With the news that Friendster is deleting old profiles as part of a reboot, I’ve decided to write a piece that I’ve been thinking about writing for about two years.
Friendster is one of those old social networking sites of the first wave, like Live Journal, Myspace, and others, where many of the tech-elite cut their teeth by posting embarrassing photos and basically conducting the passive-aggressive life of a post-teenager via the “web”. Pre-Facebook stuff. Dinosaur, ancient stuff. The stuff of Onion spoofs. When you say “social networking”, and then look at this stuff, it is kind of like walking down the jetway to find Leonardo Da Vinci’s paper spiral helicopter thingy with a Jet Blue logo on it waiting for boarding.
But I never joined one of these sites, and so I can’t share in the nostalgia. I did learn my Internet chops on an early social network, but it one you’ve never heard about. Let me introduce you to Plans.
I went to a small, Midwestern liberal arts college called Grinnell College, which you probably have not heard of either. It was an idyllic place for those three weeks of May when the Midwest is the most beautiful place on earth, when it was not humid to the point of death, or blowing cold to the point of madness. A school of fun-loving smart kids who didn’t quite fit in well enough to go to the schools all their friends went to back east or further west, it was a place of an odd semi-anarchic community, mixed with liberal political theater, sprinkled with general intellectual geekery.
And from the computer science department’s geekery, was birthed Plans. According to the Plans FAQ:
In the days of old, Grinnell College had a Vax computer system. One of the standard commands available on this system was called ‘finger’. This command gave various information about a user, including showing the person’s .plan file. Each user had their own .plan file, which was originally meant for people at companies and elsewhere to post what their work plans were. The .plan file at Grinnell College (and many other places) gained a social aspect however. People started posting notes to their friends, writing stories, or writing whatever else they felt like writing. At Grinnell College, a small group of students called the ‘VAXGods’ wrote and maintained scripts to allow users to automatically keep track of which of their friends had updated their .plan files.
During the summer of 2000, the Vax at Grinnell College was phased out of operation. There was a time period in which no sort of plan system existed at Grinnell College. During this time period however, older students felt a strong dismay over the loss of the popular plans system. Thoughts floated around about creating a new web-based version of plans, and so Rachel Heck (’01) was the first to take the initiative in creating a web-based plan system.
If you know anything about Vax, (I don’t) I take it that the concept of “plans” should be familiar to you. It is basically a text file, and that was what the web-based Plans service was and is.
When I was in school (’01-’05) webmail was becoming a standard, and common WYSIWYG systems were mostly on the horizon. The text-entry box was about as cutting edge as any of us could have hoped for. Blogs were not yet a thing, and so the concept of having a little bit of text space online, easily editable through a web browser, was a new concept to almost all of us. And, Grinnell being a vastly incestuous community in which everyone was always up in everyone else’s business if not their beds, the idea of sharing one’s life within the community’s computer network made about as much sense as screwing your friends. College!
What remains the most uniquely interesting thing about Plans in my mind, is how the bare-bones freedom of the text box still engendered various forms of online communication that would be immediately recognizable to us today, even with the supposed technological wealth of various service’s UIs that are available to us. Different people had various styles of editing their Plan to be sure, but tropes developed, that I could easily name by their similar services today.
There was the “blog” style, of course. Dated entries, tacked on above the previous entries in the text file, so one could read a person’s thoughts like a journal in reverse chronological order. There was a limit to the size of the text file (it escapes me now, but it was in the tens of thousands of words) so the person adopting this style would have to eventually “purge” or backup the Plan to elsewhere.
There was the “proto-tweet”, otherwise known as the Plan one-liner. Sometimes verbosity was exceeded by brevity. No character limit of course, but the literary impact of checking a person’s Plan to see it all wiped clean except for the “fuck ya’ll” sort of statement had its effect. And, it was easy enough to make a timeline of sorts, adding additional one-liners above the previous, to form one’s sardonic view of the trials of college life.
I myself preferred to wipe clean every update, keeping each post like it’s own individual essay. Some of these would get pretty long, as I’m sure any POSZU reader could imagine. I did have a hard-break at the bottom, below which I stuck a contact info sig that stayed there. This was a common tendency, and to this day most of my friends primarily use Plans to find people’s most recently updated phone numbers and email.
