A Personal Niche, An Internet Cathedral, A Networked Empire

Some people — and no, not the .gif virtuosi that walk among us — really are winning the Internet, sitting several cuts above the rest with really outstanding, intriguing, thought-provoking online presences. Oh, how I aspire to their ranks! It isn’t just that they blog well, or post great links on social media, though both are often the case. Beyond keeping a clean house and communicating with wit and aplomb, they manage to create a place that feels like an online home, a well-curated, carefully built space that shows the heart of their thoughts and creative work, reflects who they are and what they live for. Bret Victor. Derek Sivers. Frank Chimero. Diana Kimball. Lance Weiler. Jane McGonigal. Seth Godin. Robin Sloan. All — to name just a few of my favorites — sharing their musings and explorations and the traces of what they add to the world, built over time, with love and care and generosity and effort shining through.

To take one example that I greatly admire: I love what Kevin Kelly has created in turning his website, kk.org, into a personal repository and centripetal center for a boatload of very cool projects. He’s created many sections on the site: his “lifestream” (which seems to aggregate other feeds), a blog called The Technium, his ongoing Cool Tools blog (recently made into a successful book), a “true films” section about documentaries, a section exploring digital publishing, an amazing online manifestation of his photography book Asia Grace, link to his company Quantified Self, a section for his book “New Rules for the New Economy” with accompanying blog posts, and several other projects as well. From what I can tell he’s been writing blog posts at least since 2004, and much of his other writing and work goes even further back. As far as prolific personal blogging goes, he seems something of a pioneer in the form, particularly in the quantified self mentality of making one’s entire life and work and thoughts available publicly online. Not that he practices complete transparency and publishes every detail of his life online (spoiler: no one does), but the extent to which he shares prolifically of his professional and intellectual lives is still unusual, and very impressive.

There was an article by Jason Kottke posted a few months back on the Nieman Journalism Lab’s site, called “The blog is dead, long live the blog” about how other, more closed or ephemeral online streams — Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, Snapchat, Facebook, Media, Instagram, etc. — are replacing blogging as a communication medium. Formerly-known-as-blogs like the Verge and Buzzfeed and Huffington Post are evolving into media empires, garden walls are being erected, and though the reverse-chronological stream still dominates, it’s on its way out.

This may be true as it pertains to the overall media landscape, to trends smoothed and averaged, but on a personal level I think there’s something really powerful about carving out one’s own niche on the Internet, marking a domain (literally and figuratively) with one’s thoughts and writings, projects, design sensibility, tastes and philosophies, ideas and tendencies, quirks and tics. If we take “blog” to mean an individual’s online home base, an identity owned and consolidated rather than diluted across the social media spectrum, well, none of the people I listed above have yet let the rip tide sweep them away. Personal websites (or collections of sites), individually designed and curated; repositories of ideas and projects and interesting work — these spaces are still an important force on and in and of the Internet. They vary enormously, they can be library or laboratory, citadel or sanctuary, can include portfolios, collections of links and resources, side projects, galleries, but for me they almost inevitably, inextricably, include the characteristics of great blogs — reflections, ideas, and words made personal.

So there’s something very appealing to me about trying to gradually cultivate an online repository of my own work and thoughts and build an “online empire” (in an intellectual and positive communal sense), giving away as much as I can for free, occasionally charging for “generatives better than free”, and trying to enter dialogue with others, build on emerging conversations, and create some sort of value. This is not a skyscraper I will erect in a quick couple of years; I imagine it will be more like a great palace or cathedral, built carefully and slowly over many decades, with some parts forever still under construction, constantly being renovated and (hopefully) improved. In that respect, perhaps my online space will come to resemble a college campus or urban space, an entire downtown, a city of my own making.

I’ve thought, perhaps too much, about the specifics of the branding and practical architecture of my imagined network of sites, centralized around one location, which might be this site (brendanschlagel.com) or something else as yet TBD. The other sites I currently own and operate are schlagetown.com and diacriticalmass.com, which are more general places for experiments and publishing as well playground and sandbox for web design and various other projects. I’m also working on selfstartersguide.com, which is to be a resource for my exploration of the future of education, and for sharing the resources and writing I’m doing in this area. Rounding out my stable are petrographic.us (rock book prose poetry) and flattest.land (still latent, just a domain, more coming soon.)

So far, I haven’t done much in terms of bringing my many projects together under one whole umbrella. I’ve nominally linked to my handful of external sites from my main one, but haven’t yet fleshed out many of those other sites — most have been the work of a few days spent experimenting with web design, and contain the start of a few specific projects, but lack the ongoing dedication and maintenance that would make them destinations worth coming back to, worth following. I’d like to work on making them more welcoming, more deserving of that return visit. For example, schlagetown.com would be a good place to publish a rough proposal or experiment every month; and brendanschlagel.com could stand to be simpler and better designed for reading, and is deserving of a weekly post — I don’t think that’s too much to ask of myself. Other ideas for sites and blogs keep popping into my head — a weekly post about jobs of the future! an annotated library and reading list! — but I know both that focus and follow-through pay off, and that partly this all just comes with time. I have to remember that it’s a gradual process, but not use that as an excuse for stasis.

There are so many great resources, so readily available, for creating a kind of interconnected portrait of myself and living portfolio of my work, and though it’s a long process, it really doesn’t take much effort to get started. It’s exciting to be able to simply buy a domain and install WordPress or hack up some quick HTML and CSS and instantly publish stuff where anyone in the world can see it. But even a couple decades into negotiating our collective relationship with the web, we’re still kind of at the tip of the iceberg, slowly figuring out the best ways to reveal more, to expose the embryonic potential of the future. Most people don’t take full advantage of the possibilities for creating a personal niche — a domain or playground or city or benevolent empire — and populating it with the content of their minds and imaginations. And that’s not because people are lazy or don’t care, but because it’s hard, because it requires not only countless hours of work but also risk and trust and vulnerability.

So, I have no master plan, but I’ve given myself a tentative design brief, the inklings of a mission statement, and lots of ideas. Now I just have to continue experimenting with ways of creating a coherent corpus of work and immortalizing some better part of myself online. Through some combination of portfolio, gallery, museum, laboratory, library, kitchen, gymnasium, classroom, bar, vault, biosphere, city, theater, symposium, and circus, I’ll make my best effort at clarifying and consolidating many ways of thinking and presenting information, with the right designs for the right audiences and purposes. And I’ll attempt not only to create the structure to hold it all, but to display and disseminate and put into action all that which I build.