Elderblog Sutra: 12

This entry is part 12 of 13 in the series Elderblog Sutra

The last time I added to this blogchain, in July 2020, I was thinking about the metaphor of angkorwatification of elder blogs — the rewilding of an essentially complete, but ruined-and-restored structure, with plant life reasserting itself. A different tree metaphor has been on my mind lately, that of Groot, the ancient character in Guardians of the Galaxy who dies and regenerates as Baby Groot, with no memories of his past life (Baby Groot inaugurated the reboot-trope that has since been made more famous by Baby Yoda). In a curious way, I feel like ribbonfarm has gone full circle and is back to being a baby blog again, to the extent blogs can be babies at all in 2021.

Strangely enough, the rapid rise of Substack, the sudden explosion in highly produced essays on static sites, and most recently, essays being sold as individual works of art via NFTs (non-fungible tokens), has made me feel old in the relatively young newsletter/static site world (which I also participate in), and young again in the blogging world.

Last year, I wrote an essay, A Text Renaissance, tracing the evolution of some of the new stuff. The new stuff already feels old in a way blogging never did. It’s a curious feeling. The renaissance stuff that’s been happening since about 2018 has a very time-bound, linked-to-news-cycles feeling (the news in newsletter is justified), where blogging has always had a very outside-of-time feeling. Unlike blogging, the new stuff feels like something that will go through a hype cycle. We are nearing the peak now, and it feels like we’ll see a valley of disillusionment followed by a plateau.

I don’t think blogs ever went through a proper hype cycle. Though a lot of people talked a lot about it circa 2004-10 when the scene was taking shape, the hype was mostly in the talk, including on old media. The actual activity of blogging was painful enough that there was no general gold rush (and there wasn’t much gold anyway). So the scene matured slowly, with people periodically declaring it dead, until it finally seemed to sort of retire into an elder-medium around 2017, without actually dying. Maybe blogging is like a Lovecraftian elder god? The original, and most powerful threadthulhu?

That is not dead which can eternal lie, And with strange aeons even death may die.

— H. P. Lovecraft

The growing conversation around the “creator stack” and the “passion economy” has displaced what used to be a blog-centric conversation. Notably, the conversation this time around is curated by investors and entrepreneurs rather than open-internet culture types. It is pragmatic and commerce-minded, not about defending some lofty principles of openness with manifesto after manifesto. Much as I like the embodied values of the older stack tech, I never had patience for explicit values-derping like Barlow’s Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace, which always struck me as tedious posturing. While my patience for the hustling mood this time around is also running thin, I like that it makes no pretense of being anything other than what it is.

The new conversation is centered mainly around subscription newsletters, and to a lesser extent around visual and audio media, and form factors like online courses and patronage platforms like Patreon. And this time around it is easy enough to get into, so a lot more people are doing it. Importantly, the ease of setting up for monetization has a lot more people trying harder, for longer, to make it work. I didn’t try monetization until a couple of years into blogging, and finally gave up experimenting with it around 2015. It’s never quite been a comfortable fit with blogging technology, and never a high priority for me anyway, since it’s never been my primary way of making money.

With early blogs, there was a horrendous early mortality rate. I think only a third of new bloggers made it past the 3-month mark. I don’t have statistics, but I suspect the numbers look much better for Substack newsletters. And I suspect newsletter writers are on average making more money, faster. They are, on average, better writers as well, even if their motives are sometimes a little too commercial for my tastes.

On the consumption side, some sort of adoption restraint has broken down, and paying for independent media has now become a mainstream behavior. It’s no longer some sort of manifesto-spending closer to charity than shopping. There’s good and bad associated with that shift in consumption sensibilities. On the one hand, there’s real money in play now for the average “creator” than there was even for the best bloggers in 2001. On the other hand, “creator” is code for a new kind of service economy with Customer Service expectations.

And unlike last time around, old media types, instead of turning up their noses at new media as they did 2007-11, are gleefully jumping in to participate, harvesting the audiences they built on the strength of their stints in old media. I smell some sort of disingenuousness there that I haven’t really thought through, but hey, I have no skin in that game. I kinda don’t care very much about the inside-baseball logic of NYT columnists getting on Substack. If they can make it work, and square things both with their consciences and former employers, more power to them. As their presence and influence grows, the platforms will naturally grow to serve them more. That’s fine too.

It really is different this time around though, and feels more different every week. And blogs are genuinely out of the scope of the conversation. The technology is too old, requires too much work to maintain, and takes too much DIY effort to plumb for monetization. It takes about 30 minutes to set up a Substack account, a Stripe account, and a Twitter account, and get going with either text or audio. All for free. And it all works far more smoothly than the janky setup it took me 2 years to evolve in 2007-09. Teachable courses, static sites, and other loosely similar renaissance media aren’t much harder. The full-blown power of the capitalism = convenience equation is on display here.

