Semi-Annual 2019 Roundup

The first half of 2019 has been a period of transition here. Between a changed tagline, and a revamped approach to blogging, this has turned into a very different sort of blog than it was 6 months ago. The soul of the change is what we’ve been calling blogchains — extended, improvised, multi-part explorations of a theme, typically in 300-word chunks. These have evoked a mixed response, much to my satisfaction.

I mean, if at least a few people aren’t confused and infuriated by a change, is it even a meaningful change?

Most of the comments/responses have been at least guardedly positive. The most flattering response: Warren Ellis is doing a blogchain capturing his thoughts on newsletters (currently weighing in at 5 parts).

I have a few meta-comments to make on the format, with 6 months of experience (and 46 blogchain parts by 4 authors, across 7 blogchains) under our belts, but let’s do the roundup first. I assume at least a few of you are going to take advantage of the long weekend to do some catching up.

Worlding Raga

Worlding Raga is a blogchain where Ian Cheng and I take turns exploring ideas relating to worlding — world-building, simulations, escaped realities, alternate/parallel universes, multiverses, etc. This is probably my favorite blogchain, in part because the theme is dead-center in my sights right now, and in part because I’m enjoying the collaborative call-and-response writing experience. Individual episodes have been running longer than the 300-word general default, hovering around the 1000 word mark on average.

  1. Worlding Raga: 1 by Venkatesh Rao
  2. Worlding Raga: 2 – What is a World? by Ian Cheng
  3. Worlding Raga: 3 — Slouching with God by Venkatesh Rao
  4. Worlding Raga: 4 – Who Worlds? by Ian Cheng
  5. Worlding Raga: 5 — World How? by Venkatesh Rao
  6. Worlding Raga 6: World To Live by Ian Cheng

Refactor Camp 2019 was built around this broad theme, and the book I’m working on is as well, so in a way, this blogchain is a research/speculation blogchain. It is an evolving “essay” in the original sense of the word: trial forays into new thought-spaces.

Weirding Diary

Weirding Diary is an ongoing journal of my observations and reflections on what I’ve been calling the Great Weirding (occasionally helpful to conflate with the related concept of Global Weirding, which refers specifically to climate change weirdness). I first called it that in my 2016 Atlantic post, How Harambe Became the Perfect Meme (in hindsight, one of my more prescient posts, since the Harambe Affair has since become the consensus cultural marker of the weirding).

  1. Weirding Diary: 1 Betting on normal/weird.
  2. Weirding Diary: 2 Orientation in social spaces.
  3. Weirding Diary: 3 Filter bubbles vs. reality escape pods.
  4. Weirding Diary: 4 Starbucks as weirding canary.
  5. Weirding Diary: 5 When the going gets weird, the normies go bananas.
  6. Weirding Diary: 6 Creepy uncanny vs. double-take uncanny.
  7. Weirding Diary: 7 Defining the Fourth World.
  8. Weirding Diary: 8 I predict another 21 years of weirding

This blogchain belongs in what I think of as a sub-genre: an observer-process blogchain, trying to track the evolution of a theme, driven by unfolding events, in real-time, confabulating a loose event-driven narrative along the way. It is the cheapest model I could think of, to experiment with the problem of psychohistory (see my post Prolegomena to Any Dark-Age Psychohistory from 2017).

An observer-process blogchain is a sort of rapid-hindsight-narrative cousin to Philip Tetlock’s notion of superforecasting, or Ben Hunt’s more technical model of narrative tracking with graph models of the narrative zeitgeist over at Epsilon Theory (highly recommended). Epsilon Theory, like Ribbonfarm, draws some inspiration from Asimovian psychohistory, something we should all be working towards.

Predictable Identities

In Predictable Identities, Jacob Falkovich of Put A Number On It! has been slowly exploring what we might call the operating system of social personas, self-presentation, and relational social performance, with the theory of predictive processing as the organizing thread.

