.: bloggers on blogging --> adam greenfield
Bloggers on Blogging, December 2005
Adam Greenfield started his blog, v-2.org, in October 2000. He is the author of the upcoming Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing and has worked as an information architect in Tokyo, a rock critic for SPIN Magazine, an activist, a coffeehouse owner in West Philadelphia, a San Francisco bike messenger, a medic at the Berkeley Free Clinic, the editor of a free magazine in Seattle, a PSYOP sergeant in the US Army Special Operations Command, and director of new media development for a now-defunct dotcom.
Adam, 37, has a BA in Critical Studies from NYU. His current practice, Studies and Observations, "helps clients understand how they're impacted by things that happen at the intersection of technology, design, and culture". He lives in New York City with his wife, artist Nurri Kim, and a 1970 Citroën DS named Lemmy.
What is the first weblog you read?
Wow. I have to think about this one a second. I'd have to say the news feeds on sites like Praystation and k10k, although of course those aren't blogs in any strict sense. I also remember reading Christina Wodtke's Elegant Hack and Web Pages That Suck within a week of getting my first broadband connection at work in '99.
What about that blog appealed to you?
k10k seemed like the epicenter of everything cool and engaging that was happening on the Web in those years. The guys who produced it were Danish, and one of them worked in London, so between that and the fact that they were so high profile it felt like they were able to turn me onto stuff from a much wider catchment area than a lot of other design portals. The first sites from Beijing and Copenhagen and Tokyo I had ever seen were things I found through links on k10k.
They're also, quite simply, great visual designers, with note-perfect style fused to a wonderful sense of humor.
Why did you start your weblog?
I wanted to participate in the conversation! It seemed like everyone else in the world had some kind of site, so I wanted to play, too. I had also done zines for years, and it seemed like a very natural extension — in fact, I wound up archiving some of those very ephemeral zine articles on v-2.
What is your site about?
A search for beauty, utility, and balance wherever they may be found in design. Starting conversations.
How often do you update?
It used to be quite often, once or twice a day. Between some fairly heavy life events and my taking on a book project this last year, the frequency has plummeted — say twice a month now. I'm planning, anyway, on resuming more frequent posts once the book has shipped, but we'll see what happens.
How much traffic do you get?
My stats package tells me that in an average week I get 23,897.96 unique visitors, but I suspect that a good chunk of that is robots given that the number has only fallen very slightly in the months I haven't been posting.
Of course, there's a pretty deep archive of content on the site, so I could be wrong, but I get about two-thirds less mail than I used to.
What is your blog's rank on Technorati?
Let's find out...it says 97 sites link to v-2 currently, but I don't see an explicit ranking anywhere. I know it had been as high as 210 or 215 in the past, but I'm not at all surprised to see that it's fallen off so substantially. [Moments later] I figured out how to find my Technorati rank: it's 15,862 as of this very moment!
Woo-HOO! in your FACE, number 15,863!!
Do you make money on your site? How?
Not directly, but I know for a fact that it's gotten me the visibility that in turn has gotten me jobs and consulting gigs.
Which tool do you use? Why?
How has your site changed over the years?
“ During the years I lived in Japan it was a real psychological and emotional safety valve to have a place where I could just sound off about things. ”
It's gotten much less self-conscious. I used to have A Voice — I think the first couple of articles were even written in some kind of terribly misguided editorial "we" — and now I post in something much more closely approximating my actual conversational tone.
I've gotten much more comfortable posting about stuff that's outside the site's nominal subject area, although with a category called "media and culture" I had already given myself permission to range pretty far afield. During the years I lived in Japan, especially, it was a real psychological and emotional safety valve to have a place where I could just sound off about things.
And weirdly enough, it's become much more of a proper blog. Eighty-five percent of what used to be on the site was articles of a few thousand words, things I'd put a decent amount of effort into crafting and getting just so. If I write on v-2 at all these days, it's mostly to check in and point people at things I think are worthy of note. See: I've become a blogger!
