Does Craig Mod’s Narrative Map of the World Really Have to Close?

In Editorial & Opinion by Porter Anderson

Hi.co, a unique experiment in international “narrative-mapping,” will close on September 1, according to its creator Craig Mod’s plan for responsibly archiving the project.
'Hello tiny shrine' is one of Craig Mod's sketches at Hi.co, made in Tanabe-shi, Japan on March 30.

‘Hello tiny shrine’ is one of Craig Mod’s moments at Hi.co. The image was made in Tanabe-shi, Japan on March 30.

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

On Responsible Archiving—But Is It Time Yet?
It’s a shame that O. Henry didn’t live to enjoy this particular “Gift of the Magi”: The publishing platform + community known alternately as SayHi and Hi.co is looking for a buyer for its domain — to pay for its own proper demise.

Craig Mod

Craig Mod

In order to close the SayHi project in a way he feels is responsible and right in a world full of drifting, decaying, abandoned Web projects, Craig Mod is looking to sell his Hi.co domain so that an estimated $30,000 can be spent archiving the project on five tiny 10,000-year nickel plates to be conserved by the Library of Congress and other stewards.

Through a special etching process undertaken with Norsam Technologies and Los Alamos Laboratories, Mod writes, “all 2 million words as written about 3,000 cities, plus everything else submitted from now until September 1” can be preserved for a reputed 10,000 years — a model of careful stewardship by himself and his associates of the content.

In a conversation from Banff, Alberta, where he’s teaching, Mod is ready for the question: Is there no way to keep the three-year-old “Hi” from these high-tech nickel mothballs?

Many of us, of course, who have followed SayHi (and @SayHi) are noting that in Mod’s new article at Medium, Archiving Our Online Communities, he has left the door cracked open at the very end: “If you wish to fund our archival plans — allowing us to keep everything at hi.co—by all means email us at hi@hi.co.”

We’re also aware, as he “sketches,” in Hi.co terminology, in Banff, that he rightly appreciates Glenn Fleishman’s Archiving a Website for Ten Thousand Years — a fine article, indeed, that looks at the context of micro-etching data for long-term preservation.

  • He’s all about, as Mod writes at Medium, not letting Hi be “allowed to stagnate, be forgotten,” although Hi.co is not a moribund community or platform. It’s alive, still growing.
  • He’s also all about, as he writes at Medium, “the moral duty we took on in creating Hi.co…There was an implicit pact: You give us your stories about place, and we’ll give you a place to put your stories. This was not an ephemeral pact. Hi.co is not Snapchat.”

Mod and I have talked honestly about my own sense that he’s about to SayBye to SayHi too soon. He’s graciously receptive. Still, when I see his moment “Archives archives archives” with its shot of co-founder Chris Palmieri from a year ago, what jumps out at me is the line “we began mapping out ways to potentially close down Hi” — more than a year ago. It seems now that Hi.co was built to close.

An excerpt from 'Friendship is not developed through time, rather moments of time,' a sketch by Vivien Leung in Berlin, posted on May 16 at Hi.co.

An excerpt from ‘Friendship is not developed through time, rather moments of time,’ a moment by Vivien Leung in Berlin, posted on May 16 at Hi.co.

‘And Now Post-Published’

Here at Publishing Perspectives, we were among the first, in July 2013, to write about this new publishing project from the designer, writer, innovator, educator, and entrepreneur Craig Mod. Devoted to a deep love for Japan (something he has faithfully shared at Hi.co), Mod is maybe most widely known for his design participation in Flipboard in 2011 and 2012.

But Mod, a journaling journeyer, is also a careful and holistic thinker, one who likes the emotional pressures that human explorations of technology’s potential always carry. He writes a section about “Optimism” into his biographical info:

An excerpt from 'All morning, a village in fog' by Craig Mod, a moment published October 30, 2013, from Nachikatsuura, Japan, to Hi.co.

An excerpt from ‘All morning, a village in fog’ by Craig Mod, a moment published October 30, 2013, from Nachikatsuura, Japan, to Hi.co.

“I like that we’re irrationally emotional about the loss of physicality in books.

“We’re explorers, and the first rule of the Explorer’s Club is: always choose a so-called disrupted space swaddled in emotion.

SayHi Is Duly ‘Swaddled in Emotion’

The basic concept of this platform, its exercise in “narrative mapping,” is that anyone can:

  • Snap a shot wherever you are;
  • Upload it to the site as a “sketch” with a few words from a smartphone;
  • Return later to flesh out the article as you like into a “moment,” perhaps from a laptop, desktop, or other device.

Is it odd? At first, yes. At times, travel seems its core inspiration. At other times, self-reflection drives the observations being uploaded to it. It takes some getting used to. It has a bespoke minimalism that many of us recognize as a hallmark of Mod’s way of design thinking. And over time, Hi.co has become a repository for thousands of these “sketches” and “moments,” glimpses not just of people and places but of musings and messages, often quite intimate, sometimes incomplete, occasionally incoherent, many remarkably tender.