There were a number of basic html tags that could be used. Linking made the Rickroll and the Goatse common, before that was such an Internet trope. But most importantly, there was Planlove, which engendered a number of other tendencies of its own.
Not unlike the @ on Twitter, surrounding a person’s username with brackets like [rothstei] automatically converted the name into a link to that person’s Plan. To do this was called “Planlove”. I believe, like Twitter, it first began unofficially, and then was incorporated into the code to be automatic. The semiotic quality was also surprisingly similar to Twitter. It was not uncommon to sign one’s name on some campus sign, letter to the editor, or notice board as [username], because the meaning was obvious. In fact, the first time I became aware of Plans as a freshman was seeing a graffiti tag that used the brackets. Remember, this was 2001. I doubt Plans was the first to use such tags in this manner, (Twitter’s @ was itself taken from another system) but it shows how given an Internet community, there are certain patterns of usage that develop naturally.
Of course, a function was added to Plans that allowed a user to search for instances of his/her own Planlove, to see how popular one was. No Klout score, but I do recall, perhaps apocryphally, a hack that ranked usernames by the quantity of Planlove.
One could “follow” a Plan, and add it to one of three auto-read lists (only named as 1, 2, and 3). When the person updated the Plan, the name appeared in one’s lists in a column on the side of the screen. I remember much better a scandal, in which someone created a hack website that would tell you the usernames of the people who followed your own Plan. It was the rage for a week, but then it was disabled. Many users felt it violated their privacy to not be able to follow a Plan anonymously. It is interesting how expectations of what is “privacy” normally come out of the way a user learns a system. To change the rules is more a violation of a person’s trust than what the rules allow or disallow. Consider how on Twitter, another asymmetric following network, it is a central feature to be able to see one’s follower count. And yet, on Twitter it is possible to have a private account, only approving particular followers. No such thing on Plans. One could set one’s Plan to only be viewable to people in the Plans network, (requiring login, rather than an open, static web address) which most did select. However, if one had a Plan, one could read all Plans. There was a certain inclusiveness to this network, that in many ways mimicked the social structure at the college. You might imagine correctly we did not have a Greek system at our school.
There was the Secrets function, however. I believe there is a public service similar to this now, where you can basically shout your secret anonymously to the world. From the entire Internet, I don’t quite see the point, as people are constantly posting their secrets all over the place. But to know the secrets were from one of 1300 other students, maybe one of your friends, maybe that person you hate, maybe the cute guy/girl you sit next to in class, had a certain sexiness to it. It was feasible that you might be able to guess the identity of the writer, and so it made for good reading. This was not without controversy, of course. Secrets passed through various periods requiring levels of moderation, to make sure no one was referred to using a real name in the attempt to prevent slanderous or otherwise hateful statements. I’m not sure what the current status of Secrets moderation is, but the feature is certainly still there, and still mostly revolves in content around friends wanting to have sex with their friends, and then cheating on each other. Ah, the liberal arts human condition.
There was also a threaded forum section that was tacked on as a separate feature, not unlike Secrets, but this was not as popular. People enjoyed having their discussions through Planlove, as the ability to completely delete one’s Plan added a level of freedom to the sometimes heated conversations. Naturally, these were known as “Planwars”. I did my first trolling on Plans, learning the tactics of how to get peoples’ emotions stirred while not leaving myself vulnerable. I’ll never forget a particular person whom me and my friends bullied into abandoning his account. I look back on it, and we were cruel and ruthless as one can be on a text-only system where you know the person in real life. And yet, I don’t regret it, because the person started the confrontation, fought back as hard as we did, and in the end, I think the community was made better for his having left. Life lessons about the Internet, here. It was like the proverbial school yard, in more ways than one.
The single most educational experience, and the greatest controversy, occurred my junior year of college. A person I knew socially made some… “unfortunate” remarks on his Plan, that were then interpreted by school authorities AND governmental authorities as terrorist threats. He was charged with felonies, in violation of what I still believe is clearly protected speech (without getting into the details). It was 2003, we were in the heights of a post 9/11 society, and the administration totally hung him out to dry. Controversy, anger, campus unrest, etc. In the wake of this, during the week of spring break the following year while the campus was near empty, the College pulled the plug on the Plans system. It was entirely student designed and administered,* but it was run on those students’ space on the College server. My first object lesson: the Internet is not free, and the pipes are private. But, this was closely followed by the another lesson: the community is its own power. Before the age of Kickstarter, a donation campaign was begun and spread via phone and email, and within a week Plans was back up on a private server, funded by a trust set up by alumni and students. To this day, the disclaimer on the front page reads that the site is not in any way affiliated with the school. It is run for and by the community… a community that only happens to be seeded by a separate, real life community.
