kottke.org posts about best of the web
I asked Kottke.org readers if they had ever seen, heard, or read something on the web that literally changed their lives.
Fourteen people said no. Sixteen said maybe. Thirty-eight people said yes. These are some of their answers. Everyone is anonymous. Some said more than others.
Four different people listed pages from Metafilter:
Five readers listed works of journalism.
Five listed personal essays or advice.
Five listed videos or video series.
And ten listed entire websites.
- “Josh Davis’s www.dreamless.org message board, now defunct.”
- “Violet Blue’s writing, which lead to me realizing sex is a much deeper and more interesting topic than mainstream news coverage would have me believe.”
- “The website MathPuzzle. It was the first time a website caught my attention and I corresponded with the owner/webmaster, and it opened me up to the online and offline community of puzzlers around the world. Working as a puzzle author got me through college and helped me establish a name for myself.”
- Bullet Journal.
- “Jeph Jacques’s Questionable Content, particularly how he dealt with suicide, depression, and the concept of people from different backgrounds so elegantly. I like to think it increased (and continues to increase) my empathy in the world.”
- National Novel Writing Month
- “Radiolab made me want to be a journalist.”
Université du Québec à Chicoutimi: “In 2005 I was trying to get information on how to study abroad for a year. Everything I read was on the Internet, and I then spent 9 months between 2006 and 2007 in Chicoutimi, Quebec.”
Pixel Envy. “Not pandering. Started reading Kottke, DF, and Metafilter, and realized that I could try doing the same thing. I’ve had a modicum of success since, and met a bunch of really cool people as a result.”
Now pick up your instruments, and go start a band.
I asked Kottke.org readers to tell me what were the best web sites that they knew about that most people have never heard of. Normally, each of these sites would be worth a blog post on its own, either a longer or shorter one. But this week, we’re…
A few of the sites readers suggested are actually (in my experience) quite well-known. However, if you’ve never been to Daring Fireball
, The Millions
, Hacker News
, Every Frame A Painting
, The Internet Archive
, Google Reverse Image Search
, or, yes, Kottke.org
, you should remedy that as soon as you can.
The rest of the suggestions are really quite something. I’d never heard of most of them. A few others I’ve loved and shared as a secret handshake between friends. In lieu of lengthy explanations, I’m just going to link them all and let you explore.
(This is what most web pages used to be: just long lists of links. We were such dorks back then. But maybe we were on to something.)
Note: The order is not a ranking, but simply an easy way I can count how many links there are.
Also Note: No money changed hands to feature any of these sites on Kottke.org, although in retrospect, that would have been a good idea..
Final Note: If the site required a login, or I couldn’t figure out what it was doing or why it would be interesting to anyone, I didn’t include it. Sorry.
Weird Fiction Review: “an ongoing exploration into all facets of the weird, from the classics to the next generation of weird writers and international weird.”
Pink Trombone: You kinda have to play with this one to get it.
Internet Hockey Database: Statistics, Logos, and Trading Cards.
diamond geezer: A lovely blog about trains and architecture in Great Britain.
MLB Uniforms worn on April 19, 2017: You can do this for any date you want.
- Nepali: A Beginner’s Primer Conversation and Grammar
- Swear Trek
Fuck You, Broccoli: “An in-depth exploration of vegetables and other so-called healthy foods.”
Spacetrawler: A science-fiction webcomic and comics blog.
- Extra Ordinary: Another webcomic, about a little girl who has sweetly surreal adventures.
- WPC Probabilistic Winter Precipitation Guidance: Tracks snowfall.
- The Drawfee Channel: A video blog about drawing with digital tools.
- Is it Christmas?: Current answer: NO
- BoardGameGeek | Gaming Unplugged Since 2000
- Free online Dictionary of English Pronunciation - How to Pronounce English words
- Instant No Button! Unhappy Darth Vader on demand.
- Seismic Monitor: Recent earthquakes on a world map and much more.
- Autostraddle: News, Entertainment, Opinion, Community and Girl-on-Girl Culture. This site is great.
- Superbad.com: I… I don’t understand this thing I’m seeing.
- WWWF Grudge Match - Where useless knowledge breeds champions: If you’ve ever wondered, “What if Boris Yeltsin and Ted Kennedy had a drinking contest?” this site is for you.
- The Griddle: A puzzle blog with free puzzles.
- Badger Badger Badger.com! The Original Dancing Badgers!
- Futility Closet - An idler’s miscellany of compendious amusements
- Skyline - YouTube: “Esports analyst and coach focusing on the game Overwatch.” Two people suggested this.
- The Vintagent: A vintage motorcycles blog.
- CDC WONDER: The CDC’s online databases. Get as much government data as you can, while you can.
- InfiniteLooper: Endless loops of YouTube videos.
- The Morning News: A real blog. I love it.
- Deadspin’s The Stacks: Old sports stories from out-of-print magazines republished with the author’s permission. I can’t believe I hadn’t been reading this already.
- street dog millionaires: Two dogs, one from India, one from Africa.
- FL@33 presents http://bzzzpeek.com: What do animals sound like in different countries? (Every language is different!)
- JazzOasis.com - Pat Metheny on Kenny G: Jazz guitarist Pat Metheny takes Kenny G to the woodshed.
- McMansion Hell
- Scroll Down to Riker: Does what it says on the tin.
- Flickr: The Commons
- NYPL Digital Collections: This is amazing, and it’s all free to play with.
- The Library of Babel
- Bowiebranchia: “Nudibranchia or other opisthobranchia compared to the various looks of David Bowie.” Surprisingly compelling!
- Play Later: Browse newly released albums and save them for later. Mostly a handy discovery frontend for Spotify.
- www.Visual6502.org: Simulation of vintage computers and game systems in the browser.
- Political status of Western Sahara: So are we going to have a new country in North Africa or what?
- Antipope - Charlie’s Diary: Science fiction writer Charlie Stross’s blog.
- Pi.co: Interviews with interesting people by journalist/investor Om Malik.
