Happy Birthday to Us!

Ten years ago today, The Seattle Star made its online debut. If it had been a paper tabloid, that issue would have folded out to reveal: two poems from Garrison Kammer and Pamela Hobart Carter, two photo-essays by Robin Michael Merigan and me, two short films from Salise Hughes and the Seattle Municipal Archives, two calendar notices, a theater review from José Amador, and a drama script from Kelleen Conway Blanchard. I remain incredibly proud of that selection, of its diversity, and of its quality.

As the years would go on, The Star would become known for its writing about the arts, particularly performing arts. But from the very first we were always more interested in art itself. The contents of that imaginary tabloid above prove the point. Looking at The Star recently would suggest that we’ve returned to our roots. In the past months we have continued to publish brilliant essays from Dean Baker, Melissa Kerman, Mark Taylor-Canfield, and Dennis Nyback. But most of our content has been fiction, poetry, music, and comix.

I’ve spent the past couple months wondering how we wound up on this path. Partly, I think, we’ve returned to presenting art and getting art to people because for the past two years the world has found itself in a global pandemic. Times of crisis need art. Not just because of the benefits to public health and both physical and psychic well-being, but also because art reconnects human beings with the spaces in which they live, and the people with whom they share the Earth. When the Earth itself seems under threat, such connection is vital to make anything else happen.

Partly, too, is a personal sense of disappointment. The art scene in Seattle has eroded. After a decade from 1989-1999 in which rents had risen only 2%, rents from 2000-2011 when I began The Star rose over 20% while actual household income (adjusted for inflation) remained almost exactly the same. Suffice to say the last decade has not seen those numbers grow closer. As a result it is difficult for artists to live here. More importantly, however, is that it is difficult to find spaces for artists to show their work here. The number of performance venues has decreased sharply and continues to do so. Ask any old-timer how many venues for music and theater there used to be within a four-block radius of 2nd and Yesler and you will quickly understand the point. The city has done almost nothing to address this, preferring to leave it to global capitalism. There’s plenty of new “construction” but somehow very few places built for artists to sell their work, visual, performance, or otherwise. Actual connection with audiences has become more and more rare in New Seattle’s Fantasyland where “everything can be done online.”

As an idea, “online” gets touted as a solution to all the problems of humanity from central currency-based scarcity economy to the rewriting of social reality with individual choice. It has done some wonderful things. Without it, certainly, we would not have been able to prove that it is possible to put together much better writing than the rubbish in the mainstream papers. But “online” is not a substitute for what Terence McKenna used to call “immediate felt experience.” It is, in fact, its antithesis. The incredible rise of NFTs as an attempt to rein in the abundance economy and turn the digital realm into yet another scarcity economy seems like a step in this direction but in fact misses the point. NFTs are things, not experiences. And not particularly interesting things that have not generated interesting stories.

By contrast, a vinyl record is in itself not a terribly interesting thing, yet vinyl records have generated billions of interesting stories about how one had to look in three different countries for that album that one finally accidentally stumbled across in a thrift store in Sumas. The digital realm does not (or at least has not) generate such stories. Acquiring something digitally is barely connected to one’s physical existence. It’s one thing when you can plug into a 1,000 digital search engines without ever getting out of your chair; it’s another entirely to visit 1,000 stores around the country. Your whole body remembers the latter in its muscles, its skeleton. The former is forgotten as easily as clearing your browser search history. Connection in the asynchronous digital world is rare.

In 2011 it seemed obvious that we would use social media to help us overcome that barrier to connection. After all, we’d just seen the uprisings of the Arab Spring, and Facebook had just introduced their fancy new feature, Timeline, as we were all closing shop at Seattlest and setting up The Seattle Star. I thought it would work to our advantage and give us a connection we would not have had if we’d been yet another website in the cybernetic ether waiting for people to leave Blogger and Livejournal.

I think this was a great mistake on my part.

One of my correct decisions was absolutely to avoid installing an un-moderated comments section like those so fashionable at YouTube, Tumblr, Blogger, and indeed almost everywhere on the Web at the time. For numerous reasons I hated comments sections on the Web, and continue to detest them to this day. However, we needed something to allow for engagement. My editor-in-chief José Amador was convinced that the new Facebook features would allow people a new space in which to discuss things we featured in The Star. I meekly concurred, and began a Facebook page for The Star that would suffice.

Except that it doesn’t. It seemed to work for the first three years or so, at least on one level. We regularly had hundreds of readers coming to The Seattle Star website from Facebook links and hundreds “reached” per article, with our more popular pieces reaching regularly into the 1000-1500 zone. And now? The photo below shows you what is typical.

Now this is an article that has been shared by someone with over 500 Facebook friends, The Star having 1200 of its own follwers, and yet the piece still “reaches” fewer than 70 people. I’ve seen articles shared by 4-6 people and still the “reached” number stays under 200. The number of “engagements” is only 10% of this, at best. Despite how much they claim to favor minority-owned and -operated businesses like mine, Facebook has done quite the opposite to us over the past ten years. They have dramatically decreased our reach.

