I heard Thursday night that Dean Allen had passed away. Maybe the best guy too many people have never heard of. Let me tell my Dean story, and a few small things I am thinking of changing about my life after hearing the news.
I, a barely non-teenaged autodidact, found Dean Allen’s web projects Cardigan Industries and Textism while surfing public library computers sometime around the early 2000s. Everything he wrote sparkled, looked effortless, wasted nothing, inspired you, made you jealous, left you wanting more. Blog posts and essays, sure; but also (I later found) quick emails. Notes in support forums. Photo captions.
Dean released his custom web publishing kit, Textpattern, in 2004, and it was like a little juice-shot into the sweet spot between my left and right hemisponges. Tinkering with that little piece of software taught me a dozen skills that bent the later arc of my career, and a lot about what was possible on the web. But this other thing happened, too: suddenly a little community of web-curious men and women condensed out of thin air around Dean and this thing he had made for us. Suddenly we could see and talk to each other; we found we were many, we had a lot to share, we were all over the globe. And we were Dean’s new best friends! Many of us are still in touch, or at least checking in on each other, fourteen years later. Dean started a web hosting company: many of us followed him there, chipping in for lifetime accounts and arguing or joking around on the forums.
I never met Dean in person. Imagine if you got to hang out with Stephen King or Kenny Loggins online, and three times in your life they dropped you a note to say you were cool. I wrote a short Textpattern explainer, and Dean responded, which by itself was probably enough to addict me to the rush of Writing Things That People Find Helpful; that he was so complimentary just about made my month. For fun once, I made a corny website (using Textpattern); Dean’s unsolicited signature on the guestbook is reason number one out of three reasons I refuse to change the site at all. When I first signed up with TextDrive, he chipped me a short email:
Great to see you.
I’ve been thinking about what these memories means for me (maybe us) now. Here are a few notions, intentions, self-admonitions, still floating top-of-mind after a few days.
For God’s sake, Stay In Touch. I miss those years, and the community that we had together. Dean attracted some damn fine people. I’ve had a tendency to think, well, I miss those times, but those times are over. And now that we’re all popping out again to remember Dean, it’s clear our isolation is something we can end. We can be together if we decide to be.
I can’t bring that community back or hold it together or anything, but here’s what I can do: I can mute my fatalism and continue to stay in touch, keep the door open, open to that group, open to new groups.
A good way to stay in touch is: Keep Blogging. As the years went on and Dean’s sites decayed, I thought, maybe he’s just doing what Mark Pilgrim did. Maybe he’s just sick of fussy buggy computers and has found that he can live his best life only be going completely offline forever. Then I got married, had kids, and blogging became a real chore. Almost everyone else stopped blogging, too. I thought (very often I thought this), maybe Mark Pilgrim and Dean Allen had the right idea: maybe there’s a liberation that comes with erasing everything you ever wrote or made.
Now Dean is the gone kind of gone, and many of his friends and readers are kind of scrambling to revisit and hopefully preserve everything he ever wrote (more on this in a bit). If he hadn’t blogged, most of us would never have known him — or each other! Because he did blog, we have him still with us in a way that is, maybe, new to human experience.
Writing on your own site feels lonely these days. I have a bit of new hope that it doesn’t have to feel that way if enough of us are inspired to Keep In Touch (i.e., dig out our RSS readers as well as our keyboards). But also: even if it stays lonely, I’m going to keep doing it, because Dean’s writing — meaning, even just his simple aspiration-free practice of jotting and sharing his daily dog pics — shows me that, done with any consideration and heart, it is a Good that can’t help but help.
Be your whole self online. One thing about blogging, as opposed to clipping words into a stream of status updates, is that it gives you room to be your political self (say) without collapsing the rest of you out of sight. Dean’s politics were pretty clear to anyone who read him, and he was no stranger to the polemic, but he let himself be more than his politics, to such an extent that people who disagreed with his politics (including myself at the time) were happy to congregate together around him.
Maybe when we each have our own spaces to think and express ourselves, and when we Stay In Touch mainly by checking in on each other’s spaces, we do better at thinking together.
Politics (e.g.) are important. But, thanks in part to my experience with Dean and people at TextDrive, I can see that being inclusive, allowing ourselves to be and see more than our politics, happens to be good for our politics. The fact that they took this approach, and looked past my freshman twerpisms, was helpful for me at the time, and a factor in several changes-of-mind down the road.
If you’re so inclined, if you are able to pursue it: make the whole soup from scratch. One of the things that made Dean so cool to learn from was that he Did Everything, and he didn’t do it by halves. He made the words. He designed the layout and the typography. He took photographs. He made the code to publish the words and the photographs with the typography and the layout. He was an expert in every separate skill. He built tools to create, he shared his creations, and then he shared the tools, too. Then, he roasted the chicken.
This approach, of taking control of every detail of what you make, appealed to me quite a lot. It was a triumph of aesthetic magnetism, but it also made me curious and hungry to learn. That curiosity inevitably brought me into good company — and we touched off some of the same reactions in each other. So again it comes back to the people connections.
It takes a rare, magick constellation of time/space/energy/mentality to pursue even one creative skill, let alone several.
If you do have this opportune combination, use it. Even if it just feels like you’re using it for yourself, it has juice for others that you probably can’t see. Be patient.
If you know someone who wants to have and use it, help them.
But mostly: if you used to have it and don’t anymore, just know that whatever you made when you had it it still has value to someone.
Which brings me to…
Find ways to preserve your writing for each other. Give some thought to making it so that your writing will outlast you, that others can still have it when you’re done with it.
This is just an extension of Staying In Touch.
For those of you who used to read Textism, think how lovely it would be to have it in paperback. At the very least, John Gruber says maybe they can find a way to republish it online.
I started a project (a very whole-soup project) to do this kind of preservation for my own writing, and was able to resume working on it in November. My approach won’t be the practical one for most (maybe it would work for you though?). But please, think about it, in general. Look around for ways and tools to do it. If you find a way to make it easier, please share it. I will do what I can as well.