- Deuce of Clubs: A Demonstrated Aptitude for Reasonable Mayhem: A site by Godfrey (“Doc”) Daniels, of Mojave Phone Booth fame.
- The Well’s annual conversation with author Bruce Sterling.
- Beyond the Frame: visual essays about TV and movies by Luis Azevedo.
- Artsy Engineering: An information network and open-source software for people in the art world.
- Hart Island Project Stories of unclaimed and unidentified people buried in mass graves in an island near New York city beginning in the 19th century.
Damn Interesting: a science, history, and psychology blog.
- What’s Noka Worth? (Part 1) — DallasFood. A takedown of a hot, expensive artisanal chocolate maker… over a decade ago.
- Mexican Table Salsas: The eGullet culinary institute’s discussion of traditional salsas, and how to make them.
- Histography - Timeline of History: A mighty timeline view of every event in Wikipedia. That’s a lot of dots.
- People Reluctant to Kill for an Abstraction, a movement: a short story/manifesto by George Saunders.
- Langscape: an interactive map of all world languages, put together by researchers at the University of Maryland.
- in Bb 2.0 - a collaborative music/spoken word project: twenty musicians, all playing in the same key — you get to mix and match.
- Paper Planes: Use your phone to catch and throw paper planes to and from people all over the world.
There! That ought to be enough magic and wonder to last you through the weekend. Thank you, as always, to the readers who submitted links.
[From Achewood, by Chris Onstad]
It’s never good when someone calls you on the phone to tell you that someone you love has died. It’s like those scenes on TV shows where the police or the White House are rushing to notify the family of the deceased before the news breaks so that they don’t learn about it from the television.
I’ve had it happen for three people in my life who weren’t close friends or family members: George Carlin, Steve Jobs, and Prince. In each of those cases, someone heard the news first and thought of me. This may be the sweetest and most melancholy kind of kindness. Today, it’s been a year since Prince died.
Prince made music for as long as I was alive. His self-titled album, made when he was still a teenager, was released the week before I was born. My mother, who loved Prince as much as I did, listened to “I Wanna Be Your Lover” over and over again when I was in utero. Prince and his music were Facts of the Universe, like the ancient Greeks believed in Zeus and his thunderbolts.
The only star as big and bright was Michael Jackson, and you couldn’t go into your room and put on headphones to listen to Michael Jackson’s dirty songs where nobody else could listen. It was a different kind of intimacy and intensity.
Michael Jackson’s and Whitney Houston’s deaths felt different: a Kaddish for lost dreams in childhood, a renewed awareness of how fragile these larger-than-life figures always were. Lou Reed’s and David Bowie’s deaths felt different: mourning my teenage self, my teachers and heroes. Prince’s death was like losing the love of my life.
The web has an unusual and still-evolving relationship with death and mourning. People have always used it to memorialize people they loved, and to learn more about them. (One of my first contacts on the web was someone looking for information on a relative with my first and last name who went missing in action in Vietnam.)
But the systems of the web were slow to catch up. Social networks built to stalk college classmates only gradually learned how to deal with members’ deaths. Who owns or can access your virtual assets and information after you die?… It depends. The mechanisms we’ve built aren’t built for this. Hopes for the Singularity aside, there’s no disrupting death.
We are inventing new rituals of public mourning online. And when it comes to death, rituals may matter as much or more than network topologies and the law. In many ways, these rituals replace older ones we’ve lost. Grief once expressed in public via mourning clothes, black armbands, and semi-public funerals is now being hashed out on the web.
“I really believe that a lot of these social media mourning rituals are popping up because people aren’t able to mourn in public spaces the way that they used to,” says Candi Cann, an assistant professor at Baylor University and author of “Virtual Afterlives: Grieving the Dead in the Twenty-First Century.” “People have this need to be recognised as grievers.”
We can’t always be with family, scattered across countries and continents. We can’t always confide in old lovers, our relationships fraught and fractured. We can’t take off from work to curl up and cry in private without consequence. We can’t all make pilgrimages to leave votive offerings and memorabilia at the sites of death.
But we can tell friends and strangers how we feel. We can point them to the things this person made that changed our lives. We can let them know, friends and strangers both, that it is okay for them, for us, for all of us to feel, to mourn the person and what that person meant. To mourn the part of us that will never be the same without the other person’s presence exerting a magnetic pull on us from across the planet.
(With thanks to Anil Dash)
Like I mentioned in the post on web comedy, something about the experience of the World Wide Web, the experience of working with a screen, seems to loosen our hold on reality. Maybe we’ve trained ourselves to do it by reading stories and playing video games with very vague visual details (sometimes just text). Maybe it’s part of blocking out the world around us so we can focus and interact on the screen. Maybe it’s a residue of the awkward metaphors of “cyberspace,” or maybe this is where those metaphors come from. But I think we are amenable to the suggestion of a possible world where everything is different, even more so than when we read a book or watch a movie. The closest thing might be comic books, which likewise play endlessly with time travel, alternate universes, and what-if scenarios.
“Rome, Sweet Rome” is a short story that began as part of a Reddit thread and eventually turned into a movie deal. It’s about a modern US Marine Corps unit that gets sucked back in time and fights Roman soldiers in 23 BC. It’s just like one of the thousand of ridiculous “what if?” conversations that take place on the web every day. But it’s also something that the people who were involved with it while it was being made never forgot.
A People’s History of Tattooine is something I was involved with, although someone else nominated it for part of the time capsule. In 2014, a bunch of geeky dads (mostly) on a Saturday started to wonder how the Star Wars stories would be told not by the Rebellion or the Empire, but by the nonhuman people seen throughout the series. In other words, as Jake Harris wrote, “what if Mos Eisley wasn’t really that wretched and it was just Obi Wan being racist again?”
This attitude, which treats almost nothing with reverence, but everything with care for its consistency and its consequences, is one of the fundamental modes of being on the web. It’s not like traditional fandom, scholarly pedantry, or manual-driven computation, where the original texts are treated like sacred writ. It’s fanfic, it’s slashfic, it’s deconstruction, it’s inventing your own entire fork of a standard because the standard doesn’t do what you think it ought to do. And it’s an attitude particularly well-suited for world-building.
