Five Years of Blogging

July 4th, 2012 will mark the fifth anniversary of ribbonfarm. Now that I’ve completed a retrospective of five years worth of writing through the last month, I figured it was time to step back and put the whole thing together. Here’s the picture I came up with.

Before I give you a tour of SES Ribbonfarm (that’s “Slightly Evil Ship”), some housekeeping matters. I now have a glossary, which many of you asked for, and a For New Readers page. Links to both are on the menu bar. The latter contains links to the four roundups I did in June, as well as downloadable epubs and links to reading lists of the posts on readlists.com (you can use their app or send the lists to your Kindle or iPad).

If you’ve been reading ribbonfarm for more than a couple of years or two, and have useful thoughts for new readers, please post them as a comment on that page. This should also be a good page to point people to if you want to introduce them to ribbonfarm.

Now for the ship.

Touring the SES Ribbonfarm

Let’s start with the four containers. They map to the four curated lists I posted in June.

  1. The Art of Refactored Perception maps to intrapersonal realities. Stuff going on inside your head.
  2. Towards an Appreciative View of Technology maps to material realities. Stuff going on outside your head.
  3. Getting Ahead, Getting Along, Getting Away maps to interpersonal realities. Stuff going on between heads.
  4. The Mysteries of Money maps to social realities. Stuff many heads agree on.

Mastering all four domains will make you an enlightened and evolved superhuman like Elon Musk. Reading all this stuff will help you make really good excuses for why you are not like Elon Musk, and are wasting time reading blogs instead of saving the world.

In my last post, I mentioned that I hadn’t included two key posts in my roundups so far because they don’t really fit any of the main thematic clusters I had identified.

Those two key duck-billed platypus posts are The Gervais Principle and A Big Little Idea Called Legibility. In the ship metaphor, they are the flag and anchor respectively.

I’ve wondered off and on why these two posts have proved so important in defining this blog, so I figured now would be a good time to reflect.

The Gervais Principle

I’ve had a love-hate relationship with GP since I posted the first part in October 2009. For a long time, I was ambivalent about this series because I was concerned that I might get pigeonholed as the “office politics guy.” Or that it represented a peak of blogging serendipity that I might never hit again. For a while, I even treated it as a stepchild.

But now, 3 years, 4 sequels (with one more on the way) and one jumped-shark later, I’ve finally understood its place in the larger scheme of things, and made my peace with it. I now understand what GP means  to me and why and how I came to write it. It took me much longer to figure that out than figuring out why others liked reading it.

The Gervais Principle is not just the Slashdotted post that made ribbonfarm mildly Internet-famous (hence its role as flag in the metaphor above). It is also intrinsically important to this blog. Because it sprawls rather illegibly across the four neater categories within which the other posts live (for the most part), and manages to simultaneously undermine and enrich them.

GP showed me that categorical views of reality are ultimately not to be taken seriously. They are scaffolding on the way to insight. When insight arrives, in whatever messy, flawed, incomplete, rough-edged, typo-ridden form, it disrupts the categorical landscapes of your mind. You then have a choice: stay attached to your categories, or let go of the categories and embrace the insight instead, as the start of something new. Platypii should make you question the validity and value of your schema. Schema should never lead you to doubt the existence of platypii.

GP helped reveal the intrinsic logic of both my own thinking, and the natural contours of the things I was thinking about. It was very meta. It refactored my perceptions of ribbonfarm itself.

Legibility

The other post that has proved very important is A Big Little Idea Called Legibility. If GP is the post others reference most often, this is the post I myself reference most often.

Though the book and James Scott’s ideas are excellent, I think there is more to why they have proved so useful to me in particular.

Perception-refactoring is an addictive intellectual game of model-building, model-breaking and general messing around with models. It is creative destruction inside your head. When you play with models that are primarily constructed out of narratives, metaphors and neologisms, and much of the action is metaphysical rather than physical, you need a reliable way of testing your thinking.

The idea of legibility has become a sort of quality-assurance test for me.

  1. It helps me stay focused on information content of models rather than the models themselves.
  2. It helps me compare apples and oranges.
  3. It helps me become aware of what different models, narratives and metaphors highlight and hide.
  4. It helps me form judgments about what should be clarified further, what should be obscured (yes, there are sometimes reasons to obscure), and what should be left alone.

I don’t have room in this post to explain how the idea does all that, but trust me, it does. I might blog about it one day. For the perspective-refactorer, the idea of legibility is the primary intellectual tool where tools are scarce.

Defining and Being Defined by Blogging

Blogging has certainly defined me. More so than my for-pay work or education.  There is something deeply depressing about admitting this.

Others are defined by substantial, real achievements: saving lives, winning wars, teaching kids, building stuff. Blogging doesn’t even have the limited dignity of book-writing.

