Can a retro-looking blog platform help us express our feelings?
As I start writing this essay, I’m sitting on the roof of the cabin I built in my twenties, watching the sun go down. Pastels—rose, peach, aqua, baby blue—blend in the sky, only visible through a scrim of threadlike gray clouds that twist and turn, forming shapes that could be letters in a fantastical alphabet, perhaps Martian or High Elvish. A songbird scree-scree-screes. The wind whispers through the trees and up the sleeves of my sweater. A snag stands silhouette against the gray-blue gloaming.
Watching the sunset, in late winter, out in the country—it provokes high, lyrical nature writing. I reach for precise language, the senses all on high alert, recording subtle details with reverent care. But why?
If you’d prefer an audio version, you can listen to this essay on the Lightplay podcast:
In the middle of the 18th century, a group of European writers and painters who would come to be known as the “Romantics” began making art and poetry about scenes of nature and, especially, nature that was lonely (“I wandered lonely as a cloud…”) or violent, or remote. It was a successful movement, and over the next two centuries most everyone else in “the West” gradually learned to enjoy the feelings of awe and even the sublime that encounters with nature can evoke. From this change in taste came such disparate phenomena as the American National Park system, the sport of mountain climbing, the faux wilderness of New York’s Central Park, the landscape photography of Ansel Adams, and, eventually, the writing of nature poets like Robert Haas, Gary Snyder, and Mary Oliver. A small-ish group of 19th-century poets set in motion an aesthetic shift that radically changed the human relationship to nature—so much so that today this way of relating to nature seems, for lack of a better word, natural.
For a writer, what’s more interesting than the history is the phenomenon itself: the production of highly detailed, lyrical sentences in response to natural beauty. A connection deep inside me responds to these scenes by producing this kind of writing. And this linkage is shared widely across our culture. When I taught poetry in public schools, taking over an English or History or Biology class for a week, I loved taking my students outside with their poetry notebooks. They did actually write better and more precise lines when the rock they were describing was right there, by their foot. The plein-aire poem—it’s a real thing!
Compared to how hard writing often is, this feels like a cheat code: take journal outside, write during a dramatic sunset, and, ta-da, soon you’ve written 200 words in a heightened, romantic style. If that’s what you wanted, well, mission accomplished.
It begs the question: are there other situations or tools that we can use to make it easier to write?
Writers like to exploit productive contexts: a favorite coffee shop, a library reading room, a parked car, a wifi-less cabin in the woods, a room of one’s own. Having started this essay a few weeks ago, I’m actually writing this section on an airplane—a famously conducive writing space.
But what I’m after are spaces that elicit a different style or mood or medium of writing. And where I find myself most likely to find these spaces today is online.
A platform like Twitter, with its strict character limit, is optimized to produce sharp little insights and aphoristic, breezy jokes. Meanwhile a homespun platform like an email newsletter encourages you to be a bit pedantic, a bit performatively friendly, a bit conversational (hi there!). And then there are the online venues you don’t primarily associate with writing: Yelp reviews, Discord chats, Reddit threads, YouTube comments, and many more. These, too, bring out different personas: the connoisseur, the enthusiast, the nerd, the checkpointer.
At its best the internet helps us act more freely. We learn to play its platforms like different instruments. On Instagram we take perfect vacations; on Goodreads we have impeccably eccentric taste in novels; on Nextdoor we’re angry about chickens; on LinkedIn we’re respected professionals; in the New York Times comments we’re just asking questions; on our Kickstarter we’re brilliant but approachable inventors.
These platforms are designed to get us playing with our personas. They have us dress up avatars and fill out bios and join groups and upload profile pics. We’re rewarded for proclaiming our allegiances and amplifying our heroes and curating our playlists and giving our photos exactly the right vibe.
Problems crop up when the algorithms take over and try to turn us into passive consumers of a narrowing circle of optimized slop. (See my essay “Music and Power.”) But I still think that the internet offers some great places to write in specific moods.
Many of the best places to explore different writing moods online today exist as part of a new crop of offbeat, often handmade platforms that evoke the old, weird internet of my childhood—a space that seemed more raw, more playful, and less blue-tinted than today’s very corporate Internet. This wave of nostalgic new platforms includes some direct homages like SpaceHey (a near clone of MySpace) and Neocities (a reboot of Geocities in look and concept) as well as more original services like mmm.page (a sticker-heavy drag-and-drop personal website builder) and figjam (a…collaborative pinboard???). These services tend to break some new ground while at the same time gesturing back to the gif-art-heavy, flashing text, over-colorful aesthetic of Nineties internet.
For my money the grandest of this crop of new platforms is the scrap-blogging platform multiverse.plus—a nearly-abandoned service that is gloriously designed, pleasantly user-friendly, and surprisingly effective as a tool to elicit specific kinds of writing.
