Reading, 'Riting, 'Rithmetic
September 30, 2000 8:16 PM   Subscribe

Reading, 'Riting, 'Rithmetic Jakob Nielsen says "to take the Internet to the next level, users must begin posting their own material ... the vast wasteland of Geocities confirms this. Giving users a home-page editing program does not turn them into good writers." Meg takes Nielsen to task: "his recommended approach is crazy ...Why bog kids down with HTML?" Blogs, of course, are her solution. But for some folks this simply doesn't add up. Saying kids shouldn't learn HTML because Blogger exists is like saying they shouldn't learn to add because calculators exist.
posted by webchick (122 comments total)
HTML is not a basic logical skill that leads to more advanced stages of thought. Should everyone learn the inner workings of post script because the write paper or print up flyers for their band? No. So why is knowledge of HTML necessary to publish personal material online a requirement. The only reason to know HTML instead of an editor is because HTML has so many caveats and exceptions that it's hard to make it work right without digging through the code.

Let regular people focus on saying what they want to say rather than worring about weather there should be a trailing

tag or not, or how many time the table is nested. These are trivial concerns that need to go away for all our sakes, not the foundation for where we want to take the technology.

If you want to make kids powerful with computers teach them Perl or Javascript or something that will lead somewhere interesting.
posted by captaincursor at 8:32 PM on September 30, 2000

Does a knowledge of HTML turn someone into a better writer? Probably not in the way that learning to write transforms the conventional disorder of the spoken word. But if you accept the original principle of HTML -- that it deals with structure rather than appearance -- it certainly forces you to think about paragraphs, and order, and emphasis. And even if you don't accept that, the act of putting together a web page certainly makes you think about principles of typography: the role of space, and the way in which design communicates in and of itself.

Learning skills, and using tools, no matter what they are, brings both a discipline and a thirst to expand the potential of the medium. That's what people have been doing since the days of Mosaic.

And while Meg's right to say that Blogger can let you get your content online without having to worry about HTML, a cursory glance at (or any popular blog) shows that a fair bit of additional work and knowledge has gone into that template. In fact, most bloggers seem to have an insatiable need to tinker with the underlying HTML on their sites. Which is surely a good thing: after all, we don't want every site looking like Jakob Nielsen's, do we...?
posted by holgate at 8:51 PM on September 30, 2000

HTML, PERL, Javascript: all good things for kids to learn. What Meg seems to be saying is that template-based publishing tools (be it blogger, Trellix, or FrontPage) should be used to the exclusion of {HTML, PERL, JavaScript} in order to teach kids to write better.

The problem with that train of thought is that it seems that the important thing to be teaching kids is how to think. Learning the basics is certainly an important component of that: writing a structured document in HTML, building a JavaScript program to make a page smart, or writing a simple PERL-based CGI backend are all great ways to learn to think. HTML is just one example ... pick your tools.

Just as importantly, I'm not convinced that filling out a daily blog is necessarily the best way to teach people to write. Kids learn by example and many blogs are "here's a cool link I saw," "please link to me," and "here's what I had for dinner."

Seems that having kids blog to the exclusion of building a real web page (e.g., something about something besides their own daily life) is teaching them how to join the cult of celebrity instead of how to think.

posted by CarlMalamud at 8:53 PM on September 30, 2000

But it is also kind of like saying that people shouldn't learn assembler because high-level languages exist. And it's kind of like saying people shouldn't learn command-line interfaces because GUIs exist.

On the other hand, even with Blogspot, there are piles of minutiae that people would need to know to be able to build a site that they'd be happy with. I would encourage the teaching of HTML in schools, if only because the whole idea of markup is continuing to gain importance, even outside of the web and it would certainly help understand the structure of documents in general (although I can't imagine that most teachers will be able to cover more than the basics of HTML, let alone either hypertext or markup theory).

A few more comments: it is hard to imagine that Jakob missing Blogger is anything other than deliberate (it is pretty much exactly what he is talking about, and I can't believe he has never heard of it). Second, on the piece: the popularlity of weblogs will not prevent future Manets, Van Goghs and Gauguins from doing their thing.

Let's put it this way: if weblogs suck, their sucking does not prevent good things from getting created, just as bubblegum didn't "use up all the musical space" -- be-bop flourished. Crappy airport novels didn't stop Nabokov from writing. Television didn't stop Kubrick from making movies, etc.
posted by sylloge at 8:54 PM on September 30, 2000

While the debate over whether or not learning HTML is valuable might be an interesting one (in which I'd side with Taylor), I don't think that's actually what Nielsen is suggesting. He says, "begin teaching kids how to author hypertext and build good Web content."

I could be wrong, but I'm guessing, by "author hypertext," he means to write in a way that accounts for the ability to link and learning how creating content for the web is different than, say, writing a book or a memo -- not actually typing <>'s and "HREF."

Of course, I agree with Meg that if he's looking for ways to, as he put it, "increase the number of people who contribute content to the Web," overlooking blogs (not specifically Blogger) is a strange oversight (more here). But, of course, like Meg, I'm biased.
posted by evhead at 9:02 PM on September 30, 2000

Wow, I didn't think I wrote that slow.

More: Teaching kids perl? Are you kidding? I studied symbolic logic in grad school and I find the syntax impossible.

In the original vision, HTML was meant to be more or less hidden and all browsers would also be editors. Of course, that didn't work out because creators were hungry for visual pfloofth-zing.

Last, in my experience, most people are just not that interesting. That is the reason most weblogs suck (that and the fact that they are personal and often not meant for more readers than a few friends). But it also ensures that most other online endevours will be equally uninteresting, as has been seen since the dawn of the internet and other online services. There were lots of boring personal websites before there were weblogs.
posted by sylloge at 9:05 PM on September 30, 2000

If you want to write books, do you learn how SGML and Framemaker work so you can mark up your publisher's press?

No, you write, and leave the technical details to someone else.

Kind of like what Blogger allows you to do.


Webchick, your piece is all over the map. One question stuck in my mind after reading it:


Then a few more came up:

- Because the word "revolution" got thrown around by some magazine writers in the past, it's ok to write off the all weblogs as fad? Because a few people outside the genre looked at it and called it revolution? Is that the entire basis of the article? That a few thousand personal pages don't mesh with your idea of revolution?

- Do all weblogs that point at other stuff purely as meta-vehicles (this site is a prime example) automatically have no value? (because Steven Johnson says so?)

- Are you saying blogs are bad because the format isn't so great and everyone is posting fluff and instead should have basic, everyday personal pages like they used to?

- The final sentence discounts every blog as something that doesn't matter. why don't they matter? Where's the magical recipie for sites that matter? For sites that are in fact "revolution." Where are the solutions?
posted by mathowie at 9:24 PM on September 30, 2000

Sylloge hit the nail on the head. People learn by example! Teaching a 12-year to post a daily autobiography isn't teaching writing skills (and besides, how many 12-year olds do you know that are ready to tell the daily story of their life).

One thing that is remarkable about the blogging revolution is the rhetoric that blogs somehow are the way that "ordinary people" will be able to author content. Sure, tens of thousands of people are on the web because of blogger and similar tools, but look at the growth rate of the web in general. Is blogging really a revolution or just another of many different pieces of software that make up the Web? You can do great things with Blogs, but you can do great things with the Web!

The important thing is to teach kids to think. Teaching blogging or teaching PERL are all teaching something, but I would hope that the focus of all of that is to teach them to produce something real. The assignment shouldn't be blog or PERL, the goal ought to be something much more vital.

Off the top of my head: "Talk to one of your relatives and ask them what they were doing when they were your age, pull together some pictures and letters (with his/her permission) and build a web site about what is was like to live then. Use Matt's Guestbook Script or Blogger to allow others to contribute their own stories." Just one example ... name your own. The content and the process of thinking and creating ought to be the focus, not just a particular software tool or technique.
posted by CarlMalamud at 9:25 PM on September 30, 2000

Who decided blog == "daily autobiography"?

Even if it did, aren't kids encouraged to write about "what they know"? Why does writing about one's life not count as writing?

Blogs are a major way "ordinary people" will be able to author content because of exactly what Nielsen was saying. Sure, you can do great things with a blank web page and notepad. The point is, the vast majority of people won't.

That's not so say kids shouldn't be given great big hard tasks if the point is for them to learn. But the best way for kids to learn and what are effective ways for getting ordinary people creating content are two separate goals and discussions.

I can't believe [Nielsen] has never heard of [Blogger]

Actually, he was in the audience (asking questions), when I demoed it at PC Forum.
posted by evhead at 9:41 PM on September 30, 2000

To be fair, Megnut recommends "tools like Blogger" for getting stuff online without knowing HTML. She makes pretty clear that the time involved is better spent learning to write in general rather than learning to write HTML.

This argument about learning the technology goes back pretty far. Now we talk about HTML and Perl, etc. Before people would have just said programming and left it at that. The following comes from an article in the 1960's:
"We do not yet understand the true nature of the computer. And we have not yet begun to think in ways appropriate to the nature of this machine.... The demands of the machine have forced scholars [read anybody] in the direction of more explicit statement, because programs cannot be vague and tentative; of more modular statement, because programming, debugging and revising can be done more economically if a problem is sectioned into modules...[etc., etc.]"

Personally, I've always felt this was getting a bit too absorbed into the machine -- or into the technology. People want to share pictures, movies, ideas, etc. It's how close the technologies let them do these things not how close they get to the technologies that I think is important.
posted by leo at 9:52 PM on September 30, 2000

From content creation to search... An Alertbox from July 1997 about search usability:

"On a final note, elementary schools should start teaching search skills. The future of user interfaces is almost certainly going to be dominated by various ways of searching immense information bases and gradually refining the retrieved set. Ideas like query reformulation, relevance feedback, and query-by-example are all important but do not come naturally to users. Search skills are likely to be more useful than most of the computer uses kids are currently taught."

And another reference to kids and web design in a spotlight of a NY Times article investigating computer ergonomics in schools from March 15, 1999:

"The New York Times visited schools in New York that "remain focused on teaching both staff members and students how to use the programs on their new computers," with desktop publishing being a major curriculum. (Come on: desktop publishing is an obsolete computer skill, why not teach the kids Web design so that they would learn something they could use after they graduate?)"

Though after just reading the Times article they are: "taught to search the Internet for documents from the Colonial era..."
posted by tomalak at 10:09 PM on September 30, 2000

Where's the magical recipie for sites that matter? For sites that are in fact "revolution." Where are the solutions?

They are contained in mass disparate university and corporate databases, the science and art that solve small problems. Joined together through the hyper-technologies enables meta collaboration and new thinking. The tools are becoming available to assimilate solutions for many of the problems discussed here: like the human genome project, fossil fuel depletion and environmental impact, a constructive acceptance of political and economic progression. The problems are out there, the tools are emerging, the data is more readily accessible than ever. Collaborate to solve.
posted by netbros at 10:17 PM on September 30, 2000

Hi Matt...

>Because a few people outside the genre
>looked at it and called it revolution?

Actually, people inside of the genre call it a revolution. One of the taglines at is the McLuhan-esque: "The Revolution Will Be Bloggerized". I realize this is a marketing slogan, but nevertheless, within the genre.

>Is that the entire basis of the article?

Obviously not, if the piece, as you say, is all over the map :-)

>Do all weblogs that point at other stuff purely
>as meta-vehicles (this site is a prime example)
>automatically have no value?
>(because Steven Johnson says so?)

Absolutely not...I think we actually make the point that they HAVE tremendous value in the filtering context (as Steven Johnson does with parasitic media), ESPECIALLY in the collaborative context, such as metafilter. The problem is that when they standalone they are often negatively skewed by personal bias. A little bias is a good thing, that's what makes them useful as a personal filter: pick a blogger that matches your likes and dislikes. But often times due to personal bias (or the wicked cult of celebrity), a weblogger won't link to something that is completely relevant to their area of interest (as well as their audience)...whole tribes of them won't link to their readers are denied the opportunity to read or view something that may be useful.

It's actually similar to distrusting big media sources such as NBC because of their skewed filter due to allegiances to corporate sponsors.

So, people need to pick several filters that are right for them. Great! Problem is the sheer volume of these standalone meta-vehicles in the digital realm are simply overwhelming right now. Who wants to spend all their time searching through meta-content when they want to be viewing content? Somebody will come along and solve the problems associated with collaborative filtering and metadata management. But until then, I am hopeful that people will concern themselves with developing great sites and great content instead.

Yes. Even ordinary people.

posted by webchick at 10:18 PM on September 30, 2000

follows function. ;))

Sorry for the previous one-word post ... was trying to build a mini-form into my post that shows the number of blogs in the last thirty days with the word revolution. just shows the last 24 hours unless you use a POST method. has a more extensive list. All to respond to the point about the word revolution being a label being put on blogging by the media.

Lesson learned: form may follow function, but that function isn't supported here. :))
posted by CarlMalamud at 10:27 PM on September 30, 2000

Publishing tools in general make for a smaller barrier of entry into web publishing. Sure, FrontPage isn't going to teach you colour theory, or table layout or how to write compliant CSS, but it will get you out there.

And once you're out there, especially in the 'blogging community, you get sucked into a world where design is important. In pretty much every community design is important, though many different groups have many different design styles.

To pull a couple off the top of my head, there's the black on white, serif font method there's the pixelated boxy method there's the sans-serifed tiny font log method and there's the dicussion forum method.

Crass generalizations to be sure, and a very tiny sampling of 'styles', but they're all design schemes, and all those sites are ones that people curious about design are going to find, eventually, from a few hours of mindless link following. There's also a large deal of cross-over between them.

When you start surfing the lesser-known 'blogs, say by surfing Blogger's updated list, even in the ones with little to no readership you'll find admiration (through linkage) of high-profile sites, and an expression of a desire to learn more design.