I graduated in 2005, the year Facebook came online. I signed up for Facebook that year, as it was billed to me by a friend as “Plans for the real world”. It was, but it wasn’t. (I canceled my Facebook account in 2010.) I stuck around in Plans for the next two years, while I was in grad school and nostalgic for my friends and life from school. But as underclasspeople I knew graduated, and everyone moved on, the magic of the community dissipated for me. In 2007, I got my first Blogger account. In 2008, I joined Twitter. And now, I sync my WordPress posts to a separate Twitter feed as well as a Tumblr, and I do most of my writing in the cloud.
If this feels like the end of an Animal House-style college movie, then good, because it kind of is. An idyllic social network lived four of the best years of its life, and then drove off into the sunset, taking those memories into the future, but only as memories. And yet, Plans is still around. I’m not sure if current students at Grinnell use Facebook more or less than Plans. Maybe only alumni of my generation (is six years ago a generation?) still use it. I know one thing for certain though… it’s not going out like Friendster. The cost of maintaining a text-only social network is relatively nothing. It may not live forever, but it won’t be rebooted, either. Plans never sought to be a killer app, and never was. It was a semiotic moment, with all the reality that that entails. It was a bit of realism in the vaporous atmosphere of social networks, a plateau in the building of certain peoples’ communication skills. Every time I write online, the lessons I learned from Plans are there. I blog and Tweet, but not because they are natural writing tools… not organs and appendages attached to my body as if part of it. I use this social network because I learned to use it. The same way I learned to type, and the same way I learned how to have friends. I learned, because I had a somewhat safe-space of networking, a place to experiment. A place to get in fights, and to think about consequences. A place to speak one’s mind, and to see if anyone else is going to read it and respond. This might be the most important sort of social tool of the Internet, and it is something that seems all too rare.
The one thing I think about today, when I see idiot all-caps comments and Facebook style wall scrawlings? I think: “Poor kid. S/he never had Plans.”
- Yours 4eva, [rothstei]
*Plans is open-source, and you can find the source code here. Another early Internet lesson learned. :) I know there is at least one or two other schools that have used variations on Plans. No reason there couldn’t be more. Kind of doubtful, though.
Posted: April 26th, 2011
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I self-published a new novel a couple months back called Light on Fire. I’ve been wanting to write a little bit about the book, other than a general shameless plead to have you buy it. I am trying something a little different: I am serializing the book on its own website for free. Because I wanted to have at least a good number of chapters available free before I dug into the meta so you would know what I was talking about, I held back in discussing it too deeply here on POSZU. But as of today, there are just over 20% of the chapters available, so I think I can finally let loose.
First, let me get any and all shill information and links out of the way.
The title of the book: Light on Fire
By me: Adam Rothstein
The book is being serialized online at a rate of a little over 3 chapters per week, normally released on Tuesday mornings. The location for that is here:
There is an RSS feed for the new chapters, as well as a Twitter feed.
The book is available for sale in eBook format, which I heartily encourage you to purchase, as it is only 99 cents! ($2.99 at Kindle store, because this is Amazon’s minimum, apparently. Sorry.) Here is a list of retailers and formats. Pick whichever one is convenient for you; though if you asked me, I’d suggest Smashwords, because not only do they offer the most formats all DRM-free, my experience using them as a means for publishing with other retailers has been very positive, and I’d suggest them as a first stop if you were ever to self-publish your own eBook.
Now that’s out of the way, let’s talk about the book. Writing, for me, is a very philosophical process. There’s a good deal of thought that goes on about the form of my writing, as well as the content, while I’m writing it. This is, in a way, the invisible plot of the book, considering most of my writing is philosophical at least a little bit. So I like to share my thought process, in addition to publishing the work. Who knows, this might even be more interesting than the book itself.
