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The Plight of the Generalist

I’ve read a couple chapters of Mike Gunderloy’s How to Publish a Fanzine, a nice little guide from 1988 on getting into independent magazine creation. I haven’t read much, as a lot of it is outdated – significant portions of the book, dedicated to creation and publishing practices, have been made obsolete by the wide-spread adoption of home computing and the internet – but what little I did read made me wonder. The first and second chapter, “Why Publish?” and “Types of Fanzines”, talk about why one might want to start publishing, as well as some principles useful when deciding what to publish.

Fanzines certainly still exist, but the vast majority of aspiring writers and artists have moved from physical creation and distribution to digital media. Blogs, vlogs, podcasts and microblogging, just to name a few of the more popular alternatives. While the means of production have changed, the form has not; much like in the 80s with fanzines, so do the more popular and successful ventures possess certain common attributes. Blogs that are regularly updated enjoy more viewership than ones that post scarcely and randomly. Podcasts that are too short or too long, or that have unenjoyable hosts, just don’t do well. Vlogs that are shot well are much more likely to rise to fame than the more raw and amateurish ones.

The most common trait of all, though, is specialisation. Current Affairs, an independent political magazine, sells itself on its particular political leaning, influencing the kinds of topics they focus on and opinions they espouse. Low→Tech Magazine sells itself on precisely what the name suggests. Even in cases where an individual is in focus, the traits of that person are what “sells the show” – SomeOrdinaryGamers, for example, wouldn’t attract the kind of audience that it does if Mutahar was just a regular let’s player, without a passion for technology and internet rabbit holes. Given that… what does my website specialise in?

I would like to say “nothing”. After all, when I made it, the goal wasn’t to say something on a specific topic, the goal was to have a website for the sake of having a website, and I figured I’d just write on whatever I found interesting. Even before, in the Freenet days, the goal was to just put something out there, not to share a particular knowledge. I treated this “anything goes” attitude as a strength, because it allows me to write on whatever I want and not feel that it doesn’t fit in, but perhaps it isn’t a strength. When no written topic is in focus, the writer becomes the focus. Having a generalist blog is like putting faith in one’s own personality, that whatever one finds meaningful and interesting, and the way one relays the interest and meaning, is what will draw people in.

Self-worth issues aside, there are still problems with the previous paragraph. For one, it suggests that I seek to popularise this place, to draw in new readers. That’s not really the case. I don’t promote it anywhere, nor do I use any sort of analytics. Nginx (the server software) apparently saves some access and error logs. Looking through two days worth of logs, the vast majority of traffic came from search engine web crawlers. I didn’t look at any more, as that’s just asking for an addiction. Still, for all I know, these musings might very well just be going into the aether, getting seen by 5 people a month or something. On one hand, that’s fine with me, but on the other, it’d be nice if more people read it. Not because I need to feel more important than I am, but because the stuff I share has meaning to me, and I wish that others could derive meaning from it, as well.

The current setup allows me to write about anything, but I obviously don’t do that. Don’t expect to see a text on latest fashion trends anytime soon; I’d sooner stub all my toes than write that. By nature, one tends to narrow down to a handful of topics, and these topics vary with time. When I started, these topics were privacy and ecology were at the top, and over time a political ideology joined the party. Given that, it’d make sense to show the focus somehow. Datagubbe has a rather generic name and site layout, but just glancing at the text titles gives you a clear idea of the kind of topics you’ll get served here. Go Beyond covers a broad range of topics with a “black text on white pages” style, but the subtitle “Only read if you don’t mind being offended” gives you an idea as to the ideology that the posts might espouse. Then, there’s little ol’ me.

In terms of a name, I just picked it because I like Cirno, and because I already use that name on Mastodon. The subtitle, “Welcome to my little corner of the Lake”, is both a reference to the Misty Lake that the character Cirno lives close to, and to the fact that this is a self-hosted, personal website. The site now has two styles, with a third one in production. The first was designed with the following ideas in mind: it has to be blue, to match the aesthetics of Stage 2 of Embodiment of Scarlet Devil; and it has to require as little data transfer as possible. The second style really just started with me deciding to make an animated background, and over time developed to a space-ish theme. The names of the styles are also references to Touhou, so a prospective visitor may just get the idea that this is a Touhou fan site. But that’s not true, because I’ve not even mentioned Touhou outside of this post and the “About Me” page. The topics I do cover can generally be put into a handful of categories, but even within each category there’s variation in exactly what’s being covered and how (a guide has a different audience than an informative piece, for example).

All in all, I’ve pretty much done the exact opposite of carrying across what I write about. Once I finish Perfect Cherry Blossom, though, I had the idea of separating the articles; putting technology-related texts on LOLK, environment-related ones on PCB, and the rest on EOSD. I’ve already done bits of this separation, for example by stylising the logo in LOLK to say {CIRNO=DIGITAL;} and glitch a little, giving it a more technological spin. But this, too, has its problems, the most notable of which is specialisation. This may sound contradictory, as that’s precisely what I’d like to achieve, but it’s also problematic, in that I’m not sure if I have enough knowledge and interest to produce detailed, unique and valuable articles on a small set of topics.

Coincidentally, it’s also the reason why I am not a Wikipedia editor. I thought about it many times, because I see great value in it, but I haven’t a clue as to the kinds of topics I could edit. I may be more knowledgeable in topics I enjoy than a layperson, but there’s thousands of people much more qualified than me. Besides, almost all my knowledge comes from others, very little is original content. Given that, the only benefit I could see to me joining Wikipedia would be translating articles between Swedish, English and Polish. Again, no original content, just mild alterations to pre-existing stuff. Being a generalist is comfortable, in that anyone who comes across my website will see a variety of topics, so even if a text is underdeveloped or inaccurate, it’s tolerable because I’m not claiming to be good at it, just interested in it. But when I specialize, for example by separating the article topics with page styles, it’s like saying “This blog is about X, by reading this you will learn about X from a person who knows X”, and I just lack the confidence to do that.

Being unoriginal is not the end of the world. On a planet with over 7 billion people, being original is hard work, and besides I’m still young, I didn’t have 40+ years to develop skills and wisdom. Going further, one does not need to be original – just because mathematics textbooks exist does not mean that no new ones will ever be made, nor that the new ones can’t be better than the old ones. After all, it’s not just the content that matters, but how that content is presented. All the information on ffmpeg I’ve presented in How to Rip Blu-Rays is readily available online, but it’s the combination of all the information, as well as the related writing that makes it unique. Perhaps it’s the form of my writing that makes specialisation troublesome.

You see, my writing is very free-form. I read or watch something interesting, or get an idea into my head through other means, and I open up a text editor to talk about it. While others may share their thoughts through social media like Twitter, I choose to do it through long-winded posts. Neither approach is better; nothing’s stopping me from describing a stupid idea in 2000 words or more. Writing this way is very easy to do, and hopefully easy to read as well, but it doesn’t lend itself well to specialisation because, again, it’s not just content that attracts people, but also the form. Perhaps the website would be more cohesive if I used it less like a personal soapbox and focused on delivering the type of content I feel I may actually be good at, that being guides and informational pieces. Joke’s on me if I’m not actually good at that.

There was no real purpose behind this post, I just wanted to get my thoughts out (ironic). Hence, there is no summary, either. I don’t know yet what I’m gonna change and how, but I just think I’d like to change things, that’s all.

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