B U R E A U   O F   P U B L I C   S E C R E T S


Ten Years on the Web


As of 22 August 2008, this website is 10 years old!

I started hearing about the Web in the mid-1990s. It sounded like it had intriguing possibilities, but at that time the technology was still pretty clunky and complicated and there were relatively few people online. I thought I’d wait until there was a larger usership and the technologies had become more accessible. Also, from 1993 to 1997 I was busy putting together my book Public Secrets. When that book was completed, I decided it was time to explore this new medium.

To orient myself, I read a bunch of books about computers and the Internet. It turned out that the technologies were progressing so rapidly that most of these books were already obsolete, but they at least gave me some sense of the background history. With a little help from some friends I got online in June 1998. I spent the next couple months browsing the Web to get an idea of how it worked and what others were doing with it, learning how to create webpages, and scanning and formatting texts for my new website. The site was first uploaded 22 August 1998. I sent out an email announcement to a few dozen friends and contacts, and within a week the site had received several hundred visits. It was like magic!

Ten years later it still seems like magic. A lot of people knock the Web, but for me the experience has been almost totally positive. When I think of all the thousands of hours I used to spend typing and retyping, manually pasting up texts and corrections, stuffing envelopes and filling orders, and all the thousands of dollars spent on typesetting, photocopying, printing, postage . . . Now, for next to no cost I can put a text online and within a few days it will be read by thousands of people from all over the world, and it remains there for any number of future readers. Over the years, many of those people have become friends or collaborators.

Once I had gotten my site online, I sent snailmail messages to six or seven hundred postal addresses I had accumulated over the preceding decades — people who had ordered my publications or with whom I had corresponded — announcing the site and informing them that this was the last time I would ever send them anything through the post: I was shifting to email and the Web. What a relief!

Meanwhile, I continued surfing the Web, discovering and exploring countless sites of every type and quality while simultaneously noting email addresses of people or organizations I thought might be interested in my site. I began by searching for anyone who seemed to be interested in the situationists. Then I hunted up all the anarchist sites I could find; some of those sites had links to other anarchist sites, many of which in turn had their own link lists. . . . I did the same thing with various ultraleftist currents, then ventured into more eclectic areas — Food Not Bombs, Critical Mass, Amnesty International, prisoner support groups, antiwar groups, radical co-ops, alternative communities, infoshops, surrealists, ecology activists, pirate radio stations, just about any halfway radical sites in East Europe or the Third World, and so on and on. Once I had accumulated a significant number of email addresses in these various categories I would send them an email announcing my new website.

The following year was mainly devoted to getting all my previous publications online. The texts from Public Secrets were easy since they were already in digital form. The Situationist International Anthology translations were not in digital form (the book had been completed in 1981, just before word processing and desktop publishing had come into general use) so I had to scan them and then correct the errors in the scans. This was time-consuming, but it had the advantage that in the process I was able to make numerous minor stylistic revisions, so that the online version was actually better than the original book version. After these revised translations were all uploaded, I continued fine-tuning them and also added a few new texts and a lot of new notes. Thus, many years later when I got around to publishing a revised and expanded edition of the book (2006), all I had to do was to copy the web texts, make a few minor format adjustments, and it was ready for the printer.

The Internet has also made the process of translation far easier. Back when I was working on the SI Anthology I spent countless hours typing up translation drafts, photocopying them, mailing them to my French collaborators, waiting weeks for them to reply with hundreds of notes and corrections (“On page 27, line13, word A should be replaced with word B”), back and forth for more than a year. Then I had to retype everything, get it typeset, check the typesetting, paste the typesetter’s corrections onto the original galleys so that the lines exactly matched up, plan the page layout, manually cut and paste the text for each individual page, etc., before finally sending it to the printer. Now I can email my drafts to my collaborators and receive their corrections within a day or two, and we can continue to send explanations and suggestions back and forth until we arrive at almost total agreement as to the best formulation. It’s so much faster and more pleasant than it used to be, and because it’s easier to deal with the slightest nuances (“Maybe we should add a comma here?”), the finished result tends to be more accurate.

Most of the translations of my own writings have been done in this same way, in many cases by people in other countries who had never even seen any of my books, but who discovered them on my website and worked exclusively from those online versions. In the case of French and (to a lesser degree) Spanish, I can quickly check their translations for errors. In the case of languages that I don’t know, I can at least quickly respond to any questions the translators may have. Once they have completed their translations and posted them on their websites, I can easily copy them onto my own site (a fortunate backup since in a few instances the foreign site has later disappeared).

