The Making of the "Small Pieces Loosely Joined" Draft Site
Meta-meta-data for those who always want to be one level of abstraction ahead of their friends
In one of my chapters in The Cluetrain Manifesto, I talk about the Web's transformation of the rhythm of documents. We're moving, I say, from keeping business documents private until we're ready to slap them down on the conference room table to making them public to a group of colleagues even while we're developing them. This means exposing our frailties, but the result will be better work.
When I began thinking about the book that is now titled "Small Pieces Loosely Joined," it occurred to me that I should try putting those words into practice. What would it be like to write a book in public? Suppose I were to put up a Web site where people could read each day's writing and talk with me and with one another about it?
Problems leapt out. How would I credit people? Suppose people were to circulate passages that I later dropped because I disagree with them or don't like the way there written? How would the publisher feel about my in effect publishing the book on line for free?
All of those were, of course, ways of avoiding the central problem: I'm embarrassed to show first drafts to people. I write by throwing stuff down on the page, letting it sit, and then editing ferociously. I frequently throw out beginnings. I usually do large block swaps. And I always always always introduce typos, grammatical errors, thinkos and infelicitous phrases.
All of these would be in public view. Ack.
In return, I'll get great ideas, will be steered away from embarrassing intellectual lapses, and will turn readers into collaborators.
I begin this venture with deep fear. We shall see.
Nov. 1, 2000
Perseus Books has proposed a contract with terms to generous to turn down. I'm disposed towards them anyway since they made writing and publishing The Cluetrain Manifesto into an enjoyable experience. They also sold a shitload of copies of a book that the authors assumed would probably be of limited appeal. (Well, not all the authors thought so.)
They like the idea of publishing my drafts. Damn. One more reason not to do it bites the dust.
Nov. 8, 2000
The site is up (why was smallpieces.com still available as a domain name??) but I'm keeping it secret for now. My editor at Perseus, my book agent, Chris "RageBoy" Locke and a couple of other people know about it. No pages are linked to it. I'm safe in my caucus.
I won't even think about making the site's existence known more broadly until we have a president.
Nov. 21, 2000
I've begun Chapter 4, on the nature of the public, and I'm realizing how dicey it is to post my day's work to the site. It looks so meager. And it is *so* unpolished and *so* unready for human consumption. It even has obscure notes at the end with ideas for later in the chapter.
Nov. 30, 2000
I received today line edits from a reader, Halley Suitt. I'd given her the "stealth" URL of the site because she sent me a personal, smart, enthusiastic email about a presentation I'd given at a conference. In her letter, she corrects typos and some weak phrases in the first few pages of Chapter 4. While I appreciate it, I'm only on page 6 of that chapter, so it's a waste of her time since I'm likely to rip out the beginning. I will post a notice on the site that people should not bother doing copy editing. At least not yet.
On the other hand, she has lots and lots of good and occasionally deep things to say about the topic of the chapter, sometimes anticipating where I'm heading and sometimes taking the topic down paths I hadn't thought about. In a sense, her comments are too good; I worry about readers taking over my topic before I can be the one to have figured out how to work it out. Ego? Absolutely! This is the ego required by every act of writing, at least up until now. The writer is saying "Listen to me! I have something to say that you didn't think of already!" What's it going to feel like if readers anticipate the ideas I had or, worse, was planning on having? What happens if I drift out of the center of my little universe?
Perhaps I shouldn't post a draft until it's got some heft.
Dec. 28, 2000
I’d told myself I’d wait until we have a new President before posting the site, but we’ve “elected” George W. and I’m still waffling about going public with this. I’ve told a handful of more people about the existence of the site, but they’re all trusted friends and a couple of acquaintances I have a good feeling about.
It hasn’t helped that the chapter I’ve been working on has been going so badly. At least I’m making daily progress – less than I’d like – but that’s only because I’m refusing to look up from what I’m writing at the moment. Overall, it’s a mess. There are a couple of ideas in it but they’re buried in page after page of daily writing. For example, I spent most of a week writing about what it means to be famous on the Web – not a topic I’d thought about before or planned on including – and I think it’ll all be cut unless I can figure out why the hell I was writing it. Showing work at this level of indecision scares the bejeezus out of me. That isn’t the way my writing process works: I scribble, I let it sit, I edit, I let it site, I throw it out, I start again…
I have put up more and more warnings on my stealth site and in the chapters themselves warning people that they’re about to read some pretty bad writing. That doesn’t make the shit smell any better, though.
