Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

Zero Comments – In search of inspiration

The digital realm is abuzz with the fruits of our keyboards. My editiorial job for Livre magazine involves keeping track on a collection of newsfeeds concerning open source, open standards and related fields. One conclusion is paramount: the number of articles with original content is extremely limited. Much of what is written and published has a high “me too” level. The book Zero Comments. Blogging and Critical Internet Culture by Geert Lovink popped up in the newsfeeds a while ago and as editor I was able to request a review copy. It’s a fascinating read and led to a new experiment: Content Only!.

I have been using an older Cassiopeia E-125 to read my digital books for a few years already. For me it’s perfect, to be able to read on the road, on holidays and some night time reading in bed with the backlight on. The device is bulky enough to fit in my hand nicely. Yet, every once in a while I get tired of digital reading and I simply want to have a real book in my hands. You know, a book, a pile of real pages. True, most books are heavier than the PDA, more difficult to carry along and you always need extra light to actually see the letters. Still, it adds to the experience of reading, this turning of pages and the texture of the paper. The weird things that make reading more enjoyable.

Geert Lovink is a critic of internet culture and he follows the developments in the digital realm with a healthy academic and scientific distance, to look beyond the hype. I just finished the first chapters and the material is fascinating. His style of writing isn’t easy and he raises more questions than answering questions, but the subject of study is to blame for that. Lovink’s observations make you think and that alone makes the book worthwhile. One example, his remark about free and open source software:

For me there is no immediate connection between free and freedom. Things that are simply free-of-cost (as in ‘free beer’) may satisfy the millions only to obscure the fact that the promotors, and the virtual class in general, cash-in elsewhere in the chain.

You can agree or disagree, but at least such a statement makes you think. Free and open solutions are indeed never completely without cost.

The blogging phenomena is the object of study in Zero Comments. The title is derived from the sad observation that so many online posts remain without a single response, with zero comments. Early in the book Lovink mentions the ‘1% rule’. In a group of 100 online people, only 1 person actually creates something original, ten will join in the discussion and all other will simply see it. Websites like Digg and Del.icio.us are needed to aggregate this scarce supply of originality. And guess who makes the money on the original content?

The chapter ‘Blogging. The nihilist impuls’ tries to shed light on the motives of blogs and bloggers. What is the difference between cynicism and nihilism? How should we define nihilism? That kind of questions. Apart from somber observations concerning the developments in the English part of the digital realm, he describes the Iranian blogosphere where bloggers hide behind virtual identities, enjoy freedom to express their opinions because of it and contribute to fundamental debates about various issues. Content is paramount, not the attempts to get a higher pagerank in the lists of the search engines. Weblogs in the English digital realm have been transformed into multimedia carnival rides, for Loving a sign of decay, not of progress. Zero Comment isn’t an easy read, but that is not required when trying to digg deeper.

Anyway, the first set of questions and opinions of Geert Loving made me take a step back and scrutinize my own online writing endeavors. I decided it was time for a new experiment, a digital equivalent of exchanging my Cassopeia for a real book. The experiment is Content Only!, a temporary weblog without makeup, without advertisement, without a newsfeed, without a possibility to leave comments. I don’t want to worry about how it looks, but I want to focus on content and content alone. Content Only! doesn’t use a cms, but consists of a simple html-page with minimal design in order to keep it readable.

And you know what? It works! Content Only! has brought back everything to the barest essence and it stimulates me to write, to create something new, to look for new angles. Yes! My inspiration is back.

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