Once I had gotten all my own writings and translations online, I started an archive of writings by Kenneth Rexroth. Over the years it has grown into a pretty large collection and has introduced Rexroth to thousands of people around the world, most of whom had never so much as heard of him before. Many of these writings have long been out of print, but New Directions and the other copyright holders have also permitted me to post generous selections of in-print material. Unlike many publishers, they have realized that this actually increases sales, however counterintuitive that may seem. Thousands of classic works are now online and this in no way causes people to stop buying printed copies. No one says, “I was just about to buy a copy of Shakespeare’s works, but I guess I won’t since they’re now all online.” The Web is useful primarily as a reference resource, where you can check some particular point or search for some particular passage. It’s not very conducive to lengthy reading. Scarcely anybody ever actually reads a whole book online (unless it’s out of print and there’s no alternative). But the more of an author’s writings are online, the more likely it is that new readers will discover him or her. I’ve been recommending Rexroth for decades and have managed to convert quite a few of my friends and a few other people here and there; but far more people have been turned on to him by my website. Once people can conveniently read him at length on any of a number of particular topics that may interest them, they tend to browse through his other writings, and some of them end up becoming enthusiastic Rexrothians like myself who go on to buy lots of Rexroth books, quote them, recommend them, review them, get extra copies for gifts, translate them into other languages, etc. Most people, of course, do not follow this trajectory; but such people would never have bought any of his books anyway, whether they were online or not.

Sometimes I give these texts a little kickstart by announcing them via emails and webposts. (“Dear jazz fans: You may be interested to know that several of Kenneth Rexroth’s provocative articles about jazz are now online at . . .”) But the major long-term effect comes from the search engines, which can lead to all sorts of serendipitous discoveries — someone searches for an author’s name and stumbles upon a Rexroth essay that happens to mention that name, even though the essay is about some totally different topic.

Besides the Rexroth material, I have added a diverse selection of classic radical texts (Marx, Brecht, Korsch, Clarence Darrow, Paul Goodman, Gary Snyder, etc.). And of course I have continued to add new texts and translations of my own. Except for a few leaflets for local distribution, I haven’t even bothered to print most of these new texts. The Web gets them read far more widely, and in many cases print publication would be unrealistic anyway. For example, my list of recommended readings, Gateway to the Vast Realms, is one of the most popular sections of my site, yet it is hard to imagine anyone publishing such a list. The same could be said about the selections from my correspondence (Rapid Responses). Other texts, such as Rexroth’s 1960s newspaper columns or his 1939 camping guide, are interesting for historical reasons, but would have little chance of being published nowadays. I consider Josef Weber to be one of the most brilliant dialectical theorists ever, yet because most of his articles are rather lengthy, seemingly “dated” and in some ways eccentric, they are unlikely to be reprinted in the foreseeable future. But it has been easy to put all of these texts online.

My site serves as a convenient reference for myself as well as others. Since everything is in digital form, it’s easy to search, copy, reprint, forward, edit or update, and since it’s all online it is accessible to me wherever I go — I can be in another state or another country and nevertheless immediately show someone, say, a Rexroth essay about some author or topic we’ve been talking about.

There are, of course, occasional technical problems. It is frustrating to wait through a server breakdown or a power outage, and a sudden computer crash can be a real nightmare if you haven’t made backup copies. But these kinds of disruptions seem to happen less and less often in recent years. And in any case it’s far easier to recover stored or posted copies than if your only manuscript copy of a work in progress gets lost or destroyed.

Although I am by no means “antitech,” I have generally waited until I saw a real need for new techniques before bothering to learn and implement them. Except for reproductions of a few comics and leaflets, my site is text only and the design is plain and simple. I think blogs are fine — I read quite a few of them regularly — but I have not felt like creating one of my own or setting up an RSS feed, since I usually only add a few items per month. Readers can always check the What’s New page to see what has been added since they last visited. In the occasional case where there may be some urgency, I can quickly enough get word around to several thousand people through emails and postings at Internet forums.

When I started out, I did not have a site search engine and I wasn’t tech savvy enough to find or install the appropriate software. So instead I created a book-style Index of the whole site. This is the only such index that I have ever seen on a website. It took a lot of time to prepare and I doubt if I’d go to the trouble of doing it again now that I do have a Site Search Form. But the Index does have the advantage of enabling readers to browse through the topics just like they do with a book index, giving them an overview of what is available and perhaps also leading them to stumble upon other topics they might be interested in. So I’ve continued to keep it up to date.