At any rate, it will be shorter. That is probably the first thing one might notice about Light on Fire: it’s about 200,000 words long. If you are hefting the eBook, of course, you won’t notice a thing. At least, until you read, and you read, and you read, and you wonder when the book is going to get anywhere rather than just rambling on and on about a group of perhaps teenagers, perhaps college students, perhaps adults, a character called the Angel of History who seems to have something important to say but can’t get around to it, and chapter after chapter of metaphorical description of mundane activities.
It is meant to be this long. Naturally, because I wrote it this long, and didn’t cut very much of it, even though it is the first thing any editor would tell me to do. No novel should look like Light on Fire. For a long time, I had mental trouble calling it a novel, because I knew that wasn’t what I was trying to write. I had something else in mind. Maybe a piece of generative, ambient music. Or perhaps a mini-series, that would have ordinarily been cancelled after a few episodes, but in a bizarre twist of alternate universes, was allowed to continue exactly as it was. It could be more like a road trip, which is a fun journey at first, but when you are tired, your muscles are cramping, and you are burning up money refilling the tank yet again, starts to seem like it is about a third longer than you wish it was.
Why would I want to make such a thing? Obviously I can do such a thing, because this is the age of self-publishing. I could also scream thousands of words of shitty poetry through a megaphone in the supermarket parking lot, or communicate with others only in the sound of my own urination and call it performance art, or record the sound of a bulldozer crushing one hundred violins and say it’s music. In addition to the age of self-publishing, this is the age of Dada as the status quo. Everything is always a certain level of crazy/sublime, at minimum. So the only reason to pay attention to any of it at this point, would seem to be for sheer spectacular entertainment sake. The semiotic rationale of throwing pieces of lead type at Tea Partiers is no better than any other rationale (just making up an example). And so, the greatest common denominator of art-for-art-sake is entertainment. In which case, I probably should have done one of these things I just listed, because those would all be much more entertaining than a very long, slightly-boring book.
But I wasn’t just doing “whatever”–you know, “semiotically novelizing”–for what artistic merit it might bring me. I had a very specific goal in mind. I was trying to make something in particular, and whatever value it might (or might not) have as art is completely secondary to that.
I wanted to write a novel of America. Not a Great American Novel, mind you. I wanted to capture what the novel of America looks like, not according to the artistic genre of the GAN, or the formal conventions of the novel. I wanted to end up with a novel that accurately reflected America: the present. This is something that, as far as I know, does not exist outside of this work I have completed.
Such a thing is rare, because there isn’t much that is common about it. Right away I realized that such a novel would hardly look like a novel at all. There are many, many reasons why not. To begin with, there is nothing actually in reality in America today that looks at all like a novel. Novels have characters whom we like, or at least like hearing about. Novels have beginnings, middles, and endings. Novels have events that mean something in context of each other, in the context of the author and the reader’s preconceptions, and should seek to inform some sort of altered postconception after the novel has been finished, even if only in the slightest of degrees. There is nothing like this, truthfully, in America reality today. There are plenty of lies going on in America that resemble novels. There are thousands and upon thousands of novels written in America, about America. But it isn’t even that these things are not true, whereas there is some sort of hidden Truth about America that isn’t being told. It is that the time of Truth is over for America. Today, presently, America just is. American Reality is a parking lot. It is a parking lot that abuts another parking lot, which abuts another parking lot, and the only thing that distinguishes the hoardes of steel and future e-waste Lifestyle Utility Vehicles, filled with dogs, babies, and the rest of us hyperventilating in the sweltering climate change reality, is a grid work of numbers and letters, unless you happen to be lucky enough to be parked at a place with enough intellectual property to name all these lots. American Reality is the difference between The Goofy parking zone and parking structure F2. American Reality is long, ever so long, and not very entertaining.
I think the previous form of the America’s Novel, the one that was entertaining and perhaps a least occasionally historically meaningful, ended with the election of Barack Obama. I don’t want to wax too political here. In some ways, 2008 was obviously a happy-ending for many people. For others, it was a looming cliff-hanger, a prelude of the eventual cash-in sequel of Palin, etc. But I make this epochalization of the novel based upon a number of factors, that are really unrelated to the election or the president himself. Of course the presidency is a major epoch foundation for American history. But there was also the state of the Internet, and what that means for language and history. There was the state of world history around that time, and America’s changing role on that stage. There was the economic thing, which seems to be almost entirely repressed in today’s memory (a good indicator of trauma). There was the whole post 9/11 environment, another source of trauma, that finally we are beginning to be far enough from that we can start analyzing. And then there was literature.
