It was a scene out of an Ambien nightmare: a jackal with the face of Mark Zuckerberg stood over a freshly killed zebra, gnawing at the animal’s innards. But I was not asleep. The vision arrived midday, triggered by the Facebook founder’s announcement – in spring 2011 – that ‘The only meat I’m eating is from animals I’ve killed myself.’ Zuckerberg had begun his new ‘personal challenge’, he told Fortune magazine, by boiling a lobster alive. Then he dispatched a chicken. Continuing up the food chain, he offed a pig and slit a goat’s throat. On a hunting expedition, he reportedly put a bullet in a bison. He was ‘learning a lot’, he said, ‘about sustainable living’.
I managed to delete the image of the jackal-man from my memory. What I couldn’t shake was a sense that in the young entrepreneur’s latest pastime lay a metaphor awaiting explication. If only I could bring it into focus, piece its parts together, I might gain what I had long sought: a deeper understanding of the strange times in which we live.
What did the predacious Zuckerberg represent? What meaning might the lobster’s reddened claw hold? And what of that bison, surely the most symbolically resonant of American fauna? I was on to something. At the least, I figured, I’d be able to squeeze a decent blog post out of the story.
The post never got written, but many others did. I’d taken up blogging early in 2005, just as it seemed everyone was talking about ‘the blogosphere’. I’d discovered, after a little digging on the domain registrar GoDaddy, that ‘roughtype.com’ was still available (an uncharacteristic oversight by pornographers), so I called my blog Rough Type. The name seemed to fit the provisional, serve-it-raw quality of online writing at the time.
Blogging has since been subsumed into journalism – it’s lost its personality – but back then it did feel like something new in the world, a literary frontier. The collectivist claptrap about ‘conversational media’ and ‘hive minds’ that came to surround the blogosphere missed the point. Blogs were crankily personal productions. They were diaries written in public, running commentaries on whatever the writer happened to be reading or watching or thinking about at the moment. As Andrew Sullivan, one of the form’s pioneers, put it: ‘You just say what the hell you want.’ The style suited the jitteriness of the web, that needy, oceanic churning. A blog was critical impressionism, or impressionistic criticism, and it had the immediacy of an argument in a bar. You hit the Publish button, and your post was out there on the world wide web, for everyone to see.
Or to ignore. Rough Type’s early readership was trifling, which, in retrospect, was a blessing. I started blogging without knowing what the hell I wanted to say. I was a mumbler in a loud bazaar. Then, in the summer of 2005, Web 2.0 arrived. The commercial internet, comatose since the dot-com crash of 2000, was up on its feet, wide-eyed and hungry. Sites such as MySpace, Flickr, LinkedIn and the recently launched Facebook were pulling money back into Silicon Valley. Nerds were getting rich again. But the fledgling social networks, together with the rapidly inflating blogosphere and the endlessly discussed Wikipedia, seemed to herald something bigger than another gold rush. They were, if you could trust the hype, the vanguard of a democratic revolution in media and communication – a revolution that would change society forever. A new age was dawning, with a sunrise worthy of the Hudson River School.
Rough Type had its subject.
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