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“…if they said what they really felt…”: John Perry Barlow

April 20th, 2004 · 3 Comments

We must be rich

As the session with John Perry Barlow at BloggerCon started, the joke yelled around the room was: All the people in this room must be rich! :
those of us scattered around Pound 200 were not at the [packed] session on Blogging as a Business.

A small study in conference sessions: how they happen and who comes

The fact that I was in the room with John Perry Barlow at all was amazing for a variety of reasons. The session was not on the schedule and had only been born the night before, when Dave Winer called his friend and asked him to come lead a session at the conference.

I ended up in the room due to some seemingly random events. At the previous session, electrical outlets had dictated my seat near the edge of the room. Zephyr Teachout had sat next to me on one side. After the session ended, Jim Moore came over and began talking to her. Then Barlow himself joined the conversation. I overhead a bit as I was putting away my electrical cord. When Barlow mentioned he was leading a session, I asked “what will you cover?” Once I heard that the possible topics included “The Emotional Life of Blogs” and depression, I was hooked.

Although I had no idea who he was when Dave announced his name that morning, I had been thinking about going to his session only because I knew he knew Mitch Kapor, my husband’s boss at OSAF. I haven’t met Mitch yet but he seems pretty cool: I figured if John Berry Parlow started the Electronic Frontier Foundation with him then Barlow must be pretty cool too. Yet I wasn’t sure if I should go. All the sessions looked good. And I’d never read Barlow’s blog; I wasn’t a fan as some obviously were.

But as I stood there in the corner winding electrical cord, listening to him and Jim Moore discuss depression, I knew where I was headed for the next session.

Notes below: I am writing most of the session as transcript with my response at the end.

Other’s notes: Bryann Strawser wrote several posts and Joey deVilla caught a great front row photo

Creating a Space

John Perry Barlow [describing what happened after his posts on Spalding Grey’s death]…what I did not realize I was doing was creating a space, [for] hundreds almost a thousand people to write about him and their feelings about losing him and their feelings about depression and suicide and madness…the world that we inhabit…the sort of white middle class…etc…is impoverished in its opportunities to be collectively and emotionally open…there are not so many places where people can do [that].

Are there ways to encourage and manage these possible benefits?…I felt like I was being called upon to have skills as a counselor that I didn’t possess…there were cases where someone was clearly threatening suicide…and it was really interesting…in once case I don’t know what happened…and they’re disembodied presence

…synchronicity works whether you believe in it or not…
…there’s a vast category for emotional life on line….

Judith Meskill: I see my blog as my front porch. I’m inviting you…[in blogging]… eventually you start to reveal aspects of your personality, and people in your readership will feed back to you… I started writing poetry…high tech haiku…about different people and what they’ve done…Shakespearean sonnets…[quote]:”I bring emotion into this very sterile field.”

“I’m not mostly rational”

Dave Winer: I’m not mostly rational….we were raised in America to think that we constantly have to prove that we’re not crazy…

John Perry Barlow: You and I don’t try very hard.

Dave Winer: No matter what you write in your blog you can’t be sterile..your choice of words…is telling something about your childhood neuroses. The best thing to do is to try to figure out what the truth is and say it. Manipulate symbols. What I love about what John does is that he shows it is okay to be a man and have a emotional existence…sometimes men are strong and most of the time we’re not…I love the fact that you [Judith Meskill] wrote poetry about me…can you show me something beautiful? That’s the most amazing thing you can do on your blog.

John Perry Barlow: …There’s something about the sound of the truth itself that provides a lot of nutrition these days….everybody feels compelled to say certain things…if they said what they really felt they would be crazy and that would be really bad…

Ethan Zuckerman: I’m interested in trying to think about what’s been so different about getting to know people in blogs…over time it may just be accumulation…I get to dig back over some period of time, accumulation of personality over time [comparison to small town experience] with blogs you get a chance to do this all in an instant…

Dave sometimes pisses me off…then I’ll go back and read a couple months of Dave and then I’ll realize I really love Dave…

John Perry Barlow:…so far the jury’s out but I do see some potential for a rebirth of community in the blog world…

Shared adversity

[example from audience member describing how blogs ab out brain injury build community]

John Perry Barlow Community tends to form on the basis of shared adversity.

Dave Winer: I think its all emotional…[when a family member died]…it was a very big thing for me…from that I ended up writing about friendship…what is friendship? When someone expresses himself and is being honest we think of it as emotional. Next time you’re sitting around a meeting, see how people are making things personal.

[discussion of bulletin boards versus the Web]

John Perry Barlow: … when people are emotional without some restraint…they start hammering away at each other..there’d be a mob of visciousness for reasons better known to their parents….here I see the remergence of conversational medium…are we going to see the same kind of social decline..

Dave Winer: blogs have in their structure the concept of respect….

John Perry Barlow: when I first posted about Spaulding, there were some people that were really offended that I would say someone was dead when he was merely missing…I felt like what I had unsurfaced was discomfort with the subject of death…death is a form of failure in America…to say that somebody has died, unless you’ve got a coroner’s report, is to issue a viscious insult in the view of some folkds. I had some really nasty comments…I thought, here we go…there was an amazingly self-regulatory…I haven’t had to delete a single comment.