What is multiverse.plus? A first glance reveals a free website that lets you create and publish little blog posts that, depending on what box you check, go out on your personal page and get aggregated into a few different site-wide verticals: “Highlights,” “The world I see,” “Mic check,” and “Don’t look at this.” If you dig a little deeper you might also notice that multiverse.plus is different from many other sites because its posts all have a fixed width. This means the text won’t re-flow depending on the size of a browser window. Instead, everyone sees the same layout of text and image created by the author, as if it was pasted up in a scrapbook. But what makes multiverse most distinctive is its visual design: pastels and neons, over-saturated gradients, layers of colorful drop shadow, chunky dashed borders, and tons of options for funkying up your text. Simply put, multiverse.plus has a vibe.
And that vibe also comes from the community of other people writing on the platform. There’s a casual, confessional tone that the great majority of posts employ. Some excerpts:
- “I had a bit of anxiety in the early hours of today. I did go back to sleep, but my brain is having issues waking up. Ugh,” writes a user named JR the Pin-Witch.
- “Growing up, I didn’t think I was particularly close to my mom, or my dad,” writes glitchyowl, one of the site’s founders. “We were a pretty normal family. We’d have dinner at home on most nights. I spent a lot of my after school time at the playground and the basketball court. We had a family computer. My brother and I each had a Nintendo SP, etc.” The writing is accompanied by a photo of the author as maybe a six-year-old, next to her mom, onto whose face a pair of pixelated, chunky sunglasses have been digitally added.
- “i cleaned my depression room today!,” writes evergreen, who then clarifies, “well, not just today. in reality it took me about a month? i had this terrible habit of starting to clean it and then getting distracted halfway through.” This post is accompanied by before and after shots as well as in-process shots.
Nearly every post is so private that it could begin “dear diary.” The lack of “follow” and “comment” functions means people can’t really interact with each other, which probably contributes to the confessional tone. But at the same time there’s awareness of a small community of fellow multiversers who might end up reading a specific post. Nobody sounds entirely isolated, howling into the void.
For myself, the style of writing that predominates on multiverse.plus isn’t my usual tone. You may have noticed that I have trouble writing short. I’m also often more emotionally guarded. It’s dispositional. I’m a reserved person.
Which is why multiverse.plus feels like another writing cheat code for me. On this website, it’s miraculously easy to let my hair down and track my feelings out loud. When I got back from my honeymoon and felt kind of sad, I made a multiverse post trying to capture my ennui. When my grandpa died, multiverse.plus was the first place I wrote about it. When on a dark December night I found myself just feeling melancholy for no obvious reason, I logged in and wrote about my cat.
Why does multiverse.plus have this effect on me? I think the site’s alchemy comes from a few factors: the throwback aesthetic, the fact of blending words with images, and its satisfying drag-and-drop interface. You spend so much time adjusting and resizing boxes and images so that they look just right, it ends up distracting the internal critic from obsessing over the words.
Also: the site is ridiculously easy to use. It feels more than anything like making a collage. You’re just pushing stuff around, trying to get it to look the way you want it to look. Like making a collage, it’s fun, and the final product is satisfying.
All this comes together to make multiverse.plus a powerful cheat code for writing emotionally intimate little pieces. And then the site’s relative anonymity makes it easy to publish the pieces, too. Because there’s no “follow” button and no “news feed,” the only way you can stay current on someone’s posts is either to randomly encounter them in the verticals or to make a point of visiting their page. (My page is multiverse.plus/jaspernighthawk.) These barriers to interaction and wide distribution are a feature to me. It gives my posts a level of privacy, even if they are public for anyone who seeks them out.
Last October, I turned one of my best friends onto multiverse.plus. When they made their own cool, trippy post I felt honored to be one of just a few people who knew it was out there and who got to read it. The very difficulty of finding their post made it feel special and personal.
How was it that this website existed, yet it had, at best, 50 active users? It was nearly abandoned, and at the same time it was really well-made and cool—and perfect for my purposes. So I found myself wondering, who made it?
The “About” page revealed that multiverse.plus is the project of two users: Kicks Condor and glitchyowl. These were obviously internet handles, so I googled to try to find the underlying people attached to them.
Kicks Condor I started on first. This one seemed easy, because they have a blog, kickscondor.com. But this blog, while brilliantly/bizarrely designed, lacks any clarifying personal information. So I did some googling and found what is apparently the only interview they’ve ever given. And for me at least, this interview raises more questions than it clarifies. “We’re Cody and Jody,” they write, “the brother and sister creative team behind Kicks Condor. We work out of Facebook Labs, prototyping future personalities that can capture the public’s imagination, much in the same way that Disney characters and comic book characters provided archetypes in the past.”
Come again? Can this possibly be true? Does the (actively evil) company now known as Meta really hire siblings with oh-so-similar names to… build off-beat, non-evil platforms? Alas, further sleuthing merely turned up some evasive joking on a Hacker News thread, and a cursed archive of their site from last February that further jokes that their persona has been licensed to Grape Nuts, or shut down by the FBI, or … ??? … ???
