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Monday
Sep082008

Essay: Four Years

Four Years | 43 Folders

[“what is this?”]

Four years ago last Monday, I started 43 Folders with a TypePad account and no idea what I was doing.

43 Folders LogoThe obsessions that brought me here struck me as fascinating and under-reported — if almost entirely unrelated, one to the other. And, talking about the stuff I was really bad at often made me feel less awful about it. Sometimes it even helped me to rehabilitate the triggering, sucky behavior. On a number of levels, this felt really good.

Even though I never really knew where I was heading, I tried to remain candid that the primary reason the site existed at all was because it helped me — a strident preacher, clutching the pulpit in one hand and a book about Next Actions in the other. But, by even a week in, I realized I was writing to a growing audience and found myself daring to hope for a little dough to come my way as a result. Someday.

But, to this day, almost everything I’m proud to have written on 43 Folders started as a letter to myself. No shit.

I also realized from the beginning that the real life hacks were about making your way from a place that’s chaotic and depressing toward someplace where you feel more competent, stable, and alive. A place where you eventually may not need the life hack any more. I wanted to figure out why this stuff did and didn’t work by living inside of it, and by filing real-time reports about what I learned — effectively operating on myself in public with a keyboard, a handful of index cards, and an infinite IV of French Roast coffee.

Some days, it helped me. I’d feel a real sense of purpose and focus that made my new job about writing about my new job seem less weird, fractal, and self-involved. But, on just as many days, it felt like I was allowing myself to be tossed around by a menacing Rube Goldberg device of my own design. On more than a few days, I wondered what, precisely, I was trying to accomplish. Some days, I thought I might be losing my mind. One blog post at a time.


Only on the web could a zero-budget, one-person project about such random shit hit the kind of hockey stick curve 43f rode in late 2004.

People I idolized were suddenly saying they enjoyed what I had to say. People like Andy Baio, Danny O’Brien, Dan Gillmor, and Ben Hammersley each said things about 43f that made me feel really good about what I was doing, making a case that I swear by to this day: producing something that’s enjoyed by the people you admire and respect is the greatest reward a writer can imagine.

But, in no small measure, it was Cory Doctorow’s surpassingly generous linking and encouragement that shot my crummy little site to its cruising altitude, where (for now at least) it remains. Some days, I’ll admit, Cory drives me crazy — and I’m far from the Boing Boing fanatic that I was at the beginning of this decade. But, until the day someone in a smock sets my corpse aflame and pours the remains into a big, red Folgers can, Cory will have my deepest gratitude for using his considerable whuffie to almost singlehandedly put 43 Folders on the map. Thanks, man.


Through 2005 — even as poor Danny and I struggled to finish an unfinishable book by employing a Kafka-esque process that redefined my notion of “irony” — 43 Folders continued to grow in traffic and in whatever passes for stature on the internet. People seemed excited that blogs were finding a sweet spot in which niche topics, passionate writers, and devoted readers could form a long-distance relationship that was satisfying to everyone in a way that print media increasingly was not.

At some point that year, 43f became the surreal and unexpected circus tent under which my family began drawing an increasing amount of its income. This was weird, but it was also exactly as gratifying as it sounds. Which is to say, “very.” But, my small measure of something like success did not go unnoticed. In fact, the popularity of small blogs like 43 Folders contributed to the arrival of a gentrifying wagon train of carpetbaggers, speculators, and confidence men, all eager to pan the web’s glistening riverbed for easy gold. And, brother, did these guys love to post and post and post.

Over the years, “productivity blogs” of unbelievably varying quality shot up like hothouse kudzu — many baldly hoping to capitalize on the low-cost, high-return business of theoretically useful self-help publishing — mostly without affecting even the vaguest patina of wanting to help another human being solve a real-world problem. Some of these folks continue to make a living (and draw a considerable crowd) by producing material that I personally find transparently dumb and useless.

Thus, in time, phrases like “life hacks” and “GTD” became associated with everything from printing your own graph paper, to taking a nap, to making a living by pinching off lists of links to lists of links to Firefox extensions that help you use Facebook to more efficiently pretend to like people whom you’ve never met.

Important Intermission

At this juncture, I wish to apologize and formally atone for any role 43 Folders or I have had in popularizing “hack” as the preferred nomenclature for unmedicated knowledge workers dicking around with their “productivity system” all day. 43 Folders regrets the error.

