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Meta

Hide your puppies, there’s metablogging ahead. Writing that tribute to Digital History Hacks (call it data point no. 1) got me thinking, if I wasn’t already, about weblogs and their natural lifespans, about when and how they change or end, and about how you know when you are done. Oho, you say, could Rob be talking about his own increasingly cobwebby weblog? Very clever of you to spot it. But first, a few other data points:

Data point no. 2: I don’t think I can overstate how much I love the blog Snarkout–named for my favorite Daniel Pinkwater novel, and that just adds to its swelliness. I don’t even know the name of Snarkout’s author but he (I’m taking a wild guess) writes long, smart, link-lousy, digression-infested posts on just about everything under the sun. His posts start out about one thing, like how Isaac Asimov is “the boringest man ever to inspire a Japanese death cult,” then somehow wander off, like late-era Simpsons episodes, to work in the invention of the Pringles potato chip, then end up being about an insane CIA intelligence officer who insisted he was a galactic emperor and may have been the pseudonymous science fiction writer Cordwainer Smith. That’s one post, you understand, and they’re all like that.

But here’s what really impresses a slow blogger like me: Snarkout’s most recent post, on the late “Thundarr the Barbarian” creator Steve Gerber (yes, he also wrote something about a duck), is dated December 30, 2008. His second-to-last post, on White Christmas, Bing Crosby in blackface, and the Little Ice Age of the 17th to 19th centuries, is dated December 25, 2007. And his third-to-last post, on the secret history of St. Nicholas, is dated December 24, 2006. The guy is posting annually. He’s like the Brigadoon of the blogiverse. This is not a blogger who obsesses about his StatCounter reports. And there’s no meta-post anywhere about how sorry he is for not blogging, or how busy he is with work and the kids, and oh woe is me its tough to be a blogger. Not even a slow blog manifesto. If you ever see this, mysterious Snarkout author, I want to buy you a beer.

Data point no. 3: So, I’ve been using various aspects of David Allen’s new age corporate to do list voodoo system Getting Things Done since about the time I started this weblog (yes I do see the irony, you are sharp today aren’t you?). I even posted about the Golden Age GTD back in November 2004. And like many nerds, I came to GTD through Merlin Mann’s often great weblog, 43 Folders. 43 Folders had only been around for a few months, I think, when it got sky-hooked by a bunch of links from Cory Doctorow into being the internet’s number one super-productivity blog. It was full of witty advice, a world of souped-up to do lists crossed with a geeky fetish for Moleskines and index cards, and centered by a sensitive yearning for mindfulness, creativity, and Zen.

But then 43 Folders kind of ballooned outward, and got all Web 2.0 in the hizzle with bells and whistles like a forum, a wiki, and about a dozen guest bloggers. And… it pretty much sucked. One blog post a week about personal productivity is one thing. At thirty or forty posts a week, even us products of the public school system realize we’re being had. That’s the power of the Dark Side: 43 Folders became part of the very distractosphere Merlin had gone to war against.

And then something interesting happened. Last summer, Merlin had some kind of epiphany, or breakdown, or David Allen revealing he was Merlin’s father then chopping off Merlin’s hand with a lightsaber kind of moment. And so Merlin tore down the temple, with a fairly brave and angry denunciation of the whole cottage industry in productivity porn he and the Hipster PDA had built. Then his blog lay fallow for months. Only now has he gingerly returned to the form, his website stripped down to basics and its content dedicated less to the treadmill of productivity and more to careful nurturing of the creative habit.

So? So I’m thinking about those data points because they offer at least three models for shaking things up that I can respect: Bill’s “be awesome for three years, then get out”; Snarkout’s “keep the quality up, let the quantity go to hell, and never apologize or even explain”; Merlin Mann’s “tear down the suck and rediscover why you’re doing it in the first place.”

This blog you’re reading has lurched along in fits and starts for years without apparent ill effect. But I’m unsatisfied with the time the blog is getting in my life. And I’m not predicting any major increases in my free time soon. (Quite the opposite, but that’s another post.) Also I must admit, the aftermath of my post-election day post, which got a lot of nice attention but some heroic point-missing too, eroded a little of my enthusiasm for this enterprise.

So as you see, I’m having those dangerous “why do we blog don’t get me started is it art just because we hang it on the wall?” thoughts. I’m not ready to pull the plug yet, not really. Some demented part of me still thinks the world needs to hear my thoughts on Seth Shulman’s Telephone Gambit or my ideas for increasing the number of robots in American history. So I’ll probably keep trucking along in the short term. But my life, and the blogiverse, have both changed so much since I started blogging (eight years ago!), that I feel like a change could be in the wind.

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Digital History Hacks

I just sent the following off to Ralph Luker to add to Cliopatria‘s Hall of Fame for important history weblogs:

It seems like just yesterday I was toasting Bill Turkel’s Digital History Hacks for winning Cliopatria‘s Best New Blog Award. Now Bill is moving on from the blog to other things, and I have the sad task of bidding DHH adieu. Let’s see what I said back then:

William J. Turkel’s Digital History Hacks goes beyond new media platitudes and internet hype to demonstrate in word and deed what history in the twenty-first century will be all about. From the nuts and bolts of spidering and scraping to the loftiest questions about what historians do and why, Digital History Hacks points the way to a brave new world with infectious enthusiasm and blazing imagination.

All that proved to be true and more. Years from now, people are going to look back at Digital History Hacks and say “Something started here.” At least, I hope so. For three years, DHH offered a crash course in the history of the future. Bill’s three-year-old posts still seem three years ahead of their time. There’s still nothing else like DHH in the history blogosphere, which is a compliment to Bill but maybe also a bit of a shame. Sure, Bill has fans and followers now. (Not that he was ever interested in fans or followers–have you noticed that DHH has no comment function? how cool is that?) He’s tight with all the digital history illuminati, he’s released dozens of new history bloggers into the world, and it’s he, not I, that anchors the northern end of the UWO-GMU Axis of Digital Evil. But there’s still nobody I can think of that thinks quite as creatively or as provocatively as Bill does about what digital history is and what it might become.

I can’t list all the things I’ve learned or all the ideas I’ve stolen from Digital History Hacks, but one meta-idea which Bill taught me is that the loftiest questions about what we do are not separate from the nuts and bolts of how we do it. As above, so below: lofty philosophical issues are practical technical questions and vice versa. Change the tools available to the humanities and you have the opportunity to rethink what the humanities are. That’s what Bill’s been doing for the past three years and that’s what he continues to do.

I’m sorry to see Bill put DHH to bed, but I’m lucky enough to be privy to some of the cool new stuff he’s doing, and I promise you will see and hear more amazing things from him before too long. In the meantime, explore the archives of DHH or try working through the exercises in The Programming Historian, Bill and Alan Maceachern’s in-progress, open-source textbook on How It Is Done.

Bill sometimes says there’s more to being a musician than posing with a guitar. What he means, I think, is that there is or can be more to being a “digital historian” than having a Blogspot account and an opinion about Wikipedia. When Bill launched The Programming Historian, Mills Kelly (no slouch as a digital historian himself) wrote, “with its release, my excuses [for not learning to program] go poof.” Digital History Hacks made a lot of our excuses go poof. If we want to be part of making our profession’s future, it’s high time to stop talking and roll up our sleeves.