(2021-05-14) Doctorow The Memex Method

Cory Doctorow: The Memex Method. When your commonplace book is a public database.

I’ve been a blogger for a little more than 20 years and in that time I’ve written a little more than 20 books 2021-01-13-DoctorowPluralistic20YearsABlogger

I’ve written and delivered some hundreds of speeches as well

Over that same period, I’ve published many millions of words of work in the form of blog-posts. Far from competing with my “serious” writing time, blogging has enabled me to write an objectively large quantity of well-regarded, commercially and critically successful prose

A commonplace book

Writers have kept notebooks since time immemorial. The auctorial equivalent to the artist’s sketchbook is the “commonplace book,”

My private notebooks are unreadable, disorganized messes, written with such appalling penmanship that it’s sometimes hard to be sure that they’re even written in English.

Thankfully, nearly my entire writing life has been digital

I have endless running text-files from the 1980s and 1990s in which I jotted down notes to myself

They are inert, more like logfiles than project-notes.


Peter “peterme” Merholz coined the term “blog” as a playful contraction of “web-log” — like a ship’s log

there’s a kind of platonic ideal of a blog that’s right there in the term’s etymology: the blog as an annotated browser-history, like the traveler’s diaries my family kept

Like those family trip-logs, a web-log serves as more than an aide-memoire, a record that can be consulted at a later date. The very act of recording your actions and impressions is itself powerfully mnemonic

The genius of the blog was not in the note-taking, it was in the publishing. The act of making your log-file public requires a rigor that keeping personal notes does not. Writing for a notional audience — particularly an audience of strangers — demands a comprehensive account that I rarely muster when I’m taking notes for myself. (Thinking Out Loud)

Nucleation in a supersaturated solution

Every day, I load my giant folder of tabs; zip through my giant collection of RSS feeds; and answer my social telephones — primarily emails and Twitter mentions — and I open each promising fragment in its own tab to read and think about. If the fragment seems significant, I’ll blog it: I’ll set out the context for why I think this seems important and then describe what it adds to the picture

These repeated acts of public description adds each idea to a supersaturated, subconscious solution of fragmentary elements that have the potential to become something bigger.

Every now and again, a few of these fragments will stick to each other and nucleate, crystallizing a substantial, synthetic analysis.

That’s how blogging is complimentary to other forms of more serious work: when you’ve done enough of it, you can get entire essays, speeches, stories, novels, spontaneously appearing in a state of near-completeness, ready to be written. (Intermediate Packet)

Be the first person to not do what no person has not done before.

Clay Shirky has described the process of reading blogs as the inverse of reading traditional sources of news and opinion.... bloggers publish (everything that seems significant to them) and then readers select.

That’s not the only inversion that blogging entails. When it comes to a (my) blogging method for writing longer, more synthetic work, the traditional relationship between research and writing is reversed. Traditionally, a writer identifies a subject of interest and researches it, then writes about it. In the (my) blogging method, the writer blogs about everything that seems interesting, until a subject gels out of all of those disparate, short pieces. (emergent)

it’s a way to do research for a book or essay or story or speech you don’t even know you want to write yet.


In 1945's “As We May Think,” we encounter Vannevar Bush’s thought experiment of a “memory expander,”

The Memex has inspired bloggers since the earliest days of the form. Dori Smith called her pioneering blog her “backup brain”; the Observer’s tech longstanding columnist John Naughton has kept a blog for 19 years that he calls “Memex 1.1.” I called my blog my “outboard brain” back in 2002.

Though Bush’s inspired vision for digital augmentation of human thought was missing a crucial part ( publication of the notes, as a spur to note-taking rigor), it nevertheless hit on a vital aspect of digital note-taking: fulltext search and tag-based indexing

Memex, combined with Pluralistic — the solo blog I started after I left Boing Boing — is a vast storehouse of nearly everything I found to be significant since 2001

Yesterday morning, I wrote a 1,500-word essay on web-blocking, free expression, copyright, and automated filtering, in the space of about an hour, between coffee and breakfast. The essay includes more than 20 references to articles from the past decade, some of which I wrote and some of which were written by others.

Change your priors

it’s hard to write long and prolifically without cringing at the memory of some of your own work.

systematically reviewing your older work to find the patterns in where you got it wrong (and right!) is hugely beneficial — it’s a useful process of introspection that makes it easier to spot and avoid your own pitfalls.

For more than a decade, I’ve revisited “this day in history” from my own blogging archive

A daily habit and a community

Every day, I roll back my blog archives to this day in years gone past, pull out the most interesting headlines and publish a quick blog post linking back to them.

the act of publishing my own interests helped people with similar interests to mine to find me — and vice versa

This is the final inversion of blogging: not just publishing before selecting, nor researching before knowing your subject — but producing to attract, rather than serve, an audience. Traditional editors identify an audience who will pay for their publication (or whom an advertiser will pay to reach) and then find a writer who can speak to that audience. As a blogger, I’ve enjoyed the delirious freedom to write exactly the publication I’d want to read, which then attracts other people who feel the same way. (scene)

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