I've seen a lot of bloggers start with the longer-entry format, and then move to more link-driven posts (or even add a whole link-blog). Do you consider this to be a natural evolution of writing online, or is it just the result of your current time-constraints?
Maybe a little of both? I can't speak for anyone else, of course, but I put a site out there which has exceeded my wildest expectations for it. It's more than satisfied its "victory conditions," many times over, and so maybe there's a little less urgency bound up in each successive new post now. A little less incentive to come up with something earth-shattering to say each time.
It is what it is, and I'm pretty happy with it.
How do you choose items to link?
Oh, almost anything that strikes my fancy, really. I've written about everything from the spiritual side of minimalism to digital camouflage patterns to the lost glamour of aviation. Bonus points for anything that seems as if it will be of especial interest to my (superheterogeneous and incredibly talented) audience.
That said, I have an ornery streak, I don't like to run with the pack, and I tend to favor underdogs. So I will just about never link something on v-2 I've seen on one of the larger sites, like MetaFilter or Kottke, and conversely I am much more likely to link to something on a smaller or lesser-known site.
How long does it take you to write an link entry? Do you spend time editing link entries?
No more than fifteen minutes, on average — maybe an hour for a more extensive or deeply heartfelt piece. I almost never edit, except to correct typos; if I really feel like an entry requires some major change of emphasis I'll write new material, mark it UPDATE and timestamp it.
How do you handle corrections?
If I've blundered badly, I write a retraction piece that's of similar length and depth to whatever requires it. I also try to ensure that the retraction gets seen as widely as the error. All that said, I believe I've only done this twice — three times at most — in the last five years.
Where do you find interesting links?
Google is my friend. I find myself making increasing use of del.icio.us as well. But I don't really find "links" per se — it's more like, hey, I saw an amazing Serra piece at Dia:Beacon, or we rented this shitty Mustang, or I heard this great Korean psychedelic rock from the '60s, and I want to tell you all about it. So generally there's a process of research involved, if I can dignify it by calling it that.
How do you decide what to write longer entries about?
Anything that feels like it needs to be mulled at length, or presented from more than a single vantage point.
I've got a few special categories on v-2 as well: Suspect Device pieces, which are usability audits of artifacts I've lived with for awhile; Nomad Histories, which are impressionistic travelogues; and v-2 Interviews. (I don't do the latter anymore since I'm a horrible interviewer.)
My own personal favorite pieces on the site are the Nomad Histories. (I think there are only two actually up on the site, Hong Kong and Korea, as well as one in endlessly prolonged preparation, Paris/Amsterdam.) They're about actual places, y'know? Places and the people who live and dream in them: they deserve depth.
How long does it take you to write a long entry?
That can take anywhere from two or three stream-of-consciousness hours (Ikeaphobia was one such) to much, much longer. I think the current record is held by The minimal compact, an "open-source constitution for post-national entities," a piece that took me almost two months to write.
And then there are the pieces that never do see the light of day.
I find that some days updating my site is more satisfying than others. Is there a certain type of entry, or a certain kind of day that is most satisfying for you?
“ Sometimes you just look back on something in retrospect and just think yeah — yeah, I got that, I pinned it down. ”
Sure, definitely — but I frequently don't quite realize it until afterward, you know? Sometimes you just look back on something in retrospect and just think yeah — yeah, I got that, I captured something ineffable, I pinned it down. That article about Korea, or the thing I wrote last summer when Nurri and I ran into Lou Reed in the West Village: those come to mind.
There are entirely different kinds of satisfying, too. Sometimes it's truly gratifying just to be able to link to something beautiful and point folks at something they might never have seen otherwise.
You don't have comments on your site. Why not?
It's a flaw of the custom CMS, which was spec'd and built before comments were part of the standard blog feature set. (Again, I'm ornery — everyone's site said "Powered by Blogger" or "Built with Movable Type," and I just didn't want to be part of the crowd.) It's something I regret intensely. I mean, if the stated point of the site is to "start conversations," you'd think it'd offer some mechanism that actually afforded same.
