Artistic Forestry: 2014 Annual Letter

by Venkat on May 29, 2014

For the past three years I’ve been doing a sort of annual letter to shareholders/call for sponsorships a la Warren Buffet’s Sage of Omaha act, roughly around March-April. I am about two months late this year. I am just going to start calling this my annual letter from now on. I plan to make it approximately 5% more magisterially smarmy every year until people start calling me the Sage of Ribbonfarm (the name of a short-lived gag panel  that I experimented with in 2008. I had to give it up because Yurij, my off-oDesk Russian artist, suddenly dropped out of sight. I sincerely hope Putin didn’t do something to him).

So if you consider yourself even a minor shareholder in ribbonfarm (through comments, guest posts, sharing, recommendations, playing couchsurfing host to me on my travels, sponsorships or whatever you’ve been doing to help keep this show going), this letter is for you.

Each year, I also add one line to my evolving business philosophy. In 2011, the line was go where the wild thoughts are. In 2012, it was go deep, young man. In 2013, the line is grow branches and roots.  Continuing with the arboreal theme from previous years, this year, my line is  practice artistic forestry. That’s the first topic on the agenda. Here’s the rest of the agenda.

  1. Practicing artistic forestry
  2. The state of the forest, in numbers
  3. The Web, it is a-changing
  4. Bitcoin and online publishing
  5. The future of longform

Let’s get started.

Practicing artistic forestry

I like the arboreal metaphor for online publishing because it really is very precise, and a fine source of decision-making heuristics any time there is tension between the commons-like aspect and the financial aspect of this show.

Artistic forestry is my term for environment stewardship in such situations. When it works, you can avoid two failure modes.

The first is  the authoritarian high-modernist yield-management trap of “scientific” forestry, which is incapable of seeing forests as anything other than timber or unexplored oil fields. That’s the drill baby, drill mindset of SEO-focused bloggers. The second most popular post on this site is probably A Big Little Idea Called Legibilitywhich explores this failure mode.

The second is what one might call anti-authoritarian low-naturalist environmental preservation ideology which is opposed to all change on principle. Forestry based on high-minded but empty pieties and economic delusions (what one might call religious or mystical forestry). The sort of view that treats humanity and its technology as a purely destructive force turning a Garden of Eden into Mordor desolation. Bloggers who take this view typically quit after an extend stint of masochistic suffering. Usually with resentful, suffering-saint final posts declaring lost faith in humanity for failure to make their self-indulgent pursuit economically viable.

How does the arboreal metaphor help?

Forests are interesting things. They are an existence proof that biological systems can be really long-lived, perhaps even immortal. They are a good model for human social, as opposed to economic life (which is why people talk of having roots in communities… and then proceed inexplicably to infer that communities must also be entitled to roots in geographies like literal forests).

With every passing year, Ribbonfarm looks more and more like a forest, with a complicated root system that is largely invisible even to me (tools for completely mapping the online geography around a site simply don’t exist). This main site is sort of the gaudy big tree that’s easily accessible from the highway; the one that tourists short on time slow down to look at before speeding (or on the Web, bouncing) on.  But there’s now a good deal more: two loosely affiliated Facebook groups, three tracks of meetups in the Bay Area, New York and London, a Hangout track on Google+ and a small annual barcamp.

But there are also aspects to Ribbonfarm that don’t map well to the forest metaphor. There’s the fact that  I get most of my consulting leads through the site, three published books that bring me a nice steady trickle of revenue, affiliate revenues from Amazon via reading recommendations and sponsorships. There’s the fact that it does cost some money to run this site well (I recently upgraded to a more scalable and reliable, but more expensive hosting provider (WP Engine) that costs me $99/month plus overages during traffic spikes).

My first principle of artistic forestry is this:

Things that are primarily economic mechanisms should neither be over-analyzed before being experimented with, nor allowed to outlive their usefulness.

Which of course means the second principle is this:

Things that are primarily environmental stewardship mechanisms should never be compromised or endangered for economic gain, because they are not yours to endanger.

It’s like the editorial/business distinction in old media, except that it’s not.

To bio-morphize business mechanisms is to get sucked into dumb, reactionary views of economic life. While there are many things wrong with the mechanistic metaphor of business as a “wealth generation machine” it does have the advantage of encouraging a pragmatic and dispassionate attitude towards what you are doing. If it isn’t working, shut it down and try something else. It is far less traumatic to disassemble, cannibalize or scrap an obsolete machine than it is to chop down a forest that has stopped yielding fruit or quality timber. Equally, to not bio-morphize everything else is to restrict yourself to building very mechanical sum-of-parts things, rather than organic sum-greater-than-parts things.