  1. Predictable Identities: 1 – Guess What’s Coming
  2. Predictable Identities: 2 – Active Inference
  3. Predictable Identities: 3 – Prisoner’s Dilemma
  4. Predictable Identities: 4 – Stereotypes
  5. Predictable Identities: 5 – Outgroup Homogeneity
  6. Predictable Identities: 6 – Creeps
  7. Predictable Identities: 7 – Weirdness Budget
  8. Predictable Identities: 8 – Roles People Play
  9. Predictable Identities: 9 – How to Change
  10. Predictable Identities 10: Big Updates
  11. Predictable Identities 11: Fear, Myths and the Outgroup – Part I
  12. Predictable Identities 12: Fear, Myths, and the Outgroup – Part II

This is the longest blogchain so far, weighing in at 12 parts, and I plan to record a discussion with Jacob at some point chatting about our mutual learnings, since he’s had more experience going long than I have at this point.

Mediocratopia

Mediocratopia is probably my personal favorite blogchain. It began with some shitposting on Twitter championing mediocrity just to troll people who seemed offended by it, but then turned into a serious interest.

  1. Mediocratopia: 1 Introduction
  2. Mediocratopia: 2 the anti-excellence hero as the comic hero
  3. Mediocratopia: 3 Theorizing mediocrity and relating it to excellence and growth.
  4. Mediocratopia: 4 Don’t optimize, mediocritize.
  5. Mediocratopia: 5 Sandbagging, capability masking and optimization theater

Twitter has, of course, been a major source of inspiration for the blogchain concept in general, and thoughts on mediocrity in general. I’m not as much of an extreme threader on Twitter as several others, but a blogchain is a natural escalation of a twitter thread or frequent-tweeting theme, where you need more room to explore.

Speaking of that, someone needs to write a proper essay on the extreme Twitter threading phenomenon. If Marc Andreessen’s original, classic tweetstorm format (which I ran with for the first couple of years of the Breaking Smart newsletter) was analogous to the Mosaic browser, the dizzying thread-weaving by people like Visakan Veerasamy is like a modern browser loaded up with Javascript frameworks. Actually the analogy is a pretty good one: threading on twitter is like constructing a browser for thoughts on the fly. Just-in-time pensieving.

It worries me mildly though, that this excellent innovation is happening exclusively on a private platform that has a de facto monopoly on the enabling technical affordances. But there are some signs that threading as a medium might soon transcend Twitter and acquire a more robust foundation. Stay tuned, I’ll be watching this as it develops, and participating to some extent, though it’s not particularly natural fit for me.

Domestic Cozy

Domestic Cozy is a term I coined to try and capture the Gen-Z, or Zoomer, ethos of Life, the Universe, and Everything. It attempts to do for the Gen-Z ethos what The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millennial did for the Millennial ethos. Like Weirding Diary, this is an observer-process blogchain.

  1. Domestic Cozy: 1 Introduction to the idea
  2. Domestic Cozy: 2 Domestic cozy as a world hash
  3. Domestic Cozy: 3 The culture war as metastasized family conflict
  4. Domestic Cozy: 4 Helicopter parenting versus snowplow parenting.
  5. Domestic Cozy: 5 Inner wear and the environment.

In a nice bit of form-content harmony, the blogchain concept itself is, I think, an embodiment of the domestic cozy ethos. It is a mode of constructing a public that draws inspiration from private modes of communication, like letter writing. Instead of solving for virality, it solves for the needs of a smaller, more enduring audience.

Perhaps we’ll construct a modern Republic of Shitposting Letters for ourselves yet.

I am increasingly convinced virality is a sort of non-necessary old-media hangover concept that contaminated social media in its first decade. The future is domestic cozy. Warrens over plazas. Illegible subterranean webs of discourse over Grand Public Narratives. Slow diffusions over flash floods.