Dec. 29, 2000
I’ve thought about including on my site the proposal I wrote – with a lot of advice from my agents, David Miller and Lisa Adams – to sell my book to a publisher. It’d give people an overview of the book, but it also contains inflated claims – marketing! – that are the vernacular of such items. For example, I compare the book to Understanding Media, a judgment unlikely to be upheld by history (as if history’s going to give a damn).
Dec. 30, 2000
I had one of those breakthroughs that are impossible to distinguish from cave-ins. I realized (a verb that makes a judgment) that the question of the “paradox of the public” with I’ve been wrestling (floundering?) – the fact that I am a unique individual who becomes faceless when amassed – is really a facet of one of the two abiding mysteries: We live in a shared world. (The other abiding mystery is: I die.) This feels interesting if not quite right, and I’ve written it up at the end of the current draft. Now I only have to figure out how to get from where I am to there.
It would take a fanatically constant reader to realize that the chapter is, as of today, being shaped by this new end towards which I think I’m heading. As I fill in the gap and get to the end, this process will be papered over and will become invisible. Thus, my draft site, which is intended in part to let people see how I write the book, will hide the way I wrote the book.
On the other hand, I am periodically saving drafts and posting them on the site – snapshots of the development of the book – for readers who actually care. I expect there will be no readers who do. Still, it only takes a couple of seconds to post the draft, so why the heck not? Ah, “why the heck not” … the rallying cry of the Web as it overwhelms quality with crap.
January 6, 2001
I first "met" Tom Matrullo when he wrote a very positive review of The Cluetrain Manifesto. I sent him a message thanking him and we corresponded a bit. He then became one of the best contributors to the Cluetrain discussion group that we started at www.topica.com; in the course of some fierce exchanges on the list, Tom consistently posted incisive and funny replies that I happened to agree with. In fact, I once sent him an email asking him to have my babies, but I sent it to the entire list instead. Ack.
Because of an article or two of mine, Tom sent me a piece he's working on about, among other things, the real effect of wireless and of peer-to-peer computing. Great stuff. And it's on the topic I'm writing about now: groups. It reminded me that I had somehow neglected to put into this chapter some thoughts about wireless and "nano-groups" that I'd written a few months earlier. They're in now thanks to the miracle of Copy-and-Paste. (Send me an email and I'll tell you how to do it. It's an important Professional Writer's trick.)
Reading Tom's piece made me uncomfortable precisely because it was so good. Suppose he's thought of things that I would have. I'd have to acknowledge him instead of getting credit myself. Of course,extending intellectual property rights to ideas that I would have had would make for some really entertaining lawsuits and the whole idea is silly. But it's there. Some ideas feel like ones I was certain to have.
Yes, I know exactly how petty-minded this is. "It's not about credit, it's about truth and good ideas." Yeah, well, sure you can share my meme ... when you pry it from my cold dead fingers.
This is not something I'm proud of.
January 9, 2001
At breakfast with David Miller, my agent, I signed the book contract with Perseus. Although we'd agreed on the terms long ago, Perseus took a long time to figure out what to do about e-book rights for there isn't industry-wide agreement about this.
I told David about the difficulty I'm having getting an example about a guy named Doodle to make sense in the "permissions" section of the chapter on the public. I've spent about a week on this. I knew I was telling him this to have him tell me to put the example aside. Maybe it will fit elsewhere. But it sure doesn't fit here. So, now I'm pretty much done with the first draft of that chapter. It's likely to change radically by the time I'm done.
January 11, 2001
"Finished" the first draft of the chapter on the nature of the public. Now onto the first chapter both beause I need an overview chapter to show to people who are considering me as a speaker and because I need to nail down exactly what this frigging book is about.
February 9, 2001
I have hesitantly made my draft site public by sending an announcement to the readers of JOHO, my newsletter. Here’s what I said:
***** JOHO Interval ******
February 9, 2001
Editor: David Weinberger ([email protected])
Web Version (Color! Fonts! Links!):
To view this issue correctly, please use a
monospaced font such as Courier.