Here’s Mod, himself, in that moment less than a week ago as he arrived at Banff. He tells me as we chat that on his first night there, the mountains took a light snowfall. In Pre-publish Banff views, he writes:

And now post-published. Snow finished, mountains dusted. Clouds lifted. All the trees little matchsticks. A billion pins in rock.

'Pre-publish Banff views' by Craig Mod, May 12, 2015, from Hi.co.

‘Pre-publish Banff views,’ an image from a moment by Craig Mod, published May 12, 2015, at Hi.co.

All is not so poetic on Hi. Along with the most beautiful images and words, of course, we’ve also seen the entries published by people who somehow don’t get the photo part and upload a “blank.” There’s been some spam at times, too—it’s a hell of a way to offer a used car for sale. And at times, a moment may ring a bit maudlin, a resource for the lovelorn, the handwringers, the lonely wanderers…even that isn’t a bad thing. Those moments are real for those folks. Their narratives chart a human-tinted world for all of us. And the Hi community responds with notes of thanks.

An excerpt from 'Passing by,' a moment published by Sanna Karlsson from Orebro, Sweden, on March 18, 2015, at Hi.co.

An excerpt from ‘Passing by,’ a moment published by Sanna Karlsson from Örebro, Sweden, on March 18, 2015, at Hi.co.

As I say to Mod, Hi.co is mapping the world of a loose collective’s psyche. And he is hardly immune to that.

But these days his interest in Hi.co revolves around the bracing time-capsuling technology that Fleishman outlines so well at The Atlantic. Mod wants five 2-by-2-inch squares of nickel on which all these Hi.co moments will be etched. You will need a microscope to read them.

“We’re making a thing that will probably never be looked at,” he tells Fleishman. “We could print a whole bunch of nothing and nobody would know.”

And you know the one thing that’s not in Fleishman’s fine writeup? A representation of Hi.co.

We see the Rosetta Disk. But not one of the thousands upon thousands of images or bits of text from SayHi is there. When we’re looking so intently at the promise of a shiny, micro-etched sendoff, isn’t there a chance that we’ll miss the fact that this patient — so richly cluttered with reverie and pain and pictures — is still very much alive?

Of course, Mod has genuinely pressing rationales at the ready: “You kind of need real, fully invested — emotionally invested, not just financially invested — people on a full-time level to really integrate the community,” he tells me. “These things can only go on so long.”

Indeed, we have now in his new Medium piece the timely revelation that the name doesn’t really mean Hi as in Hej to a Dane or Ciao to an Italian. It turns out that the actual name of the project is Hitotoki, from hito (one) and toki (moment). Hitotoki.org was also the name Mod gave an online magazine he created in 2007.

The conceit now (this wasn’t talked about early on) is that Hi.co was created for just one moment. And that its time is up.

'Ooh I like your glasses,' a moment from September 4, 2013, from Stephen Scott in Melbourne on Hi.co.

‘Ooh I like your glasses,’ an excerpt from a moment from September 4, 2013, published by Stephen Scott in Melbourne on Hi.co.

Two Reasons To Keep Hi Alive

I’ll give you two points about SayHi to consider that, to my mind, argue for finding a cultural foundation, or a university project, or a museum program like Paola Antonelli’s superb R&D portfolio at MOMA, or maybe a lab somewhere — someone funded and interested in keeping this rare bird flying a while longer. (We have lots of nickel. Excellent archiving could come later!)

More plainly: These are two factors that make SayHi more valuable alive than dead.

Gratifyingly: Only one of these two reasons, the first, is mine. The second is Mod’s.

'Chemo,' an excerpt from a moment published by Maria Coveou in Athens on November 3, 2014, at Hi.co.

An excerpt from ‘Chemo,’ a moment published by Maria Coveou in Athens on November 3, 2014, at Hi.co.

(1) As we talk, I tell Mod that my journo curiosity has been piqued by how free SayHi is from trolling. The awful anger encountered on so much of the Internet rarely if ever seems to surface at Hi.co. Something changes as you enter the site and huge, ravishing shots of people, places, situations, animals, plants, strange vistas, buttons on shirt sleeves, candles in a café window, all start heaving into view. The writings of the contributors may be quite engaging, they may be utterly forgettable, they frequently involve some broken English (not a problem), and sometimes they stop you in their tracks with a single phrase. Charlie Grosso is particularly good at this, in her probing observations on being an expat.

This is vulnerability.

It’s not a fearful place. People can show us something delicate, they can share something fragile, they can swagger (and do) when that’s their sketch-ly offering, but they can also whisper and doubt (and they do) when worried or tired.

Peruse the site. Look at all these entries. SayHi’s organization of them was never its strong point. It’s cool that it can show you on a map all 128 (at this writing) of Mod’s entries, for example, but trying to find a given person you’ve forgotten to subscribe to is tough. And there’s never been a way to see the most recent thing first, just an approximation of what’s newish.