While methods for attracting both viral attention and sustained intimate attention have their place in a writer’s or publisher’s repertoire, the latter is where the interesting action is right now. Retaining one reader for 50 years is now officially a more interesting challenge than retaining 50 readers for 1 year.

After all, bots, spies, and scam-artists have now taken over the virality game, so it’s clearly that model is in its last stages of commoditization and automation. Nothing someone like me can do on that front can compete with what coordinated click-pump machines run by cyberwarfare organizations can achieve. It’s like trying to beat a computer at chess.

Elderblog Sutra

In Elderblog Sutra, I’ve been reflecting on what it means to write what is now a 12-year-old blog that is threatening to turn into a lifework type project. Ribbonfarm has already accumulated enough baggage, history, and awkward social entanglements to merit therapy if it were a person.

  1. Elderblog Sutra: 1 Applying the elder game concept to blogs.
  2. Elderblog Sutra: 2 Infratextuality, metatextuality, skyscrapers and tunnels.
  3. Elderblog Sutra: 3 The exit bias of hypertext and good hyperlinking philosophy.
  4. Elderblog Sutra: 4 The history and future of hypertext trails and why, thanks to twitter threads, we may be finally close to cracking trails.
  5. Elderblog Sutra: 5 Constructing an internal page rank for elder blog archives. HT our unofficial chief data scientist @backus
  6. Elderblog Sutra: 6 A word-count view of an elderblog.

This blogchain is obviously the most meta of the lot, and I feel a certain mild embarrassment writing it. It feels like a self-important thing to be doing around the history of a minor subcultural blog. Still, the introspection is interesting enough, at least to me and a few long-time readers, to be worthwhile.

For better or worse, I am also increasingly hearing from a few young and upcoming writers that they take the occasional cue from ribbonfarm’s longish (in Internet years) history. So perhaps this blogchain can be something of a source of warnings and cautions for a few people.

Regenerations

This is a retconned blogchain, with Part 4, the eponymous Regenerations, posted last week, and Parts 1-3 retconned from the archives going back to 2009. It is an ongoing chronicle of personal life transformations through major changes (most recently, my move to Los Angeles).

It’s an experiment in a slower-tempo subgenre of blogchains, with the long chain arc taking a back seat to individual episodic arc (including at the title level). We’ll see how it goes. I’m imposing a minimum gap of 1 year between “bursts” of no more than 3 parts here, so I might do up to 2 more in this burst, relating to my LA move.

Infinite Machines

Infinite Machines is a blogchain by James Vanié with a fascinating premise: that the world is turning into an infinite machine, which blends human and artificial intelligences behind a shared interface. James may or may not continue it beyond the 3 parts he has written so far, but there’s good stuff here.

  1. Infinite Machines: 1 – An Introduction
  2. Infinite Machines: 2 – Plasticized Erotica
  3. Infinite Machines: 3 — Turking Interfaces

Classic-Style

We’re not abandoning regular single-post longform. That category of posts is just sort of on editorial autopilot, since we kinda know how to do that around here, and when it is the right mode for treating a topic. We had 7 classic-style posts.

  1. What If We Already Know How to Live? by Oshan Jarrow
  2. Mazes as Mirrors of Creation by Daniel Schmidt
  3. Markets Are Eating The World by Taylor Pearson
  4. Stack Luck by Venkatesh Rao
  5. Remembering Pierre Kabamba by Venkatesh Rao
  6. Reflections on Refactor Camp 2019 by Venkatesh Rao
  7. The Age of Diffraction by Venkatesh Rao

It is interesting that I felt compelled to call this form classic. The usage is borrowed from the practice, in the software industry, of labeling older UIs “classic” when moving to newer ones. It is a de facto tagging of a form for potential future deprecation.

So far, I see no reason to actively deprecate classic longform. The post-weirding zeitgeist does call for novel forms to allow for adequately alive patterns of textual engagement, but older forms aren’t going obsolete so much as acquiring more meaningful scope boundaries, where previously they enjoyed discourse monopolies.