When people start searching to find ways to better their time, they start stealing code, and when they modify that code - which most people due, even if it's just changing colours (and which leads to a discussion I've no desire to rekindle) - they end up learning something about HTML.

I refuse to believe that even the most casual web user can constrain their natural curiosity and their natural desire for {popularity|hits|peer review|acceptance|whatever} and not learn something in the process.

And once you learn something, you want to learn more. Sure, there's astounding ranks - a rank in which I include myself - of people who don't produce compelling (read:interesting) content, and have poorly designed sites, but they're either comparitevly wet behind the ears, or they've realised that layout and colour scheme aren't their shtick. Give them a few years of some practice at it, and they'll improve drastically.

Tools design to lower the barrier of entry are a Good Thing, plain and simple. That's not actually a fact I think most people are arguing. The reason they're a Good Thing is because they allow different people different ways to express themselves, and different avenues through which to learn more about whatever facet of themselves it is that drives them to publish on the web.

They'll learn more about writing, or coding, or community, or anything else, all because they were easily able to get past the first steps.
posted by cCranium at 10:28 PM on September 30, 2000

I don't think much of Nielsen (mostly due to years reading his alertbox and that slashdot interview).

HTML, or rather some sort of semantic description, is a necessary part of communication. Learning to define your ACRONYMs (World Wildlife Fund vs World Wrestling Federation comes to mind - with hilarious consequences for the blind). CODE, BDO, etc...

These are all problems that have existed on paper (where remedies are cumbersome at best) that semantic markup can deal with. I'm not saying HTML is the best thing to teach - but learning semantics is important.

This whole "ordinary people", and what we should expect from them (what with their meagre skills, resources, time, and intelligence) is a little strange though.
posted by holloway at 10:28 PM on September 30, 2000

To me, "ordinary people," in this context, just means non-early-adopters. It's not about their skills (or lack thereof), it's more about their place in the learning curve and their relative desire (or lack thereof) to put the kind of time into the web that geeks seem happy to devote.
posted by evhead at 10:49 PM on September 30, 2000

I have to say, I personally don't believe that either weblogs OR the Internet will, per se, create better writers. To believe so is total guff.

No medium will create better writers, no tools will either. There are only a few things will create better writing and they don't include a "magic pen"...

Thought. Thinking about what you're going to write, planning, composing, strategising... putting the brain to use creates better "content". Neither weblogs nor the Internet require any thought before publishing; which is why the good writing, with thought behind it, stands out.
Way back, before computers, or even typewriters, writers had to sit down with a pen, a limited supply of ink, and bloody expensive paper, and before they wrote they thought pretty hard about what they were going to write; which is why Dumas and Dickens are far better writers than page churners like Rice or Bear.

Effort. This backs up the thought process. Putting effort into writing counts. Taking time out to rework and reword, to criticise and compliment, to adjust or destroy. The easier writing becomes, the less time taken to do it, often the worse it becomes. The Internet and Weblogs provide insta-content. What effort goes into that?

Practice. This is probably the only area that Weblogs and online Publishing have going for them; they allow plenty of practice. But practice without effort or thought behind it is just spewing out more of the same. And isn't that pretty much what webloggers do? The ones who write well naturally continue to do so, the ones who don't... dont.

Now, as for HTML, I think it's fine and dandy to teach kids it. I think it will probably be an essential lesson, like BASIC was when I was in school; whether kids go on to use that knowledge is another thing.
I think some people will pcik it up, and be excellent with design; some will, but find themselves better suited to graphic layout, some better with story telling... just like in the REAL WORLD, where people have had the ability to put pen to paper for centuries, or pick up a camera and take photos, or go into graphic design, or carpentry, or law, or medicine, or wherever their ability takes them.

As for writing; you can't force people to write well. If they don't, they don't; practice and time may make them a little better, but they'll never become fantastic writers The Internet and Weblogs are NOT going to change the overall condition of the world's literary sense.

I'm beginning to think that the Weblog Community is kitsch, in the Kunderan sense of the word (with the exception of lance).
And if you don't know what that means read a book and find out. That'll help your writing too, far more than having a blog ever will.
posted by Neale at 10:52 PM on September 30, 2000

"Ordinary people" is the set {interesting, intelligent, creative people} less the set {web developers, web designers, geeks, etc.}. Everyone knows that. Very "ordinary language" usage.

posted by sylloge at 10:58 PM on September 30, 2000

>To me, "ordinary people," in this context,
>just means non-early-adopters. It's not
>about their skills (or lack thereof), it's more
>about their place in the learning curve and
>their relative desire (or lack thereof) to put
>the kind of time into the web that geeks seem
>happy to devote.

A thought related to all these tangents:

why don't web geeks and designers (with the skills and the desire) help "ordinary people" (who I often find fascinating, BTW :-) put their "content" online. I'm NOT talking about giving them the tools to do it themselves (because, as Jakob noted, many of them have weak content skills as well)...I'm talking about helping them tell their stories.

Or go help a non-profit organization or other worthy cause get their message out. That would certainly help the content conundrum that Jakob refers to in his piece ("To take the Internet to the next level, users must begin posting their own material rather than simply consuming content or distributing copyrighted material.").

It's all about being socially responsible with our talents and with this great medium that we are fortunate to have at our disposal in our lifetime.

BTW, I prefer the term "other people" to "ordinary people." We're all pretty ordinary when you get right down to it (as holloway observed)'s about how we can all play our part in building a better community.

posted by webchick at 11:04 PM on September 30, 2000

Anyway, I'm probably breaking some mefi rules of etiquette here by talking about my own project, but I think what I have to say is relevant. Mostly.

I find this subject fascinating, and it's something I was thinking about a lot this summer.

Within the blog "paradigm" - updating a single page at the chunk level, I'm not talking about the content - blogger and pitas and some other tools aimed at "normal" people seem to be quite effective, and I think that it has helped lots of people to find their voice. And that's great. I certainly feel that maintaining a weblog helped to improve my writing skills, and got me interested in writing for the web again.

Yes, I like weblogs, even after all the nasty things I may have said about some of them. (It was all in the name of comedy, really.) And while I think updating at the chunk level is great, it's not enough for me. It's certainly one solution, but I don't think that format should be though of as the end all be all of "content" creation for "normal" people.

Nor should journals, or anything else. Tools need to be flexible and powerful enough to allow people to create the kinds of sites they want to make, even if they don't fit into convenient types.

I want it to be ridiculously easy to create web content at the page level, and manage it. I want to be able to create documents in a way that allows me to seperate presenation from content, add metadata easily, and allow for a flexible kind of "structured creation" as Nielson described it, to help ease the process of creating lots and lots of content.

I think the effects that the tools you use have on what you create are extreme, and the web is no exception, and HTML and notepad aren't going to help get people in my dorm writing on the web. And they're *smart.* But if I set up a blogger blog or a diaryland diary for them, they write. (Somtimes.) But "regular" people can do lots more than just make weblogs and diaries.

This isn't to say they're all great writers, or better tools will make them better writers. But blah blah insert powazekian happy fuzzy stuff about everyone deserves to have their voice on the internet. (No, honestly, I believe that.)

Anyway, these thoughts culminated in my writing a "simple content management system for the masses" web app I made that is, umm, almost almost done. Although I hesitate to call it a cms, because it's simple, it's designed for "normal" users, and is certainly no storyserver. (Remember, I'm just some college kid who ran into a little free time because of some employment, umm, issues.)

I hate it when people hype projects before they're done, but honestly, really, it's almost done. If you're interested in playing with the beta, feel free to email me. With people talking and thinking about these things, it would be interesting to get some feedback.

Also, yes, I know mefi does not exist for me to recruite beta testers, and yes, I know mefi does not exist for me to hype my own (unfinished) projects, my apologies in advance if this is genuinely off topic or out of line.
posted by adam at 11:08 PM on September 30, 2000

I agree with Neale. No matter how many tools come out (even adam's thing which is amazing) the vast majority of people will use it without thinking and will contribute to the defeaning noise.

No tool will improve web content. The web lets you broadcast what you do to people. For some reason, people are interested in inane details and context-less half thoughts and that's great, people get hits, blah blah blah.

But I hesistate to call that writing. Just because it's on the screen doesn't mean it's writing.

The only thing that will improve the writing on the web (and in general), whether it is publised through blogger, organizine, or through raw raw notepad HTML hacking is the things Neale said -- practice, thought, and effort. And, in my opinion, which everyone has heard before, very few people are doing those things. (frequent does not mean practiced)

Also, my god, who decided to cut out the editors? The web needs editors more than anything else. Good, well trained editors.
posted by benbrown at 11:30 PM on September 30, 2000

tomalak: "desktop publishing is an obsolete computer skill"

no it isn't!
last time i checked there were still a few stubborn luddites reading newspapers and magazines :)

any time spent learning *any* computer software will result in kids learning how to learn to use software, which can be of real benefit to people when they get a typical non-geek job that may require them to use a computer

the majority of people aren't going to leave school and go work on the internet, but if the time they spent on computers in class helps them to learn new interfaces and applications when they do come across them, then its time well spent

posted by sawks at 11:33 PM on September 30, 2000

Gosh, I went out to dinner, and I come back to find a huge thread's erupted, wowzers! I'm tired, and I don't even know where to begin to reply:

On learning HTML:
I don't know how to build an engine, yet I can drive my car. Why this insistence on knowing HTML to write for the web? I'm not advocating teaching blogging or any such thing, my point was merely this: Blogger the tool facilitates publishing, the easier it is to publish, the less you worry about the technical aspects and the more you write. Sure, a lot of people write crap. Lots of it. But they're writing. And the more one writes, the better one gets at writing. I don't think anyone's saying the Internet will make people better writers, or having a blog will make a person a better writer. The only thing that makes a better writer is writing.

On Neale's thoughts:
If I follow the logic, the easier it is to create content (from pen to typewriter to computer), the less thought goes into the writing, and the quality suffers? So is Austen better than Hemingway because he used a typewriter and therefore didn't "think" as much? As for page churners, Dickens got paid by the page. A lot of his thought was, "how can I keep this going and get more money?" I guess I just don't buy it, throughout the ages there have been bad writers and good writers, no matter whether they used quill or keyboard.

On the Revolution:
I don't think it's a blogging revolution, it's a publishing revolution. And that started with the web. Blogger is just one tool, of many, that make it easier.

On ordinary people:
My aunt has a weblog now. She started it recently. I love it, my mom loves it, my grandmother loves it. We all read it and enjoy it. And my aunt enjoys writing it. She doesn't know HTML, she doesn't understand clients or servers, yet she publishes something to the web everyday. And to a small group of people, that means a whole lot. Without a tool like Pitas or Blogger, she wouldn't be able to do this.

And I'm sure I have more to add, but that will have to wait until after I get some sleep.

posted by megnut at 11:58 PM on September 30, 2000

One word, in all its ambiguous, evangelising glory: Justin.
posted by holgate at 1:13 AM on October 1, 2000

No tool will improve web content.

Not by itself: but as there was an art to sharpening a quill, mixing ink, and spreading the sand to blot your letters, so there's an art of online self-composition which comes from preparing yourself for the task, of wrestling with the intractability of words. (The Yeats poem entitled "The fascination of what's difficult" could be my anthem here.)

And I'm more inclined to agree with Neale here: Ted Hughes regularly judged a writing contest for kids, and he'd noticed year on year the way that entries got longer and more dragged-out: vast reams of prose without the discipline of earlier work. The reason: the kids were using their parents' word-processors. (Which is perhaps why I recoil at those who talk of "free speech": it's much more valuable than that.)

But I'm also mindful of sylloge's distinction: Blogger is a democratising tool. And while the creative types will be able to bend it to their perverse desires and designs -- at least I hope so -- the rest can enjoy it as it is.
posted by holgate at 1:29 AM on October 1, 2000


Dave Winer has also noted that weblogs and Manilla were not mentioned in Nielsen's article. So, we have two producers of Web publishing tools taking him to task for not including them in his piece. This sounds like frustration with a skewed filter to me. :-)

>I don't think it's a blogging revolution,
>it's a publishing revolution.

And I think the Internet goes beyond a publishing revolution...and more than a renaissance of writing. It's a cultural revolution.

That's why we (I'm using the royal "we" here :-) continue to debate issues relating to its development, and it's why we all care so damn much about what happens to "our" medium.

posted by webchick at 3:39 AM on October 1, 2000

>and it's why we all care so damn much
>about what happens to "our" medium.

(please bear in mind that I was including "ordinary/average/regular people" in that empirical grouping as well)
posted by webchick at 3:48 AM on October 1, 2000

hehehehehe. What a powerful, heated discussion. Let's throw some more blocks of Sodium into the water here:

I don't kids at this point should be learning HTML at all. Why? Not because blogger will be handling the development of Web sites for them but because HTML as it stands now is fading in the light of XML.

XML (and XHTML) will take the place of HTML and kids who learn HTML as-is will have to quickly acclimate to the strictness of XHTML and get a good grasp on either CSS2 or XSL (if and when it ever gets approved).

I'm not sure if anyone's taken the time to cruise through XSL (the only reason I have is because I'm tech editing a book that has a 333 page chapter on each-and-every property, formatting object and expression), but it is incredibly more robust than CSS2 and includes some DSSSL-related items.

I know this list is full of Web designers perfectly content to utilize tables for positioning but this won't be an option in the future (hence the reason we at the Web Standards Project are pushing for full implemenetation of CSS in at least one of these god-forsaken browsers). And technically, we'd be teaching kids the wrong way to deal with a markup language - to contextualize information.