It is too easy, too open to all, too free of the need for ascriptive valuation, too close to pure self-indulgence. To claim that you are defined by blogging is not very much better than saying that you are defined by eating. Anybody can do it.

And a lot of people do blog as an ancillary to far more important things. That can be a hard thought to face on gloomy days. I blog; Joe Blow blogs and runs a multimillion dollar company. Or saves lives in the operating room or restores period furniture or rescues kittens or something.

Yet, it is this very insubstantial nature of the medium that forces you to take a hard and honest look at what it means to create value. Ultimately, I think I am content to be defined by blogging. If I succeed at nothing else, it will still have been a meaningful life. Perhaps not an exciting, eventful or impactful one, but meaningful. Maybe I should have higher standards.

In some modest ways, I can also claim to have helped define blogging as a medium. In particular, I like to think I helped create an existence proof that bloggers:

  1. don’t need to “focus on a niche” and form mutual-admiration networks with other bloggers
  2. don’t need to publish content at a frantic pace of three posts a day
  3. don’t need to worry explicitly about “monetization” (god, I hate that word)
  4. don’t need to limit themselves to easily digested mind-candy nuggets of 300 words
  5. don’t need to be drive at an insane pace towards vanity metric milestones
  6. don’t need to pander to the lowest common denominator
  7. don’t need to treat what they do as thinly veiled marketing for other stuff

You can violate any and all those principles and still rise above the level of a self-indulgent personal journal.

Looking Ahead

I don’t know where the SES Ribbonfarm will go in the next five years. Or if it will last that long. Maybe blogging, which has been declared dead at least three times in the time I’ve been blogging, will finally die for real and I’ll have to find something else to do.

But so far, I haven’t hit an iceberg and the medium is surviving.  We’ll see where we get by 2017. Thank you all for keeping me company so far.

With this post, I am finally done with 5 weeks of self-indulgent reflection. We’ll get back to regular programming next week.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Yeah, I saw your flag boldly waving in the distance some years past. An innocent Google search turned into seeing the world differently. Thanks, I think…

  2. Thanks a lot for your 7 “bloggers don’t need to”. That needed to be articulated, and it’s kind of helpful …

  3. They say that anyone can blog. Maybe so. But there are “levels of mastery”. You’ve, indeed, qualified as a master blogger.

    As with many things in life, there may not be a direct path between mastery and financial reward. Or, in this case, there might.

  4. John Ghuro says:

    Any idea when the Gervais Principle series will be finished?

  5. Venkat,

    Many thanks for the most challenging and interesting blog in my feed and congratys on 5 years.

    I’ll definitely hang around for another five years because I want to be there when you realise you are on a “spiritual” quest!

    Craig

  6. skunk1980 says:

    Venkat — conceptually, what is the difference between the terms social and interpersonal?

    • Institutions, government, constructs like money and religion, civic life, culture, norms, grand narratives, middle class scripts… all these are social. Interpersonal is to me more about relationships, social networks, introversion/extroversion etc.

      Somewhat arbitrary, but I find it to be a useful boundary line.

  7. But you left two of the most interesting aspects of your metaphor unexplicated.
    Perhaps you can be forgiven for not specifying the “open horizon” of stuff you “don’t do.” Definition by negation is exhausting in the intial stages, then terrifying once I realize that I’ve painted myself into a corner by the process of exclusion. It never feels as satisfying to deny interest in something as it does to affirm it. As for “ocean of stuff I don’t understand,” that holds out the promise of future delights. I join others in assuring you that your blog has a dedicated readership because it is paradigmatic of excellence. As captain of the SES Ribbonfarm, you are the Jacque Cousteau of blogging.

    • The stuff I don’t do is fairly simple. I don’t dance or play chess at grandmaster level, won’t ever run a Fortune 100 company or a country, don’t live on the streets, etc.

      Every passing year I understand better how much our experiences and behaviors limit our perspectives. You can only live one life. Even the most eventful one life isn’t two lives. So the “don’t do” is inaccessible parts of perspective space.

      What I don’t know is less existentially depressing because at least in principle I can learn a little about anything. Knowing unlike doing, is not a deep way of be-ing.

  8. I’m going to tell myself you know better about the blogging shame – that it’s some kind of backhanded self-compliment/ self-hatred/ parents-wanted-a-doctor thing. How else to explain a visionary confused about the validity of blogging and the worth of deep but digestible synthesis? If anyone should know that ideas are the big stuff…

    Poor Venkatesh. His extemporaneous thoughts are fascinating and help people understand the world, and he’s hardly even trying.

    • I’ll wait for someone to cure cancer or start a war and credit/blame ribbonfarm before celebrating. It is one thing for people to say they understand the world better because they read something. It is quite another to demonstrate it through different material impact.