The Onion imagined a film script that had been floating around Hollywood for 75 years called The Final Symphony, with a part written for Basil Rathbone that was later “rewritten for Mickey Rooney, and later Gene Wilder and then Chris Tucker.”
SB Nation wrote an entire feature imagining quarterback Tim Tebow’s sojourn through the Canadian Football League, little imagining that he would do something even less likely and take up minor league baseball.
The Beatles have two alternate histories that readers nominated: one, a Borgesian counterhistory where the band never broke up (complete with unexplained artifacts from that universe), the other, a timeline of events where The Beatles accepting Lorne Michaels’ stunt offer to reunite on Saturday Night Live leads to a reunion album, Mark David Chapman’s suicide, Michael Jackson’s premature death, and Lennon protesting the second Iraq war.
Dru Johnston’s “I Think I Should Get More Credit For Killing Hitler” shows that in a utopia as well as a dystopia, the gods are indifferent to our heroism.
Finally, there’s the case of Walter Miller’s Homepage. Walter Miller was basically dril before dril. Same dark humor, same misspellings, same grim, bizarre universe, same cult reverence.
The homepage began as a Prodigy site in the mid-1990s at the URL pages.prodigy.com/Hell/walter. It appeared on Suck in January 1996, it was in Time magazine, it won awards, the Harvey company optioned it to be an animated series.
Nobody, as far as I know, ever figured out who Walter Miller was, whether he/she/they were just one person. The site just… faded away. Except it’s mirrored and hosted by fans all over the web, sometimes in different states: an entire sea of alternate versions of an alternate universe, waiting to one day be made whole again.
My friend Brian McCullough is an internet historian and podcaster. In this blog post, he takes my idea of a time capsule for the World Wide Web containing the best examples in different forms and flips it on its head.
When I go to Google Maps and look up my old block, if I go to street view, I can see what feels like a nostalgia miracle now: a picture of me and my now-deceased dog walking into Prospect Park, like we did a thousand times. I remember the day it happened. Noticing the Google Street View car just as it passed us. Wondering if it captured us.
It felt like a lark at the time. Now it feels powerfully meaningful. Proof, somehow, in the vast historical Matrix of the Internet, that Winston was my dog. And we went for walks in the park in the afternoon. And he was a good dog. And they were GOOD, those walks. I miss those walks.
We all know that, more and more, Internet life IS real life. The important, consequential, meaningful things that happen to us increasingly have a digital record; and that’s if they haven’t, in fact, ACTUALLY happened online! So you, reading this right now, probably have 3-4 things that are treasured heirlooms from your digital life that you would save from a digital fire.
And he ends it with this amended version of the time capsule challenge:
Ask your readers to submit some of the most profound, history-changing, this-is-when-my-life-changed PERSONAL moments that are on the web. That upload. That status update. That selfie. The digital, “personal effects,” as it were, that they would save from a fire.
And this is true. If your house was on fire, you wouldn’t save your copy of the collected works of Shakespeare. (Maybe if, for some reason, you have a copy of the First Folio in your house.) You’d save your printed photo albums. You’d save your phone and laptop, the devices that (even if they’re backed up to the cloud) hold the irreplaceable pieces of your life.
It reminds me of this old episode of Radiolab, where Ann Druyan talks about recording the Voyager Golden Record. Along with Mozart and Bach and Chuck Berry, and audio recordings of the major human languages, it includes a recording of her brainwaves, right at the time that she and Carl Sagan were falling in love.
The difficulty, as Brian points out, is that so much (not so little) of our personal data is recorded and stored forever, and stored in huge data silos where we have little access to it, and few ways to curate and preserve it and pass it on ourselves.
I don’t have a solution, to either problem. I know that both problems are at a new scale, even for the World Wide Web. When we first began to blog and scan and document our lives, we weren’t quite capable of imagining how different the collection, storage, and recall of data were going to become. It’s like moving from (slow) Newtonian to (fast) non-Newtonian speeds: the regular laws of physics no longer apply.
And this means that the regular laws of history no longer apply, either. We might have relatively limited insight into individual lives or works, no matter how noteworthy those individuals might be, compared to the massive databanks of all lives and all information sources stored by Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Apple. If only we could get our hands on it.
I asked Kottke readers to tell me the funniest stories they’d ever read on the web.
Now let me say this: I like to think I have a pretty eclectic sense of humor. I can go high or low, folksy or surreal, G-rated puns or X-rated filth. But some of you… let’s just say a few of you surprised me with some of this. This is some seriously weird shit.
NOTE: To narrow things down, I knocked out anything that didn’t resemble a story. I knocked out videos and focused on text. People who suggested comedy specials on Netflix — I didn’t watch those. I eliminated anything that seemed downright stupid, mean, or just not funny. And I probably dropped a few other links here and there because I closed the tab instead of saving it, or some other reason. This isn’t a scientific survey; this is a blog.
- “So You’ve Decided To Drink More Water,” by Mallory Ortberg. This is pre-Toast Mallory, and it has everything that made her a huge star in the years that followed. (Well, at least a huge star for us.)
- “Dogs Don’t Understand Basic Concepts Like Moving,” by Hyperbole and a Half’s Allie Brosh. It’s true. They don’t.
- “Climb Aboard, Ye Who Seek the Truth!” by Bronwen Dickey. A cruise for conspiracy theorists. Or, if you will, a “Conspira-Sea Cruise.”
- “Downton Abbey With Cats,” by John Hodgman. It’s not a laugh a minute, but this story has a core of melancholy that just makes it deeper and funnier over time.
- “Darling, There’s Something I’ve Been Hiding From You—I’m Jimmy Buffett.” Surprisingly, there was only one entry from The Onion, but it’s a pretty good one.
- “Everything That’s Wrong of Raccoons,” by Mallory Ortberg. This is right at the end of The Toast’s run, and it’s a treat. “I can’t be in trustment of a beast that clambers and waddles both.” Nor should you, Mallory.