That’s really all there is to artistic forestry: freewheeling trial-and-error with economic mechanisms, hard-line primum non nocere around things that you’re not sure belong to you (if in doubt, it doesn’t). Keep the forest antifragile, have fun with everything else. Or in Carse terms, go nuts with finite games; don’t endanger the infinite game.

Possibly the most intellectually interesting part of running ribbonfarm is managing the tension between these two principles. It’s a tension some people believe can be structured away using vehicles like a B-corp (benefit corporations that combine commercial and social missions; a model for the Clueless in my opinion). Others don’t recognize the nature of the beast until it’s too late. They realize there is a tension to manage right after things break. The link is to a rather sad post by Andy Baio about learning the hard way what was his to sell and what was not (he seems to have overcompensated and found the forestry religion though).

To the extent that an online venue attracts the sort of goodwill and unsolicited investment only a commons can attract, it needs to be managed like a forest with a view to sustainability. To the extent it represents value created by an individual that can be easily untangled and extracted from the commons, it can be managed like a business. I think B-corps are a bad idea because a fundamentally business-like vision is unnecessarily burdened with a social mission that might as well be separately pursued. Conversely, online properties often fail because a fundamentally hybrid thing is managed like it is an easily partitioned thing, or worse, like it is either purely a business or purely a commons.

In the first few years of this site, 2007-2009 or so, I could claim to being the sole creator of value around here. That’s no longer true.

That’s why artistic forestry is a good metaphor to keep in mind.

The state of the forest, in numbers

Artistic forestry is not just a pleasing high-level metaphor. It gets right to the heart of how you manage real estate online. Avoiding both scientific and religious forestry models is a matter of a hundred day-to-day decisions, many of them informed by numbers.

Since the beginning, I’ve avoided “optimizing” the site around any assumed model of how stuff gets discovered, read and shared. The scare quotes are important: 9 out of 10 people who pay too much attention to models, and metrics that measure performance relative to that model, have no idea what they’re doing. They’re like overconfident individual technical investors who think they can beat the stock market of online publishing by hacking distribution. Yes, it’s possible if you are one of a tiny minority, like the guys behind Buzzfeed or Upworthy. For the rest, optimizing is a recipe for getting killed the next time online distribution technologies or cultural fashions change.

For the typical small site owner, it makes far more sense to pursue a strategy similar to investing in index funds: forget optimization and just invest in the long-term future of online content. This simply means putting out stuff with predictable regularity, and constantly improving quality at the gate so the hit-rate keeps creeping up. If it is good, it’ll work on any distribution channel and weather any short-term trend. If it’s bad, it will die with with whatever technology or fad it is optimized for.

Optimizing for a particular assumed model of content discovery, sharing and circulation is basically a case of setting yourself up for failure through authoritarian high-modernist legibility seeking, which typically vastly underestimates the complexity of the online world. The result is exactly the sort of fragile yield management strategy that destroyed naively managed forests back in the day.

But eschewing active yield management does not mean you shouldn’t keep an eye on what’s going on in the sense of radio-tagging bears, sampling air and water quality, and so on. So let’s take a look.

First Google Analytics (which recently changed its language from unique visits to sessions and unique visitors to users for some reason). Here’s a view of the last three years. Click for full-size.

traffic2014

Not much to report there. Roughly comparing June 2013 – May 2014 to June 2012 – May 2013, we see a gain of  333,707-273,731 = 59,976, or a mean gain of just under 5000 additional unique visitors per month. Which is a completely meaningless figure because much of the difference can be attributed to the large transient spikes in a given year.

And that’s why kids, you don’t use means for stuff like this. You leave out big spikes and look at the typical rather than average behavior. In other words, you look at medians.

I haven’t computed medians, but eyeballing the data, I’d guess median monthly uniques for typical months have drifted up by much less: something like 100-200 or so per month (from the median ~20,000 uniques visitors two years ago to the median ~24,000 range now).  In other words, the torrid initial growth years are over around here (which, if this were a pure business, would be very worrisome). Absent a major shift in what we do around here, we’re settling into a more sedate typical growth rate occasionally bumped up slightly by spikes. But really, there is no meaningful way to systematically interpret this stuff. The main reason to look at it on occasion is to make sure weird things aren’t happening.

On the other major front, feed statistics have flattened out far more sharply, most likely due to the Great Killing of Google Reader, which I think made a lot of people give up on RSS entirely. Modest gains from something like 5800 to 6400 over the past year in subscriptions, I’d guess, and sharp fall of about 30% in reach as far as I can tell.

feeds2014

As far as I am concerned, this probably means RIP RSS. It had a good run, but I think the center of gravity of content distribution has shifted pretty much irreversibly from deterministic syndication to stochastic social diffusion. Though it is an imperfect measure of social sharing, the (largely neglected, I am afraid) ribbonfarm Facebook page provides a rough indication of the growing importance of social discovery and sharing for blogs (as The New York Times appears to have finally officially discovered). Here’s the growth in Likes for the page since I put it up 3 years ago:

facebookLikes2014

And here are the demographics of people doing the Liking (I haven’t yet gotten around to turning on demographics tracking on the site itself; that would be an interesting comparison).

facebook2014

This doesn’t even begin to cover the complexity of how people find and share stuff these days. There’s a constantly shifting, spiking ocean of aggregators, communities, streams, Twitter link-passing etc. out there.

