Caulfield's tragedy
Thursday, February 25, 2016 by Ken Smith

For educators and others, the "tragedy of the stream" is just this: the good things in a blog post, or a series, or in a bundle of them posted in conversation on several sites over several days all meet the same fate--sliding down the screen into the archive and very likely into oblivion. Mike Caulfield writes about it with keen disappointment, to say the least, and I tend to think he's right.

Those exchanges can be important to the community where they unfold, no doubt. They're part of the lived experience and we take that away and use it in our lives. That's real. Sometimes, particular problems are solved in those exchanges; sometimes particular valuable things are built as a result.

But the traces of those moments recede. The tragedy of the stream is that the potent thing that made the experience worthwhile for the participants is usually lost to people who arrive late. Sorry, something cool happened here, but it was live and it's over. You might be able to get a hint of it wandering through some archives. Go for it and good luck!

The reverse chronology made it a live experience; the reverse chronology entombs most of it in a week or two, for most practical purposes.

I've daydreamed sometimes of a different publishing tool that did everything a blogging tool does and a little more. It would also post to an organized field of postings that are structured not by date but by thought.

Maybe it's better to think of it the other way around. I'd write every day and save the work in an idea-guided structure of postings, and each time I finished a chunk of it I'd press "Blog it!" and that new chunk would also be presented online in a blogger's beloved reverse chronological order.

Saying it again differently

When you write, you can serve two masters. 

1. You can engage with other readers and writers and build a community and tune ideas together. Reverse chronology has been pretty good for that live-action process. It's a real accomplishment to make this happen, and people who haven't experienced it often don't have any idea how alive it can be.

2. You can also build out the body of your own thought, linked idea by linked idea, example by related example. The date of composition is beside the point when ideas connect. Yes, that work is enriched by the community-building praised in #1 just now, but some vital portion of what a writer does is flying solo. You can work on #2 in blog format, but the best and final results will probably not resemble a blog, will not happen to have been created in chronological order, and will not easily be located and revised if they were launched in blog format. The logic of ideas is not reverse chronology.

The wish list

Could I compose in a big flexible format whose heart and soul is building out related ideas in large pieces that might remind us, say, of book chapters? [OPML, I'm looking at you.]

Every time I finish a small piece there in the big-format shop, something that would make a useful blog post, could I press a little button and send that small piece to my blog, my small-format facility, with today's time stamp, where it has a chance of contributing to the work my community is doing?

And later, when something substantial has taken on some character and polish there in the big format space, could I publish it more or less directly from there as a run of web pages, or maybe drop it into pdf form or pour it into InDesign as a book chapter?

I can do all of this by hand already. I can read through all the blog posts and paste them into larger documents by hand and revise them there. But it's a very slow process, and after you have a thousand posts the potential for organizing them meaningfully diminishes, because you can't keep them clearly enough in mind to make the connections you need to make as you organize. 

If our composing tools would stop giving primacy to the date of composition, and let the logic of ideas and stories take the lead, I suspect that some good portion of Caulfield's tragedy of the stream would evaporate. OPML, I'm still looking at you.