millions are fighting for attention, yet most only write for a handful? And what happens to our culture now that everyone can say everything?
Before blogs, it was easy to believe that the Web would grow up to be a clickable TV–slick, passive, mass-market. Instead, blogging brought the Web’s native character into focus–convivial, expressive, democratic. Far from being pajama-clad loners, bloggers have become the curators of our collective experience, testing out their ideas in front of a crowd and linking people in ways that broadcasts can’t match. Blogs have created a new kind of public sphere–one in which we can think out loud together. And now that we have begun, Rosenberg writes, it is impossible to imagine us stopping.
In his first book, Dreaming in Code, Scott Rosenberg brilliantly explored the art of creating software ("the first true successor to The Soul of a New Machine," wrote James Fallows in The Atlantic). In Say Everything, Rosenberg brings the same perceptive eye to the blogosphere, capturing as no one else has the birth of a new medium.
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SCOTT ROSENBERG is an award-winning journalist who left the San Francisco Examiner in 1995 with a group of like-minded colleagues to found Salon.com, where he served first as technology editor, later as managing editor, and finally as vice president for new projects, leaving in 2007 to write Say Everything. For much of that time he wrote a blog covering the world of computers and the web, explaining complex issues in a lively voice for a non-technical readership. His coverage of the Microsoft trial, the Napster controversy, and the Internet bubble earned him a regular following. Rosenberg's writing has appeared in the New York Times, Wired, the San Francisco Examiner, and other publications. His previous books include Dreaming In Code. Visit his website at www.wordyard.com.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
PUTTING EVERYTHING OUT THERE
In 1994, Justin Hall invented oversharing. Of course, we didn't have a name yet for the compulsion to tell the online world too much about yourself. Back then, Hall was just an eccentric nineteen-year-ld college student who recorded minutiae of his life on his personal website; no one knew that the self-revelation he found so addictive would one day become a temptation for millions.
Beginning at the dawn of the Web, Hall parked himself at the intersection of the Bay Area's remnant counterculture and Silicon Valley's accelerating economy and started writing down everything he saw. His website, at www.links.net, became a comprehensive personal gazette and archive, full of ephemeral details and intimate epiphanies, portraits of the Web's young builders and nude pictures of himself.
Hall, who is fair and thin and lanky--he looks a bit like one of Tolkien's elves--has the affable grin of someone who is fully at ease with strangers. If you took away his nonconformist streak, he could make a great salesman. You could even see him running for office and winning, in some alternate dimension where no one cared that he'd littered the public record with radical opinions and accounts of his illegal drug use, or that he frequently undermined his considerable charisma by intentionally irritating people. He often begins public speaking engagements by stepping to the podium, facing his audience, and silently beaming as the seconds tick by and the crowd begins to wonder what's going on. He seems perfectly comfortable making other people uncomfortable.
For more than a decade, Hall's site had presented an open window onto his life. "It's so much fun," he'd say, "putting everything out there." January 2005 seemed no different. He kicked off the new year with a blunt four-word post: "I really enjoy urinating." He told the story of a mustache-growing competition with a friend. He mentioned meeting "a smart, motivated gal" who wanted to collaborate on a story involving angels.
Then, in the middle of the month, the window slammed shut. All signs of the layers upon layers of Hall's personal history stretching back to 1994 were gone. In their place was a little search box and a fifteen-minute video titled Dark Night.
The video, which is still available on YouTube, opens with Hall's face, half in shadow, filling the frame. He begins: "What if inti--" Then he cuts himself off as his bleary eyes widen. He looks away, lets out an exasperated breath, and starts over:
So what if intimacy happens in quiet moments and if you're so busy talking and searching and looking and crying and yelling and--then you won't ever find it.
A subtitle appears below Hall's face: "I sort of had a breakdown in January 2005."
Hall was an accomplished storyteller in his own callow, motor-mouthed way. But this story emerged only fitfully, in raw fragments. Hall, it seemed, had met a woman. One who "opened me up like crazy." He'd fallen head over heels. Bliss! But the new relationship had clashed, somehow, with his confessional writing on the Web. His new beloved, Hall hinted, didn't relish the glare.
What if a deeply connective personal activity you do, that's like religion, that you practice with yourself, that's a dialogue with the divine, turns out to drive people away from you? . . . I published my life on the fucking internet. And it doesn't make people wanna be with me. It makes people not trust me. And I don't know what the fuck to do about it . . .
Dark Night played out its psychodramatics with Blair Witch-style lighting and confessional ferocity, like an Ingmar Bergman therapy scene reshot by a geeky art student. The video was awkward, sometimes embarrassing, and more than a little unnerving. It made you fear for Hall's mental state--you wanted to pick up the phone and talk him down from the ledge. Still, for all its raw atmospherics, it was hardly naive. Hall had been creating autobiographical media all his life, and most recently he'd been studying filmmaking at USC. Dark Night was, in its own ragged way, a calculated work, not some piece of "turn on the camera, then forget about it" verite.