Final little factoid. As with the rest of the Web, mobile devices are slowly becoming more important for blogs. Today, roughly 30% of traffic to this site comes from mobile devices. I had a mobile-friendly theme running for a while, but I’ve concluded it isn’t worth the trouble now. I suspect most long-form readers use mechanisms like Pocket and Instapaper.

The Web, it is a-changing

There’s a bunch of other things I want to sage about briefly, that aren’t yet showing up clearly in the numbers. But they signal an upcoming era of intense innovation and changes.

Comments 

In case it wasn’t already obvious, for most blogs, the bulk of quality discussion and commenting activity has shifted to social media. There are two dumb responses to this you see across the Internet. One is to neglect the on-site comments section entirely, letting it degenerate into a cesspool of Youtube level trolling, idiocy and spam comments. The other is to eliminate it altogether, forcing readers to go into various controlled social media venues (such as dedicated Facebook groups or authoritarian hashtag use on Twitter) in order to strike up a conversation.

One result (I suspect) of the prevalence of the former dumb strategy is an overall increase in sophistication and intensity of comment spam. My theory is that public comment quality has fallen to the point that spam filters have trouble telling the legitimate stuff apart.  From what I see here, I think Akismet (the main spam-blocking service) has been falling behind in the arms race a bit. There’s more weeding to do around here these days.

I’ve concluded that the only smart move is to retain an open comments section, keep it clean and lively, but not attempt to either drive that activity elsewhere, or try to pull activity elsewhere on-site.  This means, unlike in the early years, the sheer number of comments is no longer as critical a health indicator. But quality matters more than it did before.

The biggest looming development in commenting technology is probably RapGenius style annotation. I suspect somebody will figure out how to do that natively for blogs. I like RapGenius, but can’t stand its garish look.  So I am waiting for somebody to bring that stuff to WordPress.

Design Trends

In 2013, we witnessed probably the most dramatic evolution in visual design in the years I’ve been blogging. I don’t know if it has a name, but it’s the practice of putting huge images at the top of every piece of content, requiring you to scroll to get to the start. With many non-text sites, the rest of the page is also structured that way: stacked graphic panels that give a scrolling-coffee-table-book feel to the page. For text sites, the text begins below the large image. The rest of the layout tends to be minimalist. Often there are no sidebars or minimal sidebar content. While there is a rise in annoying excesses like parallax scrolling and unclickable pop-ups, the overall trend seems to be towards less clutter, a lot more whitespace and a clear aesthetics-over-functionality shift.

These large images are typically a notch or two above old-school stock photography in terms of quality and relevance to the content. The trend is big enough that the designer of the theme for this site, Chris Pearson, released a skin optimized for it recently, and I could probably switch to it with a weekend’s worth of work. I suspect three things are going on.

First, so many sharing mechanisms now pull an image from the original source, it has become an important way to grab more screen real estate in sharing streams. When I raised the question on Twitter, somebody (can’t recall who, sorry) suggested a great name for this aspect: sharebait lipstick.  I don’t think sharebait optimization (SBO!) is the whole story though.

Second, I think many publishers are operating by the theory that such images have a special appeal for tablet-users (probably the fastest growing segment). The hypothesis is apparently that tablet-users want the magazine-like glossy packaging for their content offered by apps like Flipboard. Either that, or content publishers are betting that the rapidly growing image-first demographic (Pinterest, Instagram, imgur, memes) will soon overwhelm the text-first crowd.

Third, the much-hyped revolution in blogging called Medium, brought to you by the creators of Twitter and Blogger, has adopted this visual strategy across the board. Much of the content is mindbogglingly tedious, but I do think Medium represents an important evolution in blogging technology, and a wake-up call for WordPress. I also think Medium itself is ultimately going to be a dead end for various reasons (its uninspiring early adopter crowd, closed and commercial nature, and the odd, cultish management philosophy of its founders among them).

The best innovations from the Medium experiment are going to be exploited better by other platforms that figure out an open, distributed implementation.

I don’t know whether I am going to jump on this bandwagon or sit this one out yet. It depends if I can think of a good way to create or source good images. I wish I had the talent to draw quick little gag panels or cartoons for each post.