By contrast, in 2007, it took weeks or months, money upfront, and a fair amount of learning to set up a decently functional, non-ugly WordPress site. And years to fine tune it. Now, 14 years later, it is somewhat easier (you no longer have to muck around doing unix-shell labor or keeping plugins painfully updated), but not by much. You still have to think hard about design, information architecture, typography (ugh!), distribution etc. Here’s a difficulty scale:

  • 100: cgi-bin Perl e-zine circa 1999
  • 85: earliest blogs, with manual RSS wrangling, circa 2002
  • 70: WordPress, Google Reader/Feedburner era, circa 2007
  • 60: Hosted mature WordPress, with theme frameworks, circal 2014
  • 50: WordPress, including monetization plumbing circa 2020
  • 40: Patreon-based multimedia creator stack setup, circa 2018
  • 35: Static websites today, with minimal template editing
  • 15: Substack
  • 8: My guess of where the superconducting baseline will be once Twitter integrates Revue, Spaces etc. properly, circa 2022

The only piece of the text renaissance trend to buck this general trend of falling costs and complexity is Roam Research, which I’d rate at a difficulty level of around 80 to use with power-user fluency. Or somewhere between cgi-bin Perl era and the earliest blogs. And it’s not cheap. Where Substack represents a kind of airbrushed-nostalgia in medium terms, reflecting a sanitized memory of OG email newsletters (running an email listserv 20 years ago was frankly a horrifying thing a universe away from the simplicity of writing on Substack), Roam is actually a kind of Unix shell pretending to be a web app. It promises the convenience of modern technology but actually delivers some sort of nerd-out maze of worthwhile inconvenience and complexity, a hilarious kind of bait-and-switch in an unexpected direction. In that sense, Roam actually has an open-source ethos, despite being a commercial startup that charges for its product.

I use a subset of Roam’s functionality that keeps my own use at a difficult level of say 45. Also I use it only as a private notebook so far, but might make more public use of it once their permissions architecture improves. I have no intention of ever becoming a Roam neckbeard, just as I never got deep into Unix shell mastery, but it’s nice to see a breed of neckbeards emerge. Always a healthy sign for a tech ecosystem.

Actually, if you squint a bit, blogging is not so much out of scope as the undeclared shared enemy of the text renaissance. The renaissance folks don’t talk too much about it, but it’s clearly on their minds as an adversary. WordPress still accounts for like 40% of sites on the internet (though a sharply falling share of traffic I suspect). No single piece of renaissance text-tech can disrupt WordPress across the whole territory it occupies, but the action is around many new contenders biting off a big chunk of the market. It’s actually a bit like what happened to Craigslist, and what continues to happen to Twitter (people call Substack the Twitter paywall for good reason, and the reasoning behind Twitter acquiring Revue is clear).

Substack wants to eat the core blogging function of WordPress. Gatsby wants to eat the static-content site function. The photo-sharing apps like Instagram want to eat portfolio sites. And that’s just the content part of the market. On the ecommerce side, Shopify and Etsy want to eat the Woocommerce based WordPress ecosystem. Various restaurant delivery services want to eat the menu-site use case. Again, Roam is a weird exception. It’s not an obvious disruptor of a WordPress market. It is accidentally a disruptor of the notebook market, but it really is an attempt to export Unix like power-user support to the web. A buddy of mine did a more literal version of that with Pigshell but Roam takes a more allegorical approach.

Anyhow, to the extent the text renaissance is an eat-Wordpress party, it’s like a bunch of small mammals nipping at the heels of the dinosaurs, hoping for the asteroid to arrive on schedule to finish the job. Their hope might well be justified. Or it might not.

From the dinosaur side of the fence, the very fact of being left out of the conversation like an embarrassing old uncle has made blogging feel young and interesting again. Over the last year, I’ve been trying a lot of new experiments here, and I’m trying to get a feel for this young-again baby-ribbonfarm energy I sense developing here. Though WordPress is old, the mode of creation it sustains — a sort of stand-alone, vertically integrated homestead in an environment presumed to be a digital wilderness — is young and interesting again.

The environmental assumption underlying WordPress is wildly untrue now. This is not the digital wilderness of 2001. This is the heavily built-up digital urban environment of 2021; cities at the intersection of the gravity fields of large platforms. WordPress is totally an anachronism. A befuddled, blinking cowboy on a horse wandering among New York skyscrapers, wondering where the stables and saloon are. What was once a patch of database-driven CMS civilization in the wilderness of hand-coded “home pages” on Geocities is now a spot of wilderness in the civilizational heart built on React and graph databases. It’s the Olmsted parks movement of digital urbanism. Lungs of the digital city and so forth.

