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The first online writer / 6 lessons from 21 months of logging
It’s time for some log-lore. This is the 5th edition of logloglog, and by now you probably get that I upload short-form thoughts to my site everyday, and then once a week I’ll stitch a few of them into a Substack post like this.
But where did my logging inspiration come from?
Justin Hall, the first online writer_
I started logging in 2021 after finding links.net, a personal website built by Justin Hall in 1994. He’s hailed as “the founding father of blogging.”
Yes, being the first online writer is a neat moniker to claim.
But he wasn’t just the first; he had a vision for what a personal website could be that’s still beyond anything I’ve seen today.
In ‘94, the web was small enough that you could browse everything new over the weekend. So Justin set out to make his personal website site the ultimate curation project, to show the world what was possible on this weird new thing called “the Internet.”
At its peak, links.net had 27,000 daily viewers, which at the time was (to my best guess) 1% of all web traffic (for context, Mr. Beast captures 1% of today’s traffic).
But Justin didn’t just curate the Internet, he shared his whole self online. He influenced a group of writers that came to be known as “escribitionists.” The word is a cross between “scribe” and “exhibitionist” (Justin has no issues with nudity).
His website contains an autobiography, family history, write-ups about his friends, poetry, essays… just about anything he could imagine, and it’s all linked together in an insane, choose-your-own-adventure HTML maze. There are 5,000 pages in there, and I’d guess near 2 million words.
This was the original rabbit hole.
Starting in January of 1996, he updated the front-page of his website with a journal entry of what he did the day before. These were his “logs.”
September 8th, 7:32 pm (EST)
It’s written in chaotic free-verse, holds nothing back, and finds a balance between “scholarly schizophrenia,” intimate personal details, and an evangelism around the self-publishing revolution. It’s known as, “On the Road of the Internet Age.” He did a road trip across the country on Greyhound busses, where he’d crash with his readers in exchange for building them a website. There’s even a William S. Burroughs appearance (a character in Kerouac’s “On the Road” from 1957).
As I binged his daze pages, I got a high-resolution approximation of the life and mind of this 22-year old stranger. It’s not a brand, a front, or a caricature. It’s a full human sublimated into hypertext.
I’m fascinated with the idea that writing can capture and share the potent moments of life that would typically fade to memory. I already regret not writing daily when I started a virtual reality company in 2014.
So in December 2021, I decided, what if I published all my thoughts on my website?
Thanks for reading Dean's List. Later in September I’ll publish a long-form piece about Justin Hall. Don’t miss it!
6 lessons from 21 months of logging_
Since the end of 2021, I’ve uploaded ~3 logs a day, with the average one being 50-100 words. These are small thoughts, usually epiphanies jotted into my phone in a rush, touched up and published the next morning onto a pinned Substack page.
I’ve started a lot of weird experiments, but this one stuck.
I’ll even admit that I consider my logging practice to be more important than my practice of publishing essays.
Practice your prose — Logging lets you practice shaping ideas into sentences, without having to worry about the puzzle of essay writing. Structuring and refining thousands of words is a different skill. With logging, all you have to do is write one great paragraph. The reduced scope is liberating. It’s writing without headache. I publish 3x more words through logs than essays.
You see the world differently — Logging forces me to snap out of auto-pilot and pay attention. Once you build a habit of recording your observations, it gets you to look at things more closely and from different perspectives. Any ordinary day is filled with revelations, but only if you care to notice. After I capture something, it clears out my thought loop, and gives me a fresh slate to see new things. It’s a feedback loop: the more you log, the more you notice.
It's a lo-fi second brain — My old note-taking systems were impersonal and mechanical. I’d hoard quotes from books or articles, and then manually organize them into some private structure that was impossible to maintain. Logging inverts the typical note-taking habits in three big ways.
Original — These are your original reflections. Through logging, you build a mosaic-portrait of your life. It doubles as an archive of your memories and a bank of personal sources to draw from.
Loose — No organization required. I have over 200,000 words jammed into 21 monthly text files. Categorizing, linking, and grouping is forbidden. It’s just reverse chronological. All my past thoughts are searchable, and I’m building Margin Muse so that relevant logs pop into my margins as I write.
In public — Sharing my logs in public forces me to write in coherent sentences. Private note-taking systems tend to devolve into chicken scratch.
Freedom to go off-brand — Logging is anti-strategic. I don't have the self-consciousness of a tweet or the perfectionism of an essay. I assume most people don’t binge-read my logs, so I have no pressure to perform or narrow my scope like an entrepreneur would. It’s pure capture and expression.
