Elderblog Sutra: 13

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

The last time I added to this blogchain in March 2021, it felt like the writing was on the wall as far as traditional blogging was concerned, thanks to the mixed blessings of the text renaissance. Not only was blogging as practiced here on ribbonfarm dot com dying for real (update: continuing to decline on schedule), but it felt like most people were saying …and good riddance.

Actually, if you squint a bit, blogging is not so much out of scope as the undeclared shared enemy of the text renaissance.

… 

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 a response to this gloomy assessment, I quoted Lovecraft (“That is not dead which can eternal lie, And with strange aeons even death may die.”) and ended on a note of what I can only call weird Lovecraftian optimism — that to the extent it remains uniquely valuable, perhaps blogging can be resurrected as an Elder god.

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.

That “hedge value” just went up sharply. I want to revisit the question of the future of blogging in light of the impending reconfiguration of the social media environment due to Elon Musk buying Twitter.

Is this a threat or an opportunity. Will this accelerate what seems like the terminal decline of blogging, or increase the odds of resurrection in a new form?

Nothing much has changed in the last year as far as the progress of the text renaissance goes. I’m not counting the Web3 turn, which is still to precarious to bet on meaningfully, and remains in the “experimental” category.

But I think the looming conversion of Twitter from public space to a sort of royal court presided over by Elon Musk has people suddenly taking a hard look at what we had and might now be in danger of losing entirely.

Though I probably count as a power user of twitter, both in terms of enjoying it a lot and relying on it a lot as a distribution medium, ultimately, I’m enough of a long-form writer first that Twitter is only a nice-to-have bonus thing in my life; something I’d be willing to walk away from if necessary.

So while I’ve experimented with things being proposed as substitutes, like messenger apps, Mastodon, Discord, and various well-intentioned run-your-own-social experiments (Paul Ford’s tilde club is particularly interesting), they are somewhat peripheral as far as my writing and personal public presence are concerned. In brief, I treat all these so-called options as part of the cozyweb, good for my cozyweb activities like the Yak Collective, but not meaningful substitutes as far as the more public affordances of Twitter, such as serving as a distribution medium for blogs, are concerned. Twitter is basically sui generis that way. Not only can nothing replace it, it cannot be built again either, since it was a product of a particular era of the web (like Wikipedia and Craigslist). If it goes away, or transforms unrecognizably, we just have to do without.

If Twitter goes into decline post-acquisition (probability: 50%), or transforms in significant ways (probability: the other 50%), there will be many effects, but the only one that really interests me is the effect on the very positive relationship with blogs. I suspect this will break, accelerating the decline of blogs, and shortening the time available for a potential resurrection or passing of the torch to a suitable successor medium.

Pre-Musk twitter, for all its faults, was, along with WordPress-style blogging, the last holdout of a convivial kind of web. Not convivial enough to satisfy genuine Ivan Illich stans like L. M. Sacassas or Robin Sloan perhaps, but far more convivial than Medium/Substack/Patreon/Facebook type corporatized platform ecologies. And definitely convivial enough for a philistine like me who prefers (modulo Covid effects) Starbucks over indie coffee shops anyway. I wrote about this in Cloud Mouse, Metro Mouse (damn, that article is a decade old now; feels like yesterday).

That Starbucks-like convivial quality, which we might perhaps call cloud conviviality, was what made Twitter an ideal distribution channel and discussion medium for long form, and a reasonable substitute for RSS (remember when Twitter effectively killed RSS? Remember the agonized debates then?).

This is something you’d only get if you spend lots of time on twitter in conversational mode, paying more attention to your replies and ongoing @ conversations around things like blog posts than to the main feed. This is something many big-account celebrities don’t do (they tend to view the medium primarily as a broadcast medium, and the replies as a trash tsunami to ignore), and very small account users can’t do (they aren’t connected enough to have good conversations).

It is uniquely a mode for the Great Twitter Bourgeoisie. A very middle-class thing. Tons of friendships, coffee meetups, and even marriages start this way.

It is also the mode of Twitter usage that is maximally beneficial to bloggers. You grow as a writer when your audience can talk within itself in a spirit of conviviality, in a vibe-neutral environment. It’s the best kind of audience growth.

Twitter’s greatest strength as a social space is that, as a company, it has been dysfunctionally managed for much of its 15 year existence, and has been a total dog as a stock. Not that it was really management’s fault. Twitter has always been too big to nail, as I argued in a 2016 newsletter. This meant that it ended up in a relatively convivial condition not by design, but through unavoidable neglect. When small threats appeared (think Meerkat or Clubhouse), Twitter absorbed them. When larger threats appeared (think Slack, Discord, messaging apps, TikTok), Twitter made room. And it invariably turned out that they only peeled off a subset of the activity in a way that didn’t really pose an existential threat.