- “The Wisdom of Children,” by Simon Rich. I think the best part of this is the adults’ table conversation as imagined by the kids’ table, but opinions may differ.
- “An Oral History of ‘Mad Men’,” by Clickhole. The oral history boom kicked off a terrific run of oral history spoofs by Clickhole. The one for Radiohead’s OK Computer and Michael Jordan’s flu game are also excellent, although after a few, they start to feel kinda samey.
- “TIME FOR SOME STORIES,” by davesecretaryatwork. This is one of those “maybe you had to be there” things, but these set of stories were lovingly carried over from the VivaVinyl.org message board to an Angelfire site that then went down, and finally found a home at somebody’s tilde.club page. Also, two different people nominated it. Who are we to judge what cracked people up in the days before YouTube?
- “An Insider’s Report on the Death of ‘Wilton North’,” by Paul Krassner. This seems like something somebody could have made up, Spinal Tap-style, but in the very early days of the Fox Network, there really was a short-lived late night TV show called The Wilton North Report. Conan O’Brien, Greg Daniels, Alex Sokolow, and other future luminaries wrote for it. I swear to god.
- “Oscar Fug Parties: Lindsay Lohan and Sharon Stone,” by Jessica Morgan. This is now a different kind of funny given the future career arcs of these two actors.
- “Something Close To Madness Case File #24: The Oogieloves In The Big Balloon Adventure,” by Nathan Rabin. A screening of a very strange kids’ movie gets even stranger.
- “The story of Amun-Re, the crappiest god ever,” by Joe Gola. I’ve never played the board game this is based on, but this is an inspired bit of message board fan fiction.
- “The Pitch Meeting for Animaniacs,” by Abbey Fenbert. “EXEC #1: How will kids feel when they watch this show? THE ANIMATOR: Disconcerted. Unmoored. Hyper-stimulated. Amused to the point of terror.” This is so good.
- “In Which I Fix My Girlfriend’s Grandparents’ Wifi And Am Hailed As A Conquering Hero,” by Mike Lacher. Maybe the most McSweeney’s story that ever McSweeneyed.
- “TOTO’S ‘AFRICA’ BY ERNEST HEMINGWAY,” by Anthony Sams. On second thought, maybe the competition for Most-McSweeney’s is stiffer than I thought.
- “My 14-Hour Search for the End of TGI Friday’s Endless Appetizers,” by Caity Weaver. Maybe the most memorable bit of nu-gonzo reporting of this decade. New Journalism had acid trips: we have mozzarella sticks.
- “The Alameda-Weehauken Burrito Tunnel,” by Maciej Ceglowski. This was 2007, but I say if we’re not building hyperloops to send authentic California burritos across the country, then I don’t see the goddamned point.
- “Anecdotal Leads for News Stories Reporting the End of the World,” by Hart Seely. Newly timely! When a friend recently passed this along again, I reached the end and laughed out loud for a full minute like, well, someone who’s facing the end of the world.
There’s still something to be said about the kind of humor that the web makes possible, or at least rewards disproportionately to other kinds of media. There’s definitely more short-form, densely-referential bits that somehow fuse tweeness and gallows humor than you see on television, or even in magazines, which might be their nearest successor. Some savage blend of The New Yorker and underground zines.
It’s a little like what happened to television comedy after The Simpsons showed up. Animation opened up the possibility space for other kinds of comedy, found a way for the weirdest bits of Get Smart and Monty Python to exist in their own separate universe.
The web had a similar effect. You could write anything. You could do anything. No sets to build, no pages that had to be filled. You had endless reflections by comics on podcasts and interviews and their own blogs and social media feeds about what made the funniest things funny. There were all sorts of new media genres you could lampoon, pillory, and steal from on the sly. You had greater collisions than ever before of different people from all over the world and every walk of life who brought their own traditions of humor and storytelling. Amateur and up-and-coming jokesters desperate to connect with friends and strangers. And an audience chained to their desks or stuck on a train or a doctor’s office looking to laugh. That’s just good gumbo.
The World Wide Web isn’t all fun and games. This isn’t television! This isn’t an arcade! This is computing! We’ve got high-powered work machines tuned into this thing! With keyboards and mice and productivity software and everything!
These are the most useful tools and sites on the web, as nominated by the readers of Kottke.org:
Online Etymology Dictionary (three different people suggested this! which suggests to me that y’all are my kind of people)
Green’s Dictionary of Slang
Behind the Name (which is a baby name site I think?)
TIME AND WEATHER
Time and Date
ABC 13 Southeast Texas Weather (from a reader who lives in Houston)
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (this site is very cool)
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Old Maps Online
Internet Archive/Wayback Machine
Kottke (you’re already here)
Can I Stream It?
CODING AND DESIGN STUFF
0 to 255
Random Password Generator
Google Fusion Tables
SAVE IT FOR LATER
FutureMe.org (write a letter to yourself in the future)
SOLVING UNUSUAL PROBLEMS
This to That (Glue Advice)
Soapcalc (Making soap)
waifu2x (Anime character generator)
Random Oblique Strategies Online
Shut Up (hides comments)
OneTab (collapses all your browser tabs into a sortable, exportable list)
Google, Craigslist, DuckDuckGo, the usual crap
A lot of you seem like you have really cool jobs.
(A special thank you to Google Forms for making this possible.)
It’s 2008. George W. Bush is President. The Democratic primaries have just ended, and Barack Obama is the unlikely presumptive nominee. The economy is circling around the drain, and America is about to have its first black Presidential nominee by a major political party.
I don’t know exactly how you might measure and graph a country’s level of plausibly deniable racism or awkward attempts to identify or discount such racism, but if you could, summer 2008 would have to be one of its peaks.
That’s when Jay Smooth posted “How To Tell Someone They Sound Racist,” one of the greatest videoblog entries of all time.
Jay’s video turned into a TED Talk and a video series for Fusion called The Illipsis.
But mostly, he’s still hosting WBAI’s Underground Railroad (since 1991!), keeping up his site HipHopMusic.com (not much lately, but he started it in 1997!) and writing blog posts and making consistently great videos about music, race, politics, and culture at Ill Doctrine.