For crying out loud people....if you look at what it's turned into, HTML is no longer a markup language. Markup is meant to say when a book is a book () or a press release byline is a press release byline (). Not that a table should make this into a 50% wide column. That's why we have stylesheets- you know, the standard no one can get right.

Sodium drop in 5.......4........3.......2............
posted by bkdelong at 7:54 AM on October 1, 2000

There's now a reader comments sidebar to this Alertbox that discusses weblogs, among other things.
posted by mrmorgan at 8:01 AM on October 1, 2000

>For crying out loud people....if you look
>at what it's turned into, HTML is no longer
>a markup language.

An earlier post makes the point that "HTML is just one example ... pick your tools."

Yes...HTML is a tool (or skill). Just like Blogger is a tool. It was the point of reference used in this thread because it was the primary counterpoint linking Jakob's piece and Meg's rebuttal. You are right in your assessment that the latest accepted standard for page markup is what should be taught in schools.
posted by webchick at 8:15 AM on October 1, 2000

HTML should be taught to kids who are heading, or want to head in a technical career path. I'm in the development of a technical vocational center for 9th. - 12th. Graders, HTML is on the syllabus, but so is CSS, XML, photoshop, and web server administration. For many, it's just a part of web development. Doesn't have much to do with everyday people, doesn't have anything to do with writing. Probably enough said about that...

I think that technology has nothing to do with good writing. Technology, the use if a tool, or ease of publishing has never enabled good writing and it never will. The same construct applies to technology and the creation of art and music. The ease of the tool does not enable or guarantee great results, just a lot of similar results. Writers may have felt the same way when the process of mass printing (Gutenberg press) was perfected. Therefore, the evolution of the internet can be viewed as a repeat of history. In fact, there is a lot to be said for the ease of publication - production through technology enabling bad, or mediocre content to be spread even further. Thus, making it very difficult for good writing to be found in the mêlée of bad writing. Even worse, it makes it very difficult for good writers to be paid well for their good writing. Unless you are S. King, no one will want to download your book and pay you for it. Yet.

To confuse the discussion of ease of publishing with good writing is a mistake. To talk of ease of publishing through the use of good technology is wonderful The two things are very different. Talk of tools and methods are for technical people. Teaching good writing and teaching technology to kids are terribly different, disparate discussions.
posted by Dean_Paxton at 8:56 AM on October 1, 2000

A snippet of Nielsen's response to Ev's email:

"Weblogs are of so highly varying quality that I don't consider them a true solution to the problem."

I really didn't want to agree with this statement, but Nielsen has a point here.

If you look back at his article, he suggests narrowing the focus for people who are new to publishing on the Web in order to increase the quality of the writing. A blank Web page (or that big empty textarea in Blogger) can be daunting for those folks.

That's where collaborative weblogs are useful, I think. MeFi allows people to respond to single posts, sharpening their focus and reducing the background noise. It's almost like a writing exercise; here's a topic, here's a box, write me 75 words on what you think about the topic in this box. That's a lot less daunting for folks just starting out in the personal publishing realm.

Recently, I set up a collaborative weblog at my workplace of about 20 people, only 1 or 2 of whom had ever published anything on the Web before. Now, through this weblog, most of them are publishing on a semi-daily basis...something most of them wouldn't have done on their own. Why?

- A narrow topic and audience. The weblog deals with work stuff and is only read by the employees of my company. That's an easier target than writing about anything for anyone to read.

- Responding to previous entries narrows the focus even more. It's like the MeFi example: here's a box, here's a topic....

- Having a facilitator helps too. I try to stimulate conversation on and posting to the weblog. It's an educational process; I'm not teaching them anything about writing (because many of my coworkers write better than me), but by setting a good example with what and how I post and being enthusiastic about their participation, I can get that good writing out of them on onto the page.

I dunno, just some thoughts.

And good thread everyone....I'm enjoying the conversation and seeing the different viewpoints debated intelligently.
posted by jkottke at 9:12 AM on October 1, 2000

We're missing the point here. Writing is about communicating to people, no matter what medium. The Internet has become the principle venue for communicating and the weblog or homepage is the format for putting words on the Internet. Because it allows writers a greater chance to find their audience, ti provides an incentive and feedback. The quality of the product can be skewed all over the place. Part of that is due to the technical barriers (believe me they are huge; I just got back from a web-oriented seminar in Belize, and dealt first hand with how daunting the Internet can be for beginners). But the web motivates people to make the effort, and that is just the start. Any tool or learning process that lowers the threshold is welcome.
posted by Pachacutec at 9:13 AM on October 1, 2000

Oh, and if we're still writing HTML, XML, or CSS by hand in 3-5 years, someone please shoot me.
posted by jkottke at 9:15 AM on October 1, 2000

>Teaching good writing and teaching technology
>to kids are terribly different, disparate discussions.

Not necessarily. It depends on your viewpoint.

IMHO, if you want to be a active participant and citizen of society in the digital age, you must learn to effectively and responsibly self-publish.

Again, it all boils down to what your whole take on the Internet revolution is. It's not about the's about teaching people to think and use the medium to its fullest potential.
posted by webchick at 9:22 AM on October 1, 2000

Exactly, I couldn't put it better myself! Can I quote you as I'm writing my grants?

The need to teach the concepts you mention are so vital to the next generation. As technical people, we all understand that and even take it for granted, that's why it's easy to break the discussion down to specifics. Unfortunately, I think that a small number of educators agree with us. In fact, there are movements in the education elite to remove computers, the internet, and technology in general from schools as an unproductive distraction (via NPR).

Damn technophobic baby boomers! Too bad they have all the money...
posted by Dean_Paxton at 9:35 AM on October 1, 2000

>Exactly, I couldn't put it better myself!
>Can I quote you as I'm writing my grants?

Absolutely :-)

BTW, I would like to make one point about social responsibility: all Internet topics that cause such heated debate all fall under the umbrella of social responsibility and our role as a global community (the nature and quality of content, standards, copyright, open source, usability, barriers to entry such as: language, accessibility to computers and bandwidth/limited access, freedom of speech, artistic expression...the list goes on and on.)

This is why it is so important to teach the fundamentals of the Internet in school. It is imperative that we all understand the impact that this new medium has on society as a whole. It is permeating our culture from every direction.

posted by webchick at 10:00 AM on October 1, 2000

Personal publishing online, of whatever caliber, by whatever means, is good. Better writing and better design are always to be desired, and the best work gets the most notice, but all of it is good because this is first and foremost a people's medium.

I differ with BK only in believing that HTML is good because it is a people's markup language (ie., easy to learn). Not HTML in its currently degraded state, but clean HTML and XHTML (since XHTML is easy enough to learn - add a few rules, change a few methods).

The browsers will continue to support HTML as long as 50 million Geocities users continue to write pages in it. And I hope they always will. I want better standards so advanced developers can build more capable sites. But I don't think schoolchildren should learn XML, and I don't think every personal homepage should be written in XML. It's all about balance — meeting the people's needs AND the experts' needs.

Which is where Blogger and Manilla come in. The problem is NOT that some people will never learn HTML or XML or XYZ. They don't need to. Designers and developers need to.

The problem is not that my neighbor uses Blogger to post a diary of his children's growth. That's a GOOD thing.

The problem is that "professional" web designers/developers use FrontPage and other tools without learning the underlying technology. Such as the blokes in London who charged my friend's company thousands of dollars to build a site that doesn't work on Macs or in Linux or in Netscape because they don't know what they're doing. They used WYSIWYG tools to build their front end, and off-the-shelf software to build the backend, and the site just doesn't work unless you're an IE Windows user.

"Developers" using bad software (FrontPage etc.) to build sites that don't work: that's a problem. Fourteen year-old girls building Brittany Speers fan pages in Blogger or in HTML: no problem.

Everyone can benefit by taking a painting class, though few will become good painters. Everyone can benefit by taking a creative writing class, though few will become great writers. The web offers everyone a chance to express themselves creatively, whether for their own enrichment, the amusement of their friends, or an audience of larger size because somehow in doing the work they stumble onto a meaningful message or a great creative idea.

Simplicity in tools is an attribute, not a deficit — as long as the tools do their jobs correctly. I don't care whether the Elian photo was taken with a $50,000 camera or a Kodak Instamatic. Do you?

My cousin is a medical student. Over lunch the other day, she said something so articulate, I realized she must be a writer. I asked and she admitted that she'd been keeping a diary for years. She also admitted that she'd shown it to some published authors who thought it was pretty good. I recommended that she check out Blogger and Manilla, because it sounds like something worth publishing, either of these tools will enable her to publish. She's not going to learn PERL and JavaScript and HTML and CSS - why should she? She's in medical school. But her life could be enriched by personal publishing. If she intended to become a web designer, then of course I would recommend that she learn all the tools.

By the same token, I recommended to another relative who wanted to go online and knew nothing about it that she get an iMac because it will get her online easily. I didn't recommend that she learn about UNIX, hack together an old PC, install VA Linux and start developing software, because she's not about those things. She just wants to go online. An iMac will make that easy for her. Blogger and Manilla make publishing easy for people. That's good. If these people want to become web designers, then they should learn about web standards, graphic design, and 50 other things web designers need to know.

I thought was saying: "The Internet offers the possibility of a real revolution in media. Do our publications live up to that possibility?" That's a message I need to hear from time to time so I don't think of the web merely as Jeffrey's playground. It's a message commercial concerns need to hear often, so they don't think of the web merely as part of a money-raising scheme. Are those commercial concerns reading Probably not. Maybe next year some of them will be, as some of them now read Nielsen. I saw the article as calling on those of us who are serious about the web to raise the bar on our own work. Nothing wrong with that. It's another thing we need to hear, though most of us hear it internally anyway.
posted by Zeldman at 10:38 AM on October 1, 2000

I'm pleased that Zeldman recommends that corporate concerns read They sometimes read our views on business models but perhaps the message was lost on them. ;)

The Great Orange is definitely correct that designers should raise their own personal bar. That's what Maeda said (learn HTML to be a better designer). There was a second part to that however: professional designers should go beyond talking about the Internet and themselves and should reach out to partner to people with different talents to build real sites. Our problem with a blog as the exclusive means of personal expression is that we think many of these talented people can (and should) make greater contributions. That's what Tibor Kalman meant when he said designers should be more socially responsible.

A related thread: blogs are not just about professional web designers. They are just one tool for many different kinds of people to use the web as a personal publishing medium. Again, that is a Good Thing® but should not be the only thing: a personal diary or list of daily links is a great element of a web presence, but we would be engaged in dangerous elitism if we say that is the only thing "non-professionals" are capable of. The Internet is not rocket science and people, especially students, should be encouraged to engage in sophisticated thinking. Blogs are one element of sophisticated thinking, but are not the only answer.

Which brings us to the real crux of our essay: the characterization of blogs as a revolution that somehow opens up the web to people that would not otherwise be on-line. That is a particularly dangerous form of elitism in our view. Blogging is a useful tool, but it is not a revolution. Indeed, one could even say the web is not even the revolution. The revolution is people communicating in ways they were never able to before.
posted by CarlMalamud at 11:07 AM on October 1, 2000

These comments also appear on Scripting News today.

My two cents. Cut through all the confusion about what weblogs are, and focus on the functionality of the software, then it gets simple. What does the software do for you and how does it work, how accessible is it, and does it give you control? Does it grow when your needs grow?

I wasn't there when word processing became a market, so I don't know if they had these kinds of debates. Perhaps word processing software was not considered useful because some people used word processors to write love letters or other writing that people thought was trivial or insignificant or hard to read.

I agree with Jakob about Tomalak and Doc Searls' site. Radically different approaches, and both provide a useful service, and both use roughly the same technology, as do other sites with perhaps less interesting content.

So, to Jakob, we need a name for the category of software we make. If Manila is to be considered useful in the context of writing on the Web, what features should we add (or take out, harder to do because of the installed base), and what should we call the category? This might be a place where you can make a contribution to defining what we do, and perhaps we could create software you and your readers would find more useful.

posted by davewiner at 11:21 AM on October 1, 2000

Anyone can learn HTML, and should—if they are serious about creating online content. (Tutorial online since 1995. Tutorial which also, way back then, made the point that knowing HTML doesn't make you a web author any more than knowing your native language makes you a writer.)

Teaching schoolchildren the fundamentals of online markup makes a lot of sense. Teaching them how to search makes sense. Teaching them how to evaluate text makes the most sense of all. I'm amazed how many people don't understand rhetoric. If Jonathan Swift had written "A Modest Proposal" today, thousands would be calling for his banishment or execution.

I liked the essay much, though I figured it would anger some folks. Personally I'm not interested in characterizing any genre or type of work as revolutionary or non-revolutionary. What's revolutionary is that the media is now open to everyone—no longer the province of professionals alone. With that comes brilliance that might otherwise never have seen the light of day. And some stuff that's not so brilliant, but is still perfectly valid.

Professional designers should go beyond talking about the Internet and themselves and should reach out to partner to people with different talents to build real sites.

I think most do. For PROFESSIONAL designers, blogging or news pages or diaries or daily reports are merely adjuncts to the rest of what we do. And many PROFESSIONAL designers don't blog at all, and that's okay, too. And a few who once created meaningful personal work may take a "vacation" from time to time, and they're allowed.

Some of us overachieve. Some of us underachieve. Some of us fall back on past accomplishments. If we do that, it's about us, not about the tools we use.

When I look at the web, it is much more diverse, much better written, much better designed, than when I started. So I'm not worried about the personal web space. Last year I was worried that the commercial web would somehow obliterate or marginalize the personal web space—and to some extent it HAS marginalized it a bit. But the personal web is WAY too strong to die; and the calling, in those who feel it, is way too intense to be ignored.

