Countdown clocks, zines, and an imagined website from 2001

19.54, Wednesday 9 Sep 2020

There’s a website from 2001 for making zines with your friends that, at this point, only exists in my head, if it ever existed honestly, but I wish it were in the world, because in this age of WhatsApp and Slack and whatever, we need it. There are ideas at the bottom of this post.

Here’s how this fictional website worked, in my memory, which is maybe (probably) false:

  • You start a zine and give it a publishing frequency, and invite a groups of friends to collaborate
  • Everyone writes articles and puts them into place. Anyone can edit anything, but you can decide roles like subeditors and contributors. The table of contents is auto-generated; images are automatically re-sized; etc.
  • In the top corner of the screen is a big countdown clock. When it gets to zero, the articles, whatever state they’re in, all get published automatically. They’re compiled and put somewhere on the web, anywhere you choose.
  • The clock restarts.

Perhaps, with the countdown clock, there are even DEFCON levels before going to press: content freeze 3 days ahead of launch, 12 hours to go, everyone scramble to submit your story; it’s the last 24 hours, only minor edits and deletions allowed; and so on. Everyone can see the clock, it’s a forcing function.

In my head, this website is super easy to use. Church groups use it for their monthly newsletter, teams at work use it for their weekly updates, writing groups use it to publish an online magazine, school classes use it.

Did this website actually exist?

It is possible that it existed, for 9 days, almost two decades ago. The memory of that website is what I keep coming back to.

Waaaaaay back in early 2001, I got excited about a tool named Organizine which was a tool for groups (not individuals) to make websites. Here’s my write-up at the time, and here’s what the founder said about it. I think it launched publicly on the last day of 2000, and closed (for personal reasons, according to the message on the site) on 9 January.

You will notice that, in neither of those write-ups, is there mentioned a “time to press” countdown clock.

AND YET – I have been talking about Organizine for, I am not kidding, 19.5 years now, and I have mentioned that countdown clock every time. Did I make it up? Perhaps. It looks like it. Who knows. It’s a good idea though.

I really want this website, or app, or whatever it is.

Here are the key features:

  • There is a live community, communicating in email, Slack, WhatsApp, whatever – and it’s a private community.
  • It’s a group project. Everyone contributes to a single artefact, and all repetitive work is removed. Text flows through templates to become articles; index pages, content pages, and anything that can be automated is automated.
  • There is a robot publisher which takes the “go live” authority away from the group. Publishing makes things fixed and public, on a schedule.

What going on here is there’s some kind of public, static production emanating from a private and ephemeral small group of people. There is just enough structure, with roles and sign-off gates, and the clock of course, to get the group to self-organise.

In 2020, I want to apply this pattern wherever I see a place where small groups gather.

We’re in a golden age for online teamwork and community. WhatsApp groups, Slack and Discord, meetings in Zoom, social media like Facebook and Twitter – there have never been more ways to socialise and work together online.

But what I’d like more of is the ability for those groups to produce something together. Barn raising. And the artefacts of those collective efforts… zines, videos, visual art, screenplays: things which are finished. Complete. Not posts in Facebook groups. Websites.

I’m missing the durable, ever-increasing “stock” in Robin Sloan’s stock and flow. More abstractly, it’s Walter Ong’s orality and literacy and what we’ve got now is an oral culture – lively, vibrant, fluid… but temporary and somehow unable to reach the deeper and nuanced ideas that literature culture affords.

So, some ideas.

A private wiki or Notion instance that has a special zone that auto-publishes editions of a static website, once a month.

A Slack workspace that has a special #links channel, and every Friday it gets compiled into a newsletter, sent to whoever is online for a quick review, and posted out to all subscribers. Emailed replies to the newsletter are directed back into Slack, where they appear like messages in bottles.

A WhatsApp group for a club committee, attached to a Google Drive folder with a fixed set of Google Docs in it, an once a week the content of the docs gets swept through pre-set templates and published as a PDF and emailed out to the membership.

A GitHub Pages repo that accepts all changes that are made to it, by anyone, and auto-publishes a website – but as issues, so previous issues are available at sequential URLs – and only on Thursdays.

A shared album in the iOS Photos app for a family that lives apart and, for Christmas, after paste-ups are shared for editing on 1 December, the photos are automatically printed into books that are mailed out to all the households.

A drag-and-drop Figma canvas that a design group drops and arranges inspiration image into, and every couple of weeks it all gets printed with Newspaper Club.

An email list for a writing group, and any Microsoft Word doc forwarded to a special email address gets posted to Drafts in a WordPress blog, and the next story, whatever it is, is pulled from the queue and published every Friday.

A postbox in Animal Crossing which posts to a Tumblr blog for your town, at midday daily, and it’s frozen for an hour at 11am so the town owner gets to edit if they want.

All built for small groups to work together, simultaneously with them chatting and hanging out.

All with the ability for some kind of audience (website visitors, newsletter readers) to subscribe to the artefacts, whatever they are.

And all, of course, having - large, in the top corner of every screen, monotonically decreasing - the imperturbable presence of the clockwork publisher, this feature which maybe I imagined and maybe was there in 2001, but which is vital, the moment of cutting the cloth which gives the creative act its edge, showtime itself: the countdown clock.

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