For The Body Is Not One Member, But Many: An Interview with Tim Carmody
Deron Bauman: I think I’d like to start by talking about Liberal Arts 2.0. It’s an idea Jason Kottke proposed as a way to give context to what he does — and in some ways to describe the relatively newish intersection of technology and culture — and something you explored and expanded in a book. Can you talk a little bit about it, the inspiration for the book, as well as how you think about the subject now?
Tim Carmody: So, Jason never really came up with a definition of Liberal Arts 2.0. I’m not totally sure we did either. In both cases, it’s more of a family resemblance concept than anything else.
I think everyone involved in writing the book, and the discussion before or afterwards, took a slightly different relationship to it. There was also a Wired article that Robin Sloan and Alexis Madrigal and a few others wrote afterwards that might have called it “neo-liberal arts” or something like that. And even Steve Jobs got into the mix later, when he said Apple was about the intersection of technology with the liberal arts. I doubt he saw our little book — maybe he knew about Jason’s motto — but it’s clearly something in the zeitgeist.
Really, it’s about having a humanist relationship to changes in technology and media. It’s the sense that there are things we can learn and things we have learned from those changes that are happening to us now. And it’s the feeling that we have to figure those out for ourselves, and the best way to do that is by making things — whether it’s a website, an app, or a little book.
DB: So the act of making becomes an act of definition.
TC: Exactly — definition in its original sense of mapping a thing’s contours, in order to make something that’s fuzzy easier to see.
One of the things I’m proudest of with New Liberal Arts is that it helped relaunch Robin’s career as a Media Inventor, a maker of books and stories that he’s built and published himself. I’m also proud that it was really shaped by the community in and around Snarkmarket. Kickstarter didn’t exist then, but it had exactly the same spirit as those great early Kickstarter projects.
I guess the last thing I’ll say about New Liberal Arts is that we’re nowhere near done with it. I still think about it a lot, and there’s a good chance that Robin, Matt, and I will come back to it through a new project before too long.
DB: The first time I thought to ask you for an interview was after your second round of guest-hosting at kottke.org, and the idea or thought that instigated it was an observation about particular approaches to posting. Like I mentioned before this conversation, I can make the observation, but I’m curious to know your thoughts.
I had a little Blogger blog called Short Schrift that was fairly active from about 2004-2008, until I joined up with Snarkmarket. And Jason, probably through Snarkmarket, found it and started linking to it on Kottke.org. This was maybe in 2005 or 2006. And that was a pretty big deal. It was like, all of a sudden this little web site that maybe 100 people read would get thousands of hits in a day.
I’ve since gotten to be fairly good friends with Jason, although we didn’t actually get to meet in person until after I first guest-hosted on the site. We talk about dad stuff, and sports, and TV. Our two boys are about the same age. Ordinary things.
I could list many people who’ve helped me over the years, but Jason Kottke, more than anyone except maybe Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson, is the biggest outside reason anyone on the internet wants to read anything I write.
DB: So, talk about guest-hosting at kottke.org, then, what the experience was like, what you learned from it, how it shaped where you are now.
TC: The first time I guest hosted for Jason, I was completely broke. I’d finished my PhD and a year as a postdoc, and I was collecting unemployment and applying for work anywhere I could find it. I went on three callback interviews for a part-time job doing PR for a university medical department. The bottom of the academic job market fell out, and I was just screwed. He offered me a little bit of money, and I remember being really excited about it, just because I was so desperate. And I think I’d written one or two things for The Atlantic by then, and I’d just done a day of guest posts for Wired, an audition for a job at Gadget Lab. So when I got the week, I thought, well, this is where I have to show off everything I can do as a blogger.
There were three things I wanted to do:
1. The theme of the week was something I’d defined a little bit earlier as “paleoblogging,” basically digging up old stuff and putting it back into circulation again.
2. I really didn’t want to do an imitation of Jason, but I wanted to stay true to the same spirit as Jason, which is that kind of wunderkammer: here’s something amazing, and here is me responding to it.
3. And then I guess the last thing was trying to write in a voice that was natural for me and that spoke to my own particular obsessions. That’s what I thought other people could connect to.
Not everybody is going to like reading about Madden video games, and not everybody is going to like reading about old stamps. But I like those things, and if I can show people how much I like them, then at least they can get something out of that.
That comes out of my experiences as a teacher, and something a college professor of mine told me: it’s not about making students love the same things that you do, but showing them that they can love something just as much. And that it’s OKAY, it’s IMPORTANT, for them to find something that they love that much.
For me, a big part of that is finding deep, associative connections between things that seem unrelated. That’s just how my brain works, and what it responds to. So the way I sometimes described my posts for kottke.org is that they were each like two or three shorter posts, like Jason might write, but all mashed up together.
TC: As a blogger, you’re not going to beat Jason for minimalism. He does that better than anyone.
Not everybody liked it. There was a lot of “tl;dr.” And of course not everyone was interested in the same stuff as I was. But in general, I’d say the response was pretty overwhelmingly positive, and that was really gratifying and exciting. And it was during that week that Wired offered me my first paid writing job.
DB: Did you approach your second stint differently?
TC: The second one was a little bit different. By then, I’d been working as a journalist for a while; my wife and I had recently decided to separate, so the emotional tone was very different.
The first day, if I remember correctly, Osama bin Laden had just been killed. And that sort of set the tone for the whole week. I wrote a post on it that was personal but also fairly pointed. It was less like a wunderkammer of beautiful old things and closer to an argument about what was important, what our values ought to be. I’m not sure if that does or doesn’t come through.