The ‘Web is dead’ meme

The idea that the Web is dead (in the sense of an open network of hyperlinked destinations explored with a browser) is one of those endemic sentiments that rises and falls with each new development. In 2014, native apps and the massive rise of video (and video-centric experiences like Netflix streamed directly to televisions, which barely seems like part of the Internet) are triggering yet another round of doom-saying.  A few months back, a reader and young designer even emailed me, offering to help design some sort of magazine-like packaged reader app for ribbonfarm. Other readers periodically suggest turning each post into an audio podcast or narrated PowerPoint.

I frankly don’t know what to make of these ideas. There’s definitely a lot happening to online media, but the safest bet still seems to me the open, browser-accessed Web, whatever the content form. It is important to note that for all the power they offer, app ecosystems today resemble CompuServe/AOL style walled gardens, with no open alternative. That’s definitely not a model you want to bet on too much.

Overall, this sudden spurt of new developments suggests there is a big, unprocessed pile of innovation ideas around blogging that might be really hard to fold into an aging CMS like WordPress. This suggests that some smart from-scratch platform (not Medium) will win the next generation of blogging.

But important though all these developments are for online publishing, I think they all pale in comparison to Bitcoin.

Bitcoin and online publishing

As an experiment this year, if you want to support this site, your only option will be Bitcoin. Right now, there’s just a link to my Coinbase page and to resident bloggers’ individual accounts on the sidebar. I’ll be experimenting and figuring out other useful places to insert  suitably tasteless cues and prompts. If you want to send bitcoins my way, go for it (I’d appreciate a note de-anonymizing yourself and including your email, via the message box). As more tools become available, I’ll be experimenting with them.

Until early 2013, I had a tipping plugging running on the site ($3 “Buy me a coffee” links at the bottom of every post) that generated a couple of thousand dollars over four years (I think I had it active 2009-13).

I shut down the tipping plugin because it was turning out to be more book-keeping overhead than it was worth. One part of the problem was high transaction fees. Another part was the awkward idea of “tipping” being applied to what is essentially a top-of-the-economic-pyramid cultural activity like writing. Waiters are some of the least privileged bottom-of-the-pyramid workers around. Writers, if they are managing to find the time and creative energy to write things worth paying for, are by definition among the most privileged workers in the economy. Whether or not they make money at it. The tipping metaphor sort of worked, but really, it’s an awful way to culturally normalize micropayments. All the other models had the same problem: tipping was the only workable metaphor and it only went so far. The buy-me-a-coffee plugin worked as well as it did because it tried to get away from the tipping metaphor, but it didn’t entirely succeed.

Something similar is true for online sponsorships. For the last three years, I’ve been doing an annual call for sponsorships that generated a total of $8625 ($2250 in 2011,  $3750 in 2012,  $2625 in 2013).  This year, I am discontinuing that model as well, for a similar reason. It’s simply a very awkward industrial age model bolted uncomfortably onto online publishing. One that tries to force-fit blogs into the PBS/NPR mold (a big thanks to my sponsors though, the sponsor page, which now lists sponsors from all three years, is going to stay up).

The problem with mixing money and online publishing, it now appears with 20-20 hindsight, is that dollars simply represent the wrong economic paradigm: they are the medium of impersonal, low-resolution transaction economies, not highly personal, high-resolution relationship economies.

Any individual piece of online content — at least the well-hyperlinked no-blog-post-is-an-island kind — has a natural market price range that hovers just above free, due to the massive over-supply at every point on the quality spectrum (you could easily spend a lifetime reading out-of-copyright classics). Unlike offline publishing, which was shaped by scarcity (namely, the high capital costs of printing presses and TV/movie/radio production), hyperlinked online publishing is also most naturally a part of the relationship economy rather than the transaction, attention or gift economies. This is because finished blog posts like the ones on this site are an outcome of large, sprawling, ongoing conversations all over the web and offline. To a far greater degree than the work of industrial-age content creators, the work of online publishers is dependent on, and a result of, conversations with others.

As a result, industrial-style branding doesn’t help create a premium perception. What does create a premium perception is the sense that there is a deep-rooted commons around a piece of content. Wikipedia and Tvtropes project that perception. The New York Times doesn’t.

So it is simply incorrect to think of online publishing in terms of individual production and consumption decisions mediated by two-way transactions around properties with clear ownership. Blog posts are simply packaged partial snapshots of ongoing conversations in underlying commons communities. In my case, pretty much every post in the last year owes at least half its ideas to conversations with others.

In other words, “charging” for true online-native content is like charging for all of Linux instead of just for the value added through packaging and support of the sort Red Hat offers. Or like constantly going out for dinner with friends and always free-riding without ever offering to pick up the check. From the reader’s point of view, the fair price is close to zero not just because there are so many excellent free substitutes for any given piece of content. It is also near zero because paying a more-visible-than-others individual for the output of a larger, invisible and uncredited group of participants in a conversation seems unfair (as it should).