Plus, as the “Top n” style of shoveling context-free horseshit to an undemanding audience became the new way of “blogging,” I started to wonder where the hell all of this stuff was heading. And, more importantly, I wondered whom any of this stuff might actually be helping. Besides the bloggers, of course. Bloggers love that traffic. Even when it contravenes the basic goddamned tenet of every post their addict-readers are mainlining. But, then, nobody ever said gold mining was going to be good for the environment.


As I continued writing regularly for 43 Folders — and it was very hard to keep up with the pace I’d set in the first months of the site — I often had a gut sense of when I was doing well. I knew when the material was working, because I felt good about the results, less crummy about myself, plus I was still occasionally hearing thoughtful, non-ass-kissing feedback from people whom I respect and admire. Somedays, I fundamentally got it. Other days, I just typed and hit “Post.” Just like the gold miners I despised.

Along the way, I got dubbed “a productivity guru” and was repeatedly reminded by almost everybody that 43 Folders was “a site about Getting Things Done” — period. Which certainly came as a surprise to me. Still does.

By improbably (and I’ve often thought, mistakenly) landing a brief berth in the Technorati Top 100, 43 Folders was also “discovered” by an unspeakable black mildew of PR people who, on their clients’ behalf, “reach out” to bloggers with the gruesome goal of getting them to trade their credibility for access to free crap and “embargoed” press releases. Mm, pinch me. And, somewhere in there, I heard somebody say, “Marketing is the tax you pay for being unremarkable,” and I dreamed of having that phrase printed on a giant hammer.

As I experimented over the years with sundry ways to make money with my site, I tried (and mostly abandoned) a dozen different small trickles of income, before eventually settling on a relationship with a dependable ad company whom I still work with today. They’ve been good to me.

Of course, I occasionally still find myself on the receiving end of an astonishing array of paid promotional offers — a few of which have been the web equivalent of being asked to stand on a street corner, wearing a chicken suit, while spinning a giant red sign that promotes computers I’ve never used. I’m proud to have said “no” to all but a couple of these — I refuse all of them today — although I do regret not having purchased my own chicken suit. Because, that’s steady work that you can do anywhere, you know?


By 2007, an increasingly large number of mornings would find me staring, dead-eyed, at del.icio.us or Digg or reddit, feeling queasy as I wondered what possible role, how ever small, my stupid blog might have had in helping inspire 1,000 hucksters to try their hand at half-assing a living from pretending to help strangers — while providing their quarry an unapologetically infinite source of pointless procrastination in the bargain.

On those days, I rarely even bothered to type. I sulked and wondered what the hell “productivity” meant to anyone who wasn’t peddling some flavor of online addiction or, basically marketing a personality-based cargo cult.

One particularly gifted arrival on the productivity and self-help scene authored some of the most profoundly useful advice I’d ever heard about attention management — but, then followed it up by showing how those extra cycles could be used to game the system so efficiently that you can sit in a hammock for 164 hours a week while people in India write birthday cards to your friends. That one became a runaway bestseller and, perhaps unintentionally, formed the new template for how to market productivity as an extreme lifestyle. I also have to imagine that it singlehandedly revived our nation’s sagging hammock industry.


Finally, when I had the opportunity to really go off the grid last fall to be with my wife and our new daughter, I watched over the hill as my best-known site faded into an XML-enabled cacophony of voices that weren’t my own. Guest bloggers (albeit great friends and good writers); random forum posts; inane, self-linking comments; a wiki that greeted me with freshly replenished v14gRa spam each morning; my own sporadic non-content posts, containing more self-promotion and advertising than I liked; plus a handful of weird, legacy attempts to make an extra hundred bucks a month that, in retrospect, were frankly embarrassing.

My blog about making your life a little better suddenly had more chrome than a Chevy and more bullshit than a limo full of lifestreamers.


The brutal Catch-22? At about the point when I realized my site was no longer about what I really thought or really cared about, I also worried whether I had anything new and substantial to say. And, what I did have to say, I usually self-edited or watered-down, for fear of either adding to the noise, infuriating the dopamine-deprived “TL;DR” crowd, or provoking an exhausting internet feud with one of the web’s countless retardate man-children.

The ad money was still consistent, so I didn’t need to sweat niggling details like why the site still existed. But, by as recently as this past winter, I just wasn’t sure what to do with myself.

The site that had used to make me feel so good about my place on the web felt dry and brittle, and I started avoiding it like an oncologist’s waiting room. This feeling fundamentally sucked, and I had no idea what to do about it.

Then things got better. A lot better.


Tune in later this week for the next thrilling chapter in Merlin’s weird-ass bildungsroman, which series is explained in concept here.


Now available: 43 Folders: Time, Attention, and Creative Work

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