Raise the bar on our own work? Always—for those who feel it. Worry about all this? Naw. Just do the work.
posted by Zeldman at 11:49 AM on October 1, 2000

>I wasn't there when word processing
>became a market, Perhaps word processing
>software was not considered useful because
>some people used word processors to write
>love letters or other writing that people thought
>was trivial or insignificant or hard to read.

But people didn't use word processing software when it first became a market to publish content to a world wide medium (of course, it made the natural progression later). Some valid points were made on this issue in a heated, emotional debate about blogs on metafilter last July.

With all due respect, the two tools are different and cannot be equated in this context. This could lead, however, to a whole new tangential discussion comparing the oft-emotionally charged desktop publishing debate with the communication revolution (via carl: "the revolution is people communicating in ways they were never able to before").

For me, the Internet is where all points converge: technology, culture, communication, publishing, etc.

posted by webchick at 11:53 AM on October 1, 2000

Oh, and if we're still writing HTML, XML, or CSS by hand in 3-5 years, someone please shoot me.

I will be.

Writing that stuff by hand, I mean. Not shooting you.

Gosh, I like you, why would I want to hurt you? Oh wait—it's rhetoric. Someone should teach kids about words and stuff.

Even when WYSIWYG tools write standards-compliant code. Even when they write LEAN code instead of bloated nonsense. Even then I will probably write code by hand because most of the time I don't design by cutting apart Photoshop images.

Until a WYSIWYG tool has enough artificial intelligence to know what I intend, and to design liquid pages for me instead of relying on absolute positioning and fixed widths and heights, I'll write my stuff by hand. And when the tools DO read my mind? I'll probably keep coding by hand because I like it.

But our individual processes don't matter. All that matters is the work.
posted by Zeldman at 12:02 PM on October 1, 2000

> But our individual processes don't matter. All that matters is the work.

Best point of the thread. Well said Jeffrey.
posted by tomcosgrave at 12:21 PM on October 1, 2000

Dear Zeldman, my friend, you will be writing HTML by hand in 3-5 years, but I won't.

Take a look at this site. I wrote it, but I sure didn't design it. I think it's gorgeous. All I did was choose it from a collection of themes.

posted by davewiner at 12:22 PM on October 1, 2000

As per usual, the point is missed entirely, by quite a wide berth.

In his essay, Nielsen uses the completely meaningless phrase, "next level" - as in take the Internet & Web to it. However, he fails, again and again, to define his own vision of what that next level might be. As such, his essay is mere fluff and merits no serious consideration.

So, we get more people on the web, publishing content, in whatever form that may take. What then? What on earth do you think is going to happen? Revolution? Uprisings? World peace?

Nothing is going to happen. After finding it curious or charming or mildly fulfilling and ego-gratifying, the majority of the newly born publishers will bow out. The web alone is no cure for what ails us as countries, societies and people. It's an empty experience. It is yelling down a well simply to hear your own voice.

Teach them to publish? No. Teach collaboration and coalition building instead. If people then take that to the web, the results will be better - but there is no need to confuse the two in order to serve web deification.
posted by gsh at 12:34 PM on October 1, 2000

I am with the Z, at least in part because the web is as much an application platform as it is a document delivery system. If all we had to worry about was documents, then I'd say sure, HTML and CSS will one day be as removed from the human as postscript is. But as long as HTML (or XHTML, or whatever) are used to write what are essentially front ends to apps, then there will be somebody somewhere hand coding. I'll be perfectly happy if that person is me, though I imagine there will be a period of mourning 3 years from now when jkottke goes down.

P.S. I find it very amusing that Jakob gets in trouble for everything he says, and now apparently things he DOESN'T say. (Ridiculous omission, to not mention web logs.)
posted by ericost at 12:44 PM on October 1, 2000

The Internet has become the principle [sic] venue for communicating and the weblog or homepage is the format for putting words on the Internet.

"Doctor, pass the reality pills. Yep, a big dose this time."
posted by holgate at 12:48 PM on October 1, 2000

> But our individual processes don't matter.
>All that matters is the work

I agree...


>The web alone is no cure for what ails us
>as countries, societies and people. It's an
>empty experience. It is yelling down a well
>simply to hear your own voice.

Why does it have to be this way?

I would like to revisit the content conundrum I mentioned in another post.

WHY don't we help others who have stories to tell and socially responsible causes to promote to find their voice if we have nothing to talk about but the medium or ourselves?

I posted this at another discussion forum regarding independent content: "Organizations such as Adbusters rally professional creatives to use their talents to adopt and promote a worthy cause OUTSIDE of their industry, so SOCIETY can benefit. In doing so, we can do something meaningful with our talents, potentially make a difference in the lives of others, and begin to balance the onslaught of meaningless media in our daily lives."

posted by webchick at 12:48 PM on October 1, 2000

>I posted this at another discussion
>forum regarding independent content:

oops...I failed to include the link to dreamless on that last post.

posted by webchick at 12:55 PM on October 1, 2000

DAVE: It IS beautiful, and I see it as a "next step" in creating tools that empower others. Heather and Kitty and I give away background tiles; Brent Gustaffson gives away DHTML source; you and Pyra give away production tools, etc. All of this is part of the sharing that's always made the web exciting. It's a form of collaboration in which you don't know the people you're collaborating with. You create something, then hand it off to the next person, who uses it as they see fit. Pretty neat.
posted by Zeldman at 12:59 PM on October 1, 2000

GLISH: You nailed that. Used to be, wanna start a big thread on MEFI, talk about blogging. Now you can do it by NOT talking about blogging. (If you're Jakob Nielsen.)
posted by Zeldman at 1:02 PM on October 1, 2000

On the "kids should learn html" point:

Let's compare the web to TV or radio for just a second (stop grumbling, this is going somewhere).

TV and radio started out with geeks and techies of the time creating, producing, writing, and acting in their own stuff. Later on, writers, actors, producers, set designers, cameramen, and directors split the work up so people could specialize on what they do best. Quality improved.

Now we have the web. The People's Web. No stuffy network execs or FCC telling us what we can and can't do. We can do anything we want. We can do what we're especially good at. We can also do it all.

But do we all have to program, write, design, photograph, direct, maintain, administer, and debug our own stuff?

It'd be great if good writers could be good writers, and great programmers could be great programmers, and instead of the two learning more of each others' craft, instead we worked on building tools and sites that allowed people to collaborate.

So the great writers meet up with the great programmers, and ideas and content really take off.

Which is why html, if taught to kids, should be given equal weight with writing, reading, drawing, and thinking. If one were good at any of those four, find three friends that are good at the others and work together.
posted by mathowie at 1:02 PM on October 1, 2000

So the great writers meet up with the great programmers, and ideas and content really take off.

Right on. Just add designers and graphics people to the mix and we're ready to zooooooooom.
posted by davewiner at 1:20 PM on October 1, 2000

WHY don't we help others who have stories to tell and socially responsible causes to promote to find their voice if we have nothing to talk about but the medium or ourselves?

While I'm not a web designer or a web anything (which I gues would make me an 'ordinary person' in this context) and I am all for helping others in the world, I also recognize that there are many people who choose not to do that and I don't think that it automatically makes them not-so-great people. As Zeldman pointed out, there are quite a few people out there who do have the time and desire to help others and they do so, in their own ways.

As for the millions of personal weblogs out there, as someone else already mentioned, that's perfectly fine. If I want to have a page where I talk about my day and how today I feel bummed versus yesterday, how does that affect your life negatively? If it lets me somehow fulfill a personal need to put my words out there, so what?

My favorite part about the web is not the Amazons or the CNNs. It's the random people whom I've never met and probably never will who say something that suddenly makes me feel a greater sense of belonging cause someone across the world feels the way I do. Or it's the person who puts up some obscure piece of information that makes me laugh, cry or think. Those pages existed before weblogs and will keep existing, or I sure hope they will.

As many people already pointed out, Blogger is a wonderful tool for people who don't want to worry about learning HTML and for those who do, well blogger surely doesn't stop them from doing so. Nothing does.

Should the schools teach HTML and the likes? Sure, and kids can choose to take it or not, just like they decide whether to take biology or not.

Is HTML going to make better writers? No. Is Blogger? No. I don't think that was the main purpose of either. Or have I missed something?

posted by karen at 1:50 PM on October 1, 2000

The killer line in Nielsen's piece, for me:

After all, schools have taught writing for centuries, and writing quality has scarcely evolved at all.

I was thinking, actually, as all the blogs cheerily cross-linked to celebrate Fray Day, that it might have been a good idea to retire that fine and glorious site on its fourth anniversary. After all, Derek's seedling has let a thousand flowers bloom elsewhere: and there's been, what, only three new stories in over a year? But most of all, its presence is an embarrassment to the proclaimers of a People's Web: it was precisely that kind of collaboration of great talents which continues to put 90% of the Blogger directory to shame.

And if you're just looking for blog after blog after blog, -- which is all too likely with this benign tyranny centralising the means of production -- and not looking at some of the sites that people were knocking together a few years ago just because they could, well, it's a pity.

Because aren't all of these plans to "zoooooom" simply turd polishing? For sure, it makes it easier for people to churn out templated journals about their cats like ever so much web wallpaper. But if you've got something worth saying, that demands to be said, you will learn the skills to overcome the obstacles, and that will become a part of what you say.

Oh, never mind.
posted by holgate at 1:55 PM on October 1, 2000

Someone once said every conversation on USENET ends up with an argument about Hitler.

Apparently every discussion at Metafilter ends up with a knock at Derek Powazek. WTF is that about?

Fray makes blogs look bad? The Empire State Building dwarfs my apartment. But I like my apartment.
posted by Zeldman at 2:10 PM on October 1, 2000

Hi, Karen...

>I also recognize that there are many people
>who choose not to do that and I don't think
>that it automatically makes them not-so-great people.

I never said that people who publish their own views are not-so-great people. And their participation on the Web does not negatively affect me as an individual in anyway. I can also empathize with you on the idea of fulfilling a personal need through putting our words out there. That is why I am so vocal on this very topic.

I just really care about the future, and the Internet's potential as a medium. Once in a while we all need to regroup, and talk about it as a civilized, concerned community.

posted by webchick at 2:26 PM on October 1, 2000

If we want to improve the quality of writing on the Web, we'll do it by making it easier for people to publish. What they have to say is important, not how they get those words out into the great beyond. Being able to click a button and have their work published is more important knowing the technical details of HTML, CSS, FTP, etc. Of course some of us care as much or almost as much about the quality of our code as we do the quality of our writing.

You become a writer by writing. You become a good writer by caring about what you say and how you express yourself. You become a great writer by soldiering on while the nay sayers jeer at you t
o stop, helped along by a jolly dose of talent.

That you are published does not make you a great writer. You have only to read newspapers often to realise that the average journalist is a poor writer. You have only to read a lot of books to realise that the average author of a book is a poor writer. You have only to read a single book by a great writer to know that you have found art.

Can you make a writer a better one by teaching them to program? Yes, but not necessarily. To write a working program you must understand what problem you are trying to solve, and you must solve it by breaking the solution down into a series of steps. Programming forces you to think clearly and simply.

An artist can make a great writer. Someone who can paint a competent landscape knows you don't simply fling a pot of paint at a canvas and have a landscape transform itself out of a great splash of paint. She breaks it down and eventually after much effort and many layers of paint she has a beautiful landscape. A chef can make a great writer. You don't simply toss a jumble of food stuffs onto the stove and expect to satisfy a gourmand. One piece at a time, each at the right time.

So a writer writes. One word at a time, each word in the right place, each idea expressed with clarity and vigour. Eventually after much effort and a bit of luck she might create a masterpiece. That she has closed her tags and her page sails easily past the w3 validator is irrelevant.

Blogger or Manila will not create an artist. An artist is more than her tools. But if her tools help her to express herself rather than get in the way and distract her, then they will help make her a better writer by allowing her to concentrate on her writing.

Art is created by individuals, not groups. Art is beauty. Art is magic. Art is not useful. It will not get the lid off that jam jar. it will not help your neighbour with her sick child. Art is what makes us glad to be alive, to appreciate what it means to be alive, to be human. That something is useful does not inspire us.

If we've made it easier for someone to write and publish their words we have done all we can. We cannot expect to create art. But we can hope to create art. And if we have removed as many of the barriers as we can, and someone decides that now they will write that story they've put off telling, we have done a very good thing. Blogger and Manila are very good things.

posted by ljt at 2:40 PM on October 1, 2000


I knew you were going to pick on that. :)

My apologies, I didn't mean to imply that you said that made them bad people. My point was that while you really care about the Internet's potential as a medium and want to use your knowledge to help others (which is wonderful) there are many people who don't and won't care to. Not that I'm trying to say that people shouldn't try to. I think the fact that you're concerned and choose to be vocal is a great thing. I was just trying to comment on the "why don't we ...." part of the statement in saying that many people don't cause they don't want to. Just like many people who don't choose to help others in non-internet life. Then again, maybe the question part of the post was rhetorical?

posted by karen at 2:43 PM on October 1, 2000

Zeldman: after talking about rhetoric, you managed to miss my point. The main reason that the Fray looks like the Empire State Building is that we seem content to build a shanty town around it.

Alexis Massie said a few months ago that she can't understand why no-one tried to build upon projects such as Fray, or AfterDinner, or Colors, when after all, they were never meant to be like cathedrals: the people involved were just tinkering with an evolving medium. Instead, smart projects requiring thought and effort, such as never quite get off the ground, because it's easier... well, to blog.

Mea culpa. I'm lazy too. But we continue to sell ourselves short with this medium, and no amount of cool tools will save us.
posted by holgate at 3:15 PM on October 1, 2000

Generalizations are generally pretty useless, generally speaking.

