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The heart of the matter

by Giles Turnbull -- 2003/02/07

Noah Grey wrote a piece of software called Greymatter, and with it helped the blogosphere take its first hesitant steps into the limelight. Then he kind of disappeared, and then he kind of came back again. Last week, he kindly agreed to spill his heart to WriteTheWeb, about Greymatter, blogs (and hating the word "blog"), copyright, and spirituality.

WriteTheWeb: In case there's anyone reading this who hasn't heard of Greymatter, tell us a bit about it.

Noah Grey: Greymatter is an opensource program for creating weblogs and journals with - as far as I know it was the first such program that you could run yourself without relying on any outside service beyond your control. It was also (again, as far as I've ever been aware) the first to offer integrated comments, searching, completely customisable templates and output, automatic image and popup handling, support for multiple users/authors, and the ability to configure nearly every aspect down to the last detail - things that are now considered standard and indispensable in weblog/journal programs.

In your FAQ, you go some way towards explaining why you stopped developing Greymatter, but I detect a certain amount of pride in it. Notably the line at the bottom of your photolog entries, that says: "Powered by Greymatter. I BUILT the old school." Is that how you look upon Greymatter now, as the old school?

In a way, but more on that in a moment. While I was writing it, I really did think that it was something that no one but myself (and perhaps a few fellow control-freak friends) would have much interest in using, especially since it could never compete with the get-up-and-go simplicity of Blogger and was never intended to. But eventually, as it started taking off and I poured so much physical and emotional energy into it in so short a time - when I hadn't yet come to terms with the scarring emotional issues that led me in a kind of desperation to pour myself into Greymatter in the first place - it quickly became a kind of poison to me, and I started wanting to distance myself from it as much as possible.

But now that I have that distance - and now that my life is in an infintely happier and more stable place than it was at the time - I suppose I can allow myself to take a certain pride in it. That little statement on my photolog is just my way of saying, "I did it first" - I've read so many articles and comments by now speaking as if there was nothing between Blogger and Movable Type (much less as if Greymatter didn't still have a loyal following, and wasn't continuing to be used by thousands of people). I don't begrudge MT one bit of its success, I have to appreciate better than most the effort that must have gone into it and what a tremendous accomplishment it is - it's a race that I very willingly gave up running, and I'm quite content to stay in my little corner of the web and quietly but happily say, I broke that ground, I did it first.

As for the old school, I tend to think that we're still there. Blogger started it all, of course, and Greymatter broke the ground and created the "do it yourself" model and "it's all about power and control" ethic that MT and others have picked up on and taken so much farther than GM did, but I don't think the next level beyond that has been reached yet.

There's bound to be a next generation of tools for creating content on the web - something that combines ease-of-use and a healthy level of power and features in a polished, user-friendly package that lacks little of importance, and that almost anyone having a basic comfort level with computers could jump right into; that would be the "new school," I think. Microsoft - or, perhaps better yet, Apple - could do something great with an "iBlog"-type program.

(Or, better yet, "iWeb" or "iSite" perhaps - I've always hated the word "blog." "Weblog" is alright, but "blogs" have always made me think of what pets leave on carpets. But I digress.)

You kick-started something, though. Your efforts with Greymatter inspired others to build similar tools. Have you followed the development of personal publishing tools? If so, what do you make of them now, either as individual programs or as a wider personal publishing revolution?

I do think it's great that there are so many tools now, so many ways of making your voice heard and making websites more dynamic and alive. The attention I pay to them is only a step above idle curiousity, though; I couldn't critique them since I haven't actually used any of them (not even Blogger or Movable Type; to this day, the only tool I've used is the one I wrote myself, barring a highly inconsequential amount of beta-testing for a CMS that a good friend of mine is developing).

I don't put much stock in the "personal publishing revolution" idea, though. To me, it isn't so much a new revolution but merely a new way of doing something very, very old. I believe that perhaps the most defining element of who we are - the element that most makes us human - is the fundamental need to express ourselves in the best way they can; something which goes back not only to the obvious pre-web ancestors of this medium (Montaigne, Samuel Pepys, even St. Augustine), but really, to the first time one caveman (or woman) called others together around the proverbial fire and said, this is what I saw, and this is how I felt about it.

The tools and the medium that we have for doing it now are simply the latest (and best - so far!) way of answering a need that's been there from our first days and will be there at our last - we're still doing the same thing, only with a much bigger fire. A revolution in creative method, certainly, but hardly one in purpose.

And besides, the web as a medium is still barely out of infanthood, so how can any talk of creative revolutions not be grossly immature? The web itself is a revolution that we've hardly begun to figure out. The movies were about fifty years old by the time of "Citizen Kane," sound recording even older by the time of "Sgt. Pepper," photography even older by the time of Ansel Adams, Man Ray, Edward Weston - we've barely begun to see and imagine what this medium is capable of.

Things were different back then. In those days weblogs were new and exciting, and you could keep track of the new ones appearing every few days. What do you make of the changes in online personal publishing since those early days?