Furthermore the “discussion” that my editor-in-chief so wanted to happen has never happened. I knew it wouldn’t. It could not. Facebook is not a place for intellectual discussion by peers. It’s not a place for much intellect at all. Its coin is emotional barrage. That is not what we do at The Star. We prefer thoughtful dissertation. We favor the long-form essay over the partly-considered impression. This is hardly the sort of thing that winds up on comment threads.

Yet we put so much time into trying to make Facebook happen. It’s not gonna happen. It looks bad now from our comparative numbers above, but I think it will get worse still. I barely reach my friends with posts, much less my readers. There is no reasonable proof that this will improve or that social media billionaires care whether it will improve. They are too busy cleaning up their messes from the 2016 election and various other scandals to pay much attention to UX.

As a “business” The Seattle Star is lumped in with The Seattle Times, The Washington Post, FOX News, Sinclair Media, and all the rest. Part of the dream of social media was that it would equalize a certain amount of the power imbalance in the media, where only the six corporations that control 90% of the newspapers and broadcast stations could get a message out. For awhile, it did. But then social media became the controlling corporations just like Comcast, ATT, Viacom, CBS, Disney, and News Corp. They have deliberately limited the reach of small businesses like mine by making them pay to play at the same rate as those with far more capital. Not to mention their alleged fact-checking and review system that stifles other voices–some of them completely nuts, to be sure, but many of them not.

Shame on me for thinking it would be otherwise.

The short version is that it has become increasingly difficult to connect The Seattle Star with readers. We were seeking to complement our online presence with concerts and other artistic events but the pandemic crippled those efforts. We would love to get back to this, but we are unsure how or when. Much of the present state of The Star, like the state of the world itself, is speculative, uncertain.

For all that, we are still here. As 2022 arrives on my doorstep with a fresh Seattle rain to melt away the winter snow, I remain hopeful. I’ve published an extremely high-quality journal for 10 years now, dedicated to free culture and freeing culture from its god-forsaken, often downright evil gatekeepers. I’ve ushered a couple of writers to much more successful careers and national renown. I’ve created a magazine that I would read myself, that covers my own diverse interests in one place: science and technology, literature, language, music, scholarship, free culture, politics, history. And I’ve helped create, at the very least, a record of the time in which I live, a record that I’ve offered to the world of the present and the future for their free use.

There are some things we need to rediscover, and many others we need to discover for the first time.

I would like to get back to featuring more writing about art. I need writers for that. If you are one such writer, I would certainly welcome you with open arms.

I would like to get back to more e-book from PDF conversions. I did many of these in the early days, all by hand and all by myself, but they are labor-intensive. If this is your bag, I’d certainly love your help at this too.

I would like to learn all the things I don’t yet know. I’m in serious need of more voices from the young because after all, it’s their world; I just live in it. The youth of today face problems I don’t even know about and cannot grasp until they introduce me to them. And I’ve always thought it is the duty of the old to help make the new possible. So much of the political dialogue about “Gen Z” is, as it was with Gen Y and Gen X, complete and utter bullshit, uninformed by anything but Boomer prejudice stemming from their own massive privilege and collective ego. I don’t have any interest in that nonsense. I want the story from the source. If you’re a young writer, I am here for you.

I would like to restore the faith of the cynical. I know so many ridiculously educated people who studied art, practiced art for 20+ years, only to disown it completely as the world around them withdrew its validation and turned into a mad globalist dash for wealthy mediocrity, where conversations about anything that didn’t involve body parts or dollar signs became impossible. The sense of loneliness and abandon that weighs on their daily lives is brutal and cruel and unfair. What those souls forget too easily in their work-induced fog is that there are thousands of others exactly like them, each of them thinking no one cares.

But we do care. And we want you to care again, too. There’s so much great work being done still. If there isn’t any jumping out at you, it may be because you’ve become scared of things that jump. Of course it is far too easy for great work to be lost in the digital morass. The price one pays for “access” these days is that there are no gatekeepers, but there are no personal curators either. Yet that doesn’t mean art isn’t waiting for you. Even if you aren’t inclined toward the new, experimental, or avant-garde, there remains plenty of need for people to look clearly at the old, classical, and traditional too. Art isn’t suddenly unimportant because it’s no longer topical. There are still many people who need to encounter the genius of the past for the first time, and still many more who need to remember so that they do not ignorantly destroy it or ignore its lessons. If you still think about these things, then The Star is also for you.

The Creative Commons turned 20 last month. The Seattle Star is now 10. I couldn’t have begun without them. It’s always been my goal to get culture out of museums and closets to the people who crave it, and need it. Creative Commons has been instrumental in helping do that with their licenses that help us get the law out of the way. But just as they have realized they need to go even further, so too have I. It’s not just the law that keeps people from their culture. Despite the illusions of technocratic plenitude–that ridiculous notion that “EVERYTHING is online these days”–that plenitude for billions of people and with millions of works simply does not exist. I want to ensure that it does. If you have been left out of the new technocracy, The Star is for you, too.

Thank you so much for all your support over the years. I intend to repay it with interest.

There is much, more more to do.

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Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net

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