This does not mean, however, that online publishing is part of the free economy. It is just part of the too-small-to-meter economy. Content is hyper-abundant but cannot be produced at zero cost. It emerges from illegible, forest-like commons whose members can legitimately claim both partial authorship and a right to part of the rewards. But it does also get consumed by individuals and organizations who had no part in creating it whatsoever and ought to be treated like foreign trading partners. This means there is a need for mechanisms that can mirror the domestic and foreign economics of any kind of creative production activity.

The same goes for tools like WordPress and foundational sources like Wikipedia, Tvtropes and the like.

So far, there’s never been an economic model capable of capturing the complex nature of how all this works. Content has been free so far because the right market mechanism for it did not exist. 

Now it does. Bitcoin, and more generally, the underlying technology known as the blockchain, have the expressivity to accurately reflect the socio-economic structure of creative production under conditions of abundance. Bitcoin can be used to construct an economic model for artistic forestry. As a simple example, it should be possible to set up arbitrarily complex, flexible and automated microfluidic routing mechanisms to automatically move even tiny fractions of bitcoins around to various parts of the forest ecosystem that sustains a site like this (contributors, commenters, open source projects). Security issues, chargebacks and high transaction fees made that effectively impossible with dollars.

Bitcoin is the start of making all that possible, and it seems increasingly clear that it is going to happen. I have some ideas about how it might happen, and specific developments I am watching out for, but I figured I ought to start experimenting today. So stay tuned. The hydrological landscape of this forest will likely change a lot in the coming years.

For now, the Bitcoin presence on this site won’t look very different from old-school sponsorship and tipping. The difference is, this has room to grow in ways that dollar-based models do not.

The Future of Longform

I want to close out this letter with some thoughts on longform.

Today, longform is just one of at least several dozen major forms of online creative expression. The number of forms is growing every year. Here’s an incomplete inventory of the environment of content forms today, with which longform must compete for attention. Besides longform, I have interests in perhaps a dozen of these forms (the starred ones):

  1. Virtual reality/Augmented reality (coming soon)
  2. 3D content (via SketchUp)*
  3. Original video (instructional, viral, TEDdy, movies, music)
  4. Derivative video (soramimi/mondegreen, parodies)
  5. Video conferencing (Hangouts in particular)
  6. Audio music
  7. Podcasts
  8. Game content (from scripts to spectator videos to machinima)*
  9. Twitter*
  10. Shorts (<300 words, including poetry)*
  11. Long form (1000+ words)*
  12. Q&A
  13. Curated link blogs
  14. eBooks*
  15. Serialized online books*
  16. Wikis*
  17. Listicles (now being disrupted by tweetstorms)
  18. Glossaries and dictionaries*
  19. Image memes
  20. Photography
  21. Structured content (such as recipes or lyrics)
  22. Aggregator discussions
  23. Bulletin boards (Reddit, HN, Facebook groups)*
  24. Narrated slide decks*
  25. Strip cartoons*
  26. Gag panels*
  27. Full-page or book-length comics*
  28. Animation (classical)*
  29. Animation (novel, like RSA Animate)
  30. Emoji
  31. Pinterest boards
  32. Instagram feeds (selfies being a sub-category)
  33. Infographics
  34. Video visualizations
  35. Interactive visualizations
  36. Annotations (RapGenius)
  37. Maps of all sorts*
  38. Offline meetups catalyzed online (yes, running these well is a form of creative expression)
  39. Offline conferences catalyzed online, and program content thereof
  40. Hybrid online+offline conferences

Looking at this exploding universe, it strikes me that there is a close parallel to the explosion in programming technologies. That gives us a simple framework to understand what’s happening.

  • At the bottom you have assembler like elements: tweets, memes, poetry.
  • Next up, you have the equivalent of shell-scripting: tweetstorms, listicle posts.
  • In the middle, you have longform, which is something like C in the picture: a mid-level language for compactly and efficiently building very complex systems programs. I think it has no competition in this range.
  • Above, you have languages that involve more complex abstractions such as PowerPoint (which is rather like Object-Oriented Programming, in its design intention and and practical inability to support the creation of truly reusable slides) or wikis (which are very vaguely like functional programming in my inexpert opinion).
  • You also have all sorts of complex kinds of glue content corresponding to library objects, includable content, runtime environments, Web APIs and so forth.

 

When you consider the complexity and try to figure out what the hell is going on, there is only one inescapable conclusion: we’re liquefying all content into one giant Big Hypermedia Book.  John Donne was right: “all mankind is of one author, and is one volume; when one man dies, one chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated.”

