Minimum viable networked publishing
From April 15th I’m shunting off on a 1,000 kilometer walk across a chunk of Japan. Six planned weeks, possibly a few more.
The trails and sub-trails I’ll be walking are numerous, but broadly speaking, I’m walking from Tokyo to Kyoto along the historic Nakasendo highway. I wrote a bit about the planning over on Ridgeline: “Exquisite Boredom and the Long Walk.”
While walking, I’m going to run a publishing-over-SMS experiment. I’d love for you to take part! You can join in by texting “walk” to +1-424-543-0510 (that link should open your SMS app on the phone).1
The Publishing System
Some buddies in NYC — Josh Miller, Hursh Agrawal, and Josh Lee — have built me a tool that will be a one-to-many SMS (MMS to be exact) publishing platform. Think: Newsletters over SMS. (Or, think, twttr … but, not twttr.)
Here’s how it works:
- From April 15th to May 14th I will publish one image each day from my walk.
- Folks subscribe to receive these images by texting “walk” to: +1-424-543-0510.
- I won’t know who subscribed or how many people I’m broadcasting to.
- You’re encouraged to respond to each image over text BUT …
- I won’t see the texts; they’ll be collated on the server and associated with the image.
- On May 14th, all of your numbers will be removed from the system and the “transmission” will end.
- A single book2 will then be generated with images on verso (left) pages, and your associated responses on recto (right) pages.
- That book will be print-on-demanded to my home in Japan.
- I’ll see it all if I survive the walk and make it back.
You’ll only get messages from me. It is not a group chat. Your responses will only be published in that single copy of the book for me. We will never use your number for anything but this temporary list. You can unsubscribe at any time by texting “stop”. And you will be automatically unsubscribed — expunged from the database! — on May 14th when that section of the walk is completed. (After May 14 I enter the deep mountains, may not have cell reception, will be camping for days, and will be using my laptop to fight bears.)
This is very much experimental, and so I appreciate your patience and understanding ahead of time if anything weird happens or the whole thing breaks midway.
Why do this?
The crux of the project is threefold:
- I’m curious about using the network to publish without being used by it.
- I’m curious about fleeting, non-permanent online gatherings.
- I’m curious about drawing “edges” around walks.
There are many great reasons to go on a long walk. And I subscribe to and am excited about them all.3 But I also see a walk as a framework onto which you can hang little experiments, tests, trials.
What do I mean by “use the network to publish without being used by it?” On most services — Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc — in order to publish something you must stare into the maw of its timeline, resist whatever the algorithm has queued up for you, and then, if you’ve remembered what you were going to publish, publish.
One of the many sub-goals of this walk is to completely eliminate “intermittent variable rewards.” I’m primarily walking alone, with fairly strict set of technological tenants.
For the entirety of the six weeks I’ve decided not to touch — let alone be within earshot of — the Homeric sirens of a platform like Instagram or YouTube or Twitter. I don’t want the din of breathless news headlines popping up on my phone. I’m just too wimpy. I’ll get sucked in.
I want to be in the place in which I’m walking, and that place only, without any desire for those strange digital pellets of recognition, feedback, or delicious, delicious content.
So the system I publish to has to be outside of standard platforms, away form the clamor. Which is why Josh and co. have developed the one I outlined above.5
Things That End
Non-permanence and “edges” dovetail. One edge that seems to get lost online is the “ending” edge. That is: if you start a mailing list, it doesn’t have to last forever. If you run a Twitter account, it can be done for just a moment in time. I like the idea of building up a temporary audience. Resisting the impulse to grasp onto everyone so tightly.
Furthermore, I think we may sometimes — and I know this is heretical to whisper in certain circles — overvalue the endless archive. Some things most certainly deserve robust and meaningful archives, but does everything?
And so this SMS publishing experiment has strict start and end dates — April 15 to May 14, 2019. And when it ends, it ends. (Another benefit of SMS is that it’s on the network, but in a kind of private sub-space.)
Years ago I became interested in giving form to walks. I had been walking a lot — often with interesting humans — and it felt unfortunate to have the whole experience dissipate once we were done. So I began producing little objects immediately after the walks, to try and capture some “essence” of the walk.