SMALL PIECES LOOSELY JOINED: AN EXPERIMENT
Yes, I'm writing a book. It's called Small Pieces
Loosely Joined. (We'll talk about the subtitle in a
minute.) I have to turn it in by August 31, and it
will hit the stands in the spring of 2002. Perseus,
the publisher of The Cluetrain Manifesto, apparently
is stuck in some perverse macho loop -- sort of a
"Come on, is that all you got, girly-man?" type of
thing -- and has agreed to publish it.
I've been working away on it, posting each day's
writing at a site that I haven't told hardly anyone
about. But now I'm telling you and anyone you want
to tell. You can read the entire work in progress as
WHY AND WHY NOT?
Why? Well, I've been saying for a while that the Web
is going to change our work rhythm from keeping
things private until the moment of publication to a
more open and messier development process in which
we share work earlier. I hope that you'll kick the
bejesus out of what I'm writing so that it'll be
better by the time it's done.
Why not? I have lots of concerns about this
experiment. First, it's damn embarrassing. I'm
posting the crap I just wrote, knowing that I'm
going to erase it tomorrow. Despite what you may
think from reading JOHO, I'm not the type of writer
who's happy to dash something off and post it;
that's one reason I'm not a very good participant in
online discussion boards, unlike, say, Doc Searls
who's a brilliant poster and who maintains one of
the best daily weblogs around (
http://doc.weblogs.com/), or unlike Chris "RageBoy"
Locke who hits the send key before the last "f*ck
you" has had a chance to dry
(www.rageboy.com/index2.html). So, I'm counting on
you to read this stuff the way it's written.
Second, I'm not sure how disruptive it will be to my
writing habits. And not just whatever time I'll put
in replying to messages. Knowing that people can
read what I just wrote changes the way I write.
Third, I don't want anyone writing thoughtful
replies to passages that were written hastily and
will be altered or deleted. Why waste your time as
well as mine?
Fourth, it's really embarrassing. Really.
So, this is an experiment that may change or end at
WHAT THE BOOK'S ABOUT
It seems to me that the endless discussions we have
about Napster, privacy, IP, yadda yadda yadda, are
endless because the Web is transforming a deeper set
of concepts. So, suppose we were to treat the Web
not as a technology but as an idea, like the idea of
democracy. I find myself thinking about the Web's
effect on concepts such as space, time, self,
public, morality, work and spirit. And those are, in
fact, the chapters of the book.
My basic approach is to argue that the Web is a new
world. Literally. What's most distinctive of this
world is how it's organized: many small pieces
loosely joined. Or, more precisely, many small
pieces loosely joining themselves. From this comes
all the interesting things about the Web, including:
It's got places but no space. It's a purely social
world. It's a published world where to be is to be
read, so that everything in it has meaning. It's a
voluntary world. It's a public world in which there
are (essentially) no secrets, which is having a
transforming effect on business. It is fundamentally
an optimistic, hopeful world.
I've been playing with several subtitles:
"A Unified Theory of the Web": I intend this at
least partially as a humorous overstatement that
contradicts the title, but it may well not be
taken that way.
"The Web's New Common Sense": Sounds way too
"Spaces, Places and Faces on the Web": Sounds
good in the mouth of a Jesse Jackson, but a
little too cute for me.
I'm open to ideas.
There are plenty of disclaimers on the site. All I
ask is for you to understand that these are drafts.
I urge you not to read whatever chapter is marked as
"In progress." At least wait for me to finish typing
and maybe even run the spellchecker on it.
I encourage you to use the discussion board rather
than emailing me privately. If I'm willing to face
the public humiliation, you ought to be also.
God save us all.
I spent the morning setting up the discussion boards properly (one per chapter plus a general board) and then put in as much time fretting as I could. I also asked David Miller (my agent) to read the draft of the first chapter to make sure that it wasn’t so bad that people would give up on the book once they read it.
On February 8, Slate announced the “Seeds” project, a long-form investigative piece that they are putting together in public, much as I intend to do. This, I’m sorry to say, did spur me finally to pull the wrappers off.
I was about to write that I have no predictions, but that’s not true. I expect that a number of my newsletter readers will read the first chapter or so, there will be flurry of postings, and then it will die away. We’ll see.
Feb 13, 2001
The trigger has been pulled. Now it’s just a matter of finding out where the gun was pointed. Possibly at my foot. Possibly at my head.