Lenn Pryor: I have a brother I barely know…he found my weblog…then he showed it to my father…so I ran into the guys from JackAss by chance. we had a little adventure and I blogged about the whole thing and my father on the phone says to me…
I said you read what?
You’re not safe any time you put it out there.

John Perry Barlow: oddly enough you are in a funny way. this sense of safety in extreme vulnerability. the whole world could be watching.

[audience member shared story about a kid who was lying on his blog]

John Perry Barlow: it occurred to me that he was telling another truth…and that he didn’t feel that anyone would care about him as he was.

Efficiency of relationships

Andrew Grumet: I do find it pretty fascinating to hang out with other bloggers…there’s some level of honesty…the best ones often times are the ones where people lay themselves out…what’s interesting when you meet people in meet space..ou just met them but they’re a friend already.

John Perry Barlow:Do you find there’s an interesting layer of awkwardness?

Andrew Grumet: I actually like it.

John Perry Barlow: Layers of awkwardness are flavoring for me…

Andrew Grumet: I see it as an efficiency…there’s all that stuff you don’t have to catch up on…

“Go back…24 hours later…”

Dave Winer: just because you know the facts and circumstances of someone’s life doesn’t mean you know the person…just because they know some facts about you…that’s the mistake…a lot of people read my blog and I get a lot of personal comments…wow,…

John Perry Barlow: David, you piss everybody off…and everybody loves you anyway

Dave Winer: I know. I get it. I get it.

John Perry Barlow: It’s one of your most endearing qualities.

Dave Winer: [directed to Ethan] next time I piss you off…go back to the same thing you read 24 hours later and see if it still pisses you off..I’ve gotten a chance to study what it’s like when I piss someone else off…if I calm down and ask a few questions they have a big long story they want to tell that no body wants to listen to…I pushed a few buttons. I’m just a mirror for them. What I said triggered something for them.

John Perry Barlow: People will map stuff on you. Trying to figure out the extent to which you are responsible for what other people place on you…

Serving a public purpose as a target

Wendy Koslow : How much of someone else’s issue do you have to contol? Recently I got called *a slut* by someone..

John Perry Barlow: Was it an insult or a compliment?


Wendy Koslow:…how much responsibility do I have for this guy who’s clearly working out some of his issues with women at my expense?

Dave Winer: I wouldn’t touch that one.

John Perry Barlow: danah boyd asked me when she first started to know me…you know it seems people either really like you or can’t stand you…how do you feel about that? I used to take it seriously in both respects…you are serving a public purpose service as a target in this way…
I’ve learned enough in the meantime that I don’t immediately react when someone says something negative…often I can count on other people to do my reacting for me.


Dan Gillmor : I was just going to second the notion of people who call you mean things it reflects at least as much about them then it does about you….I …leave the personal stuff alone…if you do this stuff you end up developing a much thicker skin which is I don’t think a bad idea….

Dave Winer: [shared experience that happened to him]..okay, fine I now understand this is a part of passage…you become a whipping post for people with emotional problems…they are allowed to publish what they think about you….the fact that they’re being published says that they’re an open society…

John Perry Barlow: If you’re emotionally available in public, it provides a kind of permission for other people to be emotionally revealed themselves and you may not want to see what they reveal right away…

Lisa Williams: Probably 90% of flames are about what the writer of the flame has to say: what if they’re right? I post retractions. I think that another thing that’s nice about the blog form is that it gives you the opportunity to do that. ….It was interesting I posted something kind of controversial…so I thought…then came the real wing-nuts, the people who are mad because I changed my mind. I was completely flummoxed by this..one of the things I like about the practice of blogging [is] you can change your mind you can be open to others ideas…

John Perry Barlow: Part of what you’re expressing here is cultural belief that is widely held in the blog world but not in other worlds…[extrapolated comment on number of Macs in the room at BloggerCon…] people who have Macs are more likely to feel comfortable changing their mind …and were not beaten by their fathers….[laughter]

Grace, dignity and responsibility

Lenn Pryor: I’ve spent 7 years at a proverbial whipping post…when was the last tiem you personally wrote or phone somebody when someone did something good…often the people who speak up are the least satisfied…that’s why I’m suspicious of market research…you have to learn how to handle it with grace, dignity and responsibility…the further up you’re going to hear

Dan Gillmor : We sort of help each other out with the stuff we like in a way I’ve never seen with any other medium

We’re finding each other

Jim Moore: In the BBS world you went out to find communities, in the blogging world communities have found me…

John Perry Barlow: I had several communities find me that I didn’t even know I was trying to attract…the community of the deeply depressed….people I hadn’t even thought of them as existing…

Jim Moore:…I think we’re finding each other…


John Perry Barlow: I’m dazzled at how many good writers there are out there…folks that have posted to mine are better writers than I am.

audience member: my daughter read something you wrote… she sat down and wrote an email to you…it was this amazing thing that you could do something with a stranger…

