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<les misc: old: the loneliness of the long distance coder>

the loneliness of the long distance coder

In my teens and early twenties I wrote long, personal letters to intimate friends who wrote back in kind.
        One day the wife of a cousin I barely knew sent a Xeroxed letter to me and the rest of the relatives, detailing Tom's promotion, Jessica's kindergarten prowess, and similar achievements that meant nothing to me, and probably meant nothing to most of the recipients.
        Everybody has a cousin like that, and everybody has gotten one of those mailings that are intended as letters of love, but read more like a company's cheaply printed gung-ho newsletter to its investors.
        In my teens and early twenties I was appalled by the egotism of these cousins, who were distant in every sense of the word.
        Today I send emails like that to five or six friends at a time. And tell myself I'm keeping in touch.

Not long ago I belonged to a small private mailing list of people who create interesting work on the Web. I recently resigned, in theory because I had gotten too busy, but in truth because I was treating those gifted, special people the way my cousin had treated the family. I was sending blurbs and emotional snapshots of my life, instead of actually communicating. In place of genuine conversation, I offered the equivalent of press releases. When I bared my soul, it was to everyone - as if the list were a support group, instead of a (virtual) roomful of friends.
        In short, I did not know how to behave. So I withdrew. Not because I loved or respected my friends any less. But because I loved and respected them enough to stop imposing my fragile yet inflated sense of self upon them.

I fear that, in half the things I publish on the Web, I am creating a mythology about myself instead of seeking truth.
        I find that this strain of self-important myth-making runs throughout much writing on the Web, and much Web culture generally.

The early motion picture pioneers approached their work like craftsmen, or like traveling circus folk. They were not burdened by a sense of their place in the History of World Cinema. They waited for the light, they cued the gardener to step off the hose and get squirted in the face, they packed their equipment and moved on.
        But we have no such innocence. In creating content for a new medium, we know too well the history of the century's three other new media - film, TV, and recorded music. We know that, when the books are written, creative people become cultural icons, visionaries outside of time instead of workers reacting to their moment in history.
        It seems that (without ever admitting it) some of us secretly jockey for our place in history instead of just doing the work.

And the culture rewards us for selling ourselves. Quiet, humble workers fall by the wayside. Only the artist who is part-huckster, part-shaman, gets the goods.

Successful artists have always sold themselves to the public. Hitchcock did it, and Miles, and Jackson Pollock. Spike Lee does it, Scorsese does it, James Brown has been doing it to death for decades.
        The reward is a wider connection with the audience. This connection is vital and real. The punishment, paradoxically, is an increasing sense of separateness and difference from co-workers, neighbors, and friends.
        The kind of thing that makes you write articles or launch websites instead of phoning someone. That makes you view your creative and business decisions as news events.
        The loneliness of the long-distance coder.
        At least my cousins wrote about their children.
        What is my work about?


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