      So it’s not confusion. It is doubt/skepticism. It’s genuine lack of evidence that the impact is ultimately real.

      • My wife’s job is finding adoptive homes for foster children. We’ve used the Gervais principle to decrypt corporate communications and stave off clueless-to-loser burnout. She’s very good, so some children have permanent families, in part, because of your blog. How’s that?

        However, I wouldn’t share a personal detail if you weren’t blogging insecurity – and surely a thousand other positive impacts on other readers have passed undocumented. Ironically, I’ll bet that you’re stirring the big idea pot for a lot of people who aren’t inclined to bother you with happy stories about your impact.

        For me, the appropriate frame is that INTJ’s would be lost without the INTP’s pathological articulation. That’s why its personally important to me that signal not mistake itself for noise, and thus the alarm at looking for “credit/blame”, which seems like over-fitting the algorithm.

        Lastly, you only get to be *a* voice. Great ideas tend to hit bedrock, and they may be so seamlessly integrated that people forget to thank you. (And really, would you want them too?)

        • Well that’s certainly the nicest bit of anecdata about people applying GP I’ve heard so far. Things I’ve heard before mostly has been about people changing careers and such. Now I can go around bragging that my writing saved little kids :)

          Seriously though, nice though it is to hear such anecdotes, that’s not really what I am talking about. Social validation doesn’t do much for basic existential doubt. After all religion is responsible for a lot of good things too, in the saving-children department, and I wouldn’t judge a life devoted to religion in 2012 very kindly.

          As the saying goes, “I never believe experimental data until it has been validated by a good model” and also “data without generalization is just gossip.”

          Traditional media had several centuries to establish a well-understood role in society. Journalists today know their place and value in the larger scheme of things because a two-three century old discourse has slowly discovered the value, validated it with data and built models (the idea of a ‘free press’ as a building block of democracy for example).

          New media is a baby by contrast. Nobody knows what it will be when it grows up. For people like me who have placed significant bets, only time will tell what we’re ultimately doing. Maybe we’re saving homeless children. Maybe we’re destroying society for selfish self-aggrandizement.

          I like to think I am ultimately doing good by my own standards, but I am both wary and skeptical of premature self-serving conclusions based on selective reading of evidence. You think I add value. Mr. Goblin below, who’s been reading for a few months, has been complaining that I am, well… doing something objectionable, though I don’t quite get what he objects to. At various times others have accused me of everything from wasting my life and (almost entirely taxpayer-funded, in two countries) expensive education to hawking dangerous, life-destroying half-truths to the gullible.

          So there are no easy answers, and I expect none. I’ll take stock when I am ready to retire. Maybe I’ll have a definitive answer then, and maybe not even then.

          This is not really that different from assessing the worth of any life really. It’s just that some lives have time-tested (and not necessarily correct) answers while others don’t.

          • Alexander Boland says:

            I had a nasty split with a co-founder from an old startup; one of the threads came from when I asked him why he seemed to viscerally have a problem with some of my ideas–the answer was “I don’t believe that you and the other people who ascribe to those ideas about computing have any actual desire to help people.” I found myself sitting down to sort that out in my head for a while. Eventually I came to the realization that startup culture sometimes gets into rounds of what NNT would call “socionaive TED-style talk”.

            A little bit self-serving of me, yes, but on the whole I find most accusations of “intellectual masturbation” to be increasingly baseless. If one really believes in a life of unfettered altruism, they should become a firefighter or a cancer researcher instead of playing “my self-indulgence is less sinful than your self-indulgence.”

          • I would rather not break into a thread that I feel I have no place in however In the interests of leveling I will try and shed some light on my own “blue collar” discomfiture.

            For the record I am in the process to become a firefighter, stricly a local volunteer perhaps, but I still must meet the same state standards as would a “professional” firefighter. I do the same things as they would, I just do so for no payment. That said…

            Most of my misunderstanding with ribbonfarm is on a psycological level of sorts. And in a way I think I by nature of my position in life I find much of what is written here “applicable” but only after the indroduction of many, many, many in situ caveats. In reality, I think there are too many exceptions, possibly enough to at challenge or add too some of the basic models (not sure since I don’t do full time research), but again that just me and my experiance. And I’m attepting to participate in the “Crowdsource” but we see how thats gone so far…

            Now I assume things on this blog here are caveat emptor, and thats fine. I just feel that there isn’t enough justice done to those in my measure fairly standard situational caveats. Exceptions of sorts. Sure the GP is great as a stand alone theory but its utility beyond further argumentation always finds me in a place like my comments below.

            That is what I am taking issue with, not the fact there is abstraction, but that it is not grounded in an operational, functional or heuristic way. (Hell, even as “blue collar” as my job situation is I do do a whole a lot of abstract thinking and I don’t see the abstraction itself as the problem.)