Over the years I've tried to rectify this in a few ways, since it turns out that the CMS is too idiosyncratic to permit commenting functionality to be readily dropped in.
First I tried starting a discussion board called marginwalker.org, which was simultaneously a great success and a miserable failure. The people were great, the discussions were top-notch, it really could have gone somewhere, but it suffered badly from the cobbler's children problem: the UI sucked and I never got around to fixing it. Call that strike two.
And recently I started an auxiliary Blogspot site precisely so people could comment on v-2. It's got to be the ugliest and least-convenient kludge in the history of blogging, and the level of activity reflects that. Strike three!
I think it's time to migrate the whole thing to a modern, flexible CMS with a big community of developers, but that's such an ugly prospect I haven't been able to even start thinking about it. Certainly not until the book gets published.
Do you have a background in writing?
I guess you could say so. My parents gave me a plastic typewriter when I was three, and I've never really stopped tapping away. Aside from the zines, I was a staff writer for SPIN [slithy popup!] when I was nineteen or twenty (shades of "Almost Famous"), and edited a free monthly in Seattle called "neo" back in, what, '93.
I like to think of it this way: without exception, any time I've ever written something and put it out in the world, very good things have followed.
Tell me about your book.
Well, briefly it's about a whole spectrum of post-PC information technologies that are either in the process of emerging, or will be doing so in the next few years — from RFID tags embedded in everything from soda cans to the family pet, to gestural interfaces like the ones in Minority Report, to entire cities built from the ground up with systems like these embedded in them. These ideas and artifacts come out of fields called "ubiquitous computing" or "pervasive computing" or "tangible media," but I see them all as part of a coherent paradigm I call everyware. And that happens to be a pretty neat title for a book, so we left it at that.
Everyware isn't really a technology book, though. It'll probably disappoint anyone who's looking to get into deep technical detail about any of the things I cover. It's more about the choices we face around these powerful, insinuative systems — about the intersection where technology and design meet culture and everyday life.
Basically, it's an attempt to give a wider, non-technical audience the tools to understand the next computing, and make the kind of wise decisions that will shape its unfolding in ways that support the best that is in all of us. I tried to make it accessible as possible, without dumbing anything down — but I won't know if I've succeeded until it's been out for awhile. It's already available for pre-order on Amazon, but it won't hit the stores until mid-February.
Did your experience blogging affect your choice of subject for your book? How?
“ I doubt a single soul would take my thoughts about the domain seriously if I hadn’t first established some kind of reputation via the wonderful bully pulpit v-2 affords me. ”
I might never have heard the phrase "ubiquitous computing" if I hadn't started reading Anne Galloway's site. I wouldn't have been able to develop my ideas around it if I hadn't thought-out-loud on my own site, and followed the thoughts of Gene Becker or Mike Kuniavsky or Matt Jones (or dozens of others) on theirs. Finally, I doubt a single soul would take my thoughts about the domain seriously if I hadn't first established some kind of reputation via the wonderful bully pulpit v-2 affords me.
I didn't really choose the subject so much as it chose me. I mean, I saw this hugely important, hugely resonant change in technological paradigms starting to happen, and yet nobody was writing about the subject in a way that would make it accessible to the people who would be most affected by it. The literature was all academic, or technical. At best, maybe some aspects of the issue got presented to a broader audience in the form of marketing materials, for one or another vendor's vision of the so-called "digital home." It just struck me as profoundly wrong, somehow.
Has blogging affected your non-blog writing?
That's a valid and interesting question which in all honesty I'm not sure how to answer. The first thing that springs to mind is that in writing a book I miss the freedom I enjoy on v-2 of simply hyperlinking an obscure word or reference to a definition, instead of facing the choice between defining it inline or forgoing it altogether.
I could have saved a few thousand trees if, in writing my book, I'd simply been able to link Naoto Fukasawa or Archigram or perlocutionary acts instead of spelling out who or what it is that I'm referring to — over the years, I guess, my writing has taken on this kind of densely compressed, telegraphic quality, and I've really had to unpack it for an audience turning actual pages.