As the “creator stack” and “passion economy” grow bigger, more corporatized, and more dependent on platform economics, the hedge value of a quixotically stand-alone operation increases. And this is not a criticism — I’m still invested in the new stuff. I’m just revaluing the old stuff.

We might call it the New Old Blog. Being a blogger now is like the content equivalent of being a goldbug in investing.

I’m sort of re-balancing my portfolio to align with this general feeling that it’s time to hedge away from the text renaissance a bit, especially the passion economy part. A big part of the reason for me is emotional — I genuinely don’t vibe with the highly social hustle-porn “passion” energy that surrounds much of the new stuff. I like the feeling of going off to the side and tinkering on my own thing, in lowkey dropout mode. Blogging once had that feeling, then lost it for a while, and is now regaining it. The new stuff though, is all deeply socialized from the get-go. It never had a marginal feeling and probably never will. It is descended from the minority social side of the blogging era (livejournal and tumblr) rather than the majority solitary side.

The passion economy marks the unapologetically commercial debut of that once snow-flakey corner of the internet.

As part of my rebalancing, I’ve decided to shut down the Art of Gig, one of my two Substack newsletters, and devote more attention to the back-burnered experiments here. It feels a bit like selling a car to buy a horse, but there’s things you can do on a horse that you cannot in a car. Once I wrap Art of Gig in a few weeks, ribbonfarm should get more active again.

And maybe blogging too will undergo enough of a technical renaissance that we’re no longer talking a reactionary hedge bet on horses, but a futuristic hedge bet on Mars rovers. That will probably require rebuilding of the foundations on something other than PHP and MySQL, but I suspect it will eventually happen when the hedge value of a non-platform alt-stack, with capacity for genuine commercial independence, becomes high enough.

Apologies for the enormous pile of mixed metaphors here: regenerating trees, eternal elder gods, mammals attacking dinosaurs, horses wandering among cars in New York, gravity fields, parks in cities, goldbugs, and now Mars rovers.

In my defense, the internet is a complex place that doesn’t lend itself to understanding through a single metaphor.

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About Venkatesh Rao

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


  1. Thanks for this. Looking at this from both the front end and the back end is really insightful for me, as someone who’s mostly focused on the front end / content creation side of blogging.

    Where does this leave something like Medium, that really seems to have really a lot of rich content, and a decent filtering/recommendation system? Substack seems to require a higher level of reader engagement, while Medium lends itself much more easily to dipping in and out when I have a few minutes and I want to see what grabs me.

    • I too noted the lack of reference to Medium. Considering it was the hot new thing previous to Substack, my takeaway was that these replacement centralized platforms come and go, making blogs the cockroach of online publishing.

    • Medium is Tumblr is Typepad is LiveJournal… it’s all the same silly game

      Without being specifically named, Medium definitely fits in here:

      >>>The new stuff though, is all deeply socialized from the get-go. It never had a marginal feeling and probably never will. It is descended from the minority social side of the blogging era (livejournal and tumblr) rather than the majority solitary side.

      The passion economy marks the unapologetically commercial debut of that once snow-flakey corner of the internet.

  2. For whatever reason, my favorite platform remains WordPress. It seems that some of the most interesting writers are hidden away on small blogs. Other platforms, such as Medium, have their merits; but I never find myself spending much time elsewhere.

    In general, be it WordPress or standalone websites, standard blogging is the most appealing in allowing more meaningful exploration and dialogue. I doubt blogging will ever go out of fashion, though maybe it never exactly was ever in fashion. It is a solid media that simply isn’t faddish.

  3. This was a good post and a joy of various thoughts. You are so good at conceptualizing this internet machine.
    If blogging is an elder god than it is not the largest of the pantheon. That is email itself.
    I love blogging but I have come to dislike WordPress. I very much appreciate projects such as Hugo that are working to bring static sites more easily to the web. The years of life I have wasted waiting for database to query just so a bit of text and an image can show up… I want them back.
    But viva la blogging. It feels like a good time for it.

  4. I think this whole thing would have worked better with a “swamp thing” metaphor.

    I also suspect that coming out of the Brexit->Trump->Coronavirus meta-narrative slump with an almighty stimulus powered “so we’re all about the green transition now right?” along with it’s almost impossible demands of making that transition just, should be enough of a baseline to settle down and start integrating and investigating all the weirdness that has been generated over the last few years.

    I’m considering making a youtube video just to give my friends and family my long awaited self important opinion on trump, a project so destined to be delayed by its own weight of false seriousness that it’ll probably only be ready, and have turned into something that realises a sense of self-awareness, by 2026 at the earliest.