So that’s it for the 2014 letter. Get on the Bitcoin bandwagon and send me some if you want to experiment with the future of publishing, and help keep Ribbonfarm National Park going. But if you just want to visit and enjoy yourself, that’s fine too.

Chris McCoy May 30, 2014 at 3:03 am

Stock a printing press with historical + connected identities (geography as prime connection point but there are others of course), wire it up with payments & payouts, let users create content with that stock and get distribution to the interest graph of that stock, then invent a new flow. So many things can be built on top of this new model for a printing press.

Change the economics of stock so that verified stock (identities) can capture their real life value online, then change both the distribution and economic incentives for long-form (or any content form) creation.

Isaac Lewis May 30, 2014 at 4:30 am

“I also think Medium itself is ultimately going to be a dead end for various reasons (its uninspiring early adopter crowd, closed and commercial nature, and the odd, cultish management philosophy of its founders among them).

The best innovations from the Medium experiment are going to be exploited better by other platforms that figure out an open, distributed implementation.”

Isaac Lewis May 30, 2014 at 4:48 am

“I also think Medium itself is ultimately going to be a dead end for various reasons (its uninspiring early adopter crowd, closed and commercial nature, and the odd, cultish management philosophy of its founders among them).

The best innovations from the Medium experiment are going to be exploited better by other platforms that figure out an open, distributed implementation.”

I was at the London Ribbonfarm meetup a few weeks ago. Something interesting: there were a few Lesswrong readers there, although Ollie, the organiser, had never heard of it. I asked him what else he read online – he mentioned nplusonemag.com, and it turned out he wasn’t the only person there who reads it, although I’d never heard of it. So there’s at least two communities (singularitarian rationalists and intellectual left-wingers) which overlap with the Ribbonfarm community but don’t much overlap with each other.

This chimes with a broader trend I’ve noticed: the world of online communities is growing increasingly illegible. Maybe it’s a result of the diversity and complexity of distribution mechanisms – there’s a mainstream of people who consume all their online content via their Facebook and Twitter feeds but there’s a very long tail of alternative distribution mechanisms.

Reddit is an interesting way to explore some of these communities and their links, though I feel Reddit as a platform for community building has some flaws. I have this idea of building a Reddit-killer that’s based around emergent blogging communities. Maybe combined with Zemanta’s revenue model. The MVP would be a tool that tells you “what else is read by people who read the same blogs as me?”.

Venkat May 30, 2014 at 12:51 pm

Isaac: You’ve seen the ribbonfarm neighborhood map, right?

I’d like to come out to London and hang out with you guys soon, if I can manage it.

Robin May 31, 2014 at 5:25 am

Psychogeographers are off the map: another easy victory over history.

I’m curious about the London meetup. That whole Shoreditch / Dalston / Hoxton thing is foreign to me, and so I have a mental image of the meetup folks being Nathan Barley meets Machiavelli (which actually sounds well Lucrezia). Anyway, I’m curious, because it’s always interesting to have one’s preconceived ideas messed with, but the propinquities are marginal so it’s probably safe.

Kay May 31, 2014 at 6:36 am

I have this idea of building a Reddit-killer that’s based around emergent blogging communities.

It’s interesting to see that there are still social media visions around despite people are not changing anymore. No matter how you shuffle, arrange, aggregate, link, rank and distribute the content, it remains the same – and the fairly good authors are still rare and if you discover one after some years, it is no loss on either side. Venkat could be pretty laid back with respect to web publishing and its turpentine effects but if this is his kind of fun …

Venkat May 31, 2014 at 7:50 am

Hmm…from where I stand, people have been changing pretty steadily. The fraction of good remains small, but what is good is not consistent. It changes with media landscape. Kinda like churn in the financial 1%. Longform is a stable place to be, but there’s slow evolution there as well.

Kay May 31, 2014 at 9:06 am

Hmm…from where I stand, people have been changing pretty steadily.

For the scale of changes induced by all the base technologies which came up with the web, very little social changes actually materialized, measured in individual roles in the theater of society or whole institutions which came to life or have been destroyed. Sure “the blogger” is one such role and without the web it wouldn’t exist but my overall impression is that freeing people from obstacles of communication leads to more conservatism in human behavior, not less.

Dave Foster May 31, 2014 at 11:37 pm

Isaac,

Re: “…So there’s at least two communities (singularitarian rationalists and intellectual left-wingers) which overlap with the Ribbonfarm community but don’t much overlap with each other.