Most successful and fully-realized is my book Koya Bound which was co-produced with photographer Dan Rubin. It drew edges around our eight day walk in the mountains of Wakayama, Japan via a selection of 80 images.
We also produced a website that mapped the precise path of our walk, and served as a dumping ground for all the overly granular details of steps and elevation gains and photos that didn’t make the cut into the book.
You can listen to me talk about the philosophy, economics, and production of Koya Bound as I walk through the woods in On Margins episode 006: “To make a book, walk in the woods with a book.”
SMS is ubiquitous. It’s platform agnostic. It’s (sort of?) decentralized. It’s not modified / affected by algorithm. In a sense it’s a “pure” global publishing platform much like email, but with even more accessibility and simplicity (everyone who has a phone by default has a number, but everyone does not by default have an email address).
The system is setup as outlined to remove — as I mentioned earlier — intermittent variable rewards. How many people are following me as I walk? I don’t know. What are they saying? I don’t know. Have they all unsubscribed? Maybe. Has anyone responded? Perhaps not!
Walks are nothing if not rhythmic. Steps, breaths, days, etcetera. A walk over the course of six weeks is a set of polyrhythms each operating at different scales.
As part of the rhythmic structure of the walk, I wanted a forcing function to get me to import, whittle, select, and broadcast one image each day. That daily aspect is critical.
In fact, I see this strict rhythm of publishing to a faceless audience as an ascetic practice. A kind of dorky ablution that sharpens the eye without pulling you out of the moment.
So why not go Full Pretentious Zen and just select an image each day and put it in a folder and then delete the folder? Because I think there is something worthwhile about sharing a walk like this with many. And allowing those following along to have voice. I want to engage with that voice, but only once the walk is done, not in the middle of it.
And so we end up at: SMS. Unadorned. No stream. No stories. The best aspects of the network without having to fight the network. And the benefits of real-time communication / response, time-shifted, un-real-timed, put in a single book, something to close the loop when I return home.
Will it be boring? Quite possibly! Will you immediately regret subscribing? Highly likely.
But, maybe it’ll be fun.
I’m curious to see how you respond and the kinds of responses you send, knowing I won’t seem them for at least a month or two after they’re written. It’s like Tweeting … to Alpha Centauri.
Assuming, the system works, and I make it through the walk, at the end I should have an artifact with strong edges, something that has been out on the network, traveled the world, collected a series of voices, been in conversation, and curled back.
Cull. Cut. Pick one image. Push it out. But push it out to a system that doesn’t pull.
You dig? Join in: +1-424-543-0510.
If you’re not in the US, double check with your provider about international SMS rates. I’ll be sending one image a day, but international numbers will get a link to the image, not the image itself. We’ve run some tests, and it looks like Messages.app on iPhone will display the image (as pulled from the link, not as downloaded over SMS) so it should be an almost identical experience to US subscribers, but without the data overhead. ↩︎
Just one copy, just for me, just for this project. Your phone numbers won’t be shared. I will likely make something else with the images from the book, but your responses are just for this artifact and won’t be made public, although they may appear (blurrily?) if I photograph the book and share those images. So please don’t respond with your social security numbers or bank account details. ↩︎
The whittling away of fat, strengthening of the body, smoothing the painful edges of underused muscles those first few days. And then the settling into a rhythm, the pack seeming lighter, that pleasant sensation of food-as-transformed-into-energy as-transformed-into-movement. ↩︎
You may wonder: Why even bring the phone? Well, it’s a damn fine wayfinding tool. And I will still communicate with friends and family. A program like Freedom is necessary because access to news and social media finds a way to seep into every aspect of the device. So I just nip it in the bud, make it non-negotiably off. Having the smartphone lets me Google for historical information related to the path, place markers on a map, geo-tag photos for future reference, build GPX tracks, etc. There are no rewards in these activities outside of the completion of the activities themselves, so they get to stay with me. ↩︎
I’ll also be traveling with my laptop — necessary to edit audio and write and publish newsletters. So why not do the photos over email? Because it’s just a few steps too many — to publish the newsletters is no fewer than, say, ten steps? To push one image over SMS is about two steps. It’s a “lighter” system, and lightness for an every day activity feels correct. The newsletters will be going out weekly (Ridgeline) and monthly (Roden). ↩︎