Thank you so much again for taking the time to create space for this dialogue, CJ! I thoroughly enjoyed reflecting upon your thoughtful questions and look forward to continuing our exchanges elsewhere (or maybe even here! Perhaps I will interview you next time hehe). Not only did this prompt me to ponder more deeply about these topics out loud (and in an intriguing format), but also imparted some of the real warmth of qualitative, open social connection in the process--which is, in my experience, often very elusive both on- and offline.
I think that drawing attention to this concept of "community gardening" is a really wonderful way to close our discussion. It also brings me back to thinking about the words which we use to describe our online activities and experiences. So to answer your question, I want to start by pausing to reflect upon these two words: "community" and "gardening". Both are commonly understood in a simple, straightforward way, but I would again suggest that it's worth digging into our terminology a bit more deeply in order to approach 'community gardening' as a broader concept more meaningfully.
When we talk about "community", it's important to first acknowledge that there will always be a vast terrain of manifestations rooted in this term. One community's particular set of values & interests will be fundamentally different from (and potentially incompatible with) many others. As such, what it means to nurture and cultivate any given community will always vary contextually. Taking another step back, it's worth noticing that communities are not just networks of people, but also the spaces which they inhabit and activities which happen within those spaces.
(From this vantage point, I find it's helpful to consider what an inviting or healthy community feels like in the offline world. Again, this will vary greatly from person to person - but I think taking time to reflect upon what aspects stand out as distinctively positive and negative is a useful way of becoming grounded in lessons from lived experience beyond our screens.)
Now on to the "gardening" aspect. Gardening is an activity which begins with a recognition of what is currently growing or not growing in a particular environment, and a consideration of how that ecosystem might be changed 'for the better' based upon a certain values framework. Notice that I used the terms "environment" and "ecosystem" here, which I've noticed being increasingly incorporated into discussions of web platforms/experiences in recent years (this is probably a good sign). In the same way that a community is not just a network of people, neither is the web just a network of wires & signals which link people together. It is a space within which there are varying 'ecological' conditions and propensities. Some communities will thrive in one landscape and wither in another, and some landscapes are more open to 'biodiversity' than others.
Sustainable community gardening for me means finding ways to match & balance these sets of considerations through an ongoing process of individual & collaborative experimenting, exploring, and negotiating. Experimentation with different tools and techniques enables us to better understand what relationships, activities, and creations can grow in a given environment--while also expanding our collective knowledge. Exploration helps us become aware of alternative spaces/communities with ecological conditions & propensities which may better suit our needs & hopes (and perhaps prompt us to reconsider our desires as well). And negotiation serves as a means of finding compromises and reconsidering norms to accommodate greater diversity & adaptive resilience.
Taken together, my sense is that these actions inevitably lead us away from passive acceptance of flattening hegemony as the default mode of being on the web and toward an active process which enriches the landscape with a wider array of community gardens. This, in turn, empowers us to take better care of our 'personal gardening' needs as well.
In short, for me, community gardening highlights the intrinsic symbiosis between resilient social networks and the environments within which they thrive as a means of developing practices, spaces, & tools that nurture autonomy & sustainability.
At least, that's what comes to mind right now. Ask me again in six months and I'll likely have a very different answer ;^)
p.s. For anyone who wants to dig more deeply into these ideas (and read alternative perspectives which far predate my awareness of the term 'community gardening'), I highly recommend visiting the #community-gardening thread in the Scuttleverse where you can also add your own thoughts!
I think the last question I have for you here is regarding the point you made about community gardening. What does community gardening on the web look like for you personally?
This has been a wonderful conversation Seán. Thanks for taking the time to chat. The warmth you bring to these topics makes me excited about how we all can nurture a better, romantic-futurist web.
I've definitely drifted away from a number of alternative tools/platforms/spaces over the years because I was never really able to connect with them sustainably for one reason or another as well. And you're absolutely right that remaining engaged with a platform like SSB requires unlearning deep-set habits and expectations for a lot of people - an effort which many will ultimately conclude is not worth the effort.