“This chimes with a broader trend I’ve noticed: the world of online communities is growing increasingly illegible. Maybe it’s a result of the diversity and complexity of distribution mechanisms…”

I suspect this may be a feature of the ability to parse and express cultural aspects of oneself via increasingly diverse technical means. In only one way are any of us only one thing and that is as a discrete singular physical entity. In terms of cultural identity and interests each one of us is many things. So where the characteristics of our physical singularity (age, sex, ethnicity, physical ability, etc.) have, can, and do act as cultural filters that put each of us naturally into various groups (with all the related pros & cons), which may not be comfortable or even possible to move between, cultural affiliations based on aesthetic preferences and intellectual interests can readily be fostered by and a driver of innovation for technical communication means.

Alper June 1, 2014 at 8:48 am

Also: How is Medium not a VC backed journalistic pump and dump?

Venkat June 1, 2014 at 8:54 am

That’s too cynical. The founders are in it for the right reason imo. They just have some unfortunate idealism going on.

Alper June 1, 2014 at 2:35 pm

I think you may be right about the founders but I doubt if their intentions are strong enough to break free of the VC backed startup rhetoric.

It’s good that Medium pushes forward the entirety of blogging. I just would not trust the site with any of my content because it will probably all evaporate in a couple of years.

Christian May 30, 2014 at 2:58 pm

Long time RSS reader here. I’m also following you on Facebook to keep up with your shorter postings. But if it wasn’t for your RSS feed, I would forget to read your long articles because I typically don’t have time for them the instant you announce them and there’s no “remind-me-later” function on Facebook. So I hope you keep the feed! Besides, don’t you get it for free from Wordpress?

Venkat May 30, 2014 at 3:02 pm

Oh, I am not saying RSS is literally dead. It’ll stay alive as long as the standard remains and products like WP support it. I just meant it’s not worth paying much attention to anymore, for bloggers. You’re among a minority who still rely on RSS.

The standard will eventually disappear I suspect, due to lack of evolution.

Christian May 30, 2014 at 3:16 pm

Ah, phew!

Alper June 1, 2014 at 8:48 am

Another thing that is part of the abundance of content online is that among me and my friends almost everybody is totally Instapaper bankrupt. I still throw stuff in there for the indexing, but if I actually want to read something I leave it open in a browser tab and consume it through Google Chrome sync.

This also ties in with the fact that these consume later apps really deal poorly with most of the non-text content from your list which is becoming increasingly more compelling than yet another longread.

A lot of journalistic innovations seem to revolve around long form writing but I’m afraid most of them confuse verbosity with depth. Unfortunately they can’t all be a London Review of Books.

Venkat June 1, 2014 at 8:55 am

Yeah Instapaper debt is a problem.

Ed June 2, 2014 at 1:50 pm

“…Ribbonfarm looks more and more like a forest,
with a complicated root system that is largely invisible…”

well if i may humbly emerge from lurker-dom and point to
an example of obscure Ribbonfarm related work.[autoplay music warning]
And to thank you for the uphill reading you`ve provided over the years.

Venkat June 2, 2014 at 6:22 pm

:)

MFH June 3, 2014 at 4:26 pm

No interest in Ribbonfarm image memes? Bummer.

I’ve been playing around with an idea lately: patch-based commenting. Instead of fussing about with quoting relevant text chunks, figuring out an opening rhetorical flourish, then formulating what is essentially an ephemeral meta patch, simply directly “patch” the item and use a diff view of it as the actual comment.

Ideally this would be recursive. I would love to be able to patch someone’s patch, or restate someone’s commentary to what I believe they should have said.

Venkat June 3, 2014 at 4:31 pm

Haha, love it!

Catch 22 “Washington Irving” school of commentary. The WP plugin should be called “Washington Irving” or “Meta Vandal.”

So long as people can scroll back to tagged points in version tree, net gain.

MFH June 3, 2014 at 5:30 pm

I think the real problem is about half of all commentary is at the wrong abstraction level. People exchange inexact words that ephemerally and inexactly patch “source” words. This is a recipe for disaster. I think a robust proposed-patch mechanism would at least focus meta discussion on an exact and tangible foundation (i.e. an actual edit instance).

While I’m here and waxing poetic, I’ll note that I believe our culture’s mental model of authorship and publishing is obsolete and will at some point spectacularly crash and burn. However, I don’t think this will occur because of some kind of terrible fault– it will simply be out-competed by more agile mechanisms, in the same way Linux has largely displaced Solaris/AIX/HP-UX outside of a few niches.

I love books and have a ton of them. I love well-thought articles and consume them in both print and online formats. However: the very idea of static works published once (or iterated glacially via editions) is simply obsolete! People in the future are going to laugh about how foolishly and hardheadedly we tried to persist with this model.

We’re seeing the beginning of it with how poorly traditional news organizations can compete with a simple Reddit volunteer-driven live thread when news breaks. We’re seeing it with things like OReilly technical book subscription services.

The future of authorship is subscription/sponsorship with living documents undergoing incremental improvement, iterated steadily, and often done via teams and not necessarily individuals. Teams that are eager to solicit and (if circumstances warrant) incorporate feedback/patches/extensions from domain experts.

