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A snowz foggy mountain range with green woods below and streetlights turning on

Nordkette, Christmas Eve, 2018

There is snow in the Nordkette, but it is the warmest year in Austria since measurements began in 1767. This winter I am spending Christmas and New Year in Innsbruck rather than burn a lot of oil and money to visit my family. I have some new books to read, friends to drink a coffee or a Glühwein with, and jobs to apply to.

This year I became Dr. Manning, saw my first journal article printed, went hiking with friends, and discovered that Assyriologists are surprisingly interested in talks about swords. Visits to this site increased about 10% despite my slower posting. The most visited pages were Learning Sumerian is Hard, How Heavy Were Doublets and Pourpoints?, my description of how the historical fencers drifted away from me, Fashion in the Age of Datini, and From Aleph Bet to Alphabet.

This fall produced the usual crop of people wondering if keeping a personal website is anachronistic. I don’t see anything wrong with being anachronistic, and as I look at the political economy of the Internet this decade, I see some things which maybe they have not considered.

A street corner between two walls of five-story buildings with overhanging turrets at the corners and lights stretched across the street

Looking north at the corner of Defreggerstraße and Pradler Straße, Christmas Day, Innsbruck 2018.

The first is that centralized social media are designed to generate what Vi Hart calls Internet Votes,. But most of the numbers they report are bogus, and focusing on maximizing them can distract from what you are actually trying to achieve. As Lucy Bellwood explains, ‘going viral’ does not always translate into money even if you have a product to sell, but spending a lot of time churning out content to satisfy algorithms costs time and energy which you can’t spend in other areas of your life. When friends or colleagues mention that they have read my blog, no field in a database increments by one. When someone without an Instagram reads Armour in Texts in their workshop, the only record is the work of their hands. That does not mean it is useless to me or to them, just to companies which make their money spying on people and propagandizing them.

The second is that behind the chatter about online mobbing, state-sponsored propaganda, and how much so-and-so made on YouTube, the dozen American companies which dominate the Internet quietly work together to prevent some kinds of work being seen or paid (I would list Amazon, Apple, Cloudflare, Facebook, Google (Alphabet), Mastercard, Paypal, and Visa to start). They typically do this by deleting certain results from searches, wording terms of use so that targeted communities will inevitably break them, shadowbanning selected accounts (making them visible to the holder, but not outside accounts), or silently demonetizing them (placing ads but stopping sharing the ad revenues with the account holder). When people run into a problem with one of these companies (say carpet dealers in Isfahan who want to accept tourists’ credit cards now that sanctions have been lifted), they usually find that all the alternatives block them too (both of the big credit card companies are American, and the United States congress had not lifted all the sanctions) and are pushed into a ghetto (paying a 30% surcharge to intermediaries in the Gulf states) or not allowed to do business at all. If you have read Never Shoot a Stampede Queen by Marc Leiren-Young, this is the same racket which landlords in Williams Lake were running on First Nations in 1985: the property listings did not say ‘no dogs or Indians’ but somehow the only apartments offered to First Nations tenants were overpriced and one fire marshal’s visit short of being condemned.

Just like any other bully, appeasing them is impossible because they simply change the rules. Journalists complain that after they invested many of their limited resources in making things which fb finds useful, that site suddenly changed a few lines of code and cut off traffic back to their home sites. Self-publishers are upset that Amazon replaced its “customers who bought X also bought Y” section (which brought them about 30-40% of their sales) with a “sponsored content related to this item” section, while a different community is upset that tumblr is using machine learning to censor content and discovering yet again that the difference between fair dealing and copyright-violating, or between clinical and smutty, comes down to subjective human judgement not a rule which can be implemented mechanically. Even Automattic, the owner of wordpress.com and wordpress.org, has been caught editing users’ posts which refer to a particular trans woman by their former name: under that former name that person had written some pretty concerning things in public, so linking both phases of their life was in the public interest. Impertinent people on the Internet call this the Vader Manoeuvre: “I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.” So working with these companies can bring visits and money in the short term, but is not a good choice if you want your work to be visible indefinitely. I am an ancient historian, I often read things which were published before the First World War, so the half-life of social media is too short for me.

Two positive developments this year are the spread of a federated model (with services like Mastodon which rely on many separate instances which communicate with one another and decide who to share and who to block, rather than a centralized company trying to impose one standard of behaviour on the entire world) and moves against some of the most extortionate academic publishers by large jurisdictions. I have some complicated thoughts about academic publishing, but some academic books and journals exist to keep things from being read, and physicists and mathematicians do perfectly well by posting PDFs on arXiv, a website they build and maintain and host themselves.

I miss the human-sized communities and collaborative long-term projects of the old Internet, and I am no longer sure where to share things from one community interested in the past with another. The old mailing lists, groups, forums, and websites have mostly faded. I could explore fb groups and birdsite hashtags, but those places are not right for me. If any of my gentle readers feels comfortable in those spaces, feel free to share my posts there!

Thanks to everyone who has stuck with me for five years, and for the new visitors who are discovering this site for the first time.

Tentatively I plan to post every two weeks this year with more book reviews and announcements of academic conferences, reenactment events, books my readers might be interested in, and craft workshops. Maybe I will add some more Near Eastern philology too. Budget permitting, there might be one sword to go along with the books. I also plan to move at least part of my site off WordPress and onto a hard-coded site on a server I rent. As a famous ancient inscription puts it, “death becoming a PhD is only the beginning.”

A pale-skinned hand examines an inscription scratched into black stone, from Stephen Sommers' film "The Mummy" (1999)

I have seen emails from strangers full of photos of undeciphered inscriptions appear in my inbox, but that was years ago and its not like any horrors long thought mythical have emerged to plague the earth in the meantime, have they?