Whatever Twenty-Five, Part One: Introduction & Scene Setting

John Scalzi

September 13, 2023 will mark the 25th anniversary of Whatever, the blog you’re reading right this very second, so I thought it might be fun and interesting, every 13th day of each month of 2023, to write a piece reflecting about the site, my life and anything else regarding the last twenty-five years that might come to mind. I did a similar thing five years ago with the 20th anniversary of the site, some of you may recall, with a series called “20/20,” in which I wrote twenty pieces during the month of September, about life in 1998, when the site started, and life in the then-present of 2018. For “Whatever Twenty-Five” I’m going to try to avoid going over the same ground as I did with those pieces, although there will necessarily be at least a little overlap — it’s the nature of retrospective essays. But aside from anything else, five more years have passed. There’s more to muse on. Roughly 20 percent more, in fact.

I will say that twenty five years ago today, January 13, 1998, I had given no thought at all to writing what would become a nearly-daily chronicle of my life, and one of the longest-running personal sites on the Internet. On January 13 1998, I was still gainfully employed at America Online, at the time the world’s largest online provider, where I was the company’s in-house writer/editor. I was specifically in a group that was in charge of doing special events on the service, and being a “fire-team,” as it were, when something needed to be addressed sooner rather than later. In practice, however, I ended up being a company-wide resource, the person all the groups came to when they needed some writing done.

Which was cool in one sense — it kept me busy — but also meant, as I’ve noted before, that when my group was dissolved, no one wanted to put what was a company-wide resource (me!) on their department budget. I became a layoff of one, which is a kind way of saying I was fired, but nicely so, since AOL kept me on until my next vesting date so that I could cash out some stock options as I walked out the door. Those stock options paid for a house, so, uh, yeah. It was relatively soft punt rather than a hard bounce.

I’ve talked before about how being laid off from AOL affected me emotionally and otherwise at the time (spoiler: really badly), so I’ll skip that part of things this time around, and instead focus on one practical aspect of it: Now that I was laid off, my primary email address, tied in as it was with my AOL employment, was going away. Now, I could have just gotten a different AOL address (and, in fact, I did), but before I had been at AOL I had actually had my own Web site. It made sense to me to have my own web site again — and not just my own web site, but my own domain, so that I would never have to change my email address ever again. Scalzi.com was registered on March 4, 1998, and yes, since then I have never changed my primary email address. So well done, me.

The astute amongst you will note that there are several months between March 4 and September 13. What was on Scalzi.com between those dates? Well, mostly, it was an archive of writing that I had done up to that point. The archive served both as a place for me to easily access my own writing, and also, and more to the point, as a place for people who might hire me for freelance work to access my writing as well. Having been laid off, and feeling deeply burned and raw by the process, I decided to go to work for myself rather than to work for someone else, and then just get laid off again. So here was a site, showing off what I could write.

It worked, sort of. It got occasional visits and I did get some work from it. Mostly, however, I got work from former co-workers, who had left AOL for whatever reason, and when their new company needed a writer or editor for something, remembered that I existed and rang me up. There was an upside to being the only writer a bunch of tech folks knew personally! I would say ultimately eighty to ninety percent of my freelance business came from people who knew me from AOL, or (slightly later) referrals from companies I had done business with. Having the web site didn’t hurt (among other things, it had my contact information), but was probably not the business magnet I had expected it to be.

Around this time, the earliest stirrings of what eventually would be known as “The Blogosphere” were underway; tech people were migrating .plan files onto web sites, journalists, some laid off and some bored, started populating their own places online, and nerds and/or academics who had previously collected themselves on USENET started putting together their own personal outposts. These were not blogs, yet; they were called online journals or online diaries, or just “web sites.”

I started making the rounds of several of these sites, and was particularly taken by the one at lileks.com, run by James Lileks, a syndicated columnist I had read back when I was a columnist myself, and whose style I enjoyed and admired. He was writing on his own site every day, and I was all, oh, hey, I could do that, too. After all, one day I might be a newspaper columnist again; might as well keep in practice.

So, on September 13, 1998, I started writing Whatever. What was the plan? There was no plan! And to my credit I was upfront about it: the site is called “Whatever” not in honor of the dismissive Gen X expression but in honor of “I’m writing what comes into my brain, and what I feel like writing about.” Which, to be sure, is how the site continues today, nearly a quarter of a century later.

