The personal journal of author and photographer Jason Pettus

Celebrating 25 years of getting myself into online trouble.

Did you know that in the '90s I had this weird big cult audience as one of the first-ever online confessional writers on the planet publishing to mobile devices? Back before the word “blog” had even been invented? And while I was touring as a slam poet and having all these crazy drug and sex adventures? Yeah, neither do most people anymore, but a recent Mastodon friendship reminded me that those old fans are still out there. Today, a quick look back, in preparation for perhaps writing an entire memoir next year on the subject.

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Jason Pettus v1.0, May 1997

So I heard out of the blue this week over at Mastodon (you know, that decentralized social network I'm crazy about these days) from one of my old fans from back in the '90s when this personal journal of mine had just started out, at the same time that I was making a living being a regularly touring performance artist through the “poetry slam” circuit. Few people know it anymore, but my journal has actually been around and active in one form or another now for an entire 25 years without any breaks, all the way back to almost the birth of the Web (which first went public in 1991; I first learned of it in 1995, then made the first version of my personal website in 1997, the journal started in '98). I got online originally to promote my slam pieces, the novel I had just completed, and my upcoming tour dates; but then I started doing tour diaries of the places I was visiting as a performer, which quickly expanded out into a regular confessional diary that I maintained whenever I would get back home to Chicago as well.

In fact, this was long before the startup known as Pyra Labs created the world's first “content management system” (or CMS), the backend software that automates the writing, editing, publishing and maintenance of something like a daily personal journal; they called it “keeping a web log,” whether that was a personal diary, a workout diary, a dream diary or what have you, which then got shortened by them into the term “blog,” which is where we get the word. So I was literally having to hand-create a new HTML file back then each time I wanted to post a new diary entry, then had to hand-add a link to it on the diary's main index page, and redo every page by hand again if I ever wanted to do something like change the upper main menu. That's admittedly a big part of why I had the early successes online that I did, simply because it was a pain in the ass and barely anyone else was doing it, which was compounded when I discovered an early service that had invented a clever way to “push” online content to offline Palm Pilots in the '90s whenever they would sync their calendars with the owner's desktop through a physical cable and a “hot sync,” and I started porting out a version of my journal that would work through that, unofficially becoming the first creative writer in history to provide an online blog of that type to mobile devices (by which I mean I think it's official that I'm the first, but I don't know how to go about actually proving that, so let's just call it “unofficial” since ultimately it doesn't really matter).

The numbers I had back then are laughable compared to the hits just an average teenager can get at TikTok on a random Tuesday — the biggest audience I ever had was maybe 30,000 to 40,000 people a day — but that was huge compared to my poetry friends whose fan bases back then were in the hundreds if not dozens. I was the first in my artistic community to start having groups of fans in far-flung international destinations (one of my first such groups in fact was in post-civil-war Ljubljana, Slovenia, where some art-school undergrad found me through his Palm Pilot and then slowly got dozens of his classmates hooked on the journal too), and I was the first person in our circle to regularly get national publicity, from being featured a few times in the hip “cyberpunk magazines” that were around and popular back then (one of the more flattering ones was in a mag literally called Artbyte), and the whole thing just really messily intertwined with my offline personal life as well, because I was staying a lot of times with readers while on the road, then sometimes doing drugs and having sex with these readers, then sometimes writing stories about the drugs and sex at my journal the next week, which then inspired more people to invite me to yet more drug and sex adventures.

What this recent Mastodon new friend reminded me of as well is that I was essentially discovering and documenting adulthood through my journal in real time back then too, which was a big reason people got kinda sometimes so insanely obsessed with it; I was operating with absolutely no filter back then, because that's how my buddy Henry Miller did it in Tropic of Cancer in 1934, and I was a young straight white male, so of course I wanted to do everything Henry Miller had done too, of course I did. I heard over and over in those years from people who were fans of the journal because I said a lot of things out loud that they had deeply felt inside of themselves too, but didn't have the courage or audience to be able to admit those things out loud the way I did; and I was glad for that reaction, because that was exactly what I was going for, an attempt to really grab life by the balls and live with as much gusto and brutal honesty as I could muster. I loved deeply and I fought deeply, and I made every single mistake a guy in his late twenties can make, just every single freaking one of them, and dutifully documented the entire experience, as well as either what I learned from it or what I permanently fucked up in my life because of it. And then I wrote performance poetry pieces about it, and took those out into the world and performed them at bars in the middle of the night while drunk and high, then would go home with someone new later that night and start the cycle all over again.

