2018 Annual Letter

I’ve been increasingly lazy about doing some sort of annual letter (I think I last did one in 2014). So I am overdue for a roundup of a bunch of housekeeping items and updates. My excuse is that it’s getting increasingly hard to do a State of the Rhizome, especially in the middle of a global culture war. We’re in that weird awkward growth phase between an overgrown pimply personal blog and a professionally run media operation with, you know, an actual editorial process, business model, graphic arts department, and rude receptionist.

This isn’t really a true annual letter, more of a grab-bag of ribbonfarm update stuff mixed in with personal stuff. Anyway, here we go.

Upcoming Travel and Events

I’ll be in Zurich next week for some consulting work, with some free time on Feb 28 in the morning before 12 PM and evening after 5 PM if anyone wants to meet up. My default plan is to take in a museum (likely the clock museum) or two before heading to a couple of meetings in the afternoon.

I will also be in Newcastle between May 15-17, where I’m speaking at the Thinking Digital Conference, and bumming around TBD parts of the UK for a few days afterwards (London for sure, maybe Hadrian’s wall etc). I’m open to doing meetups, events, etc.

Around end of July/early August, I’ll be in India for a week or so, with a stop for a day or two in Singapore. Schedule not yet settled.

Feel free to get in touch re: any of the above.

For New Readers

We don’t set out to be obscure and inaccessible, but this IS a 10-year old blog with a lot of messy history, crappy deadwood content filling the spaces between the good stuff, inside jokes, lazy in-group references, and insufferable and illegible virtue signaling. So it can sometimes seem that way.

The good news is, we do have a pretty decent For New Readers page, with a nice allegorical map of the stuff we like to write about, links to annual roundups, ebook compilations of older content, etc. You should also check out the About page. You can find us on Twitter at @ribbonfarm and on Facebook.

We generally do 1-2 posts a week, though the schedule can get erratic depending on my consulting workload, state of the pipeline of contributions, and my general mood. You can subscribe via RSS if you’re old fashioned enough, or get weekly email updates by subscribing in the sidebar or the bottom of any post.

Write For Us

Over the last few years, we’ve gotten a janky but functional (and if I do say so myself, rather uniquely interesting) pipeline of contributors going. If you’d like to write for ribbonfarm, submit a pitch. You can always get to the pitch page via the Write For Us link in the top menu. Readers can also submit prompts through that form.

We pay a $100 honorarium for post, unless you’re Richie Rich enough to choose to forgo it. We mainly look for contributions from people who’ve read the site for a while, so if you’re new here, I recommend browsing the archives (from the For New Readers page) for a bit first.

The Editorial Board

Ribbonfarm now boasts a legit editorial board of editors-at-large supporting me and contributing editor Sarah Perry with reviewing pitches and editing contributions. Check it out, and get to know Kevin Simler, Carlos Bueno, Joe Kelly, Renee DiResta, and Taylor Pearson.

They’ve all contributed great posts in the past, and will continue to do so off and on. If you want to write for us, I especially recommend you take some time to check out their writings (both here and around the web elsewhere), so you can pick the most appropriate editor to pitch.

Refactor Camp 2018

Refactor Camp is back, after a year off!

This year it will be in Austin, May 12-13, so save the date. The theme is refactoring crypto.

I’ll be attending and speaking, but am stepping back from an active role in the organizing. Editorial board members Joe Kelly, Taylor Pearson, who are both deep into the crypto world, are pulling the event together, with support from a few others.

Look out for a post about this from Joe Kelly and Taylor Pearson in the coming weeks.

Books Page

There is now a Books page, featuring books by contributors and editors of ribbonfarm. It is quite crappy, but I hope to improve it.

If you’ve contributed to Ribbonfarm in the past and have a book you’d like listed, let me know.

Blogging Course/Ribbonfarm School

I’ve had several requests and enquiries about the next offering of the blogging course Sarah and I conducted last year. No immediate plans, though there’s a chance we’ll do one in Fall.

But in the meantime, there’s a cheapie Teachable course where you can get the slides from the previous iteration.

I also have vague plans to develop more courses. Here are the ones I have in mind. If you have thoughts on other possibilities, please do share.

  1. Visual thinking with 2x2s, triangles, and yin-yang diagrams
  2. Conversational sparring (aka, my main consulting mode)
  3. A course version of Breaking Smart
  4. Maybe something on the Gervais Principle (though that’s getting to be really dated material)

Now Reading Page

In case you didn’t know about it, I maintain a (personal) Now Reading page, which I update occasionally. I just updated it today in case you want to check it out. You can always find this page via the top menu.

Breaking Smart

For those who don’t know about it: I have a whole other site focused on technology/society called Breaking Smart, featuring a weekly newsletter (~5800 subscribers at this point) and seasonal essay collections. Much of my business/technology oriented writing goes there these days.

Season 2 is is in the works and will be published this spring/summer. I just published the Season 1 essays  as a Kindle ebook.

This makes my 9th ebook btw. Amazing how these things pile up if you just keep churning out the words.