If you wish to publish online, there are all kinds of tools for doing so. Some require knowledge and study, others do not. Good writers are good writers. Has nothing to do with their publishing tools.

On that level the current conversation is this year's version of "Macs vs. PCs." If we're arguing about tools, then we're talking about nothing. People use the tool that best suits them.

But writing is not the same as web authoring. Writing is only part of what goes into a website.

If the question is one of web mastery, then work and learning are required, along with talent. Photographers become great by mastering complex cameras, lenses, and lighting situations. Point-and-shoot cameras let someone like me take snapshots. I will never be a master photographer. That's okay.

Hitchcock knew as much about cameras, lenses, editing, and sound as anyone who worked for him. It's documented; check it. One reason his work is so good is that he understood how all the tools worked, even if he wasn't the camera operator or the editor on his own pictures.

Similarly, if you're talking about collaborative efforts, serious art, and a high level of mastery, then everyone involved has to understand something about the work done by their fellow team members. Designers have to understand the issues of programmers, sysadmins, and "content people." Otherwise you may have a pretty site with no structure. Flash artists have to work with interface designers. WHo have to work with site architects. Programmers have to understand what content people, designers, and sysadmins are dealing with. And so on.

All of that is what goes into a large-scale collaborative professional project.

On smaller projects, we wear more than one hat. Another good reason to learn about other areas of specialization. The designer may be writing the HTML and the scripts. Structuring or even editing the copy. Happens all the time. When a designer knows nothing about words, and no writer is available, we get ... well, most corporate brochure sites.

None of this has anything to do with Blogger, Manilla, or my cousin's desire to publish her journal.

And if a pre-existing template helps those with no visual skills (and no desire to become web designers) put together an attractive package for their personal musings, where is the harm in that? If it makes their pages easier to read and more pleasant to look at, then it's a public service on behalf of their friends and relatives, who will actually be reading the page.

In that sense, the quality of online content—even if it's obscure online content—is being raised, not lowered.

However, if the next generation can be taught (X)HTML, JavaScript, CSS, and Flash in schools, then we can expect increased presentational originality on the web, and that is something to be desired. Truth is, most 14 year old kids know more about JavaScript and Action Script than I do. While "adults" debate these issues, the kids are just grabbing hold of the web as their destiny, and teaching themselves everything.
posted by Zeldman at 3:21 PM on October 1, 2000

HOLGATE: No, baby, you missed the point by thinking that Fray, Afterdinner, and Colors are the only great sites out there. You're looking at one tiny corner of the web and thinking it's the whole of online collaborative content. There's a lot of great work of which you are apparently unaware. Many people would be happy to share their favorites with you.
posted by Zeldman at 3:34 PM on October 1, 2000

Zeldman: you managed to remind me of the "thank god" folder in my bookmarks. (Although when I see the words "Flash" and "Gallery", I reach for my Browning.)
posted by holgate at 3:54 PM on October 1, 2000

Hi, ljt ...

>If we've made it easier for someone
>to write and publish their words we
>have done all we can.

I respectfully disagree. No we haven't done *all* we can. We should lead by example. (BTW, I am in full agreement with the sentiments about teaching kids collaboration and coalition building skills...ethics should be in that mix as well.)

>And if we have removed as many of the
>barriers as we can, and someone decides
>that now they will write that story they've
>put off telling, we have done a very good thing.

Yes...if it were only that easy. Sometimes it takes more than a tool to coax individuals with interesting stories to tell or important causes to become active participants in the medium. Some of them may never achieve the mastery of effective communication or of the computer that we have (the reasons for both of these factors vary widely: modesty, age, financial, geographical, etc.). And what's more...some of them don't even think they have anything valuable to say until somebody makes the connection for them. It takes human interaction, passion, insight, interpretation and understanding... Sometimes it needs to take place offline, of all places.

>Blogger and Manila are very good things.

Yes. And many people who can use them will use them, and hopefully use them to full effect. But they are not the full solution. Neither is a greatly designed web site if it has no message to say. I'm not talking about sites created with Blogger or Manilla here. Some sites foul out for use of gratuitous technology (fill in the blank with whatever technology you please), or simply a lack of quality content, or message or purpose.

This is why I keep stressing the hyperlink between the people with potentially interesting content and the people with skill, talent, and a burning desire to create sites outside of the commercial web space. (I promise to quit beating this seemingly dead this thread, at least :-).

I know that these "ordinary people" (as sylloge cites as: {interesting, intelligent, creative people}) are sources of great inspiration for me. Are we doing enough by providing resources and tools, or should we try to do more? The search for these answers is a major driving creative force for me. The potential of the medium inspires me as an artist and a citizen of society in the digital age.

I would like to add to this statement Zeldman made that I agreed to earlier:

>But our individual processes don't matter.
>All that matters is the work...

...and respect for society and this medium that we work, live and play in.

posted by webchick at 3:54 PM on October 1, 2000

Ah, a Texan.

That's TWO gun references in a civilized discussion about ... whatever this topic was, 50 posts ago.

When people complain that the web sucks, it either means they only look at commercial portals, shopping sites, and Geocities fan pages ... or they limit their awareness to the activities of a handful of "celebrity" designers. It's like following one congressman and thinking you know how the government works.

When you stop thinking a particular site or group is "the web" you begin finding what else is out there.

Better still, if you don't find what will nourish your soul, you're free to create it.

Which maybe winds us back to the original topic about raising the bar on our personal work.
posted by Zeldman at 4:08 PM on October 1, 2000


I think Holgate was borrowing from Johst ('Wenn ich Kultur hore ... entsichere ich meinen Browning!' or 'When I hear the word culture I reach for my Browning.') Sometimes attributed to Goering. He's a Jesus College fellow, so I rather doubt he has ready access to a gun. Holgate, not Goering.

Some of us, those of us using Linux, for example, are denied access to some of those high art sites.

How do we know when we've raised the bar high enough? When we're satisfied? Or someone decides it's high enough? Like everything else it will probably increase and fall and increase ... etc over time. The Web is still in its infancy, which is good because we can still push the limits. They've not yet been set.

posted by ljt at 4:55 PM on October 1, 2000

Meg: "If I follow the logic, the easier it is to create content (from pen to typewriter to computer), the less thought goes into the writing, and the quality suffers? So is Austen better than Hemingway because he used a typewriter and therefore didn't "think" as much? As for page churners, Dickens got paid by the page. A lot of his thought was, "how can I keep this going and get more money?" I guess I just don't buy it, throughout the ages there have been bad writers and good writers, no matter whether they used quill or keyboard."

I'm not saying ease of use = bad writing. I would say a pen is just as easy to use as a type writer, perhaps, for some, even easier. I'm saying that insta-content, content that is effortless, isn't going to raise the bar on writing. A lot of Dicken's thought would of been about the money, but he was thinking. Most bloggers don't need to think before they post (how many flame wars have started because of that?).

I don't think it's necessary to pin HTML to what kids should be learning; as webchick put it, " the latest accepted standard for page markup is what should be taught in schools" Kids should be learning any tool they need to know in order to layout their words. I think a WYSIWYG tool is perfectly fine for post students; if they want to look deeper, they will. Curiosity is a big factor there, the desire for more control...

Nielsen: "Hopefully, schools will soon begin teaching kids how to author hypertext and build good Web content"

Teaching kids how to build good web content isn't the same thing as teaching kids how to write. Writing comes in many forms, and the way you should write for the web is not the way you should write your novel (at least, not at the moment, can't wait to see someone who tries). Journalistic content on the web is also different to fictional web content, or non-fiction, or informational content. There's a lot of styles to consider. Perhaps we should teach kids to write first, then talk to them about styles of writing second.

ljt: "If we want to improve the quality of writing on the Web, we'll do it by making it easier for people to publish. "

I don't think that's going to improve the quality of writing, simply the quantity of writing. Perhaps in that quantity a few gems will shine, but overall the average quality will not be raised.

Collaboration. I've heard that word so often of the past couple of months, after doing interviews with several people with vested interest in the web. Collaboration is what people want to see, it's from where great things come... when two minds start working together, three times the ideas come.

I like the thought of a designer, a coder, a writer getting together and putting up a site. They could come up with something three hundred times better than a coder/designer/writer trying to do all three roles. Tho there is always the posibility of the code finding a hidden writer within...

Communication and collaboration is what the web is about. Businesses are just catching up with that (.net?), something that the "ordinary person" has instinctively known for years. I've talked to (and even met) people I simply could not of without the web, and worked together with them as well.

The Internet is People! And people have various talents. Collaboration lets those talents shine.
posted by Neale at 5:02 PM on October 1, 2000


'Are we doing enough by providing resources and tools, or should we try to do more?'

You can't force anyone to write. In my first post I stopped there. What I should have said, and as you say, do more, is that we still have to let people in meatspace know that the Web is a valid place to publish what they have to say.

It sounds odd to us, because, after all, we've been writing and publishing on the Web for years. To us it's our first thought. If we ever think of dead tree publishing it's a distant second.

But none of my friends have web sites. None would think to publish. I've set up domains and sites for them. Sat with them and shown them how easy it is to build a web page. Shown them tools like Blogger and Manila. But they 'have nothing to say'. They do in meatspace but they're too uncomfortable writing and posting on the Web.

If we're lucky we come across people like your mum and her letters site.

So to me the only other thing we can do is let them know that the Web is a safe, fun, place to publish. It's not just a resource for perverts.


'I don't think that's going to improve the quality of writing, simply the quantity of writing. Perhaps in that quantity a few gems will shine, but overall the average quality will not be raised.'

The more you write the better you get. Look at your very first site or page and then compare it with what you're doing now, years later. I'd say it's better. Mine are. A teacher who makes her class write something every day will have much better writers in her class at the end of the year than the teacher who doesn't.
posted by ljt at 5:50 PM on October 1, 2000

First, a was making a sarcastic poke at Ev when I said that "ordinary people" are interesting, intelligent & creative people who aren't also web professionals (Neale's post just came in between them so it wasn't all that obvious). All you people who keep agreeing with me probably don't actually agree.

Most people are dumb as posts and don't have anything to say — it is not just they lack the means to say it. That may be hard to remember when you spend your time with other interesting, intelligent creative people but go listen to some talk radio once in a while (recently heard: "Retards should just be fixed when they are born. We don't need more retards around." and "I just wanted to get pregnant, if he doesn't ask then it's none of his business." and "The streets are awash with the blood of the unborn." and "Can you get AIDS from anal sex?")

Their stories are good to hear because they are entertaining, not because they are edifying or otherwise compelling. They may be of anthropological or sociological interest but let's not pretend that they are interesting simpliciter. Be elitist; it is better to read Spinoza than watch Big Brother.

On the other hand, Meg & family getting a lot out of reading her aunt's blog is great, but that is a vehicle for personal communication. It isn't supposed to be writing that rivals [insert name of favorite writer]. — communiation is stuff like "I had to get a tetanus shot." or "Can you pick up some eggs?" just as much as "I had the most profound realization ..."

  • Jakob's summary: "To take the Internet to the next level, users must begin posting their own material rather than simply consuming content or distributing copyrighted material. Unfortunately most people are poor writers and even worse at authoring other media. Solutions include structured creation, selection-based media, and teaching content creation in schools."
  • (a) Yes, people's involvement will be "taken to the next level" if they contribute to the web. (b) The things he mentions are not solutions. (Think: "Unfortunately, not everyone would be able to complete a triathalon. Solutions include endurance training, strict nutritional regimens and more physical education in schools.")
  • Is this correct? — all those weblogs that Jakob doesn't like would be really interesting if only their creators had more "structured content creation tools" or were taught more about "content creation" in schools. (No, it is false.)
  • Having something worth saying is at least as important as being able to "write well", at least in determining what I'm going to read.
  • One of my favorite sites right now is eboy. Writing is not all there is. People can create all kinds of "content".
  • What makes any of you think that there are all these people out there who aren't fulfilled just because they aren't making websites? People can be fulfilled through yoga or chess or painting or hiking or any one of countless other things. Making websites isn't for everyone (even all those interesting, intelligent, creative people).
  • Stop chiding others for not "living up to their potential". It was silly when Rich and Scott did it and, look, it is still silly now. No-one has a responsibility to make the best possible websites for you. They have other shit to do. My site is pretty weak qua art, but that is not its purpose. It is to remind me of things and nail my ugly opinions into the minds of my friends. Just because you can read it, doesn't mean it was written for you. And I have other shit to do.
  • Weblogs are not a good format for careful exigesis, profound analysis, beautiful prose or lots of other good things. They serve various purposes most of which are personal. Most of them are boring to me, but that's fine. Most telephone conversations or emails plucked at random would be boring to me too. Let them be.
  • Education and edification of the masses is a noble goal. Carry on. (But don't expect a world jammed with Douglas Hofstadters, Ron Carters & Wittgensteins.)
(Yeah, I wish these textareas were bigger too. But then we wouldn't want to encourage posts this long.)
posted by sylloge at 6:00 PM on October 1, 2000

>Writing is not all there is. People can
>create all kinds of "content".

Thank goodness someone made this distinction. :-)

>What makes any of you think that there
>are all these people out there who aren't
>fulfilled just because they aren't making websites?

Who said that? Did someone say that?

>Stop chiding others for not "living up to their potential".

Not sure if you are directing your comments my way or at others (I can't tell sometimes with the linear format of this forum). It must be me, because I use the hell out of the word "potential" in this thread .

If you took my comments that way, I apologize. I worry about the MEDIUM not living up to its potential, and we'll all look back at it and say it's no better than television someday. I was just offering my opinion for a possible solution, since the Internet is so democratic, and we can all make a difference in its overall quality. That's all.

>Most telephone conversations or emails
>plucked at random would be boring to
>me too. Let them be.