Watching Ill Doctrine is to feel the power and pleasure of seeing a mind at work. He’s always thinking around seven or eight sides of an issue and following them through all the way to the end. He does what you might call “explainers” but without any of the condescension to the audience or pretense to having settled an issue once and forever endemic to the form. It’s conversation.
He’s the best editor of any weblog I know — every cut is a new thought, a new idea, a new argument to hang on the thought right before it, and the cumulative effect is like a cubist painting.
He’s still experimenting with the format, adding interviews, letting his cat co-host, always oscillating between the public and the personal. Jay’s still the best at what he does.
Update: Jay just launched a Patreon campaign to keep Ill Doctrine going well into the future; if you love his work, please consider supporting it.
Most tweetstorms are perfectly harmless, some are downright satisfying, and only a few make us seriously consider gouging out our own eyes. But — how shall I put this? — there is a reason most of them were not written in a form that encourages long preservation of the entire thing. Even the better Twitter threads are very much of the moment. They were not built to last. Nor should they have been.
Luckily, there are exceptions. Here are some of the tweetstorms/multiperson twitter threads that Kottke readers voted to include on the World Wide Web’s space ark.
Please Stop Roasting My Goddamned Shoes. Comedian Jon Hendren found a pair of red Vans with a leopard print lining in the back of his closet. Did his fellow comedian friends let this pass without comment? No, they most certainly did not.
If you’ve never read “Please Stop Roasting My Goddamn Shoes,” buckle up. If you love it, check out its best rival/nearest successor, @spookperson’s “my dude looks like the babadook” thread roasting Roger Stone.
The Two Mayors. The climax of Dan Sinker’s epic story of @MayorEmanuel, an alternate-universe version of then-candidate Rahm Emanuel and unabashed love letter to the city of Chicago. This is actually the day before the election, where alt-Rahm meets then-Mayor Daley, learns that he isn’t the only Rahm Emanuel in this universe, and that Chicago’s mayor has cosmic responsibilities never hinted at in public. This twitter thread, played out over months, eventually became a terrific book.
@MayorEmanuel’s final official tweets also deserve to be saved, so here they are:
“A Wild Weekend In Florida,” or “Zola’s Story,” by Aziah King It’s never been entirely clear exactly how much of any of this really happened, but the microserialized true-crime story was and is a bona fide phenomenon. “A Wild Weekend” also uses breaks between tweets better than any Twitter story I’ve ever read — most tweets are perfectly self-contained, but a few of them are used to build suspense or cut from one moment to the next to great effect.
This tweetstorm has a Goodreads entry. It was optioned for a movie. That’s some real game theory.
Some of the best things ever seen or used on the web can’t be saved. They’re already gone. These are some of them, nominated by Kottke readers.
Google Reader. On the one hand, Google kind of ruined RSS, up until then the best distribution method for serial content, by turning it into a product. At the end, some of the best RSS readers weren’t even RSS readers, just frontends for Google Reader, which handled all the resource-intensive work.
On the other hand, Google Reader was a really wonderful community. It had a lightweight social graph component, but it was really oriented around news and stories and blog updates that people shared. Everything that people wanted online comments to be, Google Reader was. And when it ended, it took all of that away, leaving social media networks — which were really never designed to do content distribution — as the only game in town. I honestly don’t know if we’ve ever recovered.
Geocities. Geocities was a lot of people’s first experience making and reading home pages, putting their lives, personalities, contact information, getting email addresses, and anything else they wanted to share out on the web. The “cities” conceit made it sortable and browsable: they weren’t quite geographical and weren’t quite thematic, but a weird combination of the two. It got bought by Yahoo, back when Yahoo was buying and blending everything, and went the way of all such things.
Now Geocities exists only in Japan, but, like a lot of “first websites,” you can emulate it if you want using Glitch. As Anil Dash writes, “millions of people created their own websites in the era before today’s social networks took over. Learning to tweak HTML to create a GeoCities page, or to customize CSS to make a MySpace page look perfect, was a rite of passage for the first 10 or 15 years of the web.”
Think Secret was an early tech blog focused on Apple, back when Apple was very far from the biggest company in the world. Writing and reading about it, especially rumors about new products, was just a weird obsession for a handful of people. Anyways, Think Secret and its editor Nick “de Plume” Ciarelli got sued for violating trade secrets, and Think Secret was shut down as part of a settlement right as the iPhone was turning Apple into the company everybody was talking about all of the time. Things break another way, and that site’s worth millions of dollars today. Then again, that didn’t save Gawker — so who knows.
Television Without Pity practically invented the genre of TV episode recaps, starting with Dawson’s Creek. Now they’re everywhere! It got bought by NBC in 2007 and shut down in 2014, but supposedly it’s coming back.
We’ll see. Nope, turns out it’s just the shell of the website; TWOP won’t running new material after all. But the founders of TWOP went on to start previously.tv. (Thanks, @adrienneLaF, @michelet.)
Nothing lasts forever on the World Wide Web. Even death.
Update: So many people, after this story went live, answered “what about Suck.com?” that I had to make an update.
Reading Suck is bizarre now, because on the one hand, its wry, teasing, sweetly cynical voice has shaped so much of what we know of the web, but its style is actually quite different. It’s like reading Don Quixote and realizing that Cervantes’s book somehow contains, in miniature, every novel that came after it, but that it is also somehow older and stranger and more imaginative than all of them. Also, that every tech or media hype or hustle is exactly the same as one that happened twenty-odd years before it. This is why reporters who’ve been covering Silicon Valley forever have such a twisted sense of humor.
Anyways, the archive still exists; the best way to get it, in my opinion, is the Suck Again email newsletter, which posts every instance of Suck twenty years after its original publication date. Suck is dead; long live Suck.
In this century, most people use “humanist” to mean something like “atheist, but nice about it.” That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m thinking about Renaissance Humanism, but applied, updated, or translated to digital technology in the 21st century.
