Content with Content

Though I only do it inconsistently, I like to retrace the trail that led to my writing about something online. I used to formalise this with a simple structure, copied from Mark Pilgrim, that listed each relevant page in order, with arrows (→) between them. This seemed a little too formal, so I gave up on it in favour of a simple explanation of where the blue ether took me today.

Slashdot featured a review of ‘User Interface Design for Programmers’, which is exactly what it sounds like, only more entertaining. One comment linked to the author’s website, which contains sample chapters from the book. Chapter one inspired the following piece.

In order to avoid the problem of lazy nettizens , a problem made obvious by the ubiquity of the comment ‘RTFA‘, I’ll give the gist of the relevant part of the chapter here. Incidentally, I always associate the word nettizens, if I can be forgiven for calling it a word at all, with denizens rather than citizens. I choose not to see this as an indictment.

The author, Joel Spolsky, describes his old job in an industrial bakery; a menial job, basically there to fill in for a machine. I believe most people can empathise with this position. It is not always pleasant to be in this sort of situation. Joel describes forgettable incidents that subtly altered his mood. Slipping a little on the wet floor would make him feel just a little bit less under control. Catching the dough from the industrial mixer at exactly the right time would make him feel correspondingly more in control. His point, and the reason that this extended anecdote apears in a book about user interface design, is that small things make a difference, in his words, "Your emotions don’t seem to care about the magnitude of the event, only the quality."

But I’m not just going to badly re-express the same point, even though I do agree with it. I want to make a different point, that Joel has essentially written about a series of utterly forgettable occasions but has made them meaningful. I imagined Joel having a weblog at the time he held this job, belting his experiences out on a keyboard a few times a week. "Today I cut myself on a chain. I hate this place", "I was totally in control today, everything went my way." Who could have brought themselves to care? His set of experiences in the bakery, compiled as they are and used to make a valid observation of human behaviour, is compelling. Written individually, they would have been a LiveJournal.

The problem I have observed is that weblogging lends itself, however much we may try to avoid it, to spewing random trivialities at an imagined audience, where book writing allows time to combine experience into thought. I don’t know who first said it, and Google only knows it as an old saying, but "great men discuss ideas, average men discuss events, and lesser men discuss people." It seems that with the free expression allowed by the weblogging world, those of us who considered ourselves "great men" (or more distinguished than "average men", at least) can easily be diminished to average status, simply by not allowing enough time for ideas to be developed.

I’ve tried to allow time for my thoughts on this issue to consolidate, so that for now at least I won’t be a victim of my own observed phenomenon. I can only wait for feedback to know if I’ve succeeded. But for now we must decide what’s more important to us; do we want frequent brief outbursts that serve as little more than "I still exist" (encouraged by the fact that my CMS provides entries based on time, those posted within the last week, rather than on number, the last four posted for example); or are we more concerned with the content of our output, the idea that "it’ll be published when it’s ready". Essentially, and very simply, this is an issue of quality versus quantity. I can think of few occasions when I would be tempted to choose quantity as more important, but it is more motivational.

The only concrete conclusion I can provide is that I’d like to provide thoughtful and though-out material for any readers I might have, but I can pretty much guarantee that it won’t happen all that often. On the other hand, you got this essay in place of "my throat hurts and my nose hurts; I have two owies." Which is a step in the right direction.