This quote tangentially made me think of Thomas Edison, a man who proves that creativity and technical prowess are definitely linked (for those of you who think people should either stick to either right or left brain activities). He invented the phonograph originally to be a sidekick to his earlier invention, the telephone, because he thought recording and archiving telephone conversations would be important someday. The phonograph proved better suited to play back recorded music.

From Steven Johnson, the author I love to quote these days : "Edison mistakenly assumed that the phonograph would be primarily a personal recording medium rather than the mass playback device it became." (no, I'm not saying the Web will become a mass recording device ... just quoting the author :-)

And Johnson makes one more quote in his book that is very relative to this thread: "New technologies are always misunderstood at their birth, often by people closest to them".


posted by webchick at 6:41 PM on October 1, 2000

I just had a thought reading this that none of this means anything. And of course that goes for this post too.

posted by davewiner at 6:50 PM on October 1, 2000

I have been known to "blog bash" somewhat, but despite my disdain for the average weblog I am loathe to dismiss them completely.

After all, how many weblogs are meant to be a shining example of exemplary writing and "one stop" content?

Indeed, though I have been turned off repeatedly by the flotsam found at the "just updated' list at Blogger, I try to keep my feet on the ground and remind myself that not all websites (or weblogs) were created with me in mind.

And when we "blog bash", are we bashing a "lack of good content" and poor writing, or are we secretly upset that we're not in on the fun? To be the voyeur peeking in on a well-established party of four? Leaning over to hear the dinner conversation at an adjacent table?
posted by ethmar at 7:00 PM on October 1, 2000

Hi Dave -

So, I've got a question I've been thinking about all day. This is definitely an informational request as I don't know the answer. I figured you or mathowie or evhead might have some information on this query.

I've seen the XML-RPC and SOAP support in Manila, XML support in, and I know Blogger publishes their directory in XML.

Has any thought been given to a standard that allows individual blogs to publish their entries in XML (e.g., RSS or some other similar syndication standard)? I'm not talking about broad collections of data (e.g., directories of weblogs that have been updated) but the individual blogs.

I realize there are issues of control here: some bloggers may not wish their individual entries published this way, but certainly for headline aggregators, I could see great use out of being able to pull individual entries from many different locations to build custom views or custom news feeds. Tomalak and a few others publish their sites this way, but I was wondering if there are any standards efforts or discussions among the various types of blog software producers and hosters and, if so, if this capability is being built into the software?

I know you've been leading this effort by example, but I'm wondering if any form of interoperability is forthcoming across the different systems?



posted by CarlMalamud at 7:09 PM on October 1, 2000

I'm not Dave, but I'd wonder if developing a schema or DTD for something as general as "the content of what are commonly find in sites that are grouped under the heading 'weblogs'" is even possible (other than XHTML — it seems to be that you'd have to include the HTML namespace at a minimum since general markup is in most people's entries and you can't just take the "listiness" out of something that was intended as an
  • ; ditto images, tabular data, etc.)

    Of course, if the content is limited to a very simple link-title-description structure like Tomalak (incidentally, just named the second most useful site on the web by Jakob Nielsen), then developing a standard is relatively easy: it's already been done several times (like, e.g., the ScriptingNews DTD at

    What's missing is the XML or other structured content creation/editing tool ...
    posted by sylloge at 7:27 PM on October 1, 2000

  • Hi Stuart/Not-Dave ;)

    I know Dave has a DTD for Scripting News, which is exactly why I sent the query in. My question is about interoperability! I know Dave's been leading this wave for quite a while, I'm just curious if folks like Pyra are getting on the same or a different wave.

    I hear you on the XHTML comment, and that is certainly one way to do it. Another is to provide some form of summary (link, author, description, related URL's), which certainly handles the link aggregator role that many blogs play quite well. Again, the question is where the Blogging Industry is heading on this one.

    What's missing is the XML or other structured content creation/editing tool ...

    Well now, here's a real opportunity for tools like Blogger. A button sure would go a long way to making this easier to do!


    posted by CarlMalamud at 7:36 PM on October 1, 2000

    Webchick: looking back, I don't think I was addressing "stop chiding others" to anyone in particular (you have been pretty clear about saying you are talking about the potential of the medium). I just get that general vibe sometimes. Ditto the remark about "fulfillment through web activity" — it doesn't look like anyone actually said that. I like to argue with imaginary interlocutors. It's easier.

    Also, tangentally, the web is a "mass recording device" while simultaneously a "personal recording device" (and also a whole bunch of applications). I've never thought of that before, but it is an interesting difference from pretty much everything which came before (with the exception of paper).
    posted by sylloge at 7:39 PM on October 1, 2000

    You can do that with Blogger (though it is not push button yet). But for what you have in mind, you'd also need a UI which constained content creation to fit within whatever structure was chosen (right now the structure is very coarse: just date, author, id, and then an undifferentiated block — the $BlogItem$). Anything finer would require a more sophisticated UI (and have you ever played with XMetal? Yikes!)
    posted by sylloge at 7:51 PM on October 1, 2000

    > I like to argue with imaginary interlocutors. It's easier.

    cool :-))

    And I really do get confused sometimes with the linear style of some Internet discussion forums. I am such a child of the BBS where people talked more directly to one another, more like email. but in a shared forum. Perhaps this is an example of how technology has affected people's writing style, even over the past five years: we've learned to be more conscious of our audience, even when we're just shooting the breeze. :-)

    posted by webchick at 8:11 PM on October 1, 2000

    I forgot to mention this earlier, if you have expert web skills and want to donate your time, there's a few good sites that can hook you up with non-profits in need.

    One is VolunteerMatch

    I sure other people here can suggest similar organizations.

    re: blogger xml syndication - coming real soon now. It's something we've been talking about and working on for a while. It's on the way.
    posted by mathowie at 8:14 PM on October 1, 2000

    I think the discussion of teaching kids html or other coding skills is beside the point, really. There have been some really great points made in this thread, and many give pause. But I don't see what the format in which writing may be done has to do with teaching writing per se.

    For me it starts with the goal first. And the goal has to be to help kids in school to express themselves better - whether written (and within that there are a dozen kinds of written expression that are important) or verbal. To develop both of those implies the opposite - that reading and listening skills must be developed as well. And when I write "express themselves" I mean not just touchy-feelie personal stuff - I mean everything - from writing a paper in college down the road to writing a letter to your representative (etc.)

    What I don't see is how any specific format assists this any more than any others. Hence, I don't see that expression on the web, for kids, is any better that writing a book report or an argument or a critique or any of the other time-honoured techniques to teach writing and thinking skills.

    More to the point, though, I think that the format anyone chooses is an emergent principle. Some people choose diaries, some choose to take that online, others choose weblogs. Others keep calendars with 4 words per day to prompt memories. Others write little essays. Some take up journalism in high school. Some write letters to friends - or become penpals. Some people take up mail art even in high school. Some write graffiti. In grade 8 at my school our year-long assignment was to write a novel(la). Some kids make notes of all their CDs - proto-reviews perhaps.

    All are equally valid, I think. Some are doubtless really boring to kids these days. But we don't teach kids "do this or this or this; this is how you can learn to better express yourself". We just make sure they have a curriculum that allows them to get enough practice and twig the interest of those who will write - in whatever format they need to, and choose to explore on their own.

    And they WILL write! Or some will at least. And they WILL figure out how to do it for themselves once they can. Their own format will emerge - they'll choose it, perhaps over the course of many years, perhaps in an instant. Their style, preferred format, preferred topics, etc. will emerge and will be unique for everyone.
    posted by mikel at 10:10 PM on October 1, 2000

    first post... oh, damn.

    I don't understand at all the people saying that creation of content has to be completely hands-on to be worthwhile and valuable. To me, the whole point of technology is to free up creativity that would effectively be "wasted" on learning html, or arithmetic, or manuscript and instead reserve it for producing worthwhile product. Of course, people complain about the worthlessness of most of this "push-button" content, but this sounds like hollow elitism to me. I know that I'm a horrible writer, often without anything worthwhile to say, but that shouldn't exclude me from publishing a journal. Especially on the internet where you must actively search for something to find it...
    posted by kidsplateusa at 10:17 PM on October 1, 2000


    'Has any thought been given to a standard that allows individual blogs to publish their entries in XML (e.g., RSS or some other similar syndication standard)? I'm not talking about broad collections of data (e.g., directories of weblogs that have been updated) but the individual blogs.'

    Manila sites ( and have had this feature for a very long time. It's up to each site manager whether this feature is turned on or off. In your preferences, under syndication, is a question asking if you want it turned on. Turn it on, and you're set up for RSS 0.91 syndication.

    Go to for an example.
    posted by ljt at 1:25 AM on October 2, 2000

    >What I don't see is how any specific
    >format assists this any more than any others.

    Because, for many people, the Internet is fundamentally more than just writing (a diary, prose, or anything), or a mode of personal expression. For many the Internet is more than a leisure activity (*NOT* that there is anything wrong with that :-). It is a new way of connecting to and interacting with the rest of the world. There is so much to know and learn about it to make it an enriching experience.

    It has already mentioned that we use HTML as an example because it was the thread that ties all this together...but what about other issues regarding the Internet that kids should learn before they enter a realm where they'll instantly be communicating with the rest of the world. Netiquette. Standards. Respect and understanding for other cultures. And what of Internet history, of which HTML is so fundamentally a part of? Shouldn't they learn of Tim Berners-Lee and the other architects and engineers who made this great medium possible?

    Call this 'elitism' if you must label it, but honestly, its more about equipping kids with the tools they need to be prepared to coexist in the next century. Lets give the generations who follow the benefit of the doubt and see what they can make of this new medium. Goodness knows we haven't figured it all out yet.
    posted by webchick at 5:00 AM on October 2, 2000

    Carl, as others have pointed out, RSS 0.91 is supported by all Manila sites, by default it's turned on, but the managing editor of the site can turn it off.

    RSS 0.91 is documented here. There's now an effort to do RSS 1.0, you might try asking your question on this mail list as well.
    posted by davewiner at 6:28 AM on October 2, 2000

    Using blogger isn't like using a calculator instead of adding long-hand. It's like using a calculator instead of a slide rule. The issue isn't about kids building websites to display their content; it's about kids creating content. In that context, Meg's argument is valid.
    posted by Julia2100 at 7:36 AM on October 2, 2000

    HTML? what's that?

    content is such a completely different beast than coding. one can be a creative person, all the while having someone (or an app like Blogger) else handle the code for them. now, someone that can do both is a really impressive feat. I get quite envious when I stumble across a site that does both well. a site by some simpleton will still remain a simple site, even with the cleanest code (or app helping out). so there.
    posted by SentientAI at 7:51 AM on October 2, 2000


    Jakob Nielsen: The Colonel Tom Parker of Content. Could he come to the party any later?

    Anyhoo - Stewart, hello! Actually, the article I wrote for ALA, which you referred to, was not referring to content production means. And it wasn't a call for action on a general scale. Given that ALA's audience is mostly web professionals, what exhortations there were were directed at them, as people who understand the ins and outs, the subtle nuances of web creation. Mostly, though, I was interested in the notion of the web user as both creator and audience.

    So nyeh. ;)

    It's strange. I used to be the biggest blog-basher on the planet. But now, I have to wonder why I was just dripping in vitriol. The young and angry have much noise to offer the world.

    I do believe that the lowered barrier of entry of, say, Diaryland or Blogger does have an effect on the "quality" of what people write. Again, these digital media are instantaneous, and there is a tendency to write without thinking. However, to dismiss an entire medium because of that is silly.

    Some of my friends have diaries on Diaryland. Inevitably, all of them become interested in how HTML works, because they want to see and change things. But even if they didn't, so what? They're out here, contributing. A lot of it will be frivolous. A few things will be brilliant.

    Truth and beauty will always be recognized, regardless of the medium.
    posted by solistrato at 7:52 AM on October 2, 2000

    What bothers me is all the kids nowadays who are being taught to write on paper without any fundamental understanding of how to make their own paper or ink.
    posted by harmful at 7:59 AM on October 2, 2000

    >The issue isn't about kids building websites to display
    >their content; it's about kids creating content.


    >content is such a completely different beast than coding.

    I think holgate's comments are very relevant here. HTML is not just about building websites or coding. HTML encourages a writer to think about document structure. (CSS and XML encourages you to think about structure and appearance even more, but I will concede to this group that these are technologies aimed at more advanced developers.)
    posted by webchick at 8:07 AM on October 2, 2000

    From the "I-cannot-resist-to-mention-department":

    I had breakfast with two accomplished writers this morning - not coders, not designers - pure "content" creators (since this is the distinction we appear to keep making in this thread). One was very interested in the logistics behind a page I printed from one of our sites, perhaps interested in applying some of the same techniques to his own work. It was all HTML (and CSS).

    To write, or to practice art - or simply to participate effectively - a fundamental knowledge of the medium you are working in is an invaluable edge.
    posted by webchick at 9:00 AM on October 2, 2000

    You know something? This thread is so thick it's going to take me another couple days to catch up to it, but I can tell you one thing right now, from personal experience.

    There are a lot of people who *just don't have anything to say*. There *should* be a wall to climb over, small as it may be. It's a filter. There's not one thing wrong with that.

    When PageMaker 1.0 hit, we were inundated with what I liked, then, to refer to as "the explosion of mediocrity." It tapered off after a while, but I still see the occasional "Font Explosion" flyer. And you know what? Even me, someone who understands the delineation between form and function pretty well, I still sometimes ignore the message because the presentation sucks.

    We're already in "The September that never ended" on Usenet; let's not do it to the web, too, ok?

    If you have something to say, fantastic; say it. If you want to be *heard*, say it interestingly. If you don't know how, *learn, damnit*! We sound like we're *exhalting* lack of incentive to learn.