However, I would emphasize that one crucial factor in that equation is the extent to which newcomers are able to meaningfully connect with other people in the community which they're seeking to join. If you develop strong enough bonds with even just one person in a particular space, you're much more likely to become a long-term community member than if you don't really feel like you connect with anyone or are valued (similarly to moving to a new town or starting a new job, for instance).
One of the reasons that I've personally become so enamored with SSB in particular is because there is a powerful, tangible sense of accessible community, history, and culture throughout the platform which I find so often lacking on Social Media. The Scuttleverse is not sprawling and addictive in the way that we've been trained to expect 'successful' social platforms to be, but it has a warm atmosphere and its roots are deep, strong, & ever-growing. Getting back to the analogy of the 'web city' (and setting aside the fact that SSB technically need not be attached to the web), it feels a bit like a beloved neighbourhood café which may never be able to compete with 'Starbucks' - but maybe that's not really the point. SSB's structure and values framing is fundamentally different from that of towering platforms like Facebook & Twitter, which is precisely why a particular core community of people have continued to nurture it over the past few years.
Prior to joining the SSB community, I've explored many other alternative social platforms (such as Diaspora, Mastodon, Matrix, etc.) - but never felt particularly welcome or valued as a newcomer. And that's the main reason I drifted away. Trying to become 'significant' enough to forge connections felt all-too-similar to the struggles I've experienced on major Social Media platforms. In stark contrast, I was very quickly and warmly welcomed into the Scuttleverse when I arrived there by a bunch of friendly, interesting people (often engaging at length with one another respectfully in longform!), and I now do my best to carry on the broader tradition of what butts refer to as 'community gardening' (loosely, fostering healthy social engagement & inclusion) there myself.
Similarly, you and I are currently engaging in a type of conversation which strikes me as an emblematic of this same emphasis on qualitative, open connection with unknown humans. Despite having no previous association with one another, you reached out to me through Write.as, and invited me to have a conversation through Are.na in a way which explores a new area of potential beyond the norms of online dialogue. In other words, you took the time to reach out to a newcomer to your community and created space for me to speak with you openly & at length in a completely different ecosystem (beyond the walls of social metricization & commodification). When does this happen on platforms like Facebook or Twitter?
[I'm now put in mind of the fact that, in a way, we're also engaging in an alternative, more DIY version of Letter--which arose to meet a deep desire which many Twitter users felt for more qualitative open human exchanges than the platform allows for, and has grown strong because it offers a novel framework which meets those values (though, sadly, they've recently introduced the number of "Reads" as a prominent default metric).]
Ultimately, I would say that whether it be Write.as or Are.na or Scuttlebutt, the long-term viability of alternative / open "y" platforms depends upon the extent to which they resonate with / respond to the values, needs, & growth of a strong core community of people who are weary of the monopolizing / restrictive "X" Platforms--enabling the formation of new habits & norms of online engagement/community-building in the process. This is, I think, less about direct competition as about finding & making room for greater online diversity and autonomy.
Do you think these tools fostering outward expansion ultimately makes people use them less in the process?
Personally I've used software similar to SSB a handful of times and then dropped them soon after, never sure why. I was probably looking for that dependency loop to keep me hooked into the software when it requires the active exploration and engagement you speak of. Perhaps I have to unlearn that tendency and become more patient. Has that issue ever come up for you?
Hey CJ! As much as I've been enjoying our chat, I think this will have to be my last block in this conversation. I'm reaching a capacity point with writing-based online engagements right now - which is tied to a convergence of health issue management, holiday busyness / business stuff, and a reconfiguration of my offline/online balance heading into the new year. Anyway, thanks again for taking the time to hang out with me in this cozy corner of Are.naville - it's been a real pleasure :^)
However! This is not to say that our exchanges need come to an end. I feel like at this point we should maybe switch over to trying a video chat over Jitsi sometime (in January?), if you're feeling up to it. My capacity to have verbal discussions is far higher than text-based ones generally. And unlike many people, I actually rarely do video chats so am not particularly fatigued in that regard myself. Let me know via email if you're interested!