It wasn't the soul-baring that made Dark Night a shocker. Rather, it was the prospect that Justin Hall's soul-baring days might be at an end. On the subject of self-exposure, Hall had always been an absolutist. When he began writing on the Web, the word transparency hadn't yet been drafted into service in its contemporary meaning: openness, no secrets, all questions answered. But transparency had been Hall's guiding principle from the start. He had turned his website into a glass house.
Only now, it seemed, he no longer wanted to live there.
In 1988, when Hall was thirteen, he got his first glimpse of the Internet. He'd already been online a few years, dialing up private bulletin-board services (BBSes) from his mom's computer in their Chicago home, looking for videogame tips, and sticking around to enjoy the camaraderie. The fun of tapping into a national BBS based in California ended quickly when his mother looked at the phone bill; from then on, hometown boards would have to do.
Hall's father was gone. An alcoholic, he'd killed himself when Justin was eight, a story Justin would later tell, prominently and unflinchingly, on his site. His mother, a successful lawyer, worked long hours and traveled a lot, so he was, as he put it, "raised by a series of nannies." In 1988 a new one arrived, a medical student at Northwestern who saw Justin's enthusiasm for going online and showed the youngster the nascent Internet, then a university-only enclave. (This was well before the Web's easy-to-use interface tamed the technical difficulties of using the Internet for the masses; it took geek tenacity just to connect.) "It wasn't just a bunch of fifteen-year-olds in Chicago on their computers," Hall says. "It was people all over the country. And the scope of what the people were talking about was fantastic." His gaze was drawn to Usenet, the collection of Internet-based forums that, in the pre-Web days, offered the most reward to an adolescent looking for online kicks. "People were getting nerdy there," Hall recalls, "about this specific Frank Zappa record, or this specific transgender bent, or this specific drug experience. I was extremely turned on."
Hall called the university and tried to get an Internet account for himself. Sorry, he was told, we don't just give them out. What does a teenager do in such circumstances? A teenager borrows a friend's password. But the Northwestern system administrators eventually figured out what Hall was up to and kicked him off.
Hall finally got his own Internet account when he went off to Swarthmore in September 1993. The dorm rooms there had just been networked; for Hall, this meant "up-all-night information." That December, John Markoff, the New York Times technology reporter, wrote an introduction to the new World Wide Web and the Mosaic browser, describing them to his readers as "a map to the buried treasures of the Information Age." Hall read the article--on paper--and then went and downloaded Mosaic. "It was hugely exciting. Now you can use a mouse to get to all this information! Now you can put pictures and text on the same page!"
At that early date, the experts, and the money, agreed that the future of online communication was in the hands of the "big three" commercial online services (America Online, Compuserve, Prodigy); technology giants, such as Microsoft, Apple, and IBM; and cable companies like Time Warner, which were sinking fortunes into interactive TV. The Internet had been a backwater accessible only to eggheads and nerds; it was hard to get on to, hard to use, and its nether regions, like Usenet, were uncensored and untamed. The whole thing was simply not ready for prime time.
That was precisely what attracted Justin Hall. "The big online services always felt like a magazine stand at a grocery store, whereas Usenet felt like Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley," he remembers. "Then when I saw the Web I knew I had to try it, because the quality of pages that I saw made me think it couldn't be expensive or hard to put them up."
On January 22, 1994, Hall put up his first Web page. He published it by downloading a free server program and running it on his Macintosh Powerbook 180 laptop plugged into Swarthmore's campus network. Like so much of the early Web, "Justin's Home Page" warned visitors that it was "under construction," and most of its information was about its own technology--including a list of the tools Hall had used to put it together. But if you scrolled down a bit you'd find, nestled under the header "Some Personal Shit," a photo of the long-haired Hall smirking next to Ollie North. Also a couple of links to bootleg recordings of two bands, Jane's Addiction and Porno for Pyros. And, finally, a strange black-and-white UPI photo of Cary Grant popping a tab of LSD into his grinning-wide mouth.
Writing about yourself was not unknown on the Web, even at that point, and neither was cataloging your offbeat obsessions. Hall says that in his early postings he took inspiration from a site created by a programmer at the University of Pennsylvania, Ranjit Bhatnagar. Beginning in November 1993, "Ranjit's HTTP playground" provided offbeat links, along with a "lunch server." Each day, Bhatnagar would carefully record what he'd had for lunch. The page was, of course, in reverse chronological order. Although the "lunch server" was as much a pun as anything else, it foreshadowed a future in which people would use blogs to record all manner of quotidian data points.
If Hall was not the very first person to build a funky personal site, he was the first to find a wide audience. His site, which he soon renamed Justin's ...
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