I’ve read some novels about America from the post 9/11 years, nowhere near most or even a good number of them. Among them, I notice a trend. There is something big that is unspoken. Not entirely a thing of repression, it is not the same void in all of them. Books are quite different. Some may cover certain bases, and others wholly over-represent other areas. But in each, there is a blind spot. A void. The 270-some degrees outside of a camera’s view when it closes in on the protagonist’s face in a thriller, so we cannot see the person creeping towards them until they put on a look of shock as they ought to, though the actor can clearly see what’s going on with stereoscopic human vision.
It’s not a lacuna brought on by a base view of the world, or some intricate Other perspective that everyone but me ought to have seen and now I’m going to call them on it. I think it is just that there is no complete picture of America any more. There is no multi-cultural melting pot, no flag that can carry all the stars and stripes, no common dream and aspiration. All of that is over, if it ever existed. It just isn’t feasible to even pretend. The only narrative of a coherent America in America today is that spouted by politicians, whom are considered the biggest liars out there, and a marginal, political un-party activism group that has some sort of name that everyone turns into an insult, and is commonly associated with the Know-Nothing Party of days past. Looking to either of these places for coherency… well, you’d be better off asking a conspiracy theorist. It’s something that I tried to get at with my Museum of Small American Museums series. There is plenty going on, but it is only viewable up close. The telescopes are broken, and we only have microscopes left. It is a fairure of perspective lines, so we are forced to use real lenses again, rather than just our simulations of their optical properties.
I could go on about this and cite a dozen other examples of the general failure of America’s Novel, but I want to move past this and talk more about my book. Because, this is why I wrote my book. I was tired of seeing the novelization of America fall short, nothing more than a genre of a time that is now closed to us. I was tired of that vertigo that comes from turning ones head so fast, trying to see everything going on, when there is no way to do so. I wanted to back up, sit down for a minute, and take it slow. Abandon the pace of news, music video, dance music, TV drama, the Internet, and all the rest that causes this vertigo. I wanted to find what is literary about America, even if that meant writing something that wasn’t necessarily entertaining as is. And so, that is what I did. Because America, as it is, is so beyond entertainment. At least at one point we were a TV society. We still might be. But if so, it is because America represents TV. Not the other way around.
Parts of America are still entertaining. But to hoist these up and make a complete TV program or a novel either requires a disgusting perversion of what is actually going on, like turning the lives of high school students into soft-core porn, or a terrible violence to the mundanity of life, like inventing a plot about a terrorist plot at every mall in America all at the same time. And yet, the lives of high school students are like hardcore porn, and there are terrorist plots not just in the malls, but in the bars, the alleys, the bathrooms, the bedrooms, and the playing fields of America as we plot against our enemies, our loved ones and ourselves constantly, somehow seeking to make a point with threats, violence, and fear. So how to we show these parts? How do we put the parts in the context of the whole?
It is this effort of trying to encompass, while not unifying or holifying, that is hard part of confronting America’s parts. While some of these parts are bad, there are other parts of America that are good. There are people making things, all the time, and some of them are not just good, but great. Most of the land here is still beautiful, despite what we’ve done to it. People live in relative safety and security, in health and in wealth, at least compared with history if not with their neighbors and the rest of the world. But what is this? Some sort of generic optimism, that can be tied around the shitty parts like a bow? A consolation prize? Does anyone really feel consoled by a consolation prize? Isn’t optimism the resolve we apply to the things we are trying to fix? Not a whimsical act of quitting, a meek smile, and a “it could be worse”?
There are just so many people in the world today. In America today. There is nothing that even begins to be a coherent narrative. It’s not as easy as a simple “death of grand narratives”. You cut off a head of that hydra, and five more grow in place. In fact, the hydra breaks apart in to thousands of small worms, some with one head, some with more, some with none, and they wriggle off to hide under rocks where you’ll never be able to get them all together again. Humpty Dumpty is the narrative our current Herculean narrative task. And in the American narrative, there are at least three Dumpty’s, all involved in a taser fight/DUI accident/revenge orgy, and it’s dark out, and someone just made off with the flashlight, and I think there’s a shard of one of them stuck in the bottom of my foot.