Momentum — So many of my essays and tweets start out as logs. I often scan the past few days to sense the themes that are emerging. These are the ideas ready to be written. If ever I get stuck on an essay, it’s often because it felt urgent, but had no presence in my latest logs. Instead of starting from a blank page, you can copy in some recent logs and thread them together (this is my exact strategy for loglogog). It comes out easily.
It works even when you're busy — I was slammed in April and May and had no bandwidth to write essays. I still logged. I wrote 13,000 words. Logging is resilient. You don't need to make time for it. It's ambient. It's simply about making the habit to write down the thoughts you’re already having.
September 4th, 2023_
What does a day of logging look like?
Check out the list below. It shows the time that I logged, and the nature of the thing logged (if you’re on desktop, you can hover over the numbers for footnotes, otherwise you’ll find them at the bottom).
This example is from Labor Day, where I logged about every half hour. Check out the range of things captured: dreams, quotes, theories, small moments, prices of food, stupid thoughts.
Logging is about recognizing that something novel has just happened. It’s an “aha.” It’s pairing the act of surprise, insight, humor, or struggle with the habit of grabbing your phone.
8:42 am — Analyzing dreams from the night before
9:07 am — A Hunter S. Thompson quote on the 1960s
10:11 am — A Lichtenstein quote on language
10:34 am — Speculating on factors that might break the Strauss-Howe cycle
11:15 am — On how fame punishes those who express themselves
11:52 am — Abstract idea: history is a womb
1:14 pm — Why artists shouldn’t obsess over their work
1:30 pm — An analysis on the 4 era of music since 1940
1:49 pm — Getting high in a parking garage outside a mall
2:02 pm — Idea to go viral on Reddit with a “reverse munchies” post
2:04 pm — $25.17 for a quinoa salad
2:13 pm — Paranoid thoughts in a public restroom
2:16 pm — Making fun of aggressive police dog signs
3:03 pm — Idea for a band as my wife tries on jeans
3:50 pm — On solving the problem of finding clothes that fit
3:51 pm — Declaring the death of malls
Dive into the links.net rabbit hole — what are your impressions?
What stops you from capturing your thoughts through the day?
If you logged, would you post them on your website?
Would you join a “Log 100 Logs” challenge? Should I start that?
8:42 am — Another odd-dream; a series of convincing vignettes, that each seem lucid or convincing in the moment, but upon connection, make no sense: I'm at a sleep-away camp in Greece turned Alaska, turned idyllic college campus, where I made instant friends with a stranger by sharing a codeword, turned into a stage where a ventriloquist stuck a needle into the back of his dolls neck, turning it into a real person. How does dream blending work? Am I only remembering disjointed shards? Or are these moments actually warping into each other?
9:07 am — Hunter S. Thompson quote:
"We are all wired into a survival trip now. No more of the speed that fueled that 60's. That was the fatal flaw in Tim Leary's trip. He crashed around America selling "consciousness expansion" without ever giving a thought to the grim meat-hook realities that were lying in wait for all the people who took him seriously... All those pathetically eager acid freaks who thought they could buy Peace and Understanding for three bucks a hit. But their loss and failure is ours too. What Leary took down with him was the central illusion of a whole life-style that he helped create... a generation of permanent cripples, failed seekers, who never understood the essential old-mystic fallacy of the Acid Culture: the desperate assumption that somebody... or at least some force - is tending the light at the end of the tunnel."
10:11 am — Lichtenstein, 1922:
“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
10:34 am — Things that might destabilize the Strauss-Howe theory.
The lack of generational aging (prolonged adolescence)
The increasing rate of technology shifts power from older to younger generations
The extension of human life
Technology that scrambles consensus (singular identities within a culture)
11:15 am — Justin Hall's website was called "On the Road of the 1990s." Both writers brought out the "intrinsic perspective," meaning there was a confessional quality. Their work felt like a true representation of their mind and inner life. Both writers found trouble with scale. Kerouac was tortured by his fame. And Hall found trouble when the rest of the world came online and found his blog. How can we be expressive at scale?
11:52 am — Imagine pre-history as a horizontal line and post-history as a vertical line. History is the process in which humanity rebels against the constraints of nature (space and time) to fulfill the promises of its imagination. History is limited; finite; a threshold; a test; a passage; a womb. Everything from fire to atomic weapons is still part of our “chrysalis” (the pupal stage), and the butterfly beyond history is not just stranger than we suppose, it’s stranger than we can suppose.
1:14 pm — An artist has to overcome a string of connected fetishes; obsession with the work itself, obsession with the products of the work (attention), obsession with the identity of an artist. If you’re reliant on any of these, you’re at the mercy of unpredictable shifts and droughts. The ultimate goal is to find art in a state of simple and pure being. From there is the source of inspiration, anyway.