In the Renaissance, Humanism is a complicated umbrella term for different, sometimes contradictory intellectual movements. The most consistent attributes in these humanists are these three things:
- they were really into old books and manuscripts, the weirder the better;
- they tried hard to save and preserve these texts;
- they worked hard to disperse these texts and the ideas inside them to as many people as possible.
And once the printing press came along, they were off to the races.
Aldus Manutius might be my favorite humanist who didn’t write very much. He edited and published classical texts in slim, portable, affordable printed volumes, and invented or popularized a bunch of typographical conventions, like italics, commas, and semicolons.
In the metaphor of the all-in-one machine, Humanists were first and foremost scanners. They translated knowledge from one technology, and its attendant modes of thinking, into another. They took old things and made them new.
[From Planetary by Warren Ellis, John Cassaday, and Laura Martin]
All of the genuinely great works of the 21st century have been acts of digital humanism. And of those works, three stand out as the purest and maybe the best, both to me and (in their suggestions) the readers of Kottke.org.
Wikipedia, Google Books, and The Internet Archive. These three projects, imperfect as they are, are the best attempts we’ve made to save what we know and make it available in new forms to as many people as possible.
Here are some other projects that readers mentioned:
Project Gutenberg offers free digital copies of books in the public domain.
RECAP makes public legal documents more accessible to nonlawyers.
UbuWeb is a digital archive of writing and other art that leans conceptual or avant-garde.
Newgrounds is a Flash games and animation site I spent way too much time on in the mid-2000s.
The Internet Review is a project that reviews web trends and events from the year before and turns them into a printed book, and was a big influence on this idea of a time capsule for the web. (More of a “print” than a “scan.”)
Colossal is a visual culture blog with an emphasis on handmade art and design.
Pastebin stores code and other text for easy sharing.
Pinboard is a social bookmarking site that’s still independent and still going strong.
Github is the best place to find and make open-source software.
The Lively Morgue is a New York Times project to upload photos from its archives.
- The Electronic Frontier Foundation does the legal work to protect individuals and the commons’ digital rights.
- We’ve already talked about Flickr. And I’m sure we can list many more.
Every day, sometimes visibly and sometimes not, people work to save all of the things we’ve built on the web. It’s probably the most massive, audacious, unlikely project in the history of the written word. If we ever do build a time capsule for the internet, we’ll only have anything left to save because someone else worked to save it first.
For a few weeks in 2006, people would ask me, “have you seen ‘The Show’? It’s the best thing ever,” and I would answer “Of course! I love it!” But I was talking about this:
It wasn’t until Ze Frank got a lengthy writeup in the New York Times (10,000 daily visitors!) that I realized they were talking about something else. And when I asked Kottke readers to nominate something to put in a time capsule for the World Wide Web, more people suggested Ze Frank’s The Show or episodes from it than they did anything else.
The Show helped establish some enduring conventions for videoblogging: direct address, quick cuts, slightly varied closeup angles, and a curious mix of oversharing, motivational speaking, political commentary, and nerdly zaniness, You never knew quite what you were going to get, but for that one year it ran, you knew you could get it every day.
If the earth was a sandwich
We’d get along so well
And we could feed everybody
With a piece of ourselves
Ze brought The Show back for a short spell in 2012: “An Invocation for Beginnings” was a favorite video of a number of people who wrote in suggestions.
And for years now he’s helped run video at BuzzFeed — where a lot of The Show’s aesthetic can still be found, especially that relentless drive to figure out “what can I do to get people’s attention today?”
Future generations might take a minute to sort out the time-dependent references and figure out why these videos were so compelling. (They will also drop their jaws in wonder at just how old the computers from 2006 now look.) But that drive-for-attention/drive-for-connection part? I bet they’ll understand that part just fine.
Twitter, in principle, could have been invented at any point in the history of the internet. A big networked message board with an upper limit of 140 characters? It sounds like something a resource-conserving developer would have invented before web browsers existed. A few hundred people would have used it, and it would have been legendary. Maybe a few thousand.
Instead, Twitter happened in the early days of developing for mobile devices (originally, not even phones but pagers), when there were a critical mass of intense and casual users, and mass network graphs were quickly becoming the new hotness for software companies. You could get scale in a hurry, you needed scale after a certain point to survive.
And so we have this bizarre new communication platform-meets-vernacular art form. Which may end up killing us all. But first…
Jason joined Twitter in early 2007 and naturally, wrote about it intelligently and presciently here on Kottke.org. The first mention is in a kinda-sorta-liveblog of Steve Jobs’s legendary iPhone keynote, and makes Twitter sound like a new tech site. This is where I, personally, found out about it, although I didn’t sign up until a little later.
Playing with Twitter reminds me of blogging circa 2000. Back then, all weblogs were personal in nature and most people used them to communicate with their friends and family. If I wanted to know what my friends were up to back then, I read their blogs. Now I follow Twitter (and Flickr and Vox).
The reaction to Twitter mirrors the initial reaction to weblogs…the same tired “this is going to ruin the web” and “who cares what you ate for dinner” arguments…
When one thing (i.e. Twitter) is easier than something else (i.e. blogging) and offers almost the same benefits, people will use it.
I’d completely forgotten about this post, and it’s totally amazing.
[One] way of thinking about how to choose web projects is to take something that everyone does with their friends and make it public and permanent. (Permanent as in permalinked.) Examples:
Blogger, 1999. Blog posts = public email messages. Instead of “Dear Bob, Check out this movie.” it’s “Dear People I May or May Not Know Who Are Interested in Film Noir, Check out this movie and if you like it, maybe we can be friends.”
Twitter, 2006. Twitter = public IM. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that one of the people responsible for Blogger is also responsible for Twitter.
Flickr, 2004. Flickr = public photo sharing. Flickr co-founder Caterina Fake said in a recent interview: “When we started the company, there were dozens of other photosharing companies such as Shutterfly, but on those sites there was no such thing as a public photograph — it didn’t even exist as a concept — so the idea of something ‘public’ changed the whole idea of Flickr.”
YouTube, 2005. YouTube = public home videos. Bob Saget was onto something.