And before I officially wrap things up here, I'll respond to your previous message!:
I think you're absolutely right about the grounding, empowering magic of active listening, learning, and collaborating. There are also some interesting parallels between making music and tinkering with computers & the web--especially if we focus on digital music production. People often ask me if I play music and my reply has always been that I'm an 'experimental musician' much in the same way that I'm a 'tinkerer' online. Formal learning has never been my forté, but I love playing instruments and experimenting with recordings/samples in much the same way that I approach things like web building (which is to say, crudely!). I've never released any music publicly, but have created single copies of two albums for friends once upon a time. But actually, on that note, I have some musical projects planned for the new year which I'll definitely share with you if/when I put them online :^) So glad that you've enjoyed some of my little mixography hehe I'll also let you know if I get a radio station running on my Raspberry Pi!
Social computing is such a great idea, and with so much more wholesome potential than 'Social Media' I'd say! I've been happy to see these trends towards things like SMCC, tilde club, Beaker, hyperlink.academy, 'digital gardens', etc., but the major issue for me is that it's really hard to bring non-tech people into the fold of things like this to build a diverse community sustainably in a purely digital context (especially when addicting platforms are competing for attention). On the other hand, I've seen some really cool, successful offline projects along these lines in the past - mostly oriented around teaching young people computer skills - but definitely not nearly enough. (I'm also reminded of the power and importance of libraries in this respect, just one of the countless community spaces that can't really function under current circumstances - and which offer so many great free tech literacy services!) I mean, sure, people can do their video chats, etc. but there is just no replacement for hands-on, face-to-face co-learning - especially when it comes to stuff like tech literacy - in my opinion. I think an ideal scenario will always be a hybrid offline/online approach to social computing... maybe one day we'll see widespread locally-oriented tilde web rings or something ;^P (On a side note, this was always one of the major appeals of Scuttlebutt to me - the whole local, offline potential!)
Whoa, sounds like you've got a great connection for trying out a PC! haha Funny how nostalgic your mention of Dell just made me, because that was the last Windows computer that I used. Now I'm thinking of old CD-ROM games like Age of Empires... Ahh... Anyway, I'm excited to move into a fresh new computer home - it's easy to forget how different other computing environments can feel.
I'll keep you posted on what happens with my Pi! Either way, it would be really fun to do some social computing with you sometime hehe Oh, and actually on that note, you should come stop by SMCC in January (on hiatus for the month) because we'll be headed back into Cooltown - our shared Unix server tilde town - and would love to have you join us :^) Just reach out to Zach if you're interested in becoming a resident!! You can also join the SMCC forum, where we have a small, but warm community as well.
Meanwhile, I hope things are well on your end all things considered! I'll continue keeping an eye to your blog for updates, and maybe we can coordinate a Jitsi chat at some point!
I don't think it sounds hokey at all. Before I got into IT/software I studied music — classical guitar in particular. Music always connected me to the wonder of being alive — of actively listening to the sounds around you and responding accordingly. I think that's partly why I enjoy computer/web magic so much. It reminds me of the obsessiveness of understanding a new piece, the joy of jamming with friends, and the community of local musicians I connected with. I am still actively listening, but it's of a different sort. All of that is the play/exploration you're talking about, that feeling of being alive. Do you play any instruments by the way? I only ask because I've stumbled upon your Mixcloud playlists and enjoy how eclectic they are — from Bill Callahan to 80's hip-hop/R&B. I'd definitely listen to your radio station if you get that Rasberry Pi up and running :^)
Bring back "Personal Computing"! What do you think of even taking that to the social side of things? "Social computing" instead of "social media"? I've been thinking more and more about that lately. Tilde Club, SMCC, and Beaker Browser make me think about other ways of being social through connected computers. They emphasize the computer behind the glossy frontend that social media often presents. Obviously it presents some friction to the process — learning Linux/Unix, command line, programming etc. — but perhaps that friction grounds the experience into something more wholesome, more fellow feeling, more convivial.
The Aleutia computer looks awesome! Those seem like awesome hardware choices. Like you, I feel like I don't have an optimal computer setup either. I just got a Macbook Pro and didn't know the extent to which I was going to be using it for programming & spinning up VM's. I am in a spot where I need to weed out documents/files as well to make new space. Also contemplating getting a used-computer tower of some sort — my former boss, who runs an IT consulting business, has a ton of old & used Dell computers that he's giving away freely. Makes me want to try to get familiar with Windows more just to bring one home and test it out! Of course there's so many great cloud providers out there too — from the big bois to smaller companies. I guess it's better to have a mix of both?