There have, mind you, been changes. Over the years the site has gained some regular features, most notably the “Big Idea,” which was created to help other writers promote their latest work. Whatever is also no longer a solo enterprise; my daughter Athena contributes regularly, and covers topics I would never think to cover because — hey, get this! — she’s her own person and has her own interests and life experiences. Also, of course, in the space of 25 years as a writer, I have changed, a subject which I suspect I will come back to more than once as I unfold this series over the course of the year.

I’ve mentioned before and will undoubtedly mention again that writing on and in Whatever has become, unexpectedly, my life’s work; not the work I get paid for, nor the work I am best known for, but the work that has been persistent and ongoing. When I started it I had no children and had written no books and my life was in a very different place, professionally and spatially, than it is now. So much of the literal day-to-day of my life is recorded here, in millions of words across two-and-a-half decades. As (also) mentioned earlier, it wasn’t really planned to be this; it wasn’t planned to be anything. It just is, and was, and probably will be, what I write because I want to, until I can’t do it any more.

Some of you have been reading this almost from the beginning; I’m glad you’ve stuck around. Some of you may have just started coming to the site; I hope you’ll continue to come by. For both these groups and everyone in between: Thanks. 25 years is a long time to do a thing, but it doesn’t feel like it’s been a long time. It just feels like what I’m writing today.

That’s the secret to Whatever, I suppose: I just keep showing up and putting words into it. Let’s see what tomorrow brings.

— JS

31 Comments on “Whatever Twenty-Five, Part One: Introduction & Scene Setting”

  1. Congrats on the coming achievement.

    And out of curiosity, how does one find those 1998 posts? The archives seem to begin in March 2002.

  2. Congrats! Long time reader, um, blue-moon commenter?

    I’m a grumpy GenX’er and y’know what? I really liked it when the blogosphere was a thing. You’ve been a daily read for a long time and it’s been most appreciated.


  3. Kurt Busiek:

    Most of them didn’t make the jump to Movable Type (and then to WordPress) because they were handrolled html. You can, however, haul them up on the Internet Archive. Be ready for it to look a mess, as the 1998 site was built for 640×480.

  4. 1998… I left teaching in Santa Barbara, a town I loved, but one in which couldn’t afford a studio condo. I headed to Santa Cruz to help a nearby school district to understand the 13 laws designed to give equal access to education to students who were learning the English. While I succeeded in getting the entire school district in compliance after a year, the next four years were a miserable slog through a culture in which the vast majority of the teachers and principals were unconcerned about the needs of those students, and in a few cases were actively obstructing the process.
    John, your blog got me through those years, THANK YOU! When teachers refused to send their students to sessions to support their English Language Development, I would read Whatever to take my mind off a disheartening situation. May Whatever continue for as long as it gives you joy.

  5. Haven’t been here for all 25 years, but Whatever has been a great companion, resource, inspiration, and deposit of humor and snark that I, for one, am damn glad has been here. Except for that dark time, when the Whateververse became more like a BBS for several months, but just like Bruno, we don’t talk about that. I’ve met great people here (waves at Chang, Jim, and all the others). Hope it’s around long enough so I can show all the old folks at the “home” what fun I used to have. Plus I got to meet you, and that’s been fantastic.

  6. huh… twenty-five years… back then computers were steam powered and burned coal… laptops cost as much as a car and weighed about the same… also burning coal… and it was annoying whenever dinosaurs mistook our coal heaps as a place to lay their eggs

    looking forward to another old fart complaining about how much better the old days were… which in a few ways, yeah better, but after enough deep thought these ‘new days’ have got enough good things about ’em

  7. Looking forward to this 13th day of the month retrospective. I haven’t been here since the beginning, but long enough to love it. Always something different.

    Here’s to your 25th year!



    twenty five years ago
    January 13 1998
    of 25 years
    25 years is a long time

  9. I just got to Whatever a couple years ago. Thanks for letting me see behind the keyboard. I could never be so open with strangers.

    Play more guitar. I’m really old, but playing makes me younger. Truth.

    Love Athena’s takeovers. She’s a talent. Tell her often.