One could argue that your success is in part due to your consistency in iterative refinement of subject matter that appeals to your audience. However, without live documents as some kind of base, the patches (articles) accumulate indefinitely. If one has been following along for years, it’s part of the implicit context background landscape, but if a new visitor 5 years down the road stumbles upon your collective works, it would be certainly difficult (and I argue unnecessarily so) to get a grasp of the Zen of your overall work, seeing the trees for the forest.

MFH June 3, 2014 at 5:33 pm

Always great when I click on the wrong reply button. Intended as reply to Venkat June 3, 2014 at 4:31 pm

Venkat June 3, 2014 at 9:19 pm

A proper platform to do what you’re talking about would be to Wikipedia as Git is to Subversion.

MFH June 3, 2014 at 10:55 pm

Very apt.

A key feature of git is the ability to rewrite history (at strategic points) from the victor’s point of view vs. the tactics intended at the time of each individual change.

I can’t help but think this is a sociological/psychological insight rather than a technical one. This is why Linus is a true master.

MFH June 3, 2014 at 11:20 pm

Also, git’s general model legitimizes multiple and competing versions of the “truth” simultaneously, with the implicit understanding that one will most likely eventually become the established consensus truth.

Take current day Thailand. Latest news is that the 3-finger “Hunger Games” salute is grounds for arrest, and that tourist areas are no longer subject to curfew. Based on this apparent objective reality, wouldn’t it be interesting to have a simultaneous fork of red shirt, yellow shirt, student, army, domestic journalist, foreign journalist, tourist, elderly, etc, opinion on the matter? And when the situation decoheres into a winner, have that branch be the “winner”?

It’s interesting for me to think about, at least. The interesting thing about git is that it can model “what could have been” that wasn’t.

Venkat June 4, 2014 at 10:09 am

You’re talking about the decline of canonicity and shift to polycentric narratives. I am all aboard that train to chaos :)

Patwater June 4, 2014 at 10:48 am

Good essay though this comment (“we’re liquefying all content into one giant Big Hypermedia Book.”) seems the sort of urge to digital Maoism that Lanier’s always warning about.

Speaking of Lanier, it seems your little bitcoins micropayments venture is an experiment in exactly the sort of direction that he’s advocating in “Who owns the Future.” So hats off to you good sir.

Cheers

Michael June 11, 2014 at 9:19 am

I don’t know how this plays out in the median user/session analysis, but I’ve always preferred to visit your site every several months and catch up plus read a few older articles I’ve missed.

Venkat June 11, 2014 at 9:53 am

Yeah, I think I’ve noted that binge-reading pattern. It seems to be appearing across media. For people on Hulu/Netflix, binge watching seems to be increasingly the main way to watch tv.

Long form blogs where themes develop slowly across many interlinked posts lend themselves to that mode of reading I think.

Alex Schleber June 15, 2014 at 4:44 pm

[Note: had posted this to the wrong Ribbonfarm thread/browser-tab, it belongs here.]

Venkat: re: publishing models, I assume you’ve already looked at what Ben Thompson is (or at least appears to be) doing successfully with his Freemium Membership approach?
>> stratechery.com/membership/

I consider you operating somewhere in the same league (though you might have to play with distilling some of the most “ROI-able” – unword, I know – stuff for Members-only publication). I think Ben is nearly on the mark with his $10/month approach, though that still keeps it JUST outside of “Impulse Purchase Territory” (I.P.T.), especially since he’s still giving away so much on the Free side.

$5/month, or even less might work better in terms of optimizing the demand curve. I would recommend studying the following fascinating Kickstarter, and see which price points the majority of the pledges is coming from (and equating to the largest totals).

Yes, it’s from a superficially totally unrelated field (hotsauce… :), and you have to adjust the valuations from a one-time purchase of something tangible to subscription/intangible, but the human internal/unconscious justification mechanisms apply everywhere more or less the same:

kickstarter.com/projects/136598712/fym-hot-sauce-spicy-and-flavorful-from-fresh-ingre

I.e. if I know that I can get exclusive access to your best, most actionable stuff, or some personal, private debate access, or whatever, for $5/month, or $3, or $2, at some point your actual fans might just “cry uncle” and feel like they have to get it (there is also a Zeigarnik Effect of “I wonder what I am missing from him?” at play here).

“And it’s so cheap…” (pre-condition of course being that it’s perceived as easy/secure/trusted/cancelable at any time; but the point of extreme I.P.T. is that it’s in what I call the “don’t-need-to-think, will-likely-never-cancel-for-any-reason” category…) etc. etc.

Well, even $1/month x 1,000 would be $1,000 that you don’t have now…

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