Some successful tweets seem predictable given the restrictions on the form — wordplay, pop culture mashups, classic setup-and-punchline jokes. But why are weird little micronarratives so compelling?
And on a platform packed with self-promoting brands, cynical media types, and actual Nazis, why do we love sweet, sincere animals who talk? (Wait, I may have just answered my own question)
Ten years later, I don’t know why Twitter is, but I’m glad that it does.
Matt Haughey comes not to bury Flickr, but to praise it.
Flickr represents one of the very best of things in the history of the internet. It was the first popular way to share photos in a social way instead of photos lingering in private accounts online and in the real world in shoeboxes under beds. It brought millions together and helped kick off first the digital SLR revolution, then it was eclipsed by the mobile photography revolution. Flickr—despite being a big corporate entity—embraced open licensing and took on the ambitious goal of being a mirror and gallery for oodles of museums around the globe.
Those values that drove Flickr during its influential peak can be seen in its Explore page, which still knocks your socks off. Matt calls it “an entire year’s worth of epic shots from National Geographic, generated each day, automatically by algorithms.”
Lots of wondrous shots from places I’ve never heard of. Lots of “how’d they even get that shot?!” photos of animals… Instagram has an explore tab but it’s popular music and tv stars and their dogs or it’s brand advertising-driven shots cooked up to sell something. There’s something so completely boring about Instagram’s explore page that makes me ignore it and go back to my friend feeds, whereas Flickr is the opposite: my friend feed is largely silent, but the best of the best page is truly awe-inspiring and at least one photo each day is going to take my breath away.
It is bizarre to think now that Flickr was only active for about a year before it was acquired by Yahoo. For those of us who were on the site then, that year felt like everything.
Jason’s first post that mentions Flickr is from March 2004. He wonders whether Flickr could be used as a universal login (much like Facebook, Twitter, and Google accounts are today). Annotation quickly followed. Then calendar view. RSS feed splicing. Organizr. A public API. The interestingness algorithm. Prints. It was step-by-step, bit-by-bit, but every new feature was a milestone. It excited people, and got them thinking and working on what was next.
Jason even has a remarkable post from August 2004 where he imagines an entire web-based operating system linking different services together:
To put this another way, a distributed data storage system would take the place of a local storage system. And not just data storage, but data processing/filtering/formatting. Taking the weblog example to the extreme, you could use TypePad to write a weblog entry; Flickr to store your photos; store some mp3s (for an mp3 blog) on your ISP-hosted shell account; your events calendar on Upcoming; use iCal to update your personal calendar (which is then stored on your .Mac account); use GMail for email; use TypeKey or Flickr’s authentication system to handle identity; outsource your storage/backups to Google or Akamai; you let Feedburner “listen” for new content from all those sources, transform/aggregate/filter it all, and publish it to your Web space; and you manage all this on the Web at each individual Web site or with a Watson-ish desktop client.
Think of it like Unix…small pieces loosely joined.
That last part didn’t come true; the pieces didn’t join so much as fuse together into something new. The companies listed either took over the world, faded into relative obscurity, or stopped existing (at least for a little while). And then there’s Flickr — which didn’t do any of those things, but changed how we use the web forever.
I usually say that platforms stop being vital, even if they continue to have lots of users, when the platforms stop getting better. It’s a tricky thing: sometimes a ham-handed “improvement” can actually ruin a lot of what made a platform special. Flickr was extraordinarily vital, for years. It still has so much to offer. Sometimes there’s something reassuring about a tool that’s still much the same.
Photo by Tom Hall, via Flickr. Used under a CC-BY license.
Kevin Kelly’s helped me make sense of the internet for as long as I can remember. One of his best blog posts, from 2008, is “Better Than Free.”
The internet is a copy machine. At its most foundational level, it copies every action, every character, every thought we make while we ride upon it. In order to send a message from one corner of the internet to another, the protocols of communication demand that the whole message be copied along the way several times. IT companies make a lot of money selling equipment that facilitates this ceaseless copying. Every bit of data ever produced on any computer is copied somewhere. The digital economy is thus run on a river of copies. Unlike the mass-produced reproductions of the machine age, these copies are not just cheap, they are free…
When copies are super abundant, they become worthless.
When copies are super abundant, stuff which can’t be copied becomes scarce and valuable.
When copies are free, you need to sell things which can not be copied.
Well, what can’t be copied?
Kelly suggests eight “generative” values that can’t be easily copied by the internet: Immediacy, Personalization, Interpretation, Authenticity, Accessibility, Embodiment,
Patronage, and Findability. This list holds up pretty well: digital tech has handled some of these things better than others (we can get our digital files from the cloud almost anywhere; embodiment is still mostly analog). And most of these things we do pay for, if only in the form of being locked in to one company’s ecosystem that manages these things for us. It also ties in clearly to 1000 True Fans and other essays of Kelly’s that have turned out to be prescient and/or influential.
But is the internet really best characterized as a copy machine? This has always bothered me. Unlimited free copies of digital objects proliferating everywhere is a problem because of the internet. But the other things that the internet does pose thorny problems too.
It wouldn’t be wrong to say that “the internet is a fax machine.” Most of what we do on the internet is zip digital documents back and forth from one machine to the other. It would be nice to think of that process as simply copying. But we need channels and tubes and signals and protocols to move those docs back and forth, and all of that we pay for. And at a more abstract level, we need distribution channels so the docs reach who they’re supposed to. TCP/IP is a distribution channel, but so are Facebook and Google and Snapchat and Twitter. Somebody ends up paying for all of them.
The other two parts of the all-in-one machine are more complicated. If we’re just copying things backwards and forwards, we never add anything new. And if you look at a lot of internet media, it’s mostly just recycled content from some other part of the internet. A Reddit thread becomes a Twitter meme becomes a web story becomes a TV story, which becomes 20 web stories. Copying is getting pretty tired. We need to do more scanning — literally and figuratively. We need to think harder about how to make the offline and online worlds meet. The internet companies spending real money right now are spending it on this problem.