So I moved on to the other creator of multiverse.plus: glitchyowl, who isn’t secretive about the fact that her given name is Weiwei Hsu. Her personal website—weiwei.place—has recently come back online and offers some clues. She is evidently a talented, young, tech-savvy person who graduated a few years ago from San Francisco’s California College of the Arts and has since founded the video hangout game sprout.place.
So… Kicks Condor is a persona created by maybe-fictional twins, while glitchyowl is an idealistic young programmer possibly living in Shanghai. Finding this info didn’t really put my curiosity to rest.
In my research about glitchyowl, she made reference to the existence of a Discord server for multiverse.plus. So I made a Discord account and joined the bulletin board “the outer web,” which services multiple of glitchyowl and Kicks Condor’s projects. I clicked on the thread about multiverse (#🌌-milky-way) and promptly found that a user named Benbear had left a comment linking to my very own most recent post. They wrote, “socks are sooo cuuute! it helps get through a tough day~ love the authentic words of her feelings !”
Now I felt my research was really paying off. Not only did I like having my work recognized, but I appreciated being misgendered—it heightened my feeling that the website was freeing me to occupy a new identity.
I wrote back enthusiastically, but the warm feelings quickly left. Benbear smothered me in further praise, comment after comment filling the thread. It’s nice to be complimented, but somehow this didn’t feel clean. They quoted the part of my original Multiverse post where I wrote, “It’s why the best cure to crankiness, for me, is when someone is unconditionally nice to me.” They commented “wow this one is sooooo warm….” After more comments they wrote, “wow,what a brave story” and included a gif of Tony Soprano punching the air. I came away feeling, in a way, love bombed and not entirely welcome.
In some ways, this was the intrusion of the corporate internet into this sweet little website. Discord is a chat platform commonly used by gamers, but it’s also a company with a $3.5 billion valuation. And here it was, stepping in to supply a comments section for a website that very intentionally lacked one. And it changed the way I felt about multiverse.plus. Almost as soon as I began participating on Discord, I began feeling all the bad social media feelings: anxiety to be liked, desire to please, anger at being misunderstood, etc. The freedom to be confessional and vulnerable is, for me, something easily damaged.
I don’t blame it all on Discord. There’s also a feral quality inherent to multiverse.plus, and this episode was of a piece with that. This feral quality comes from the website being so small and feeling so intimate, so private and safe, and at the same time anonymous and weird. This very quality that makes multiverse.plus better than the big, corporate platforms can also make it worse. For instance, it generally seems to be unmoderated, and in recent months the vertical called “The world I see” has featured several posts from a teenager disclosing their eating disorder and spreading eating disorder propaganda. When there’s no moderation and no feedback mechanism, what can a community do to stop something like that? There’s no way to mute it, let alone try to get the person help. If such a thing is a desirable outcome and not a wild overreach, which is a debatable point. The old internet offered troubled people privacy and the solitude of their own decisions, too.
This problem of moderation has vexed would-be platform developers for decades now. It seems especially acute for a project like this, where the creators are not making money from it—and because of that aren’t able to spend a ton of time moderating it. I don’t see what glitchyowl and Kicks Condor could do if multiverse.plus was taken over by bad posts and bad actors. I guess they might just have to shut the whole thing down.
I hope they don’t. On the whole, multiverse.plus feels to me like a force for good—a vestige of the Old, Weird Internet, updated for HTML5 and cloud hosting. It deserves to live, to have its problems addressed, and to find more users.
I think what I like best about multiverse.plus is that it gives me some of the same delight that the internet of my childhood did. It empowers me to write in new ways and experiment with new personas in a very 2003 internet kind of way.
The internet was so weird and fun in those days. There was a browser extension called StumbleUpon that added a button to the corner of your browser, and if you clicked it, it would redirect you to a random website curated off the internet. You could browse the site it sent you to for five seconds or five hours. When you were ready for the next thing, you just clicked the StumbleUpon button again. It provided hours and hours and hours of fun.
An internet like that still exists. Recently my friend sent me a link they found through exploring sites mentioned in multiverse.plus posts. The webpage it leads to looks like an isometric map from an old video game, but hidden within the map are hundreds and hundreds of hyperlinks that, should you click on them, take you pretty randomly to all sorts of strange websites. I lost an hour this evening clicking, exploring, and encountering the new.
It feels good to explore new, strange corners of the world wide web. The internet is, of all technologies we humans have ever created, the one most full of spaces that we use to feel certain ways. This creates all sorts of problems, for sure. But for writers, at least, it also makes the internet a profoundly powerful tool. Sites like multiverse.plus offer a writing space that elicits certain feelings that really do deserve expression. By using sites like these as writing tools, we can stop being used by the platforms.
So what are you waiting for? Go make your multiverse account and write your first post—and don’t forget to click the box for “Mic check.” And once you make your post, please shoot me an email with the link. That’s probably the only way I’ll get to read it. When I click that link and start reading this thing you’ve made in this quiet corner of the internet, I’ll feel really special.
(Thank you to Hunter Gagnon, Abraham Cohen and Lisa Locascio Nighthawk for sharing feedback, edits, and ideas that influenced this essay’s writing.)