Thanking our own heaven on OneWebDay

by Doc Searls

This coming Saturday (22 September) is OneWebDay, a project I'm proud to have been a part of since Susan Crawford thought it up many months before the first one last year. OneWebDay is meant as a day on which we celebrate the Web and what it does for each of us.* So I want to celebrate what the Web does, and continues to do, for me as a journalist.

The arc of my writing career is something of a parabola: a broad U-shaped valley between the time when I worked as a newspaper and magazine writer and editor and the time when I started writing on — and about — the Web, and everything that makes it good, including (and especially) Linux.

I started my journalism career almost straight out of college, writing first as a reporter and photographer for Wayne Today in suburban New Jersey, and then as editor, reporter, photographer and layout guy for the West Milford Argus. (I just checked to see if either still exists. Both do, though regrettably neither seems to have any editorial on the Web.) That was in 1970-72. Then I got a job at WSUS radio, even farther out in the New Jersey exurbs. There I did everything from disc jockeying to selling advertising to writing and reading news — and even (as a former ham radio operator) some engineering at the mountaintop transmitter, where I once climbed the tower to change a light bulb for payment in the form of a six-pack.

I followed the radio vector to stations in North Carolina, where my journalistic work took the form of writing and performing as a comedic character called "Doctor Dave". My nickname today is a fossil remnant of that persona. From there I went on to writing and editing work for a scientific parapsychological research outfit (yes, they existed) that hung off the side of Duke University. It was there that one of my funny pieces caught the attention of a new magazine called OMNI, which recruited me to write features for them. Those paid $800 apiece, which was huge money in 1977-78, and I entertained fantasies of making a career as a writer of funny stuff. In a flurry of sweat and ambition I wrote a pile of "spec" work and hired an agent, who shopped my work to National Lampoon and various book publishers, all of which shot it down. OMNI cut me off too, I think because they didn't like seeing me using an agent.

Around that same time I was writing copy on the side for a fledgling advertising agency, two partners of which soon invited me to join on as a third. Thus Hodskins Simone & Searls was born. Long story short, HS&S was quite successful, eventually moving to California and becoming one of the top advertising and PR agencies for high tech clients in Silicon Valley. During that time I honed my writing skills on advertising copy, but pretty much gave up on journalism, even as a sideline.

Still, I cared about tech trends; so by the late 1980s I had long been following the Internet. By the early 90s, I also knew about the Web, and began expecting both the Net and the Web to change everything, including writing. So I started to push my writing to some of the tech magazines that were around back then. I only had one bite, from PC Week, which liked my stuff but didn't know what to do with it, because it wasn't about PCs. Instead it was about the Net and the Web and how both changed everything.

I knew the Net was really getting promising when my friend Phil Hughes, a brilliant bearded Unix geek from Central Casting, included me on a email list of folks who were talking about starting a magazine for free software. Why free software? Because that was the only kind that made sense for building out the new networked world. One day Phil announced to the list that the magazine would be about Linux, which he thought would provide the foundation of everything that followed in the free software world. He was right. Thus the free software magazine was born instead as Linux Journal, which it hit the streets in 1994, the same month Linux itself hit version 1.0.

I didn't start writing for Linux Journal right away. Instead I wrote for a sister magazine called Websmith. That got mooshed into LJ around the time Netscape open-sourced Mozilla, in early 1998. I covered that event for LJ, and did a long interview with Marc Andreessen and Tom Paquin. Not long after that Phil invited me to join Linux Journal as a full-time editor, and the parabola of my journalism career returned to high ground I had vacated at the end of my OMNI stint, eighteen years earlier.

In early 1999 Chris Locke, Rick Levine, David Weinberger and I co-wrote a rant called The Cluetrain Manifesto, which made such a big splash that we went on to write the book-length version of the thing, which came out in January 2000, just in time to help cause the dot-com crash. (So some have said. I hope so, anyway.) It was in late 1999 that I also started blogging, thanks encouragement and help from Dave Winer.

Today, in addition to my work as Senior Editor of Linux Journal, I'm a fellow at both UCSB's Center for Information Technology and Society and Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. And I make a living speaking and consulting as well, mostly on matters related to the Internet, open source, or whatever.

On the avocational side, I now have over seventeen thousand pictures on the Web, mostly on (Linux-based) Flickr.

The moral of my OneWebDay story is this: If it weren't for the Web, I wouldn't be here. In fact, I might instead be nearing the end of a long career as a marketing guy who happened to have been a journalist once and still did a little writing on the side.

At the Berkman Center today we were treated to four different views of where the Web was going and what issues might concern us. After those talks, John Palfrey put me on the spot by asking me to start the follow-up remarks. I had nothing prepared, but perhaps it was better that way.

I confessed to being a utopian. That is, I believe what we have with the Web today is as close to a utopia as humans have ever built, or ever could build. If the stars shone through the clouds but once in a lifetime, Emerson said, their beauty would be legend. Incredibly, we have made those stars, and a firmament in which they can shine. And they are ourselves.

* I got ahead of myself here. Being somewhat calendar-blind (much as some people are color-blind), I actually woke up today thinking it was the 22nd, and that I'd better get my OneWebDay piece finished fast. I just noticed, at the point when 90 people have already read this piece, that, um, it's the 18th. Duh.

So. What to do. Should I yank it and bring it back out on the 22nd, or just live with my dumb flub? Having ample experience at the latter, I opted for that course.