And do let me know what you decide to do with your Rasberry Pi. I am super curious about them and will most likely be getting one sooner rather than later. Maybe we can try to hack together on our respective ones and help each other out! Haven't really messed with hardware as much so it'd be a good foray into that world.
That's so lovely to hear! I feel like if I had a wedding I'd also want to keep it small, but can imagine there could be pressure to make it big. Sounds like a really wonderful time :^)
haha I always love learning about how people shift their focuses in life drastically for one reason or another - this, I feel, ties well into the importance of play/exploration & the myth of linear living. You make a very cogent point about how so much of how we feel about our computing/digital experiences is rooted in the state of mind we bring to them. I'm again put in mind of the way in which flying in an airplane can feel like a mundane task to, say, business people who travel frequently, but could alternatively be approached as an awe-inspiring act of flying through the sky in a giant metal bird across vast distances with a group of people from around the world. This may sound a little hokey, but I sincerely think that when we reconnect with the incredible power and versatility of computer/web magic, we also reconnect with the wonder of being alive. And much of that feeling, in my view, is rooted in play/exploration - which can both be fun and spiritually/intellectually rewarding in my experience in a way that purely utilitarian/transactional approaches fail to offer. Anyway, I'll stop myself there before I get too deep on some philosophical tangent and say that "ariadne's thread" resonated with me deeply - and it's always very cool to find more fascinating people who are also here in the Are.na-verse.
Isn't HTML Energy awesome?? I really hope they're able to continue on and grow!
Yeah, you've got it right about what I meant by computers being overly 'abstract'. I basically mean that people outside of 'tech' almost never talk about computers directly anymore, unless they're frustrated with a problem that they're struggling to troubleshoot - which, I would argue, almost always stems from a lack of computer talk/literacy. I think we really need to bring the term "personal computing" back into popular usage, because it is so personal. It might sound like a bit of a stretch, but I honestly think that there is a parallel here to the way in which we neglect to talk about mental health issues & self-care. Whether computers, the web, or our minds/bodies, we're all navigating these experiences collectively, and there are so many ways to approach them, but we tend to wait until there's a peak of some kind (usually a crisis) before we start really exploring them together. This is a loose cloud of thought, but I would say culminates in the various trends we're seeing during the pandemic - whether in the realm of digital or physical wellbeing, connection, & productivity. I hope that made sense - I'm challenging myself to write my responses more conversationally, with minimal editing/overthinking ;^P
As for my shift toward Linux, years ago--when I was first feeling an urge to break away from Mac, and was looking for an ethical/energy-efficient PC--I actually bought an Aleutia computer, which came with Ubuntu. Then... well, lots of complicated life things happened, and until quite recently, the computer has been sitting patiently, and mostly untouched--like a special book on a bookshelf that I've been saving for just the right opportunity. Does this sort of thing ever happen to you? I've finally gotten around to getting it set up (one issue with this is I don't yet have a very ergonomic setup for desktop computing [or, honestly, computing in general]), and am currently in the process of cleaning out my Mac and weeding/organizing external hard drives to get properly oriented for my new computer life :^) Once I get more into it, my plan is mostly just to learn as much as I can about the OS itself and make it a comfy, cozy space that I feel good about.
Oh, on a related note, I also recently picked up a Raspberry Pi after years of hearing about it's amazing potential for learning and exploring - have you used it? I feel like the hardest part is deciding which of countless ways to use it I'd like to prioritize... I'm thinking of it as a winter project, most likely, and have been mulling over ideas like trying to hosting a small website or 'radio station' on it. We'll see...
haha Yeah, you've definitely got deep reasons for taking your time to connect with SMCC. This weekend is just going to be a very loose hang out and maybe a doodle jam, and then I think next week Zach will probably be getting back into a web / computing history series that he's been leading. I really want to get back to Cooltown (our tilde space), but have been busy with lots of other priorities lately myself.