1:30 pm — It’s neat to see the Strauss-Howe generational theory reflected in the music of our last 80 years:
The High: In the 40s and 50s, emerging music had an uplifting nature. Think of post-war opera singers. Or think of early rockabilly and simple lyrics about finding love and starting a family. There was a yearning for stability.
The Awakening: You can sense a spiritual rebirth in the music of the 60-80s. Just look at the difference between early & late Beatles. Dylan brought “the protest song” to the times (though around long before). The Grateful Dead bring improv and psychedelic jams to dissolve ordinary song structure. The subconscious is unleashed, and there is an evolving sense of “the weird” through each decade (from Lennon, to Bowie, to Byrne).
The Unraveling: The late 80s, 90s, and early 2000s saw a split into “mainstream” and “underground.” We saw the rise of celebrities, plastic pop stars, and boy bands (think N’SYNC, Spice Girls). Artists were manufactured and marketed as product through new distribution systems. The underground saw a split into genres, each embodying a different kind of cynicism and disillusionment (rap, metal, emo). Radiohead emerged as the band of angst and paranoia.
The Crisis: In the new millenium, we’ve seen another split that’s defined by Internet distribution and social media. The possibility to go viral has ushered the rise of the gimmick. Think Gangnam Style and Lady Gaga. Music is engineered to be shocking, absurd, and instantly attention-worthy. It’s defined by it’s “in your faceness.” But the opposite has also happened: music has receded into the background. Lo-fi beats is music to work to. EDM and Dubstep is music to wave to. Music is ancillary. Spotify brings the history of recorded music into your pocket. We can access everything, all of the hundreds of splintered sub-genres. Your taste is algorithmically calculated, and you get a stream of songs tailored for you, without you even needing to know the artists’ name or the decade it’s from. When music is so hyper-optimized for each individual, it evaporates from the culture, and there’s no shared consensus taste, or opinions of how philosophy should be enshrined in song.
1:49 pm — Parked in between F-H at the Roosevelt Field parking garage. Next to a Mercedes, mother and daughter get out. Alone, we take two hits. Bad idea. Marijuana is a wrench to consumerism, and it’s a funny self-imposed obstacle to physically impair yourself from enjoying the spending experience. It’s actually good, conservative sense.
2:02 pm — I bet I would go viral if I made a Reddit post about my “reverse munchies” phenomenon. All it takes for me is one big toke, and my stomach shrivels and all my eating habits reverse. Sober, I’m an animal, and I aim to have an uninterrupted stream of taste. High, I eat slow, feel everything as it moves through my body. I eat around 1/4 of the volume I typically eat. Why does this happen to me? Is it just my wiring? Am I fortunate for this? Is it exposing some emerging problem in my digestive system? Reddit should know.
2:04 pm — $25.17 for quinoa salad with beans, avocdao, tofu, giner, water, and seltzer. I remember when you could eat healthy for $5. Could still cook healthy for $6, but when in the grease-town food court, this is the only option.
2:13 pm — Paranoid thoughts in a clustered public bathroom about how malls are micro-cities optimized for commerce. No residential. Air condition maxed out to create the ideal conditions. Massage chairs every X,000’. Intentionally vague signage. The Venice effect. This must all be documented in some consultant’s PDF. Look into the history of intellectual critique on shopping malls (from Walter Benjamin to Joan Didion to Rem Koolhas).
2:16 pm — There are signs in the mall of bomb-sniffing weed-sniffing canines. They will eat your face. But more likely, they will get disoriented by the plumes of perfume from the mall kiosks.
3:03 pm — In a Madewell waiting for my wife to try on some jeans, I had a vision of a band wearing oversized jean jackets playing fast and highly-technical songs, featuring 3-guitarists doing poly-rhythms, each with the limitation of using only 2-3 notes (so together, they can harmonize within a full octave). Vocally, they just lob poetic fragments over the verses, and all the rhythm momentarily stops for a catchphrase sentence as a chorus.
3:50 pm — Again, wishing for a store where all of the clothes fit. Seems like the most obvious obstacle in purchasing clothing. Madewell could’ve robbed me of a few hundred dollars if they could better match me with the right fit. There is obviously no need to regulate fashion and have a universal standard for size, but I wonder if there’s a commercial opportunity to be insanely good at that.
3:51 pm — Malls have peaked. They’re waning, and will probably die a slow death over the next few decades as online shopping continues to innovate. There won’t be a need for a mass aggregation of random retailers. Something else will emerge.