Printing is just the other side of the same thing. How can we translate online activity to offline action? Or, even if it stays digital, how do we produce a work that people can recognized as a finished object? How can we move a digital thing from one physical experience to another? If we used to print digital documents or photos from our PCs to get a better look at them, maybe now we move videos and games from our smartphones to bigger screens in our offices and living rooms. It’s still the same kind of process, and we need to solve similar kinds of problems to the ones when we were first figuring out how to establish a WYSIWYG relationship between software and a printed page. All of that takes work, and all of that takes money.
In other words, we don’t pay for the copies — we pay for the toner. Same as it ever was.
Golden Girls is one of my ten favorite TV shows ever. Recently, the entire series came to Hulu. I went to find the terrific oral history of the show, published just last year… and it was gone. The entire publication and its website had folded.
Luckily, the writer (Drew Mackie) had saved a copy, and published it on his own site after the magazine went under. So we still have gems like this anecdote from writer Winifred Hervey:
Bea was always my favorite. I left after the third season, and that’s the year she won her Emmy for Best Actress. I was at the ceremony, and after she gave her speech she came over and said, “Winifred, did you hear I mentioned your name, you little twat?” She was mad because I left.
That Golden Girls oral history is part of why I’ve been thinking about how we might save and recirculate the best parts of the web. So many good things have already vanished. The web is resilient, but fragile, too.
Big, splashy, gossipy pop culture oral histories used to be pretty rare, online or off. Vanity Fair would publish one every once in a while; in 2009, the magazine collected nine of them from the previous decade, including great features on The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, Motown Records, and a galloping 50-year history of the entire internet, from ARPA to YouTube. Other magazines would do oral histories from time to time — GQ has had some terrific ones — but the real explosion begins in this decade, and it begins and ends on the web.
One of the first pieces Grantland published in 2011 was an oral history of The National, a writerly sports publication stacked with talent that could never make enough money and ended far too soon. (Message!) Right around then, a few really successful features helped kick off the boom.
Since then, my god — we have so many oral histories! Two years ago, Thrillist put together a list of 260 oral histories on music, movies, TV, and related pop culture alone. There are fake oral histories, “oral histories” that only interview two people, oral histories of things the writers profess to hate (trigger warning: autoplay), and oral histories of cult TV shows even more cultish side characters. (“In the end, I really liked Magnitude because I realized that the reason he calls himself Magnitude is because it stands for Magnetic Attitude.”)
But what are the histories you actually need to read? The Kottke Archives have links to and capsule summaries of no fewer than twenty-five oral histories, going back to 2008. These include histories of SXSW Interactive, the Challenger disaster, Freaks and Geeks, Cheers, Die Hard, and George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic.
With these alone, you already have enough reading material to get you through this week and beyond. But since we’re saving these for aliens, our grandchildren, and our alien grandchildren, I’m going to add a few more. These are just some of my favorite oral histories that (as far as I can tell) have never appeared on Kottke.org.
That last oral history in particular shows you how much the web has changed over the last twelve years — i.e., about half its life. In 2005, Yacht Rock was a show that me and a few thousand other people were really excited about, and that was enough to make it a web sensation. You couldn’t even get it on YouTube, because YouTube barely existed. Web video series were not getting loving write-ups in prestigious magazines. Yet here we are.
There’s an Achewood comic that I love where Ray, one of the strip’s deeply flawed but endearing animal protagonists, frustrated with browsing eBay, types “WHAT’S THE BEST THING YOU GOT” into the search bar. This unlocks a special store called “eBay Platinum Reserve,” where Ray can buy items like “The Biggest Laser,” a real Airwolf helicopter, and Keith Moon’s head in a jar. Ray immediately buys Moon’s head and Airwolf, and the laser… well, eleven years later, like Chekhov’s proverbial pistol, it’s never been fired.
Sometimes I wish the internet worked like eBay Platinum Reserve, turning up the best stuff without us having to look for it. But for all that search engines, social media, and even artificial intelligence have given us over all these years, the closest thing we have to Platinum Reserve are still blogs like Kottke.org. Somebody still has to go out, concierge-style, to find the best stuff on the web and serve it up.
More than ever, what the web serves up on its own is the very worst things that have just happened. It’s an active shooter livestreaming a snuff film on Facebook — or something not as bad, but not much better.
And hey, focusing on very recent, very bad news makes a lot of sense. If there are awful things happening right now, I want to know about them. If some overpaid someone wrote something stupid and everyone I know is slamming it on Twitter, I want to get in on it. We’re only human.
But sometimes, I wonder, with all the abundance and ephemerality of the web, whether we indulge the opposite impulse enough. I don’t mean sharing more new things that are funny, or heartwarming, or relatable. I mean going out and finding or rediscovering the things that are The Very Best We Have to Offer, gathering them together, and saving them, forever.
This week, I am proposing an experiment. I am asking you — all of you: readers of Kottke.org, my friends, my colleagues, my strangers, my citizens of the World Wide Web, people who have known the grandeur of the best webcomics, the best YouTube videos, the best memes, the best stories and articles and entire blogs and games and nonsense with which we entertain and edify ourselves every day — I am asking you:
WHAT’S THE BEST THING YOU GOT
We’re going to find the best things in the history of the internet, and gather them here, together, forever. And never to part.
Find me on Twitter at @kottke or at @tcarmody and tell me what you want to show your children and grandchildren; what you want to show the aliens when they arrive; what you showed your partner when you couldn’t believe they’d never seen it. Tell me what made your jaw drop open in awe like Ray’s when he saw Airwolf.
Imagine we’re making the world’s greatest time capsule, or the world’s greatest mixtape, of everything on the web. Tell me what’s worth saving. And then we will save them all. Here. Together.
Update: Twitter turned out to be the wrong way to handle this, so I created a Google questionnaire that could better manage suggestions. It also lets me ask a few more focused questions, like “what’s the funniest story you’ve read on the web?” or “what’s the best animal thing you’ve ever seen on here?” It also, importantly, allows me to ask for the URL of the thing of you’re talking about. So please, if you have the time, I’d love your help.