Ultimately I gave up on trying to be a professional creative writer myself, opting a few years later to instead open a traditional small press so to publish the work of others; then after ten years of doing that, I gave up on trying to make a living publishing other people as well, and am now a freelance book editor for other people who are mostly self-publishing. So it's tempting to look back on those early years and think of them as a waste of my time now, since I'm no longer doing anything even remotely related to what I had been trying to accomplish back in those years. So it's nice to hear occasionally from someone like this new Mastodon friend, because it's a reminder that it did actually mean a lot to a lot of people's lives back then, and that if I'm not fated to be famous or even remembered widely as an early web pioneer (unlike that little hipster Jason Kottke who hasn't been around any longer than me and hasn't done anything different than me, but happened to have a bunch of millionaire nerd fans in San Francisco in the '90s which is why he's still so fondly remembered from those years and I'm not...but that's an angry rant for another time), at least I know I'll live forever in an odd and small little corner of cultural history, one of those secondary people in a community who only the serious hipsters of the next generation go to the trouble of learning about, not the Velvet Underground but the Jack Smith who inspired the Velvet Underground. And I'm pleased by that idea, and would consider myself a success if I was to occupy that kind of space when people think back in the future to the early online culture of the 1990s.

A couple of my old friends have been pushing me really hard to publish an entire full-length memoir of those years soon, now that I'm going through the 25th anniversary of all those events, and I have to confess that I've been giving it some thought. I look back at a lot of my behavior in those years with embarrassment just objectively, and then sometimes with vicarious embarrassment when looking at it through the modern lens of the #MeToo movement; and especially now in my fifties where my testosterone has dropped by so much, and Twenties Jason feels like such a different person than Fifties Jason, it's a lot easier for me to be critical of Twenties Jason and with clear eyes be able to look at him and understand all the damage he did to so many people who were around him in those years. So my memoir wouldn't just be a greatest-hits reprinting of the best of those slam pieces (I wrote and performed about 500 pieces altogether in those years), but a look back at what was happening in my life when I wrote one particular piece or another, and an examination here decades later of what went wrong and right, what I could've done better, what that event says about both those particular times and about young men in general, and other more critical looks at my “slam/blog years” than the kind of hagiography I would expect from a lot of other slam poets from back in the day, if they were to write a 25th-anniversary memoir now. (There was a lot of self-congratulating going on in that community back in those years, one of the many reasons I agree that it would be fascinating to take a look back at that old '90s work from a contemporary critical eye.)

So, you know, maybe! But there's just a lot of shit going on in my life right now, or I should say a lot of shit that I want to have going on and only a limited amount of time and energy to do them. My first-ever taxes as a full-time freelancer just got paid this weekend, then I promised myself I'd start getting heavily into health insurance stuff right after that (I need a new eye exam and glasses, a new hearing exam and hearing aids, new dentures, and help with my burgeoning arthritis, DID I MENTION THAT I'M IN MY FIFTIES), and this is not to mention trying to get my online presence built out again among the dozens of other open projects I have going on in my life right now. I actually still have all 25 years of this journal archived on various external hard drives in my apartment, and I'd love to have the time soon to get all of it back online in one consistent form at a website. So maybe I'll get all that done first, then think of writing my funny, bitter little memoir about my time as an online blogger and slam poet in the '90s. Or, you know, maybe I'll just get high and watch season 3 of Party Down again, because that just came out last month and it was freaking awesome. Ah, the glamorous life of the formerly cultishly loved now 54-year-old normal!