We may even bundle up blogchain into 10,000 word “classic” packages as the evolve, so those who want to can read them in classic form. A bit of work though.

Reimagining Longform

I want to add a few remarks on what I’ve learned so far. For those who came in late, you might want to read this post first, to get oriented around the new approach around here: Constructions in Magical Thinking.

Classic longform, for me personally, tends to be a fugue mode of production. I tend to write 4000-6000 word posts in a single sitting most of the time, usually going from first word to hitting publish in a single day. Difficult posts take a few passes to get right. It is longform, but in my case, not planned, scripted, outlined, or iteratively refined longform like magazine features or books. The length of the ballistic arc of the fugue determines how long it can get (my record is just under 14,000 words, written across 3 days).

Though I can outline and plan on occasion, without killing the spirit of an idea, it feels hard and unnatural. Such forethought is best reserved for book-like projects, where it is unavoidable (unless you’re Jack Kerouac).

But classic fugue-longform is also very taxing, and these days, I find I can only very rarely put in those blockbuster 14-hour writing sessions to produce 10,000 words that can be posted right away. So blogchains are in part an adaptation to the energy patterns of middle age.

But that sells the medium short a bit. The bigger difference between classic and blogchain longforms is that the former is what I think of as anaerobic, like strength training, while the latter is aerobic, like distance running. Blogchains breathe in the evolving context at a rate comparable to their internal evolution rate. There is no lactic acid build-up. There is an entanglement between foreground and background.

I now feel I have enough experience with blogchains to venture more thoughts, including normative thoughts, on it. I am planning to add a video lecture to the Art of Longform course in the next few weeks, covering blogchains, for those who want to explore the format.

Are blogchains longform at all? It’s actually hard to tell, as this exchange in the ribbonfarm slack between Jordan Peacock and me suggests:

For those who appreciate traditional longform, Jordan’s is a fair worry. Is what we’re doing here even classifiable as longform?

The null hypothesis is that it’s something like a sloppy, jumped-up listicle/twitter thread format for lazy writers. An ersatz descecration of the noble longform essay. And the blogchain format can definitely degenerate into that. It is easy to default to treating the blogchain form as sort of journalistic “beat”, sweeping up and appending pointillist impressions in the order they present themselves to a specific mind. You could argue that blogchains lazily use the chronology of live events as a scaffolding, with episodic “posting” as a narrative ratchet, avoiding the core hard work of finding the narrative structure and sequence that defines long form.

The format, after all, came about via negativa, through a sort of defeaturing of the traditional waterfall-planned blog series. But as Warren Ellis notes, that’s also the strength here. If traditional blog series or books are waterfall longform, blogchains are agile longform, with all the attendant pitfalls and advantages of agility.

As I said, fair worries, and keeping blogchains non-degenerate does take work. It also takes a certain mindful (and playful) aliveness to a stream of consciousness. Elan vital sensibilities. I don’t yet know if it is working well, since I haven’t yet internalized the standards of “good”, but I do know it is work. More work than just logging short posts on a topic.

So far, what I’ve learned is that to write a good blogchain episode, I need to reconstruct the mental state I was in wherever I left off in the previous go-around. Generally, re-reading the previous part or two is enough to do that.

This doesn’t mean the tone and mood have to stay constant, or even continuous. The mood arc for the current part just has to be aware of the mood arc that shaped the previous part, so that mood jumps, even if discontinuous, are meaningfully so. This is why it helps to keep each part short, so there’s not much of a local mood arc to reload next time. You just integrate a long-term mood curve with thin slices. It’s a way of synthesizing a subjective time tunnel for yourself.

So yeah, I’m comfortable classifying blogchains as longform. The nature of the writing challenge resembles that of longform.

Whether you agree with me or not, I think it’s generally a good sign when whatever you’re doing is hard to classify, relative to existing possibilities in a medium. It means you’re at least alive and experimenting.

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About Venkatesh Rao

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

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