    Or was it just me?

    So many things are just me...
    posted by baylink at 9:14 AM on October 2, 2000

    > Because, for many people, the Internet is fundamentally more
    > than just writing (a diary, prose, or anything), or a mode of
    > personal expression. For many the Internet is more than a
    > leisure activity (*NOT* that there is anything wrong with that
    > :-). It is a new way of connecting to and interacting with the
    > rest of the world. There is so much to know and learn about it
    > to make it an enriching experience.

    Sure. I agree completely. But it's surely a secondary skill to basic analytical, learning, reading, writing skills, no? It definitely should be taught - but there's no way it should replace more basic foundational skills and abilities.

    Sure, we'd all be better people, better readers, if we all learned book binding and paper making. I've learned a little bit and it's fascinating, and changes my relationship with books to a degree. But I don't need to learn how to do it to know how to read well, to write well.

    It can be used to support those activities at an early stage - there are insights to be gained by learning any of these things that help with the bigger picture. But to suggest that coding or book binding is anything other than a worthy addition in the context of learning to write is to take one's eye off the ball.

    When we're talking about adults it's a whole different ball of wax - they already know how to think and write. They have had a lot of experience with both, or at least most have. So for them it is interesting to know about coding. But they already know the basics.

    posted by mikel at 9:19 AM on October 2, 2000

    To throw my fairly worthless (On this subject) .02 in.
    I think that if people want to create web content i.e.
    an e/n site, or a personal blog they should have some idea of at least one markup language. Most of the people that use "Site builders" on tripod or geocities couldn't come up with a decent meme if it bit them in thier ass. When I started "designing" a webpage for my self several years back it was absolutely horrible. Center aligned and with no real content to speak of. The difference between me and other people is that I wanted to learn how to make something I could be proud of. If your in it because your hardcore you'll learn what you need. If not then either you'll use a wysiwyg or spew bs on various messageboards and other web devices, such as metafilter. you dont really need a webpage to be heard on the net, but it helps. Even some of the more prominent blogs arent really intensivly designed. They just look crisp. people who learn markup and xml and css and javascript do it because they think it's fun. They get to a point when they can look at the code itself and see the page. You get to a point where when you want to make a new page, you start from step 1. html head title endtitle endhead body .... etc.
    And it's still fun. I learn by doing. I'm finally getting around to learning the rudiments of CSS and I'm having a blast. the more I learn the easier it gets. Next is xml...
    Woo Hoo!
    posted by Fidel at 10:13 AM on October 2, 2000

    >But it's surely a secondary skill to basic analytical,
    >learning, reading, writing skills, no?

    I can't equate using the Internet effectively with coding, book binding and paper making. It's more than just about writing, even publishing...and it is affecting/enhancing/morphing the way we all analyze, learn, read and write (and communicate).

    I can't equate it with television, radio, telephone, word processors or even pen and paper (even though infinite analogies can be drawn) because it is unlike anything that has come before. Anybody can take part in this medium, and can be as involved as they want to be, so lets encourage kids to learn as much about the fundamentals as we can, then they can decide how active they want to be in bringing it to "the next level".

    (Who knows, perhaps there will be an Edison in the bunch :-)

    >When we're talking about adults it's a
    >whole different ball of wax - they already
    >know how to think and write. They have had
    >a lot of experience with both, or at least
    >most have. So for them it is interesting to
    >know about coding. But they already know the basics.

    Kids are jumping into the Internet so young in all kinds of ways (not just because they want to be developers, but because it is all around us's "cool")...why not give them the skills and information they need as early as possible so they can have a balanced view of the big picture, and continue to flower and grow in whatever they choose to do?

    So, perhaps I'm an optimist, but I don't consider learning simple HTML formatting as "bogging kids down"...I think it is empowering them with skills they need to give them a well-rounded edge in something many are already interested in.

    posted by webchick at 10:22 AM on October 2, 2000

    I'll admit now that I haven't read all the posts in this thread. I missed the beginning and I dont' have the time to examine each one. But it sounds like the same old argument: "Easy publishing opens the door for unlimited exceptional content online from everyone!" versus "There has to be some kind of filter or we'll be inundated with crap!"

    But my opinion is that lowering the walls is a good thing. Sure, we'll get inundated with crap. Most of the stuff most people write isn't going to be interesting to most other people. But bringing down the barriers is good because there's more opportunity for good stuff to get out there. Even if the average quality goes down, who cares if we find one more gem in the bunch? Sure it would be great if every weblog out there was pure genius, but that's not going to happen, no matter how high you set the barriers.

    Remember back before the printing press? The only books that got published were those that someone with enough money wanted published because creating a book was an immense amount of work. So usually, only bibles and other texts okayed by the Church were published (so I'm being Eurocentric). But when the printing press came around, more people could publish more things. Sure, a lot of crap got published, but a lot of great things that never would have seen the light of day under the old rule were also published.

    It's just a matter of degree, and personally I don't think it's useful to draw a line and say, "This is how hard it must be for your work to have value." Why not make it as easy as possible? My writing has certainly improved thanks to the Internet, email, discussion groups, and most recently my weblog. I'm thankful the tools are there to make it easy 'cause I'm one lazy bastard.
    posted by daveadams at 10:42 AM on October 2, 2000

    DISCLAIMER: My writing in the previous post was of poor quality only because I was in a hurry to get something up since I've already wasted a great portion of my day reading this thread. I apologize. You know what I meant.
    posted by daveadams at 10:45 AM on October 2, 2000

    I don't think that teaching kids html will do much of anything to improve their thinking skills. honestly. if you're interested in that I think a rigorous course in *writing* would do as much or more.

    (writing has a structure, you know. the word, the sentence, the paragraph, the piece. writing an essay is different from writing a poem or a story, and each takes a different approach using the same tools. I'm not being flip. it's hard to do well, and I think it requires a more subtle understanding of structure than html does.)

    besides, I have to believe that we will have tools to do this for us in even 5 years. more importantly, it may be a dead skill: if we'd taught everyone DOS at the time how much good would that be doing them now? I have no surety at all that the generation now in school will want or need html.

    I'm more interested in teaching kids (and adults) critical thinking skills, and I think writing would be more likely to do that, along with the basic structural thinking skills that something like html would.

    now, if you want to teach them a full-on programming language, that would certainly teach them a more rigorous way of approaching things, but I'm not sure it would make them any smarter or thoughtful or insightful or better able to evaluate situations. how many programmers have you known who have poor social skills, and don't seem to be able to identify that as the reason they don't succeed socially ("I'm so smart that most people don't like me.")

    as for ordinary people having mostly stupid things to say:
    everyone has some stupid things to say. everyone.

    and everyone has a story to tell.

    it may be a small story of an ordinary life filled with missteps and small successes and small failures, but it's a story. and a good, profound, moving one.

    that's all there is, anyway, and all there has been through millenia. a few big movers on the stage, and most people bumbling around in the wings, trying to do the right thing, or not trying to do the right thing. caring about things. being disappointed, or getting something they wanted.

    I don't care how they tell about what being human was like for them. I don't care what medium they use and I don't care what tools they employ in their chosen medium. I care that they can tell it.

    posted by rebeccablood at 11:04 AM on October 2, 2000

    OK - I was still talking about Nielson's call to teach coding to kids - not just about whether kids should be taught about the net. So I can see where we're sort of talking past one another.

    I do think it's a good idea to teach internet skills to kids, for sure. In fact I think a broad program of media awareness should be a core part of curricula these days, above and beyond more basic analytical and language skills.

    I don't agree that the net is a clean break with other media though. Many claims are made about the exceptionalism of the internet - but although it is an important addition, it has yet to prove its revolutionary potential. It hasn't yet proved to be as important as publishing itself - and until it does, I think we (interested, educated people who have studied the net) should reserve judgement. And work to help it realize its potential.
    posted by mikel at 11:07 AM on October 2, 2000

    Shirky quote: Good tools allow users to do stupid things.

    Complaining about all the awful writing on most blogs is like complaining about people that don't know how to dress well: useless. Let the people play with the tool all they want (blogger, pitas, manila, metafilter, etc.). Everyone goes through a discovery phase, some will just write nonsense, document their eating habits, even ask for links (and what the hell is wrong with that anyway?).   Some will find they like it and are here to stay, some will take off in new directions, others will be put off and leave, but no one should deny them the right to try. Consider if your "quality" frustration comes only from your own silly obsession of trying to read every new blog under the sun.

    While I am all for raising the bar on myself, improving what I do, I also want to defend everyone's right to publish what's on their minds, even if they can't express it that well.

    Should kids be taught HTML in school? The only reason I see for this is as another form of "mental cross-training", but frankly useless for getting better at creating content. Besides anyone can learn it in a couple of days, even adults. Before you create content, first immerse yourself in it... Read!.

    I'm not going to shoot kottke when we are still hand-coding HMTL in three years, but we should start decapitating tool developers if after real support for standards is prevalent, they don't come up with a decent visual editor that non web people can comfortably use. There is no reason why a computer can't produce good computer code. Any word processor today is basically a tool combining text edition with markup and stylesheets. Add hyperlinks and this should be enough for people who just want to write, not be bothered by HTML crap. Back in the mid 80's Apple's slogan was something like "the real genius of Macintosh is that you don't have to be a genius to use one". It's time for web technology to elevate to that level.

    The poem The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is the obvious inspiration behind the blogger slogan "The Revolution Will Be Bloggerized" that webchick mentions. Her article states: Blogs let everybody get their Warholian 15 nanoseconds of fame, but to call this a revolution takes attention away from the real revolution: reaching out to build sites that matter.

    I disagree. Today there are about 10,000 new personal expression pages, however bad they may be, that were not here one or two years ago. The individual pages may not matter the way webchick says, but in all they certainly do, and I feel justified in calling it an authentic revolution. And my post is way too long already.
    posted by tremendo at 11:10 AM on October 2, 2000

    If I may be serious for a moment...

    In college, I majored in Computer Engineering, which (at my school) was a blend of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering. Even though my talents lay on the CS side of the curriculum, and had some nightmarish difficulties in the more advanced EE classes, I stuck it out and eventually got a degree in COEN. Later, when I had time to recover, I really wished that I had switched majors to full CS. However, there are a few of the classes in EE that I'm very glad I did take, that I might not have taken on a pure CS track, because they helped me to understand how computers worked at a very low level. That knowledge has helped me in various ways over the years when I needed to know why higher-level processes worked in the ways that they did.

    I believe that there is a lot to be learned from the structure of HTML, even if one doesn't actually do much of one's work directly with the code. A lot of the idiosyncracies of layout come from the way linear code (such as table tags) is rendered into two-dimensional space. A lot of differences between browsers can be better understood when you look at what tags are used. I think that some understanding of the low-level structure of HTML is very useful in understanding exactly what is and isn't possible on a web site.
    posted by harmful at 12:16 PM on October 2, 2000

    Hi, harmful...

    When I was a punk kid, I wanted to be an artist. I b*tched and moaned when my educational path forced me to jump through a few hoops that I felt had no bearing on my chosen "vocational" path (or calling, if you will :-). I am grateful that I was forced to buckle down and learn things that I thought, at the time, were irrelevant. It certainly prepared me for the chaotic career I ultimately landed in :-))


    PS> Gil Scott Heron! Thanks for completing that hyperlink, tremendo. Of course, thanks to MTV, most people think it was "The Revolution Will Be Televised." :-)
    posted by webchick at 12:27 PM on October 2, 2000

    Just to clarify something: I think that understanding something about HTML is much more important for those who want to design than those who simply want to write. I'm just as glad to see free templates, design tools, etc. available for those who aren't that interested in the design side of things. Besides, there's a lot to be learned from picking apart a well-designed template when one does decide to do something more.

    posted by harmful at 12:43 PM on October 2, 2000

    >Just to clarify something: I think that understanding
    >something about HTML is much more important for
    >those who want to design than those who simply
    >want to write.

    I don't agree for matters stated elsewhere (page markup is not exclusive to design), but I respect your opinion.

    Incidentally, one of the things I didn't want to do when I was in school was write. I just wanted to create (draw, actually...I was a real computer-phobe). I sure am glad I was encouraged to write...and encouraged ("forced" is a better term) to work on a computer :-).

    Seems like the converse should be true now that the ability to communicate with and publish to the world is available to everyone. Then again, as baylink says...maybe it's just me. ;-)
    posted by webchick at 1:17 PM on October 2, 2000

    Interesting reply from Jakob to Dave Winer...

    JAKOB: "In reading some of the commentary you pointed to, I was amazed that some people thought I was advocating teaching little kids raw HTML. When I say 'teach to write hypertext', I was referring to a deeper understanding of the term than simply the current implementation."

    Webopedia has a good definition of hypertext. To us, this is all about teaching kids to think in the context of the medium they are working in. Writing linear text of daily entries is certainly one exercise in thinking, but the Web is a collection of tools and techniques, a collection of different kinds of content. There is no one answer, which is the point we were making in our essay: blogging is not a revolution.

    One subtle disagreement with Jakob's point: if you're teaching kids to author hypertext (e.g., to build collections of objects linked together and to the rest of the world to express a meaningful message) you have to do so in the context of today's world. While 12 years of advanced HTML instruction is certainly not the answer, I don't see how somebody getting an education today could not at some point learn a bit about HTML. And, at some other point, I don't see how that person wouldn't learn other aspects of what the web is today: blogging, PERL, JavaScript, and building images as techniques; building sites, writing essays, and other forms of expression of content. There is no one answer.