The site initially had about 30 webpages. It now has over 600. Although it has never attained a “mainstream” level of popularity — the kind that gets hundreds of thousands of hits in a single day because it happens to deal with some trendy issue of the moment — it has been far more popular than I had hoped or expected. During these first ten years there have been over 2,000,000 different visitors and over 5,000,000 total visits to the different pages of the site. (This is not counting the Mirror Site, which has also received several million visits.) The home page has naturally received the most visits (380,000). A few other pages have approached or surpassed the 100,000 mark. The top hundred pages are all in the tens of thousands, and even the least popular ones have almost all been visited over a thousand times.

According to Google Analytics (a free site stat service I have been using since June 2006), during the last 26 months the site has received 1,554,004 page visits by 751,093 people from 218 different countries. The lion’s share is naturally from the major industrialized countries (United States 45%, Europe 30%), but a respectable number of visits have also come from Third World regions (19,040 from Africa, for example) where it is safe to say that the visitors would have had no realistic access to these texts except via the Web.

Granted, many of those visitors have just popped in for a few seconds and then exited when they discovered that it was not their cup of tea, and many others have probably only quickly skimmed an article or two. Still, the total number of visitors to my site is more than 100 times the total number of readers of all my printed publications. It is not unreasonable to suppose that at least a few percent of those visitors have read the texts with interest and attentiveness. If nothing else, several thousand of them have seen fit to link to those texts, leading to ever-increasing numbers of additional readers.

Moreover, all those links have been created on their own initiative — I have never requested links or accepted any offer to “trade” them. I don’t even have a general “Links” page. There are quite a few links on my site, but they are mostly to texts that have a specific bearing on something discussed in one of my webpages. It seems more useful to occasionally call attention to some webpage I particularly recommend in a particular context, rather than simply listing all of the numerous sites that I find of some interest. For example, in my Situationist Bibliography I have linked to only three other “situ” sites, because those sites include virtually all the situationist texts in English on the Web as well as links to most of the other situationist or would-be situationist sites around the world. Similarly, the one ultraleftist site that I have specifically recommended includes links to several of the other main ultraleftist sites (council communists, non-Bolshevik Marxists, etc.). By checking the links pages at those sites you can find many more ultraleftist sites, as well as some of the most significant anarchist sites. It is also, of course, easy to hunt up webpages on all sorts of topics via Google, Wikipedia, etc.

Amid this abundance of information and contacts it’s important to remember the limits of the medium. The Internet is very useful for brief texts and communications, especially when timeliness is important (news, notices, networking, ongoing projects), or for creating reference archives of important documents. It’s not a good place for serious study. It’s ridiculous to imagine that you will get anything out of Homer or Lao Tzu or Gibbon or Montaigne or Murasaki, or anything else with any depth and subtlety, by clicking to a webpage and glancing at a few “graphically enhanced” excerpts. If you want to find out about Marxism or anarchism or the situationists, you should get books by Marx, Kropotkin, Debord, etc., read them carefully, discuss them, criticize them, try putting their valid aspects into practice, then go back and reread them in the light of those experiments. Only when you have become somewhat familiar with them does it make sense to check the Web for additional texts by or about them, or to seek others who share your interest.

The Internet obviously shares some of the alienating features of other media, insofar as it habituates people to passive spectatorship of texts, images, news, ads, propaganda, sensationalistic soundbites, emotionally manipulative melodramas, etc. But it differs enormously from one-way media like radio, television and film in that it also facilitates interaction and participation. The mediocrity of millions of blogs and websites should not blind us to the fact that their very existence is an expression of horizontal popular communication that would have been inconceivable in the top-down, television-dominated world of two or three decades ago. At that time people had no way of responding to the mass media, let alone competing with it. You could talk with a few friends, or write a leaflet or pamphlet that might be read by a few hundred people, or write a letter to the editor and hope that it got printed, or take part in a demonstration and hope that it got reported, but if it didn’t you were out of luck. With the Web, you can freely post or publicize whatever you wish, immediately reaching thousands of people. If what you say rings true, it will be relayed to many more thousands or even millions of people. The mass media is still very powerful, but it is increasingly being challenged and put on the defensive.