But then, too, that's been OK for my audience up until now — I know they expect it, I have reason to believe they actually kinda like it. I'm not really comfortable making the same kind of assumptions about people coming to the book — people who may or may not have the foggiest idea who I am, and what I'm on about.
How many hours a day do you usually spend online? Have you had to moderate that while writing your book?
I'm online constantly, in the background — which means that I suffer from the same continuous-partial-attention issue that dogs so many of us, and which I see as emblematic of our age. What I've learned, ironically enough, is that I can't get any particularly thoughtful writing done under circumstances like this. So every day I trundle off to the Rose Reading Room at the New York Public Library, where there's no wireless to speak of, and knock out a few good pages.
Do you think there will be a technical remedy to this state? Or do you see a future where people learn how to function with all this input? How do you envision that change?
I think we already have learned to function with all this input. Which is to say that I don't think it's "function" that's the issue, but civility, and even sanity. I think we need desperately to learn how to be silent if we want those things to take root in us. (My friends, and especially my wife, are choking on their laughter.)
What is your prescription then? In a world of ubiquitous computing, how will we achieve silence?
“ The first real business opportunity of the full-fledged everyware age is gonna be zones of amnesty — cafes where you can explicitly go to be offline and inaccessible. ”
I've been saying for about three years now that the first real business opportunity of the full-fledged everyware age is gonna be zones of amnesty — cafes where you can explicitly go to be offline and inaccessible. Maybe I'll start a chain called Faraday's Cage, or something. (It seems that a few coffeehouses and the like are actually starting to institute similar measures, at least during peak hours.)
Beyond that I think it will be up to skilled and sensitive designers to do the hard work of creating ubiquitous interfaces that, in Mark Weiser's words, "encalm as well as inform." The trouble is that it is many, many times harder to do this than it is to simply slap together something loud and brash and ugly and ship it — and given both the accelerating decentralization and the economics of technological development, there will always be plenty of parties willing to do the latter, or simply unable to do any better.
So the only real hope I see is to create a constituency of empowered users, people who demand compassionate design of their artifacts, and ensure that together they have enough of a voice in the market that whatever gets sold observes at least some of the basic principles of a sane and civilized society. But that's a conversation that has yet to happen.
What about books and other offline media — do you have time for it now?
Oh, yeah. I couldn't imagine a life without books. I couldn't imagine a day without books, no matter how busy I might be otherwise. Right now I just finished rereading an old Anthony Burgess novel (The Wanting Seed), which was much more unpleasant and sour than I had remembered, and Don DeLillo's Cosmopolis.
I haven't gone to a proper movie in months — I think the last thing we saw was Wallace and Gromit, and 2046 before that. I'm really not a big fan of Zhang Ziyi, but for once she was tremendous. And Tony Leung was...well, he was Tony Leung, how can you not love him?
Quite literally the only thing I watch on TV is The Simpsons.
How does offline input contribute to your blogging? To your other writing?
“ My brain is just one big mulch of influences all kind of simmering and swapping plasmids and whatnot. ”
Oh, it's crucial. It's a seamless as practically possible. My brain is just one big mulch of influences all kind of simmering and swapping plasmids and whatnot. Maybe it's that I went through college at exactly the same time as the postmodern theorists were discovering (and proclaiming) the joys of the "High Culture"/"Pop Culture" mixdown? So any time I sit down at the keyboard to post something, I already know it's likely to call on some Borges story I read in my twenties or something I saw on the street in Seoul or something my mom's boyfriend said at dinner the other night.
Whose writing do you particularly admire?
I love James Ellroy and Jack Womack, because they have the most amazing reservoirs of heart and manage to do incredible things with language. As a technician, I think David Foster Wallace is unbeatable, but his writing leaves me cold and sort of clammy and disgusted, like a medical exam that became abruptly and uncomfortably sexualized. I have a soft spot for Martin Amis of London Fields vintage. I still think William Gibson writes some of the most beautiful sentences in the English language. And Stephen Mitchell's translation of the Tao te Ching is truly nonpareil.
