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