Say Everything is about people.
But first, the news.
The destruction of two buildings in lower Manhattan marked the end of a lot of things — mainly our assumptions about how the world worked — and the beginning of a lot more. It also marked the moment when both traditional online news and the then-nascent field of blogging came of age.
If they didn’t know it on September 10, 2001, managers of traditional news sites knew it the day after that they had become the primary source for news during the work day. What they didn’t realize, as they struggled to restart their servers brought to their knees by the crush of traffic, was at the same moment, individual writers and their comparatively tiny audiences were discovering that there was a second path to enlightenment and information.
The funny thing about people who think they’re smarter than everybody else is that, sometimes, impossibly and wonderfully, they are. And thanks to the rise of blogging, they no longer have to be famous and useful only to their closest friends.
“Say Everything” is a book full of stories of such smart people, each of whom, in his or her own way, thought there was a better solution to the problem of how to communicate better, whether the problem was technical or one of voice.
In a very straightforward and absorbing book that should probably come in a blister-pack with some SPF-90 as the perfect geek beach-read for the summer, Scott Rosenberg, a co-founder of Salon.com, lays out the second-draft of the history of blogging in book form (Rebecca Blood, as he notes, got there first with an online essay, and then the book We’ve Got Blog.). Wisely, he centers his chapters around individual stories which, given the very personal nature of blogging, often means that the focus of each chapter is one individual.
- There’s Justin Hall, who Rosenberg makes the case as being the first actual blogger, even if he didn’t use that term himself. Described as “looking like one of Tolkein’s elves,” Hall is the king of TMI, sharing all details of his life and his body for all to see, until… Well, I won’t ruin it, but the ending is a classic story that began long before there were computers, or even clay tablets, I imagine.
- We meet Jorn Barger, the man who probably was the first to describe his frequent jottings online as a “weblog.” More importantly, his was one of the earliest and most popular linkblogs, serving up Jeff Jarvis’ favorite online currency long before most of the rest of the world.
- And then Heather Armstrong, the woman whose online persona – Dooce – turned into a verb when she was fired from a job — dooced — for blogging about, well, her job. Later she emerged as one of the earlier mombloggers and, even later still, as a book author.
The key to the success of “Say Everything” is Rosenberg’s focus on all of these outsized personalities. Without the story of how Ev Williams never gave up in the early days of Blogger or the “it just works” philosophy behind the controlled anarchy of Boing Boing or the dueling business plans of Jason Calacanis and Nick Denton, Say Everything could easily have tilted into a battle over the minutia of blogging history worthy more of a Wikipedia article (much-edited) or a conversation with the cast of Fanboys.
And standing in the middle of much of this is one outsized personality who strikes me as the most important to this story: Dave Winer.
If you haven’t heard of Dave Winer, you should. Without his efforts, it’s arguable that blogging, RSS, podcasting and even, to a lesser extent, online news would not be what they are today. Dave gets his own chapter here, of course (the very appropriately named “The Unedited Voice of a Person), but he’s also a presence that is felt explicitly and in the back-story throughout Rosenberg’s story of blogging.
You can currently find Winer at Scripting News, the site that, often, has absolutely nothing to do with its name and everything to do with one guy pushing and prodding the rest of us to think in new ways online.
Back in 1995, as noted in “Say Everything,” thinking different(ly) meant what we now know as blogging:
In 1995 he sent out a DaveNet (the precursor mailing list to Scripting News) essay titled “Billions of Websites.” At the time the number sounded ludicrous, even to Internet optimists, but Winer was serious:
“Every new website begets more websites. If I have one, I want my friend to have one, so I can point to it. And so they can point to my site. Someday, I’ll be able to walk a network of friendships, automatically knowing that each of us has mutual friends. It’ll be cool … The breadth of the web is limited only by the available space on hard disks, and the availability of human thoughts and feelings to fill that space … Every writer can participate in the web. Someday, very soon, I believe, every writer will.”
Winer didn’t just spout dreams. He shipped code — “shitty software,” by his own admission, but software that could iterate and inspire other efforts — and he beat the drum. He also famously got into a number of loud online arguments, but that’s not the purpose or the focus here; love him or not, there’s no denying that Dave Winer helped create the notion and the reality of the web you’re using at this very moment.
There’s more in Say Everything, including a chapter entitled “Journalists vs. Bloggers” that you can read in its entirety on the book’s web site. Also, there’s a treasure-trove of endnotes to the book featuring link after link to original source material for the book, much of it in the words of the bloggers themselves.
Years from now, Say Everything will serve as a valuable contemporary lens on how we got to the end of the first decade of the 21st century online. Today? It’s an entertaining and well-researched look at the early history of blogging that will keep you interested whether you’re sampling a chapter at a time or plowing through the entire book in a few sittings.