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A list of wholly self-contained descriptors

Published on 2024-05-13


When I was younger, I had a few friends who were really into music, and it rubbed off onto me as well. People who insisted you listen not only to your favourite track, but the whole album of which it's a part. People who venerated their favourite albums, and who'd come to identify with them.

I think that identifying with particular albums is a powerful tool for camaraderie for music nerds. If you pressed me on what my favourite genre is, I'd probably have a hard time telling you, but I'd have a very easy time telling you about some of the albums I've been listening to recently. And so, people use those spyware-infested web apps to generate album charts, displaying all your most listened-to albums by album art in a nice grid. Then, you download it and share it on your story, or whatever it is. People can look at your chart and quickly get an idea of where you are as a listener in the music landscape.

Spotify (and all music recommendation engines, for that matter) seems to agree with me. The general approach to recommending people new music is to group them into cohorts based on listening habits. If two people are in the same cohort but one listens to some album that another doesn't, then it's likely the other person would enjoy it too. On an individual level, knowing if you share the same taste in music with others gives you something to talk about.

A few months ago, I read an article¹ that gave me a bit more perspective.

The author made the point that there's a lot more to the experience of watching something, or listening to something, or reading something, or living it. There's a lot more to the experience than whether or not you liked it. How much does me telling you that I listen to Neutral Milk Hotel really explicate who I am? If you look around the indie web (particularly the Yesterweb web rings), you'll find website after website that amount to a list of recommendations. There's nothing wrong with that, but coming across those websites, I can't help but want to know more about their creators. Like, sure, maybe you like Touhou Project, but how does the Touhou Project make you feel?

To this extent, the author took it upon themself to really embody everything they cared about in their website. For example, instead of saying they liked Minecraft, they built an elaborate network of web pages logging their adventures. They built a website that didn't need to say "I like Minecraft," because that truth made itself clear to the reader as they navigated their website. Similarly, they sought to write reviews of their favourite books, rather than give reading lists.

Last year, I had an about page on my website that included a bullet list of "wholly self-contained descriptors"—adjectives or phrases I used to characterize myself. I could dig it out of my git history if it really mattered but it went something like this:

  • Writer
  • Artist
  • Ecological computer scientist
  • Retro-minimalist
  • Software developer

As much as I like coming up with phrases like "retro-minimalist" and "ecological computer scientist" that almost deserve their own article worth of explanation, something about the list of wholly self-contained descriptors rubbed me the wrong way. I'd always do it, both because it was easy and I felt like I had to, but I never felt particularly good about it. I think on some level, I felt like the list wasn't who I am—that it was if not a lie, then at least some kind of deception. In fact, there is no finite list of wholly self-contained descriptors I or anyone could use to describe themself.

So, when I made my gemini capsule, I didn't include it. Later, I removed it from my website. Now, I usually include a note about how I don't feel like it'd be appropriate to describe myself with a list of adjectives, and that instead it's the purpose of this internet space to reveal that story to you on its own.

Partially-applied self

Footnotes

¹ I was going to link the article in question, but as far as I can tell, it no longer exists. It's kind of sad; I really liked reading this person's essays. One day, my feed reader told me their feed broke, and I didn't look into fixing it. A few months later, as I sat down to write this piece (which was originally going to be a response to theirs), it looks like they pulled their website down and purged all their profiles elsewhere.

They mentioned a few times in their writing that one day they might do it, particularly if someone in their life found out. Out of respect for that, I won't mention their name or the name of their article.

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