    One of the things that has been remarkable about the blogging revolution is the feeling that people don't want to learn skills. "I don't know how to build an engine, yet I can drive my car." [ megnut ] There are different degrees of learning: building the engine is one extreme, but in the middle are little skills that make driving a more pleasant experience like changing the oil and knowing the difference between green and red lights. I think people want to learn and I've always been amazed by the capacity for people to master skills they think are important to them at the time. Again, that may or not mean learning HTML, but let's not draw arbitrary lines on who will or will not be able or willing to pick up a particular skill. To do so is a very peculiar form of elitism.

    posted by CarlMalamud at 6:07 PM on October 2, 2000

    ::: One of the things that has been remarkable about the blogging revolution is the feeling that people don't want to learn skills.

    Interesting observation. Obviously the creators of such software have skills to spare — as do many of the better-known users. For instance, Harrumph! and Lancelog are written with Blogger, but that's not because Heather or Lance lack traditional HTML skills.

    And I don't know that ordinary citizens should be chastised for using tools that enable them to do things they wouldn't otherwise be able to do. I mean, that's what these tools are for: empowering citizens who are not designers or programmers, and never will be.

    It's like office managers using Microsoft Word and clip art to create an office newsletter. No shame in that; office managers are not going to become illustrators or graphic designers, yet the office still needs a newsletter.

    But your point is well taken for the very small percentage of folks who think their blog is a high art form AND who also think such tools make the attainment of further knowledge unnecessary for serious authors.

    But, you know, you're really talking about a handful of people who think that way. Most people who use these tools are unpretentious souls who are simply enjoying the power to communicate online with their friends; a smaller percentage are accomplished web designers who use these tools because they're a convenient way to manage a particular type of site (or page); if there's a third group that thinks their first online venture is the peak of web design and content, well, let them think so — they're a very, very small group, and I don't see that they harm anyone.
    posted by Zeldman at 12:18 AM on October 3, 2000

    To Carl, the kids are going to teach *us* about hypertext. So much of what you say is what you think other people should know. That's great, I read your piece and your comments here, and I think you should go out and see what people are doing with the tools and let your mind bend a little. Your comments reek of the 1995-97 perspective of the Web. It was a much smaller thing then. A lot has changed.
    posted by davewiner at 7:21 AM on October 3, 2000

    So I've read through (most of) these posts and read and re-read the essay that inspired them, and I'm thinking that Web content is a coat of many colors (um, duh. Please don't think that I think that I'm being profound with such a statement of the obvious. I mean only to suggest that categorically speaking, Web content is rather unassignable. That is, can we put lack of a more obvious example--and plaintive wail in the same box and reasonably compare their merits respective to one another? Of course not. And so my lame biblical/bad Broadway musical allusion). Thus, the problem with discussing content is a lack of definition. We have writing that, while perhaps a bit less reverent of the gods of MLA, Chicago and AP, is nonetheless similar to writing in traditional print media. That is, the text/copy is linear.

    This is the kind of writing taught in school, the kind of writing that makes it possible for people to "write memos that get their point across." I've taught this kind of writing to college freshmen (or freshpersons), and I can assure you that most people can be taught the skills necessary to write effectively in this style.

    Creative writing is another kettle of fish altogether, and while I could pontificate a bit over it, I'll refrain. It's beyond the heart of the issue, anyway.

    The question that Nielsen is posing (and the one that blogger and pitas have in part addressed) is whether or not
    such writing/content, however well crafted, truly fulfills the potential of the Web--of the hypertext. Does linear, non-(consciously) relational writing/content add to the community? Can it hope to if it is insular and narrowly niched? If I write an essay (linear--I'm just using the word; it's close to what I mean--or creative), carefully code it in notepad with my limited HTML skills and ftp it up to my anonymous homepage, how have a affected the greater hypertext? By the nature of its existence, my essay is a part of the text, but unless I know how to relate it to some other part of the larger text (in the Web forum, that would be by means of our old friend the hyperlink), my essay remains on the outer fringe, at best taking up server space.

    And it will remain there, freely swinging, until someone finds it (through a non-relational search engine, of course, since I have not chosen or do not have the know-how to incorporate it into the community) and links to it. Suddenly, my 45 kb essay has been tied into the Web by another string. And if someone else follows the first link and links the essay her/himself, another string is formed.

    But we know this. Why else would we keep logs (in the broader humanity "we"; I don't keep one) and link pages?

    With their relational hyperlinks bloggers have done much to strengthen the ties of their paragraph of the hypertext. And it's been good. Links, though, do not a rich text make. The text won't grow without original content. The trick is to combine both the creative and the relational(something else that, I believe, blogging has tried--successfully, to a certain level--to accomplish).

    Nielsen suggests that hypertextual writing can be taught. I agree, but I also feel that for the most part, it will not need to be. Television programs, from cartoons to sci-fi, are increasingly self-referential, as is most of popular culture. We speak in slogans, write essays about pet store sock puppets. We are, by nature, hypertextual. What may need to be taught is an awareness of the relationships, to expand them. When we choose to link to a site, we do so because something in the site's content has made us react and hopefully has spun us off onto new (to us, at least) tangents. We are reacting, but we're doing so on more than a knee-jerk level (hopefully).

    It's not about writing or drawing or coding, I don't believe. It's about connection and response, taking the essay off of its linear course (as printed literature has done) and adding to the greater text--not retracing our steps.

    The preceding was not a manifesto.
    posted by girlbowler at 8:11 AM on October 3, 2000

    Looks like on many points we are in agreement. Yes, we *all* have skills to spare. The amazing thing is what people can do. The Internet opened up a new world to all of us. The cool thing about the net is we're all newbies, and "ordinary citizens." Talk about your level playing field!

    The leaders (both those that make the software and it's most prominent practioners) really do set the tone for a world. They should lead by example.

    In our essay, we certainly didn't say that any of the tools in the new space were harmful...we actually say they are useful when used constructively by people. We also say that a daily diary is great if used as an adjunct to other activities (This comment is not aimed at any one individual with a weblog, nor at newbies yet to publish to the web).

    We are encouraging (not chastising) the current practitioners to look beyond the immediate hype and take a serious look at how we all can improve to the web. That way we can start a chain reaction and get others, even newbies, to contribute to the Web in meaningful ways. I remember when I had the mind-bending experience of what it meant to contribute to the Web in that way. Of course, that was back in 1995. Maybe the Web was a smaller place back then, but a lot of the issues regarding tools-vs-content going on today were happening back then.

    Yes, our essay was hard-hitting..."provocative" if you will...we wanted to make people think. How else were we going to be heard above the din?
    posted by webchick at 8:13 AM on October 3, 2000

    Due to the confusion that may be resulting in the mention of various essays, the one I am alluding to in my previous post is here...
    posted by webchick at 8:19 AM on October 3, 2000

    [Malamud] I think people want to learn

    You don't work with people who use computers in their offices to get their work done, obviously.

    Overall, of the literally thousands of people who's hands I've held over their computers in the last 2 decades, about 5% of them even had the patience to be *taught* what was really going on, even only in enough depth to make it possible for them to intuit the answers to the simple questions.

    Fewer than that actually *wanted* to learn.

    We're much rarer than we think; folks. This is a self-selecting community; we really are about the top 5 or 10% here.

    There's nothing wrong with elitism. Someone has to be driving the boat; ought it not to be the best driver?
    posted by baylink at 8:32 AM on October 3, 2000

    I've worked with people who only wanted to know the bare minimum, know the tools well enough to get their job done, and that's it.

    I used to do help desk work for Revenue Canada, and believe-you-me, it was full of the typical beaurocratic hoopla. 8-4 shifts, rigid, lunch was lunch work was work and never the twain shall meet.

    Even those people though, the 30-year employees who were able to do their jobs faster on paper, rather than using the magical beige box, even these people felt an inclination to learn.

    Sometimes it had to be cajoled out of them. Sometimes you had to show them that something really interesting existed inside the box, or you could do something nifty (like make bold text) with the tools they were using.

    Though I resist blowing my own horn, I do think it had something to do with who was helping them. (Uhh... me. :-) I was (and am) genuinely interested in what I was doing, and I was having a good time doing it.

    When I'd come over to swap a burnt-out monitor, or fix their locked computer, I came over with a smile, and talked and joked and told them what I was doing. I think that last one's the important thing, really. I wouldn't just come over, dump a new monitor on their desk and walk away, I'd diagnose the problem there. "Oh, it looks like one of your jets is off." "Jets?" "Yeah. Monitors have 'jets' that shoot electrons at the screen to light 'em up." "Really? How does that work..."

    Eventually it got to the point where they were actually trying to diagnose the problems themselves. Sure, they were almost always wildly off-track, but it was interesting to see how this grumbling group of anal bastards (one of the department I helped was Procurement, and those people are, self-admittedly and by necessity anal) explore the possibility got their interest sparked. As they'd ask more questions, I'd provide more elaborate answers.

    I had more (far too much more :-), but while previewing, I realised that the following somes it up:

    By taking away the curtain, you take away the magic, and open up a world of possibilities.
    posted by cCranium at 11:03 AM on October 3, 2000

    One of the good things about HTML-based tools is that you can usually look under the hood [via Kottke] any time you're ready to learn.
    posted by harmful at 11:29 AM on October 3, 2000

    Thanks, harmful! That link was also mentioned by Tremendo earlier in this thread. Here's another relevant article by Clay Shirky that makes some interesting observations about homogenization of the Web.
    posted by webchick at 11:37 AM on October 3, 2000

    (or actually, via tremendo, though it's easy to lose track of such things in such a long thread)
    posted by harmful at 11:39 AM on October 3, 2000

    Correction: the second Shirky article I mentioned relates to a whole lot more than just homogenization of the Web (that was my perspective in how it related to Jakob). It touches on many tangents we have been talking about here.
    A RELEVANT EXCERPT: "The Internet's ability to be adapted slowly, imperfectly, and in many conflicting directions all at once is precisely what makes it so powerful, and the Web has taken those advantages and opened them up to people who don't know source code from bar code by creating a simple interface design language."
    I think it proves that we are all in agreement on matters of tools and techniques...and we will continue to agree to disagree on many other points :-). It's great that we can all come together and discuss our viewpoints here at MetaFilter.
    posted by webchick at 11:52 AM on October 3, 2000

    I like what girlbowler had to say, because it points up the difference between sticking traditional writing online, and actually creating web content (ie., not simply "content" on the web).

    in what she said, i believe girlbowler addresses the point that carl and webchick were originally making in their essay—a point that has become somewhat sidetracked here, because once you start talking about software, you get into a software discussion; and especially because if you mention blogger or manilla, some people feel that you're attacking these tools.

    in the course of this Thread That Will Not Die, i've gotten as sidetracked as anybody.

    so to return to the point that the original essay intended to make: agreed that there is a vast difference between text-presented -on-the-web, and genuine hypertext (which includes Flash, Quicktime, and anything else that can be used on the web).

    nielsen thinks you can teach people to think in that new way. carl and webchick believe we ought to think in that new way. dave says kids already think in that way. and having spent a lot of time with young web designers, i tend to agree. most of them GET IT. (many of them are also style fetishists, but that is a different conversation.)

    i know when i got it—sometime in 1995. but i don't quite know HOW i got it. any more than i know exactly how i've fallen in love, or become a responsible citizen, or any of the other psychic transformations i've undergone.

    when you get it, you get it. if you don't get it, can you be TAUGHT to get it? i don't know.

    earlier this year i worked on a curriculum for web designers (and i'm updating it now). some of that curriculum is technical, obviously; has to be. but much of it is conceptual. however, no matter how much conceptual prose you throw in front of someone, and no matter how many exercises you build to LEAD them toward that moment of revelation when they "get it," this whole thing is really an "inside job," and each person has to get it for themselves.

    the fact that a conversation of this sort—which is about "getting it"—ends up taking so many tangents may indicate that there are more obstacles than we realize between the transmission of a message and its reception.

    it may be that people "get it" by working. or by viewing a certain site on a certain day and realizing the way it differs from a magazine article, a TV show, or a CD-ROM.

    then again, plenty of traditional magazine editors who don't get it at all have been put in charge of online content properties; plenty of web designers are so far from text they fling the text up at the last minute as an afterthought; and plenty of hypemeisters are still shouting about broadband as though leading the charge to the day when the web is "finally" like TV. (may that day never come.)
    posted by Zeldman at 1:51 PM on October 3, 2000

    Hear hear, Zeldman. And I think the only reason this debate got so fierce, is that people like myself, (and I "got it" at around the same time as you) want others to experience the liberation and the potential and the sheer euphoric boundlessness of this thing. And you can't teach it: you just want to keep a space in which it can happen, away from the portal-by-numbers world of so many corporate efforts.

    We wouldn't be so vocal, if we didn't care. And that can only be a good thing.
    posted by holgate at 3:57 PM on October 3, 2000

    Did this debate get fierce? Did this discussion turn into a debate? Where was I?

    I think people were taking different routes from the same point and arrived at the same point, but from different angles.

    Which, really, is what hypertext's all about. :-)

    Every post in this thread, even one directly denying another post, has not only been civil, I've read them all like a group of people sitting together in a smoky basement bar, jamming on each other's thoughts and feelings, and learning what this thing we do means to each other of us. I'll accept that there's been sparks of debate here, but I don't it's been fierce, so much as rapid-fire springing off each other's ideas.

    Although I guess fierce could easily mean that, too. Hrm. Holgate, you're smart! :-)
    posted by cCranium at 4:12 PM on October 3, 2000

    Agreed. It's been a subtle, civil, intelligent discussion.

    That worries me.
    posted by Zeldman at 6:00 PM on October 3, 2000

    The Great Orange has definitely hit the nail on the head. It is only fitting that he had the last word on this complex subject!
    posted by CarlMalamud at 6:33 PM on October 3, 2000

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