            If you want to call the absense of direct application by a colorful adjecticve (as Alex B does) thats on him, to me such a colorization is an imprecise strawman description of a what to me is a much more subtle issue then an “us vs them” mentality could contain.

            So to my mind ribbonfarm has become mostly concerned with protecting its intellectual models, then the lighting of the truth and the application that those principles are supposedly based, what I have called before the “Academic Mistake”.

            Of course I am a lone opinon and I expect everyone to be skeptical of me just as I am skeptical of them. But that in a nut shell is where I am coming from, and I hope this helps.

  9. So, out of a genuine interest, Venkat, within the scope of your own work, you have no concerns about your own well-honed craft of blogging falling into your own named and identified “turpentine-effect? “

  10. Quick, random-esque comments:

    1) You and Taleb are more alike than I-think-that-you-think-you-are.

    Your eloquent phrasing of:

    GP showed me that categorical views of reality are ultimately not to be taken seriously. They are scaffolding on the way to insight. When insight arrives, in whatever messy, flawed, incomplete, rough-edged, typo-ridden form, it disrupts the categorical landscapes of your mind. You then have a choice: stay attached to your categories, or let go of the categories and embrace the insight instead, as the start of something new. Platypii should make you question the validity and value of your schema. Schema should never lead you to doubt the existence of platypii.

    maps well to Taleb’s writings on Platonic Folds and Platonicity*. In more down-to-earth practical terms, it also maps well to the problems of market segmentation vis-a-vis demographics and not pain/passion.

    2) This makes me a tad more skeptical of your distinction, per our convos, between “people” and “process “– perhaps this too is challenged by Platonicity? ;)

    3) This post is backwards-looking, and I think you are selling yourself short. See you in LA.

    *Odd or maybe even ironic that Plato is reviled by Taleb, but Plato’s teacher, Socrates, is his hero.

    • Yes, that’s one of the reasons Taleb is one of my clear evil twins. There is a lot of commonality in our thinking.

      You’ve spotted a rather subtle point that I am just writing about right now as it happens: people vs. process is a meaningless distinction unless the people in question are Sociopaths in the Gervais sense: fundamentally unpredictable. You’ll see this point worked out in the GP finale, which I am working on now.

    • Odd or maybe even ironic that Plato is reviled by Taleb, but Plato’s teacher, Socrates, is his hero.

      I don’t think this is either odd or ironic. Two different people with two (very) different outlooks on the world. I’ve actually had the same view as Taleb for a long time because (roughly) Plato was a dogmatist and Socrates was a skeptic.

  11. Venkat,

    Your blog is meaningful! Readers like me have been here since day one and there are lot of things that I don’t quite really understand yet I read and wait for new posts regularly! Why? The idea of legibility is opaque to me, but at a psychological level there is much more to legibility than meets the eye.

    For one, your posts have helped me shed a lot of unwanted and, in hindsight, incredulous theories that many of us build perpetually. I share your ideas and thoughts and I know of impact it has had in many contexts to various people that I know. There cannot be “hard-evidence” like what you are perhaps seeking, but I have been surprised by how many “unsuspecting” people read you regularly.

    Don’t be too hard on yourself! Keep blogging :)

    Best,
    Manju

  12. I have been touting this post (and a few others) to a group of teachers in a self-study group at P2PU exploring the nature of ‘curation’ and how we might approach helping our various learners to get better at it.

    I think the curation you have done here is an exemplar for one end of a very wide continuum. I would love to read a post from you on the process you underwent to curate your own website. Failing that I have a questions that I know my fellow students here (https://p2pu.org/en/groups/curating-our-digital-lives/content/week-1-examples-non-examples-and-near-examples/?pagination_page_number=1#19383) would love me to ask you regarding when where and how you curate.

    Thanks for the thrust to my own thinking provided by concepts such as legibility, the turpentine effect, the Gervais principle, and the importance of tempo in modern life.

    • Nothing profound. Just gruntwork. I put all the links from my annual roundup list into a spreadsheet, filtered for quality, did a rough clustering by theme, then sequenced and wrote a post about each cluster.

      Then I went through the list and pulled out words to put in the glossary. More gruntwork.

      All useful curation is tedious gruntwork that cannot be automated. There isn’t as much deep thought required as people think, assuming you know the material and have confidence in your judgment, which is easy when it comes to your own stuff.

      • Thanks. You make it seem…seamless. I use some linkscraping tools, too, and am glad we are parallel there. That ‘filtering for quality’ has a whole universe in it. Makes me think I need to re-read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance this summer. Thanks for the peak under the hood of your workflow.

  13. You’ve spotted a rather subtle point that I am just writing about right now as it happens: people vs. process