None of this is a reason to give up. This is why I couldn’t just give up, edit down, and make a real novel. I wanted to. I would have been done in half the time… okay, maybe two-thirds. I would have had something that I really liked, and that other people liked too, instead of an abstract epic poem to the atemporalization of history and the death of not just a nation, but probably my future and that many of my friends. An epic of anxiety, that made me as uncomfortable about the time I spent on it as I spend trying to imagine myself as the fellow citizen of the people I mean in the street. But I couldn’t stop writing it until it was done. The uncertainty is a reason to keep working. To pick at it until it bleeds. My American anxiety is an obsessive compulsion. It is a reason to buckle down, to get moving, to pick up one’s tools, and get cracking. Maybe to cry a little bit while doing so. That’s what I thought every time I sat down to work on Light on Fire. I’m not sure what I thought it might accomplish, if it would do anything. No artistic rationale here, really, I swear. I just wanted to do it. I wanted to give it a shot, and see what America looked like after passing through the literary filter, with all of this in mind. Will it be interesting? Maybe to some. Will it be a best seller? I seriously doubt it. It might not even be a “seller” at all. But it will be a complete thing. A project accomplished. As much as it can be complete.
There are blind spots, there are dead ends, there are red herrings, there are side plots bigger than the main plot. There are characters whom we aren’t sure of their description, though we could give them one. There are boring moments, and little flashes of excitement. A bit of humor, a bit of horror, a bit of deep thinking, and a bit of porn. All of these in are in Light on Fire, I mean. I’m not sure all of these are in America–that is, I’m sure they all are in America, but I’m not sure they are constituent in the same proportions as they are in my book. And yet, when you take the literary lens I did, and turning it around and around trying to focus, that is what those squiggly lines and blurry colored dots most closely resemble. One hundred and three stories that don’t really go together well, and yet are related. That’s the book. That’s what I made. And you know, I think it actually kind of works.
Perhaps conveniently, the first book I read after finishing Light on Fire was Don DeLillo’s White Noise, which I had never read before. I avoided it, because it sounded too much like something I wanted to write, and I was afraid of being too influenced. As it is, I’m very glad I read it immediately after finishing Light on Fire, because it is almost exactly the same. Very different, but very much the same. I don’t want to speculate too deeply on DeLillo’s motivations for the book, but as the reader, I earn a certain privilege to do so. The book is very much about a certain disenchantment of the 1980s in America, with its culture, with its science, with its goals and preoccupations. The plot of the book rises and falls in barometer-like excitement in a precipitatory way, condensing certain themes in parts where the pressure lowers the clouds, and then concentrating and whisking away the moisture in other areas. Where the plot falls away, we see the themes laid bare.
If there was a continuation of a similar literary system for this decade, I would perfunctorily place Light on Fire not far from that mark. We’ve gone beyond the disenchantment, the blank static views of TVs tuned to dead channels that are tuned back on us, the cultural unconscious of talk radio, the bedrooms that look more and more like kitchen appliances. Or rather, all of that is still here. But we, the children of that corn, have grown up, and we are now adults. And we are normal–or at least according to certain definitions our parents have had to settle for. Few of us have jobs, fewer of us own homes or cars in which the scenes of White Noise might take place. The fear and loathing has shifted. The terror we live with is more specific and human, and the technological amusements work much better, because they’ve been designed so that we’ve customized them to our liking. Unspecific generalities like Fear are something for people with mortgages. Fetish, not defined according to sub-culture or music genre, is something for people with a reputation to lose. The swirling storm clouds of plot are now more of a mist. There is a certain wetness to the pavement, but we can’t really say when it rained. And so, we are left to continuing living, not bad lives, but not exactly what was promised to us in elementary school either, living in basements, in group houses, in our broken down cars and on public buses. These lives, if that is what we call them, which we are waiting on, hoping that the plot will one day start. And while in the ‘80s the form of this waiting might have had a sort of stasis to it, a blank wall of prescription drug haze, and white noise anxiety, today it is something different. For young Americans today, the color of our dead channel is fire.
More on Light on Fire, when I come up with some thoughts that seem cogent. Until then, do enjoy the free serials of the novel. Every Tuesday, or thereabouts.