Online, I think Lawrence Lessig is crystalline, a paragon of reason and clarity. I love to read Tom Coates and occasionally Paul Ford. Nobody crafts a rant like stavrosthewonderchicken. And a long time ago, my wife kept a journal online that to this day I cannot read without getting my heart in a twist — her English was very tentative at the time, and she just forthrightly waded right on in and started talking about things like memory and loss and wonder. It just destroys me.
How many weblogs do you follow?
I've cut way down. I only ever read sites by people I've actually met in the flesh anymore, which is plenty to keep track of. And I tend to dip into Atrios late in the evening just to stay abreast of the scandal du jour.
Do you surf to read blogs, or use an RSS reader?
“ RSS sterilizes and homogenizes everything. To me sense of voice follows from sense of place. ”
I surf — I find that RSS sterilizes and homogenizes everything. To me sense of voice follows from sense of place.
How do you find new weblogs?
By meeting new people. :)
In your online reading, do you actively seek out differing points of view? How?
Technically, absolutely — I'm always willing to concede that other folks may have broader or deeper knowledge, or simply greater insight, about some matter of design or technology or architecture.
Politically, though, almost never. Which is a real shame, because I think that echo chambers and circlejerks are bad for the rigor and tone of anyone's thought. I'd also like to believe that there are at least some conservatives sufficiently possessed of good will, and sufficiently committed to arguing in good faith, that mutually enlightening and productive conversations could happen.
But the right-wing blogs I've seen — I needn't name any names, right? — are so toxic, so intellectually dishonest and so unremittingly hostile (to my viewpoints, to my very existence) that I've despaired of any such conversation ever happening. About all I can stomach is occasionally scanning the "Voices From The Right" column of Salon's Daou Report.
What do you think makes a successful weblog?
Voice, primarily. A sense of presence. That the owner has a robust and catholic sense of taste and is determined to give expression to that taste whether or not anyone shares it. Trust in one's own idiosyncrasies. Fearless honesty coupled to grandmotherly compassion.
What is your advice for a new blogger?
Pay no attention whatsoever to your stats package, Technorati, or anything of the sort. Write for yourself above all, and those you trust to get it. And whatever you do — I speak from experience here — do NOT follow an obnoxious commenter back to their own site and wreak havoc there, no matter what they may have done to deserve it.
Oh, and please please please do not accept advertising, because it's a good bet I won't look at your site if it's sporting ads.
Why won't you read sites that contain advertising?
Well, in all honesty, it's not a blanket policy — it couldn't possibly be, so many have given in to the suasion of the almighty AdSense that if I stuck strictly to it I'd never read anything.
But I'm really quite passionate about this. Ads seem antithetical to the whole point and core of blogging to me, which is untrammeled and unfiltered personal expression. I'm not aggregating eyeballs to sell them to American Apparel, for chrissakes, I'm sharing my experience of moving through the world. And I'd like to believe that the same goes for everyone else — that people would hold the opportunity to have a platform for expression entirely untainted by commercial speech so precious that they'd never dream to sell it out for the few hundred dollars a year they'll probably garner from AdSense.
But that's just folks like you and me and Jan Chipchase, and it seems that we're increasingly in a minority in this regard. So it goes.
What catches your attention in a weblog?
I love it when design and content are well matched, either because they're held in balance or because there's some interesting tension between them. A love of the language gets me every time — oddly enough, the site I think of in this regard is Fafblog, which I think is completely brilliant. And insider knowledge of some unusual domain always makes for compelling reading, at least if expressed in some halfway-literate manner. English Cut is the gold standard here.
v-2: what does it mean?
It means that all of the good domain names were already taken.
Why do you blog?
I couldn't not blog. I mean, if blogging didn't exist I'd have to find some other way to achieve the same or similar ends. It's been one of the very few constants in an otherwise extraordinarily discontinuous life.
How has your weblog changed your life?