I do remember that without the theme of paleoblogging, it was harder to identify material. I did do one thing where I pulled books down from my shelf and wrote about them. But again, that was more about “these are things that matter,” not “wow, check this out.” The last post I wrote that week was about Jason’s blog itself, and why I thought what it did and how it did it was important; why blogging was important.
DB: I remember that. I think that’s what prompted my initial interest in interviewing you, and it seemed to galvanize your presence on Twitter. Can you talk about that? What that process has been like? Finding a voice for yourself there, managing the flow of information and the interaction with people?
TC: Well, Jason was really important with that, too. Maybe a month or so before I first guest-hosted, he just posted a link to my Twitter account and said, “Hey, you should follow this guy.” I went from maybe 500 followers to 2500, just from that. I mean, in two years, as Twitter’s exploded, I haven’t been able to get that same percentage of growth.
Not that that’s why you write on Twitter. But it was my first experience realizing there was a different scale to this thing. Before that, it was really social media, people I knew, or at least was roughly acquainted with. Around that time, it became something more like a micro-broadcast.
DB: You seem to have managed that transition well.
TC: A big thing that’s always been important to me about Twitter is to try to be a whole person there. Which means writing about whatever I’m thinking about or interested in, including my life or my feelings. Sometimes, that’s hard to do with 10,000 people watching.
But I sort of think about it like living in a dorm room in college. You’re hanging out with the door open, and anyone might walk by. And they might stop and chat. But you’re not going to make yourself feel any less at home because of that. In fact, it’s because you feel at home that people want to spend time with you.
I don’t think that feeling is so unusual. Twitter, more than any other social network, feels like a place where people hang out. It certainly feels that way to me.
DB: I agree, but you seem to have multiple roles and challenges.
TC: Right. But just like in a dorm, sometimes it’s going to be goofy, sometimes it’s personal, sometimes you have these deep/shallow philosophical discussions, sometimes people act like jerks. One thing I often have to watch on Twitter is my temper, and general moodiness. Some of that I don’t mind slipping through — again, I think I have more value as a whole person than some kind of link-pushing robot. But it’s just like real life, you know, where these are things I struggle with.
DB: I think you manage that well. Do you have any thoughts about how you’ve adapted to it?
TC: I’ve tried to stay really open; to be willing to have broad exchanges with people about anything. I’ve had to give up on the idea that I’m going to read everything. I try to read everything people direct my way, and there are a few people who I call “superfriends” who I keep close tabs on. But sometimes you just have to say, “mark all as read.” Which — I think I said this on Twitter a few years ago — feels like a new emotional state.
DB: But you engage as well…. Do you have a mental checklist for how and when? Or is it just intuition.
TC: It’s mostly intuition. I separate it out into personal and professional engagement, although obviously there’s a lot of overlap. Maybe that’s not so obvious, but it’s true for me.
I’ve tried to resist my urge to get into long arguments on Twitter, partly because it’s not the best use of my writing time, and partly because it drains my energy. There have been more than a few times where I’ve made an argument on Twitter so forcefully, then failed to blog about it. More often now, I tell myself, if it’s really important, find a different way to write about it.
Robin formulated it this way: “Work in public. Reveal nothing.” And it feels like both of those things go together, right?
DB: Yes, for sure. Does that imply a performance aspect to it? I don’t want to reduce it to that.
TC: It reminds me a little bit of Penn & Teller; where they do the magic trick, and then show everyone how they did it. And both of those things are a kind of performance. But it’s a new kind of performance. And people are hungry for both of those things. They want engagement, they want transparency, but at the some time, they want to be surprised and filled with wonder at something new.
DB: Yes, knowledge and entertainment.
TC: Yep, and process and object. And a little bit of mystery.
TC: One thing I’ve always loved about Snarkmarket is that most of its post titles are somwhat enigmatic. If you pull up Snarkmarket right now, the most recent post is just titled “The Quiet Stars Above.” The post is about a cover of a book about the Titanic. But it could be about anything.
I couldn’t get away with a title like that at Wired. There’s no SEO, it doesn’t tell you what the post is about. But at Snarkmarket, our readers trust us enough that the title itself can be a kind of sly commentary, a different kind of paratext.
DB: Over time, a blog can create it’s own context. A community. What is the community for Snarkmarket?
TC: We call it the Snarkmatrix. Robin and/or Matt came up with that long before I got involved. Just like “Snarkmaster” and “Friend of the Snark,” which are other inside phrases we use. When Matt liveblogs SxSW, he calls it “Snark by Snarkwest.” We sometimes talk about putting together an event called “Snark Trek.”
The community itself is multi-layered. We have a really active set of longtime, habitual commenters. But you have close enough ties where there are common assumptions and real engagement.
DB: Right, it becomes an online community. A family.
TC: Yep. And everybody plays their own part.
One of my favorite parts of Deadwood is the Reverend’s speech from 1 Corinthians, about the church as a body. I knew the passage itself from years ago, but in Deadwood becomes a kind of manifesto on the idea of community itself. To my mind, it’s practically the basis of a political philosophy. I’m trying to find the text — I have the Bible text, but the tweaks Milch gives it are really wonderful:
For the body is not one member, but many. The eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you. Whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it.
We all have a role to play, but we are all conjoined to the same fate. It’s like a coral reef, or any other ecosystem.
DB: And you feel that translates to the various social structures of the web?
TC: I think that translates to the entire world.
DB: And we remake it for ourselves online as well.
TC: Whether we know it or not.