A few people have posted on my message boards. The question of what to subtitle the book so far has been the most active discussion. But I can’t say that the boards are burning up with conversation. (I’ve been suggesting to people who’ve sent me personal email about this project today that they should instead post on the board in order to “kickstart” it.)
I received one personal message that I particularly hope will be posted to the board. I’ll suppress the author’s name for now:
I've got to say I disagree with the whole "work-in-progress" thing. It reminds me of reading Fitzgerald's early drafts of "The Great Gatsby" published by some money-grubbing house. In a word, it sucks (okay, two words but you get the idea). An idea - especially one conveyed by the written word - even more so one conveyed by lots of written words -- is a complicated thing requiring layers of subtlety and the same deftness of touch used in fabricating an alabaster vase. To throw one's half-finished thoughts on a page.... well, you're welcome to do it, but don't expect those who hung around throughout to have more respect for you when it's all over.
My worst fears. I still think about adjusting the frequency of my postings. Maybe I ought to only post chapters when they can genuinely be counted as a first draft, not in progress. I am actively discouraging people from commenting on the chapter that’s in progress because it’s really not read to be read. So why do I post them? Possibly so no one will think the finished drafts represent more polishing than they do, i.e., to show that the drafts are just what I say they are. Possibly just to embarrass myself because of personal perversity when it comes to my twisted form of egocentricity.
I’ve managed not write anything in the book in about a week. I had the flu for 4 days. Then I put on the issue of JOHO announcing the draft site, which meant spending a lot of time fixing the site up. Today I spent several humiliating, stressful hours dealing with the bouncing and multiple delivering of JOHO; some people got 6 copies. It’s still not clear why. Then I managed to spend another hour working on the Visual Basic program that updates the draft site for me. The good news is that I found on the Web a code fragment that lets me automatically convert my Word documents into Word HTML so now I’m able to press a button and have my site updated with the latest draft, in HTML, with the right date noted. Many hours of work that will save me, oh, minutes.
Now if I remember to stop writing this journal, I can try to remember what I was writing in the book a week ago…
Feb 17, 2000
Dan Kalikow wrote today:
I know this is still an early draft & you were warning
us off, but anyway... forgive me...
Once again in the brain we see labeled things.This begins some paragraphs where your exposition of the thoughts of
Dead White Philosophers gets (imho) pretty hairy and "Phil 101-ish."
Despite the bottom line -- that you DO come up for air & draw
interesting, valuable conclusions from those apparent digressions -- there is
a stretch there where I am feeling a bit lost; I imagine the Great Unwashed
getting shpilkies around here (despite the fact that yeah, they aren't your
primary target audience). The valuable conclusions kick in around
Philosophers have disagreed for hundreds of years about the details of this diagram. ...
Persistence isn’t enough to make something
real. It also has to be publicly observeable.
The odd thing is that the Web passes both of these tests. It doesn’t go away when we don’t look at it.
...and the shpilkies mercifully subside. I can't help thinking that much of the intervening review of philosophy might be telescoped -- maybe to the level of Phil 1 -- such that you get to the Good Web Stuff faster.
Here’s my reply:
Absolutely right. That's exactly why I warn people not to read the draft that's in progress. This is a *really* hard chapter for me and viagra online pharmacy so I'm just spewing. I'll go back and try to remove as much philosophy as I can, for my biggest fear about this book is that it'll end up as a philosophy book. Nooooooooo!
Here's an example of why you shouldn't read chapters that are in progress. Today I was re-reading a book by a friend of mine, Michael Heim. It's called "The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality" and I wanted to make sure I wasn't simply writing what he'd written. Oh, and of course I wanted to learn from him, yada yada. (God's honest truth is that my main motivation was fear that I was repeating something in a book I'd read 7 years ago.) It's an excellent book, but much more about VR than the Web. Anyway, he has a really insightful essay on interfaces as mediating between us and our tools and tasks. It struck me -- and now I have to finish reading his book to see if it struck him also -- that we find VR a comfortable notion because it fits in so well with our view that our awareness of the real world is mediated by perceptions. VR just switches the source of perceptions. And that's why if I say the Web is a new world, we want to interpret that as meaning that it's going to be a VR world like Stephenson's Metaverse. But, the Web is a *read* world, not a perceived world. (Yeah yeah, words come via perceptions. I know.) And I feel like I understand for the female viagra pharmacy first time the language-centric view of awareness that I've accepted and espoused since I was a grad student. It's soaked in irony for, if perceptions are an interface to the world, then words look like they're an interface to an interface. But, words in fact show us the world. And language is, of course, more than words. It's a social act. So, here we have the Web, a world made entirely of words (yeah yeah, and some pictures, particularly of Pamela Anderson). A world built not out of matter and not out of perceptions that mediate that matter, but a world built out of shared meaning. (The problem with the real world is that after God created the world out of the Word, He created a whole bunch of atoms. Big mistake. I mean, I don't mean to be a backseat driver...)