No matter. The best part is the fact that the SayHi community and platform don’t seethe and sneer and snipe. In this era of the Web’s often dire development as a vulgar, mean place, Mod has created a safe, creative publishing system for user-generated content. Here is shelter, of a kind.

An excerpt from 'On cities that were made for friendship,' a moment posted October 17, 2014, by Dani Z from Barcelona to Hi.co.

An excerpt from ‘On cities that were made for friendship,’ a moment posted October 17, 2014, by Dani Z from Barcelona to Hi.co.

(2) Mod knows what I’m talking about:

“I think that’s an astute observation,” he says, “because, you know, one of the things we tried to build into the community is that in order to avoid a lot of the anger you see online,” SayHi was designed to avoid giving bellicose people “a public forum.

“Twitter is so poisonous because everything is public. The grandstanding happens because comments are public. We tried to find a balance for that” between a chance to respond to a sketch, a moment on SayHi and the temptation of public showiness.

“First we called the [response] button ‘Thanks,'” which puts a user automatically in a frame of grateful reference rather than confrontation.

And Mod also allows the number of “Thanks” messages to be revealed by thumbnails of community members hitting the button. The much-appreciated member’s contribution, then, is rewarded.

“But all the commentary back and forth is private.” A user can write a message to a member, but that message is seen only by the member it’s going to. The trolls have no stage on which to bray and show off. Granted, you could send a nasty message to someone privately but without the public gratification of open bullying so popular in standard comments formats, the fun is gone for the mean-spirited, ugly souls of the Internet.

An excerpt from 'It's one of those nights,' a moment published July 18, 2014, from Berlin by Kati Krause to Hi.co.

An excerpt from ‘It’s one of those nights,’ a moment published July 18, 2014, from Berlin by Kati Krause to Hi.co.

“I haven’t seen any other platform do this,” Mod says. Neither have I, I agree.

“That’s one of the things I’ll have when I write up some of what I love that we did about Hi, things people connected to,” he says. “I really want other platforms to build off of this. Amazon. I would love it if Kindle would let me message the author of a book that I was reading on Kindle.

“It’s absolutely crazy that there isn’t a direct through-line between author and reader on a digital platform,” Mod says.

And he pauses, irony floating between our two smartphones.

There’s a direct through-line between author and reader on the very platform he has built—and is about to dismantle.

Wouldn’t other platforms (I’m looking at you, Seattle) be more likely to consider what Mod is showing them and think about emulating the safe space and supportive communications of SayHi if the thing continued running, growing, mapping the world?

Once it hits those cold nickel plates, there’s not much more learning to be had.

He’ll write us another Medium piece. Not the same as a living, welcoming SayHi.

'Sleeping under the Milky Way,' sketched by Jonathan Reed on October 12, 2015, in Kirkfield, Canada, on Hi.co.

‘Sleeping under the Milky Way,’ an image by Jonathan Reed for his moment of October 12, 2015, in Kirkfield, Canada, published on Hi.co.

‘More Respectful’
Hi's slogan is 'Capture. Write. Publish.' And they do.

Hi’s slogan is ‘Capture. Write. Publish.’ And they do.

Mod tells me that he and his associates have worked hard to find a solution, even considering a user subscription charge. “But when you really do the calculus for these things,” he says, “you have to have a critical mass in the hundreds of thousands of active users” before the math works out.

I ask if he’s considered talking with Brewster Kahle and the Internet Archive. (We’re all very good at volunteering Kahle for things, you know.) Mod has, of course, thought of this, but he says he feels that the community-management aspect of Hi is too much for the Archive to take on.

In an advertising scenario, of course, you may need millions of users, high levels of traffic, to attract ads. Hi.co has tens of thousands of writers documenting their world from various places, sketching, completing moments, quietly communicating with each other.

“Putting a strong end to it is a neater way of wrapping something up that in some way feels more respectful,” Mod says.

He’s right. If that something is ready to be wrapped up.

How do you know when?

“Hello tiny shrine” is the name of that beautiful moment-image from March at Tanabe-shi. And I wonder if Craig Mod was thinking of a 2-inch-square of nickel.

An excerpt from 'Non-Euclidian ping-pong,' a moment from Marcus Hammerschmitt about his son's 18th birthday, published to Hi.co on May 27, 2014, from Ruschlikon, Switzerland. "It was 17 degrees C with few clouds. The breeze was light."

An excerpt from ‘Non-Euclidian ping-pong,’ a moment from Marcus Hammerschmitt about his son’s 18th birthday, published to Hi.co on May 27, 2014, from Rüschlikon, Switzerland.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. Prior to that he was Associate Editor for The FutureBook, a channel at The Bookseller focused on digital publishing. Anderson has also worked with CNN International, CNN.com, CNN USA, the Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and other media.