Thanks! We actually had a smaller in-person ceremony within COVID guidelines of masks & all — about 30 people at the church with a reception at our house (though we did have the ceremony streamed thanks to my best man). It went a lot better than we thought, a testament to having the people that matter there instead of a scattershot list of loose ties. So in a way, the current situation allowed us to have a wedding that we wanted along. Less fluff and more of what mattered.
The messy desk analogy is exactly how I feel about my computer nowadays too. I feel like using the computer back then was strictly a vehicle for play — websites of choice were game sites like Miniclip & AddictingGames and computer games like Far Cry, Unreal Tournament 2K4, & Halo took up most of my time. I don't know if I really took to programming until maybe two years ago, starting a junior IT job with no experience (just a degree in classical guitar performance haha). Now that you've mentioned it, my trajectory has also moved away from play towards work/research/writing/coding/etc. But perhaps that's the wrong way to look at it — maybe it's trying to view what we do on the computer as play? That's partly where my thoughts on the command line came from and where I sense a lot of your web experimentation comes from. One thing I enjoy about your website is the forking paths you present to anyone who enters. It reminds me of what is espoused in an essay that has stuck with me since I read it — Ariadne's Thread.
HTML Energy is fantastic! I have only listened to maybe two episodes of the podcast but I want to listen to more of them. What's cool about HTML Energy is that it equally acts as a philosophy, a movement of sorts. I've been super intrigued by the lessons they offer. Strikes me as a fun way to learn to code in a cozy environment. (an aside, but check out their super creative Patreon perks!)
I am curious if you could go further on what you mean by our experiences with computers are more abstract than they are. Do you mean that it's become something we don't think about now, like the air we breathe, and that it should be considered more deeply? I agree with you on an abstract level (ha) but want to better understand what you mean.
Interesting that my cybersecurity curiosity has led to the same conclusion as you — transitioning to more Linux usage. Do you use a virtual machine or are you thinking about booting a laptop with Linux? I've been using VMWare to spin up Linux boxes virtually. Trying to transitioning to different hardware is something I think of too. I've been eyeing the Pinebook Pro & System76 laptops as possible alternatives along with the Macbook I have. Is there anything in particular you're looking for?
PS: Also hoping to reach out to Zach sometime this week to get started on SMCC! Been really looking forward to it but didn't have the time for obvious reasons, but hopefully now there'll be some...
Wow, well among the reasons for taking your time to respond to someone online, I'm thinking getting married has to rank very high on the hierarchy of Other Priorities haha Congratulations! I hope you were still able to have a magical and fulfilling wedding ceremony despite the current circumstances :^) I must say that I've often wondered how people are adapting things like weddings to current constraints... if you're willing to share, I'd be curious to hear whether you had some sort of big digital ceremony for it (I keep imagining people using things like Second Life or some other avatar-oriented digisocial space for this kind of stuff - or maybe even a game like Animal Crossing).
That's a really good point about the focus shifting from customizing our desktops to customizing our online profiles. I feel like my desktop used to feel more like a bedroom, and now it feels more like a desk covered in projects and tools - but maybe this is also kind of the progression from being a kid and using my computer mostly for fun, and becoming older and using it mostly for research/work/etc. For me, I think a lot of the nostalgia I feel about the older web is deeply tied to nostalgia for my childhood/teenage experiences that were intertwined with that digital landscape. Do you have really distinct memories of when you first started using a computer, and when you first came online? I really appreciate hearing about how your experiences and feelings about digitality compare to mine, particularly because it's making me realize how rarely conversations about these topics happen outside of 'tech' circles - which is a real shame, and ties to a lot of what I said in our first chat.
On a related note, I've recently been really loving the podcast HTML Energy for very similar reasons because it's essentially a series of conversations about how different people approach / feel about web building, in a more casual, non-technical way than I'm used to hearing. I feel like our experiences with computers, the web, etc have become oddly abstract despite how often people are tethered to them, and having these kinds of conversations where we're just talking about how we approach digitality on a basic, personal level is really grounding and refreshing to me (which is one of the main reasons I've been drawn to spaces like SMCC).