So I spent the morning writing this up. And it sucks because I'm just thinking it through. But it occurred to me that this syncs up nicely with the Stephenson opening. In fact, maybe now I have an inkling of what this chapter is about. So will I go back and rewrite? Fucking A.
That's why I'm discouraging people from commenting on the chapter in progress.
(If it's not clear, I'm also working out these ideas in *this* msg.)
February 26, 2001
After many days of work, as usual, I’ve put out an issue of my newsletter. This one has my response to a philosopher who posted a message taking me to task for not crediting the long line of traditional philosophers. His complaint simmered until I got permission to flame – permission from my pal RageBoy. Here’s the article: http://www.hyperorg.com/backissues/joho-feb26-01.html - philosophy
February 27, 2001
I had lunch with David Miller and Lisa Adams, my book agents (and friends) to talk about Chapter 1. They asked me what I thought of it and I said that I’d reread it that morning and, after taking out a few long paragraphs that strolled down the philosophy path, and with some questions about the applicability of the second to last section, I thought it worked pretty well. Awkward silence. They think it sucks.
I came into the meeting down because of some family tensions and left with a whole new set of reasons to be depressed. Although David and Lisa think the ideas in the chapter are fine, they think it’s academic, preachy, and boring. I retreated into monosyllabic expressions of acceptance. “But I don’t know how to fix it,” I said more than once. After being silent to the point of rudeness I explained: “I accept what you’re saying. And I’m reacting this way because I feel humiliated and frightened. More the latter.” I hate writing badly in public and in front of friends.
So, I came home and took down the link to Chapter 1. More accurately, I created a small link to “Version 1” and put up a notice that the chapter was down for overhauling. I hate to think about the people who came to the site and read a truly crappy first chapter. They won’t be coming back…
March 1, 2001
In my fear that I won’t be able to write this book, I’ve been churning out a first chapter without looking back, posting it a few times a day. I’ve written something like 7,500 words in two days, about five times my normal output. The chapter has changed from the pure exposition of the first draft (trying to prove that the Web is a new world) to reflections on a series of Web phenomena, trying to show that there’s more there than meets the idea. Some of the examples are obviously puzzling (e.g., a kid in a chat room who threatened a Colombine High School survivor although the kid otherwise seems completely normal and non-violent) and some are obvious but should be puzzling (e.g., the growth of weblogs). I don’t know how or if it will all come together, but I’m driven by desperation; I’ll write anything rather than nothing.
Oddly, I seem to be in a pretty productive period as far as writing columns, etc., goes. I’ve been writing one most mornings, for a variety of places.
Jacqueline Murphy, my editor at Perseus, today asked me to give her a first chapter by March 14 to take to the London Book Fair. Bad timing!
April 16, 2001
I haven’t written in this journal for a while because I’ve been depressed about the book. I’ve continued to write and post just about every day, but for the first time that I can remember, I have no sense of what works and what doesn’t. Even when I’ve been wrong, I’ve at least had a sense of it. Now, I read what I wrote and have no idea whether the reader will find it engaging.