“ Blogging has brought me just about everything good and sweet and true in my life. ”
Beyond my ability to measure. The single most obvious and important way was this: in late 2000, I wrote a piece about All Your Base, sort of dissecting its popularity and trying to suss out why this oddball meme had colonized so much of the Web. An American woman working in Japan at the time (for marchFIRST!) read it, liked it, followed a link to my "about" page, saw that I was an information architect, and asked me if I had any interest in working with her.
Just under three months later I was living in Tokyo. Four months after that I met a woman at a party, a Korean student taking her Ph.D. in Japan. And six hundred and fifty days after that we got married.
So above and beyond things like consulting gigs and book contracts — which are important — I can honestly say that blogging has brought me just about everything good and sweet and true in my life.
With regard to blogging, what was your most memorable moment?
There are a few good ones, but I have two particular favorites. The first is something that happened after I had only been doing the site a few months. I used to spend quite a lot of time at Dreamless, a discussion board run by Joshua Davis back when he had the time and inclination to do such things. It was a good, grey home for a lot of astonishingly talented and interesting people, the kind of thing you just don't see online that much anymore.
Anyway, Josh himself would only occasionally post in most of the eight or ten separate forums on the site — much more so in one devoted to complete chaos and st00pidity than the ones I spent most of my time in. One night he popped into a discussion — and we were all for the most part pretty obsequious anytime we saw that "praystation" moniker — and said, more or less apropos of nothing, "By the way, have I mentioned how much I love 'v-2'?" I just about died with happiness. I actually took a screen shot of it. It's hard to imagine now how much that meant to me when I was just getting started.
The second was the moment in late 2002, in the middle of a Tokyo winter, I opened my e-mail client and found that I had a message from Herbert Muschamp, who was then the architecture critic of the New York Times. I was, again, a little starstruck — I had made some offhanded comment about him on v-2 and I guess he found it on Google or something. The letter was a single line long, and it said something like "Who are you and what do you do?"
It's been a few years, Herbert is notoriously no longer the Voice of Architecture at the Times, but he's become a good friend and I still get a huge kick out of the story.
I don't get starstruck anymore, though.
three four blogs you think deserve wider recognition, and why?
My friend Jamie's site, Thanksgiving Is Ruined, is like a port directly from his very unusual mind to Blogspot. It's, uh, notable. Jan Chipchase's Future Perfect deserves the widest possible exposure. Miss Representation is the bellow of love and rage from every true New Yorker's secret heart. Last year I called angermann2 "mindfucking, cryptic," and I see no reason to retract that characterization. (It's a compliment, in case you were wondering.)
What are your hobbies?
I read voraciously, and buy more books than I can possibly get to. I listen to music way too loud, I will hop on a plane to just about any random destination at the drop of a hat, and when I can afford it I like to indulge my weakness for designy shoes, glasses and bags. I don't know if you could really call it a hobby, but I meditate every day, absolutely without fail.
And truth be told I still occasionally indulge myself in something I started doing when I was training to SOFQ (i.e., pass the Army's mandatory annual Special Operations Forces Qualification test for people in my specialty), which is running a 10K with thirty or so pounds in my pack — the actual SOFQ requirement is, if I remember properly, fifty pounds or a third of body weight, so I'm cheating a little bit. OK, more than a little bit. But especially when I do this in the rain, listening to some old Stooges or something, I feel completely superhuman. Seriously, you should try it sometime.
What is the most telling thing about you?
So there's this lovely animated film called The Snowman, mid-80s, BBC. Sort of watercolory. It's about a boy and, well, his magical snowman, and how the snowman comes to life one night, and everything that happens after that. I get the tape out around holiday time every year and watch it...but I invariably have to watch it alone, because it makes me blubber like a lost child.
Now you know my deepest secret.
Mac or PC?
Every computer I have ever owned has been a Mac. Except for my time in the Army, when doing so was purely involuntary, I have never touched a PC, and I never will. I'm not even happy about the transition to Intel chips.
Would you read your site?
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