On Maps and Forgetting

Here’s a weird little quirk of running a blog – some of you will already know this, but let’s walk it through. There are two main pathways for people coming to read your stuff. Either they already follow you, or they googled a topic that you talk about and you turned up in the search rankings. That’s pretty straightforward, right, they turn up either accidentally or on purpose. And from that starting point, they navigate around the site in different ways. If they already follow you, they maybe have a look at your other recent posts to see if there’s anything they missed, or if anything catches their eye. If they’ve just found you, maybe they have a look at some of the related topics – at other articles on the same writer, or on the same game. Their movement tends to be governed either by time or by theme. Again, fairly self-explanatory.

And you can actually use this information to start mapping pathways through your stuff. You can find clusters, highways, country back roads, things with spindly little wires stretching across years to connect with each other. And you can find the lonelier stuff, the stuff that doesn’t have any special linkage or thematic through-line. It’s stuff that sits in isolation, with no meaningful connections by way of topic and too far back in time to be found by the ‘sort by new’ crowd. It’s not just unread – plenty of things don’t get read – more pointedly, it’s disconnected. It exists in the context of pathways and networks as a blank spot on the map, as a node with no links. The problem we’re talking about is structural – it’s not about the work in itself, it’s about the work in its context, in its setting. When I came to Melbourne at the start of 2019, I wrote a series of – maybe four short articles about different buildings that I came across in my travels – the Royal Arcade, a school, a shopping mall, and so on. It was a way for me to try and make sense of my surroundings, to process that transition. And this is a blog about video games and religion, right – it didn’t really fit the mold. There weren’t a lot of threads back into the rest of the site. They continue to exist as a quiet wooded little glade, crowned with dappled sunlight, and only occasionally disturbed by the odd Melbourne resident looking for the mall’s opening hours.

In a similar vein, some of the other stuff here – the kinda one-off essays, things you might call personal essays – they tend to sink into the ether after a couple months. I wrote one about perfectionists back in 2019, and another one on change at the start of the pandemic – and neither of them have really seen the light of day outside of those specific periods. They aren’t topics that you’d necessarily come here looking for, right, they’re both too vague and too specific. That’s not to complain – I mean, again, it’s not that everything has to be read. It’s just to reflect on the need for a bit of information management now that the backlog has swelled to a certain size. I’ve been at this now for five years – two articles a week, and this is number #500. That’s around half a million words to navigate. It it’s not organized, nobody’s going to be able to find anything.

So let’s just step this through. This is sort of a celebratory post for me, where I give myself permission to faff around a bit – I’m really just writing through my own process as a way of working it out in my head – but at the same time, I don’t want it to be totally useless. So let’s see if we can abstract or generalize one of these questions, make it an investigation into information management. Let’s talk about what people want.

During my undergrad, I worked in a bookstore – and I noticed that there were two types of visitors. There were people on a mission, and there were the browsers. Browsers just wanted to go on an interesting journey – which in some instances was as simple as looking through authors alphabetically. If they started with Poe, they’d also inevitably trip over Charles Perrault and Proust. The arbitrary ordering of the alphabet provided a sense of exploration, a sense of discovery and momentum in moving from Murakami to Nabokov.

The people on a mission could be further subdivided – either they knew specifically, exactly what they wanted, or they had an area or a desired outcome and they wanted a bit of advice. In the first instance, you just had to tell them whether or not you had a specific book, and where it might be, and that was all. In the second instance, it would usually be buying books as a gift – for kids, for birthdays, that sort of thing. In that instance, people wanted advice. They’d come up to you and say ‘What’s a good book for a twelve year old with a third arm?’ We might call this organizing by theme, or by idea. It’s where people have a question that they don’t fully know how to articulate – they know their desired outcome, but they don’t know the field well enough to use the industry terms. They’re running more off vibes. You’d offer them a title, and they’d look at it and go ‘No, this isn’t right, it’s more sticking out from under his chin.’ In this instance, you want to offer suggestions that speak to the wider organizing structure, that allow people to orient themselves against the broader landscape. This category has some overlap with the ‘just browsing’ category, but where browsers are happy with the journey, idea people want their pot of gold. They’re seekers – and so you offer them a roadmap, or signposts and markers through the terrain.

And I think we can find analogies for all these sorts of people and the methods we use to help them navigate around a site. Browsers are still just browsers – for those people, an alphabetized index goes a long way. The people who want a specific topic can use the search bar. And for the people who want something, but don’t know how to articulate it – you offer them context. You have to put a little work in, but the basic idea is the same. You organise by theme, by period. You organise by ideas. You organise by disagreements between parties, and showcase both sides. You offer people a chance to explore, to become familiar with the terrain without expecting them to commit to everything. You offer them stories about the pathways, about the different connections. And again, through all of this, the expectation is not that somehow everything will get read, or that everything will get equal time. It’s about recognising the journey that your readers are on, and giving them a roadmap as they pick their way through. You know that even with the roadmap, some things will still have fewer links, or less relevance to the broader direction. And that’s fine too. You plan that into your approach. Some things you write to be forgotten. Some things you situate in the middle of a network of crisscrossed lines and interconnections, and you unplug them from their surroundings, and you watch them drop into oblivion. I don’t know if it’s a commemoration, ritual sacrifice, or the secretive joy of buried treasure – but some things are made to be lost. Somehow that’s just part of it.

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