I’m not sure why this has happened, beyond the obvious one that I’ve written big chunks of the book that people have found quite boring; that sort of thing doesn’t quite give me a sense of sure-footedness. I also think, however, that I’m playing out a deeper crisis that has been brewing for most of my life. I spent half my life as an academic philosopher and the other half as a marketing guy and writer. I was well aware when I took a job as a marketing schlub at age 35 that the irony was as ripe as a camembert left out on the porch. (Now that’s good writing! : ) I had been teaching philosophy in service of The Truth and now I was a marketing guy using my analytic and verbal skills to persuade them to buy stuff. After many years arguing against Sophism, I was now a full-fledged intellectual prostitute. I won’t bother defending myself except to say that my real role as a marketing guy was to try to find things that were conceptually interesting about the companies I worked for. But the tension between the two professions has always been there. Now, in the past few years, I’ve managed to get myself into a position where I can make a living thinking and writing about the Web. I find myself using a lot of what I learned as a philosophy teacher. And if I were content to write a philosophical book about the Web, I think it’d go quite smoothly. On the other hand, it would be read by 100 people and they would think that it’s crap because I’m not presenting rigorous ideas in a rigorous fashion. I can sustain a reader’s interest in these issues in the shorter pieces that I write all the time; it’s not a problem for 500 words, but it is for 65,000 words. So, I find that after 30 years as a professional writer and journalist, I’m having to learn a new way. I can’t assume, as I do with my shorter pieces, that people are actually interested in the topic. I find this both difficult and humiliating; I thought I already knew how to do this!
April 28, 2001
Breakfast with David Miller in order to go over the intellectual content of the book: what is each chapter about and how does it fit with the others. I did a ten minute overview of the book which seemed to me (and to David) to cohere pretty well. And it made me see that a new theme has emerged over the past few months. I had realized that many of the chapters are about how the Web is ours in the sense of being a fully human world. But now it’s become clearer to me that it’s ours in contrast to the natural world which, by its nature, is alien. Further, we have taken the characteristics of this alien world and used them to define what is real: independent of us, unconcerned about us, essentially unknowable to us. The Web is a completely artificial world in which every piece of content was created for humans by humans. It is the opposite of the real world. It appeals to us because it reflects our human characteristics.
David asked me to write this up. I will, and will post it on my site. I think it also means that I’ll change the order of the chapters, making the chapter on “reality” the first full chapter after some type of introduction.
May 2, 2001
Interesting lunch with Halley Suitt, a local person who helps authors write books. She’s been very actively reviewing my drafts, although she stays off the discussion board and instead sends me paper print outs all marked up with good comments. I’ve asked her twice if she’s doing this because she wants me as a client, and she says no, she just likes the book. In my usual neurotic way, I cut her off when she began to say positive things about the book; the inability to hear praise (while desperately desiring it) is just one of my little foibles. She refers to my inability to tell whether what I’m writing is any good as “snow blindness,” a nice way of putting it.
May 4, 2001
Halley sent me a marked-up copy of my chapter on Perfection. This one is less encouraging, but m our lives. We’ve developed a tradition that says that we can’t know the real world because our way of knowing is culturally dependent. Thus, this view says, all meanings are equal and none is real. Heidegger carefully deconstructs this (phenomenology gave rise to deconstructionism) to let us acknowledge the basics: we live in a shared world through the gift of language (and thus of culture and history). The meaninglessness trumpeted by existentialism and others is really an unwarranted exaltation of reality as that which can’t be known. It is a despair based on the fact that we’re not God, but it misses the fact that, yes, we are human. So, now let’s talk about what it means to be human…
The Web, it seems to me, counters our “default philosophy” that says that because we can’t know the world as it exists independent of us, we know only images of the world and thus live, alone, isolated, in our own minds. The Web isn’t the real world. There is no independence to it. We made it for ourselves. We made it socially. It exists because we want to talk with one another. It is for humans, by humans. It’s very geography is created by hyperlinks that express human interests, as opposed to the geography of the real world which is essentially indifferent to us. That’s why the Web matters to us. That’s why the Web feels so liberating: it ends the tyranny of reality and the isolation of our default philosophy.
I’ve viewed these thoughts as an obstacle to writing the book. I’ve assumed that if I write about them, as I have in several drafts, the book will bog down. Worse, I desperately don’t want to write yet another book that dumbs down Western philosophy and then critiques it. But Lisa and David have convinced me that I ought to make this line of thinking explicit in the first chapter. And it’s true that most of the chapters I’ve written so far come down to saying that the Web keeps us from making the same mistakes that we’ve made before based on our culture’s psychotic view of the real world. So, I’ll give it a try.
May 17, 2001
I’ve rewritten Chapter One along the lines I’d discussed with Lisa and David. As always, I can’t tell if it’s any good. Snow blind.