    I’m looking forward to many more years of this blog.

  10. Been reading Whatever for 12 years. Will keep doing so as I always enjoy you writing and now, Athena’s too.

    I’m beginning to think we might have met at AOL back in ’96. Were you there then? Does the name Dvorak ring a bell?

  11. I know I was commenting on /. back in 98, and posting on Kuro5hin (a sort of group blog) not long after Rusty started it in 99. Later I left Kuro5hin for another, more private and troll resistant site where I still post today.

    Jerry Pournelle had a blog at his website until his death a few years back. I pretty much stopped reading it after the brain eater got him.

    James Lileks is still blogging today, but the commenters on the Daily Bleat are somewhere to the right of Fox News and he has no problem with that. I mainly go there for the updates to the sub sites like the Gallery of Regrettable Food.

    If you’re interested in SFF Tor has blogs going back over a decade at https://www.tor.com/blog-archive/

  12. WE know you’re a writer because you write stuff we want to read, but maybe writing when no one’s paying you is how YOU know you’re a writer.
    Keep it up, yay you, congratulations, thanks, and best wishes.

  13. @Iain
    OMG are those legos? I want them so-o much. And I am not getting them because that does look VERY sketchy.

  14. Movable Type! That brings back memories… not that I used it myself (I was on something called Monaural Jerk, anagram of Journal Maker see? ha ha!) but before WP took over the bulk of the non-siloed WWW, MT was definitely a big blogging player.

    Congratulations on keeping at this for a whole dingdanged quarter century. Wish I could say the same… my don’t-call-it-a-blog lay fallow for weeks at a time for a while there.

  15. Congratulations!
    I wish I could say that I have been a reader forever, but I’m not that much older than Whatever itself. However, I have been enjoying it every year since I’ve been around

  16. Happy 25th anniversary of Whatever. I’ve been enjoying it for a long time and will continue to do so. I actually look forward to it landing in my inbox. I also follow you on Twitter and Facebook. And of course, I read your books with great delight. So, as a long time follower of the Scalzi universe, I thank you and congratulate you on your honesty and openness and for just being you!

  17. Congratulations on 25 years! When you started, my son was one year old, and now he’s living on his own in an apartment in Chicago. What a difference a quarter of a century makes!
    Let’s hope for another quarter century of good writing and good reading!

  18. Congrats. Your writings on this will be a treat. I do think you should reward yourself. Maybe the week leading to 25 could be something like Whatever Pies. You could sample and share with your family a pie or tart each day.
    I might have skipped lunch today. Looking forward to the next 25!

  19. Even though your blog is better-written, more interesting, more relevant, more fun, more prolific, and a delightful peek into the mind of the most entertaining sci-fi author alive, I take just a little pride in having a blog that is five months older than yours.

    Here’s to us pioneering Xers.

  20. I’m a Y rather than an X, but I remember attending a meeting of my middle school’s computer club in September 1998 where we had a guest speaker who hinted that interactive satellite imagery might someday become widely available for free on the Internet! He did a demonstration with what was then some kind of proprietary software, as I recall. It absolutely blew my mind.

    (In retrospect, what dates this the most might simply be the fact that we had a computer club.)

  21. @Kurt (and others).

    The internet archive is at http://www.archive.org. You put in the url of the website you are looking for and it will show you the dates it has archived it. Going there and putting in scalzi.com shows the first archive is Dec 6, 1998 and there was already a lot of content on the web site, plus this notice “READER NOTICE: At any point between now and the end of the year, my wife could suddenly go into labor. When that happens, I will drop everything I’m doing and rush her to the hospital. Which means, no update that day. So if you see the same thing here two days in a row (not counting weekends), you’ll know why. Now, back to our regularly scheduled rambling.”

    I use it all the time to look up information that may not currently be on the internet. Not everything is archived, but if you know the url, most likely you can find something of interest.

  22. I’m a Microsoft Word guru and have generally been the tech-savvy guy at a couple of large companies. In other words, I’m the person lots of departments need…but don’t want to pay for. And of course The Powers That Be don’t see my value on a spreadsheet anywhere so yeah, I feel your pain on that front.

    I’ve literally had people from 3 or 4 jobs ago track me down to ask for help because nobody at the company knows how to solve a problem

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