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August 16, 2003

Maps and territories

Metaphors are always riskily deceptive, and yet we cannot think without them. Put your teeth just so far apart and expel air roughly through them, make a smooth sound from your vocal cords, and then drop your jaw suddenly. Is the sound you've just uttered - "chair" - capable of bearing your weight?

Ignore for a moment the hideous mixture of metaphor in the cliché "surfing the web" — the Argiope out back might inform you that she loves it when others attempt to surf her web, and that the experience, if the web works as designed, is fatal to the surfer, and let's hope Clear Channel doesn't hire my spiders as consultants — and consider what actual motions one performs when so "surfing," which is to say not many. The word "chair" is relevant here as well. A flick of wrist on mouse, ten fingers (or two) entering email addresses and credit card numbers, maybe an occasional arching of sore back and cracking of knuckles constitute the entire range of online motion for most people, at least for websites not requiring AdultCheck.

The first home computer I used was a brand spanking new TRS-80. The first computer of any kind I used was an IBM/360. True, I mainly used it to play Coffee, but I was all of four years old at the time. A Luddite I am not. In the early nineties, I spent a significant amount of time reading and writing posts to a "conference" - an equivalent of a Usenet newsgroup, only on a proprietary network run by a lefty ISP. The conference,, was styled by its eponymous founders as an "online community." We preferred the café metaphor, and any number of flirtations and torrid political arguments took place around its nonexistent pool table. Relationships spilled over into the offline world, lifelong friendships established, a few hearts broken.

It's easy to see that the "café" description was a playful metaphor. With that in mind, why am I having a harder time deciding whether that's also true of the word "community?" The old café had many features that would seem to qualify it for the title, and there's precedent for the existence of non-local communities — the "community of scholars" being one that gave direct rise to Usenet. If all of us "in" the café had gotten "together" each night by way of a telephone conference call, we may well have called ourselves a community after a while, but we probably would not have defined that community by the medium we used to converse. Millions of people have friends they never talk to without using a telephone, but such people are not generally called "on-phone friends." We take pains to distinguish our online lives from meatspace: the medium seemingly demands a starring role in the interactions for which we use it. Is it an "online community," or just a community that takes advantage of a particular medium for communication?

And what is "place" but "community" defined more broadly? So I'm a bit bemused at the current Ecotone topic, "weblogs as place." There is a sly temptation, flitting out there at the edge of my id, to post a one-word answer: "no."

Put it this way: There's about a ten-inch section of one of my shelves that's filled with nature writing from Nebraska and Kansas: Swallow Summer, The Last Prairie, PrairyErth. But my shelf is not a prairie. Last night I watched a rerun of the documentary Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner wryly grinning into the camera to narrate the Owens Valley War. But the television contains neither Reisner nor the Valley: both are dead, more or less.

I write in this weblog about place, when I'm not writing about me and my relationship with myself as I see it. But Pinole Creek does not at any point along its length flow through this Pinole Creek weblog: you are less likely to hear treefrogs in this blog than you are to taste salt by touching tongue to blue ink on a map of the bay.

Posted by Chris Clarke at August 16, 2003 12:12 AM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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Interesting entry. I wrote about maps and place twice in error for 1st August - lost the plot. Sounds like you blended maps and weblogs as place and why not? It's all connected. Maybe we could have an ecotone topic on webwriting. I love your spider entries. That must surely be the ultimate weblog.

Posted by: Coup de Vent at August 24, 2003 08:02 AM
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