From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

January 24, 2000*: on not uploading a column
With what I suppose should be considered a rather surprising consistency, a new column has been added to the Boidem each month for the past three and a half years. Once or twice I fell behind a bit: sometimes because of too many other tasks that demanded attention, sometimes because of difficulties transferring files to the university server, and sometimes because of a mix of both of those reasons. Outside of those minor slips, however, the Boidem has continued to meet the deadlines that I set for myself. Until now.
The present column is the January, 2000 column, but in name only. The date reflects my determination to catch up with columns missed, more than it reflects actual writing or uploading that took place on or about that date. Though the missed dates actually saw heavy Boidem-related involvement (involvement which is available for perusal, but not really relevant to the topic at hand) I have to admit, if the admission actually interests anyone, that the continued writing of these columns was in the precarious danger of ceasing.
But what interests me here isn't a list of excuses for not uploading a column, or an internet -age examination of writer's block. What interests me is the basic question of why should I care. True, it looks as though I'm actually going to get an advanced degree as a more or less direct result of writing these columns, but other than that, a list of the numerous minuses involved in writing them suggests that it's not all that worth it:
I receive no monetary remuneration from the writing of these columns
writing them takes time that I often don't have
numerous pressing activities that demand attention sometimes go unattended while I write
outside of a handful of friends and acquaintances hardly anyone reads these columns
So if that's the case, what is it about these columns that keeps me going? Is it a desire to write that is independent of any particular medium, or is there something about the World Wide Web and the feeling of being exposed to the entire world that makes us judge ourselves by outside standards? If my former writing habits are to be considered a factor, then there's definitely something in the first claim. Too many times in the past I've discovered that I'm a compulsive writer, if not a particularly good one. I've found myself writing less because there was something I actually wanted to write or to communicate, and more because through writing I was able to discover what it was that I wanted to say. It was an example of what might be called the pen and paper equivalent of thinking out loud. If these columns are nothing more than that, then this particular column can end here.
Surprise. It didn't. And that of course means that, to my mind at least, there really is something about the web that generates a feeling of responsibility toward an unseen readership. And that's what I want to try and examine in the rest of this column.
People present themselves differently in public than they do in private. There's nothing new about that. As an elementary school teacher I discovered that children who never paid attention to spelling mistakes on work that they presented me were willing to make correction after correction if their work was posted on the class bulletin board.
We generally don't encounter that same sort of problem with print media such as books, simply because the publishing industry has means by which spelling errors, factual inaccuracies and other embarrassing mistakes are identified before things get sent to the printer. Since much of web publishing is a personal medium that doesn't require intermediary steps such as a copy editor, people who publish their writing on the web have to be careful to check their work before posting, or to be ready to make continual corrections. But that's not the comparison I'm trying to get to.
When we read a book we know that it has been reviewed and published, and expect it to be accurate, but up to date only to the date it was published. Revised editions of works are common, but not mandatory. The web, on the other hand, is an extremely dynamic medium. Whereas I hardly think twice about borrowing a ten year old book from a library, an informatory web site that was last updated six months ago appears to be on the verge of extinction and hardly worth visiting. Though we don't necessarily picture the person behind the book that we're reading, our assumptions about him or her are based on our recognition of the publishing industry as a legitimate enterprise, and a rather accurate perception of how it works. On the web, with so many "here today, gone tomorrow" sites, we become weary of placing our trust in sites that aren't updated. As someone who writes to the web, I feel that my responsibility toward my readership somehow remains, even after the page or column has been posted. If I publish a book, I expect that any reader who wants to complain will find the publisher and will do so to him. Anyone who wants to complain about what I've written on a web site can do so directly to me, via my e-mail address which can be found on every main column page. Pages posted to the web are somehow an extension of me, and the people who read them, in a manner distinctly different from what happens when we read a book, become co-conspirators with me in its content. I can't just let a site which until now has been updated with almost clocklike consistency reach its end without some sort of explanation. And not knowing that sort of explanation I should offer, the most logical activity available to myself is to feel a certain pang of discomfort for not uploading as usual, to apologize to my readers, and to start working on the next column.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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