Traffic and Such

We saw a bit of a dip in traffic in 2017 (down around 8% from 2016). Probably some mix of culture wars generally sucking the air and life out of public Internet spaces, and all our experimenting and growing pains last year. Admittedly, I fell short myself in keeping up a regular rate of posting.

We did have one of our biggest hits ever though, with my Premium Mediocre post.

Anyway, we seem to be getting back on track slowly. Looks like we average around 35k monthly visitors. Here’s our traffic growth over the last decade. As you can see, there’s a steady secular growth curve is discernible underneath the spiky stuff (blogging is long periods of tepid growth interrupted by brief periods of manic spiking).

Financial Stuff

For those of you who are curious, our relatively high-end hosting (at WP Engine) plus all the support services like Mailchimp, costs us maybe $1500/year. Paying contributors adds maybe another 2k-4k. In terms of direct income, we make a few thousand a year from Amazon affiliate links.

So overall, I’d say this site runs at a modest loss of maybe $1k-2k or so, which I mentally rationalize as paying for my own continuing education (in the past, I used to rationalize it as lead-gen for my consulting, but that story has been getting increasingly thin, since I do very little business writing here these days and most of my leads come from elsewhere now).

If I include royalties from my books and ebooks as a sort of cross-subsidy, I’d say there’s probably a very modest profit. So net, despite growth, this still pays for itself in terms of explicit dollar costs, plus or minus a few thousand dollars depending on how I book-keep.

I’ve considered and backed away from member programs multiple times. Sites a couple of rungs up in terms of operational sophistication seem to struggle mightily to make it work (Quanta, one of my favorite next-rung-up magazines, recently settled a lawsuit from unpaid contributors for example, which was sad).

I used to do calls for sponsorships and contributions, and also had a tip jar a few years ago, but got increasingly uncomfortable with the expectations and audience relationships that came with that kind of thing, so I stopped doing it.

For the same reason, I’ve stayed away from the Patreon model as it stands currently, despite readers repeatedly suggesting it. There’s something off about the model that I haven’t quite put my finger on.

tldr: There really doesn’t seem to be much of an upside to “going pro” as a media operation so to speak, without a better idea of how to make the equation balance with healthy expectations all around.

So this kind of messy commingled business model, with an ambiguous relationship with consulting and book/ebook publishing, seems to be the best way to sustain this tier of blogging. My vague non-plan is to keep muddling through until/unless the profit/loss fluctuations become too big to absorb via my other income.

I often get two kinds of charmingly useless suggestions from well-intentioned readers.

On the one hand, I get suggestions from people who think this operation is much bigger than it is (or have no idea how these things run on the backend), for all kinds of professional media operations stuff, requiring serious developer or design support, that I couldn’t possibly invest in, and have no talent for myself.

On the other hand, I get suggestions from people who imagine this blog is how I actually make a living, for all kinds of scrappy hustling/growth-hacking penny ante stuff that’s just not worth the time. It’s easier to just go angle for another consulting gig somewhere.

There’s also the third kind: people actually offering to help on various fronts ranging from logo design, to improving templates, to editorial ops support, to writing plugins etc. This kind of drive-by volunteer in-kind contribution would actually be a net drain/drag.

There’s also people who periodically offer to intern for free. I don’t believe in unpaid internships, and I can’t afford to pay for real interns, so that’s a non-starter.

Personal Stuff

Ribbonfarm has gotten to be enough of a separate multi-author site, I felt I had to make a personal site, especially for my consulting stuff. You can find that at venkateshrao.com.

I’ve been noodling on a next proper book after Tempo, so doing a lot of thinking/reading around that. We’ll see how that goes.

There’s a few other interesting irons in the fire I haven’t covered, but I’ll post about them if/when they actually happen.

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About Venkatesh Rao

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


  1. Benjmain D Mahala says

    The idea of a refactor camp with themes of crypto is so enticing I might actually have to pull out all the stops and come this time :D

  2. Applying the Gervais Principle hierarchy to other fictional contexts might help branch out the idea. Dan Harmon’s other show, “Community”, might work for this because it’s genre savvy and has parallel timelines.

    “I realize no one’s better than anyone else. I mean, some people are better at sports — and then there are magicians — but, I was put on this Earth to do something… else.”
    ~ Troy Barnes, fresh prince of the losers (when explaining why he turned down his opportunity to join Greendale Community College’s elite air conditioner repair school annex)

    • Aptenodytes says

      “Yes, Minister” could receive its own analysis because the hierarchy exists in government too, but in a different form.

  3. Years and years of this loggorhea, and I’ve still learned precious little about ribbons OR farming. It’s all some kind of long-con.

    • I think Ribbon farming is explained somewhere in the dim and distant past – I think they were long and thin farms with a river at one end in Detroit? Either that or I looked them up after the title and pictures!

  4. One to add to the charmingly useless suggestions pile:
    Would love if you started a podcast, or at least guested on podcasts more often! Starting one yourself could be as simple as discussing a guest author’s post with the guest author.