And you're definitely right that the hardware/OS we use itself determines in great part the extent to which we are consciously aware of our computing experiences. Thanks for pointing that out, because I've been gradually transitioning over to using a Linux computer, and hadn't really thought about it this way - but I've been really drawn to doing so because my Mac has been feeling increasingly... restrictive? Or like a barrier? Still figuring out how to articulate it, but as I've thought more and more about these issues there's been this deep sense of yearning for not only different software/OS, web routines, etc but different hardware entirely. I'm excited to be starting fresh in the near future, but it's also honestly been quite a challenging, slow climb - kind of like moving out of a place you've been living in for a decade and sorting through all of your belongings to decide what to pack & what to get rid of. But, I digress...
Yeah, Beaker and Glitch are really great! I've been really wanting to dig deeper into the new Beaker, but have yet to carve out the time. I don't know of any other frameworks along those lines, but am reminded of Doom Emacs, which Zach gave a tour of during SMCC recently - are you familiar with Emacs? It's still a bit over my head, but from what I've seen it seems like a really cool way to take notes and create a workflow.
I'm surprised to hear that you haven't built a website before! I think mainly because of your cjeller.site domain which made me suspect that you had a previous website haha What you say is actually really fascinating to me because I feel like there's a lot to be said about how building spaces online doesn't necessarily have to mean creating websites in the more 'ground up' way. (I also love that your Halo site is still up and running. It definitely gives me flashbacks to a very specific chunk of my teenage years in which I was really into playing that game with friends.) As much as I advocate for building with things like HTML & CSS, it's really cool to see people use things like wiki to create web spaces and communities - and gets me thinking about the rise of 'no code' platforms, which I suspect will greatly outpace raw HTML web creation in terms of popularity.
For my sites, I mostly use Neocities' in-browser editor alongside Brackets on my computer. Honestly, I've always had a very crude and somewhat chaotic setup which doesn't really translate well into tutorial form haha And I've actually come to realize that it's mainly through my messy mistakes that I learn how to teach other people. Otherwise, I'm more likely to point people to more sensible things like Kev Quirk's tutorials.
There was a time when D&D wasn't cool? In all seriousness though, that's great context. The loss of magic is an interesting point. When did you feel that loss of magic? Did it ever happen when you were in your guild and fan club? Or were those communities insulated from the loss? I am curious about your experience, especially when it appears that many of these kind of communities now exist on "users as a product" platforms.
Hi CJ! I am really excited about this chat, so I am the one thanking you for the opportunity.
I have been playing video games since I can remember, and I have been a relatively early adopter of the internet. However, funnily enough, these two elements have very rarely overlapped.
I prefer single-player games, and I always loved point-and-click adventures and RPGs most of all. For me, the "social" element of video games involved "real life" interaction.
I spent a lot of time sitting with my friends in a dark room playing resident evil, comparing playthroughs, or having long brainstorming sessions to solve puzzles.
There have been, however, two exceptions: I've been part of a guild of players of Ultima Online. Inside the game, I would script adventures and NPCs, or paint digital skins to enhance and modify the characters; while outside the game I would organise meetups with other guild members. I made many friends across Italy at that time!
The other one is a Neverwinter Nights fan club I ran with two other girls over at Deviant Art. We would organise contests, draw, write stories, and script mods that we could play together.
One of my co-admins of the club is now a published author of urban fantasy and horror novels.
For me, the common element between the internet and games had more to do with the way both would stimulate my creativity and my desire to learn how things work behind the scene. Though it is true that there is something magical with the way the internet back then allowed young people to connect with others all over the world that would share their interests, no matter how "niche" they were.
(At that time, Dungeons and Dragons and fantasy novels weren't "cool").
It is a shame that the internet has lost its magic now that users are a product and meaningful interaction is discouraged; though I have seen many communities recently working on projects that aim at getting that magic back.
Write.as is a great example, as it encourages long-form replies across blogs over just clicking a "like" button or a smiley face.
Thanks for taking the time to chat Melyanna! To start off, I noticed that you work as a Release Manager for 505 Games (The folks who published Control which is super awesome btw) and have a lot of interesting creative projects on the web.
Has there always been an overlap between video games and the web for you? Did a lot of your early web experiences revolve around video games? Did video games make you go towards the web as a way to interact with other players? What has that relationship been like between the two?