John Perry Barlow: I’ve had some …experience with this…having the community of cyberspace come up to you…there is something that we touch there..that needs to be explored more…

Preserving cultural goods

Lisa Williams: I like what Ethan said about following people through time…[while reading books with her father] both these people were dead but when we opened the books it seemed that they were alive…I hope that blogs are able to open this experience…they’re still alive in their thoughts…and it opens it to more and more people.. the average life of an average person is completely obliterated by history.. [but] we can still sing some of the songs they sang…in a way blogs do that, they preserve the cultural goods of people who aren’t rich or who society has decided aren’t important…

John Perry Barlow I feel like this is such an evanescent medium..I wonder…

Lisa Williams: if it gets recorded it has a chance to be preserved

Jim Moore: I think that’s something we should work on…it’s like preserving photo albums…Civil war photos now…

Lisa Williams: Time is a natural winnowing fan

John Perry Barlow If I write something that I want to last I print it out on acid-free paper multiple times and put it in many places.


Dan Gillmor: the disk drive folks are making Moore’s law look slow..the more problematic part may be that everything you ever do..our lives may be blogged for us…

John Perry Barlow I think we have to be very thoughtful about how to save the history of the present….they asked me to donate my email to the Berkman Centerand it sits here on 2 Syquest disks and I believe there is not a syquest disk drive anywhere…

Safer to be a human being

John Perry Barlow:blogging makes it safer and safer to be a human being

[…] practically everyone I know is in a state of paralysis…becasue they have more information coming in than they can process…and its a very disparate stream of information…and I wonder if having all these blogs isn’t all these problms…what kind of effect does that have


Jim Moore: the phenomonology of blogging….when I started blogging, the really interesting experience when you go I’m going to make this thing public, you write this thing, okay..now it’s out there…that moment is really important…when you’re running around here…you don’t have that many moments like that of courage. Yeah, I stand for this. And it’s going to be out there. The thing I find most powerful is having that experience a lot. Then I went through this exhibitionist phase…maybe that’s too far…you think those things out…or when I first started learning political stuff..you make that choice, you have to make those choices or you can’t go forward in the media…
the phenomenology of input is also interesting….I’ve got an aggregator…I do make decisions about that in a sense…it doesn’t overload me like a static website..those overload me…the one thing I find about blogs…that human voice part touches you more deeply…I can do a lot of human to human contact in a day and still feel energized.

John Perry Barlow: I wonder how many times a day you can generally say wow far out! that may not be quite the zero sum game…there’s a difference between the wow far out you get…I can handle a lot of wow far out…when it’s informational, there’s only so much I can understand..

Funny how it happens

Funny how it happens….I first planned to go to BloggerCon due to a session that was being planned but didn’t end up on the schedule. I decided to still go to BloggerCon anyway. And my favorite session ended up being one that was born only hours before the conference began, and one that I chose only on my way out of the room.

We are rich

I may never blog for a political campaign, make money on my blog, or develop a new aggregator tool. But the “Emotional Life of Blogs” is what I do every day. It is why I blog explicitly. It was an interlude, a window, a mirror and a door. It was a magic moment…perhaps a magic carpet ride even.

What I loved about Barlow’s session is that he – and we as a group together – hit on what makes us human. Why we blog. How we’re afraid of death. We’re afraid to love. We get hurt. We lie. We die. We ache. We long for connection. We crave community. Sometimes we find it as we type on either side of this boxes, faces pressed against the screens, seeking some sort of solace in these digital bits, hoping that these wires and cords connect more than ethernet nodes.

We are people. We have passion. We want to live and die for something. Jim Moore described the courage blogging requires. That moment of “I stand for this”. It’s a vulnerable moment. It also defines us as we are. As bloggers. As believers. As human beings.

Grace, dignity, responsibility. Reaching out. Pissing off. Changing minds. Show me something beautiful. Say what you feel. Everybody loves you anyway. We’re finding each other.

The session with Barlow showed:”Blogging makes it safer and safer to be a human being”

Sitting in that session together we were taken on a trip into the extraordinary, places we don’t usually go or explicity discuss with each other.

We were raw. We were real. We were rich.

note: I’ve updated this a few times already catching errors I made in typing (notes are typed during the conference session) quoting, and explaining…I think there are probably a few other misspellings or small errors I still haven’t caught…my apologies and please let me know..

Tags: bloggercon

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Debbie Galant // Apr 22, 2004 at 8:55 pm

    I’ve been reading your BloggerCon coverage, and I’ve got to say, you done good. From the red-penned sign, to the pictures to the wonderful wrap-up of Barlow, which makes me so sad I missed that session. Oh well, we will continue to meet in Cyberspace.

  • 2 judith // Jun 6, 2004 at 11:38 am

    wonderful transcription of an inspiring session… your prose is rich and as easy to fall into as an old favorite chair that holds you in all of the right ways… thanks julie… best… j.

  • 3 BloggerCon // Nov 11, 2004 at 3:20 pm

    Summary of the Emotional Life Session at BloggerCon III

    I am still unpacking what happened during the Emotional Life of Weblogs discussion on Saturday.