The Web has already played a major role in facilitating popular communication and collaboration in real time, cutting through the secrecy and ignorance that used to be the norm. We used to find out about a government lie only years later; now it’s often made known to millions of people within a day or two. For example, by the time the falsity of the “Gulf of Tonkin Incident” was publicly exposed, it was too late — it had already served as a pretext for “escalating” the Vietnam war. If the present American administration tries to fabricate a similar incident to provide a pretext for invading Iran, we may hope that word will get out quickly enough to enough people around the world that its credibility will be immediately undermined.

Similarly, we used to find out about some revolt only after it was crushed. Now we can often see it as it happens, and in some cases even intervene, at least to the extent of spreading the word or organizing international support. We have also seen many recent movements, from Seattle 1999 to France 2006, organize or coordinate their actions using the latest communications technologies. By way of contrast, note that one of the key reasons for the failure of the May 1968 revolt was that the factories were kept isolated from each other. The workers had occupied virtually all the factories in the country, but the union bureaucrats (on the pretext of guarding against “outside provocateurs”) made sure that the factory gates were locked, thereby blocking any communication from radicals on the outside or in other factories. Imagine how differently things might have played out if lots of people inside and outside had had cell phones, or access to websites or forums where the latest information and debates were posted, so that they could communicate directly with each other and find out what was really going on elsewhere. The Internet and other modern communications technologies are no substitute for intelligent strategical action, but they can be remarkably useful tools. It depends on what we do with them.

* * *

As I mentioned above, over the years I have sent out announcements about my site to numerous email addresses. Most of them were one-time-only mailings, but I have also continued to send announcements of site updates to people who have explicitly “subscribed” or who seem to be particularly interested (judging from their correspondence or from the fact that they have linked to my site). If you have been receiving such announcements from me and do not wish to continue to receive them, please let me know.

Actually, I have more than one type of “subscription”:

1. My “Main” list is a large general list (currently around 2000 addresses) to which I send updates to my website (approximately once a month) plus occasional other messages, such as brief comments on current events.

2. My “Main-2” list consists of political contacts to whom I send more or less “political” communications, but not announcements of a more literary or cultural nature (e.g. a posting of some Rexroth poems or essays).

3. Conversely, I have a “Rexroth-not-Main” list of people who have a literary interest in Rexroth’s writings and translations, but who may not be particularly interested in radical political issues. (I’m just guessing based on their emails or websites — sometimes, of course, it turns out that a “literary” person is quite interested in radical matters, and vice versa.)

4. Then there is a “Selected Friends” list, consisting mostly of personal friends to whom I send various lighter and more miscellaneous items (e.g. a link to an amusing comedy clip, or to a nice musical performance on YouTube, or to an interesting documentary about a young woman chess master).

5. Then there are various overlapping categories of Bay Area friends to whom I send notices of local events (parties, concerts, folk music jams, discussion groups, political events, Zen events, etc.).

You are welcome to subscribe to any of these, or to unsubscribe from any of them. Let me know one way or another.

Please also let me know if you discover any errors in any of the texts at this site (even minor typos), or if you run into any problems with it or have any suggestions for improvements.

* * *

I would like to take this opportunity to express my thanks for all the appreciative responses I have received over the years. There have been so many that have been so encouraging in so many different ways that I would hardly know where to begin to give some idea of them all. A couple of brief examples picked out at random: “Thanks for being a public resource and a light in great darkness.” “Love the Public Secrets site. Am even now putting off my work for this institution by reading the site from start to finish!” But this is one of the ones I found most moving:

Just ran across your website, thought I’d drop you an email saying thanks. I read your books while in prison — you must have donated copies to Bound Together Books’ Prisoners Literature Project. Really, Public Secrets was one of the best books I read while I was locked up and it gave me a lot of hope. I’m out of prison now and on parole so my ability to engage in radical projects is somewhat limited — but it’s far from impossible. I did a zine while I was imprisoned, and I’m working on a new issue (to be out hopefully this winter) plus I’m hoping to find some other things to get into — things that won’t bring down a lot of heat on me, yet will still jar myself (and others, hopefully) out of passive spectatorship. Again, thank you very much for the books and I wish you all the best. [September 2006]

I’m happy to say that this young man has managed to keep out of trouble, and recently married his long-time girlfriend. I wish them the very best. And you too.

22 August 2008


Reflections on the 10th anniversary of this website.

No copyright.

[French translation of this text]




Bureau of Public Secrets, PO Box 1044, Berkeley CA 94701, USA
  www.bopsecrets.org   knabb@bopsecrets.org