The early days saw the web dominated by "geeks" (a term I don't use disparagingly, since I was part of the early web and still consider myself a geek), people who had and still have a great affinity for using computers and manipulating the web - and naturally so, since you didn't have the tools to be on the web with that you have now, you had to "do it all yourself."

But who wants the web to be dominated by geeks, anyway? The easier it becomes to get on the web, the more the plurality of voices will grow - and that's how it should be; I have little nostalgia for a time with few voices and fewer options. There must have been a time in early history where it was possible to have read every book (or scroll or cylinder or tablet) that had been published - but I'd much rather live in the age that has Borders and in it.

Your web site is now primarily about photography. Do you pay much attention to the so-called "blogosphere"?

Not too much, aside from the sites of a few of my friends. The sites that I love the most rarely, if ever, become hot topics or "darlings" around the "blogosphere" - it seems the ones that do are (as with the early web) still very much geek-centric - look at the Daypop Top 40 on any given day, and most of the stories being most widely talked about are still very technology-oriented. Which is all well and good - heaven knows I love technology as much as anyone, and if writing Greymatter doesn't give me some tiny amount of geek cred, then nothing can - but the thing that most compels me on the web is the same thing that most compels me off the web: the human heart, and all the moments of quiet unnewsworthy wonder it perceives and reflects back to anyone that will see them.

You make clear in your FAQ that you feel hurt if people misuse the pictures you post on the web. Post-Napster, post-Creative Commons, what are your thoughts about copyright and creative control on the net?

Ah, this does touch a nerve with me - I keep meaning to write at length about this someday, but in a nutshell ... I'm mystified and slightly angered by the growing feeling among many on the web that the rights of artists over their own work just aren't important (or are at least of equal importance to the user's desire to do whatever they want with it). I think I understand and appreciate the value of openness as well as anyone - Greymatter is one of the most well-known opensource programs in the world, after all (and in fact I've now put it under a Creative Commons license).

The ethic of openness and sharing is a great one, but somehow that got mutated in a lot of people's minds into the idea that it should be the users deciding what's open, and not the artists. (Leaving aside the whole public domain and corporate-greed brouhaha, which is only tangenital to the issue of individual artists and their control over their own work.) I currently have a script on my site which disables right-clicking, so that my photos cannot be too easily saved to disk - and I've come under no end of criticism from some quarters for that. Yes, I realise it's an imperfect solution and I know all too well there are many ways to circumvent it, but if nothing else it does serve notice that I don't *want* my work used in ways I don't approve of. And with the people that have criticised me for using this method, their argument is never that there are better ways to protect my work (and if there were, I'd be glad to hear of them), but rather only that I apparently shouldn't be protecting it at all, and that people should have an untrammeled right to do whatever they wish with my work, because they can. Okay then, let's say you've just written a book; I want it, but I don't want to pay for it, so why shouldn't I walk into a bookstore and take it?

Since you brought up Napster, take the infamous Napster/Metallica controversy. I'm no fan of them, though from what I understand they've always been big supporters of bootlegging. But when Napster suddenly made it incredibly easy for millions of people to take music, and Metallica came out saying they didn't want their studio music downloaded, they were raked over the coals even though their basic attitude had always remained the same: bootleg us all you want, just don't rip off our studio albums, the things that we put in the stores and earn our living from. (And I just don't understand the argument that "well, Metallica made enough money, they're just being greedy denying us this" - did Metallica work less on their music than any other band? Who are you to judge if they put any less of themselves into their albums than, say, Aimee Mann does on hers? Did the programmers who wrote Adobe Photoshop work less hard on it than I did on Greymatter? Etc.)

I'm happy to give Greymatter away because I don't earn my living from it - but I do earn my living from my photographs, and my sale of them on the web; it does pay my bills and put food on my proverbial table, so you're damn right that I'm going to protect it and have my say in how I want it to be used and seen.

But more than the right to earn a living at one's own work, there's something even more fundamental involved here - good old fashioned respect. I believe that homepages are exactly that, *homes* - and I want the same basic level of human respect in my home that I try to show in other peoples' homes. My photography isn't just my work and my income source, it's my passion, my soul, my life - it means life itself to me, so of course I feel as hurt at any misuse of it as any decent parent would feel at the abuse of their children.

You are certainly a spiritual and emotionally aware person, that much is obvious from the things you post online and from the warm responses you get from your readers. Is the web a good place for spirituality?

Of course - I would have to ask, what *isn't* a good place for spirituality? Anywhere there is life, there is the spirit - and the opportunity to be aware of it, to embrace it and cherish it. A web in which spirituality, passion and emotion have no place makes as much sense to me as a world without shadow and light.


Discussion icon spirituality

Posted by: ntexas99 at 2003-02-16

"what isn't a good place for spirituality?", indeed.

another prime example of the succinct simplicity for an unbelievably complex concept

pure noah

gotta luv 'im