In particular, none of these threats or evolutions genuinely threatened the suburban bourgeois cloud conviviality of Twitter. Not even Trump with his loud, overwhelming presence, could really take it over.

That may be changing.

I think Twitter remains too big to nail, but with Musk in the picture as a private owner with essentially monarchial sensibilities and sensitivities, and a Trump-scale presence, and operational control over the design and management of the platform, I don’t think the cloud conviviality can survive. That’s something only the Twitter bourgeoisie care about.

Musk is far too much of an opinionated auteur, and exerts far too powerful a gravity field, for this condition of conviviality-inducing neglect to continue.

But what happens to blogging if this starts to break down?

For almost a decade now, Twitter has been the main discovery medium for long form. In the first couple of years I was blogging (until about 2009), RSS was the main discovery medium. Then for a few years, aggregator communities (Slashdot, Hacker News, Metafilter, Reddit) took over.

By 2013 or so, Twitter was it. Nothing else really mattered.

And it has been a uniquely good place to distribute writing because it is what I call vibe neutral. It does not have a native mood. Whatever you believe or don’t believe about the platform’s political neutrality in recent years, it has always been vibe neutral. Which means the local mood is largely set by the links that circulate, not the platform’s own dispositions.

You can bring your mood to Twitter and create a little conversational party around it. If you write a bit of absurdist humor on a blog, you could have an absurdist kidding-around party around it on Twitter. If you write a heartfelt and vulnerable take on depression, you can have a serious mutual commiseration party with fellow sufferers of depression. If you want to do an angry rant, you can. If you want to do blissed-out art-posting mainly for yourself, you can.

People who can vibe with your mood can find you and join you. Unlike say Medium, Tumblr, or Livejournal (and more recently, the Web3 descendant of such platforms, Mirror), as of now the platform overall has no vibe. Those platforms embodied a clear “type of guy” or “type of gal” in a way Twitter never really did. In fact, it is one of the reasons Twitter has struggled to hit the scale it seems like it should. Most humans don’t want vibe neutrality. They want to go somewhere with an established vibe, and preferably, canonical lore. People want theme parks, not amusement parks that operate on a bring-your-own-theme principle.

Twitter’s greatest strength so far has been that it has the native emotional personality of a suburban strip mall anchored by big box stores (hence cloud conviviality) and mostly full of boring middle-class types.

Which is precisely why your little party in a low-personality restaurant like TGI Fridays or Red Robin can feature whatever mood you chose. There is no default vibe or mood to fight.

But it is already clear that under Emperor Elon’s reign, even if he limits his involvement to projecting an opinionated auteur-design field as an active-user board chairman, perhaps leaving operations to a re-installed Jack Dorsey (which seems increasingly likely), Twitter will no longer be vibe neutral. Elon’s own personal vibe is far too powerful and infectious.

Just yesterday for example, he innocently tweeted “Let’s make Twitter maximum fun!”

Well, for starters, there is no us unless he plans on distributing stock to the users in proportion to some notion of value (now that I’d sign up for). But setting that aside…

If an average sort of user said that, it would be a call for a particular kind of local party vibe for a corner of Twitter that would not interfere with attempts to create a different kind of vibe in a different corner, say a not-fun vulnerable therapy-posting vibe.

When pre-ownership Elon calls for a “fun” vibe, it already has a vast vibe-homogenizing effect (for/against polarity at the very least) on the very large continent of tech-and-business Twitter.

When Board Chairman Musk calls for it in six months, it will have the effect of setting the tone for the day in a royal court. Courtiers will jump to obey, every stan will rush to exhibit the Proper Spirit better than all the other stans, every detractor subversive hiding in the Twitter hills will try and ruin the Official Fun Times.

Anyone trying to conduct a party with a vibe that does not harmonize will find themselves fighting strong medium-is-the-message headwinds.

How do we know that? We know because of several years of experiencing Trump’s effects on the global vibe on Twitter. While Trump was on Twitter, you were either part of a never-ending pro-Trump rally, or a never-ending anti-Trump rally. And the more people who hated that left, the more that polarized vibe intensified. Muting and blocking in complex ways could vitiate the beefy atmosphere somewhat, but you couldn’t escape it entirely. Trump managed to project a vibe-distortion-field across all of Twitter.

Elon’s potential for vibe-neutrality disruption is at least as high, regardless of any sincere intentions he may have of maintaining political neutrality.

Which is why, even though I have plenty of ideas on things Twitter could or should do, I think it’s entirely futile to direct them at Musk. As someone noted, thanks to his very uniqueness, Musk is a problem posing as a solution (perhaps the problem at the moment, ahead of bots or whatever). If you thought Twitter had n problems, with Musk added to the picture, there are now n+1 problems.

This is someone who has a strong, publicly declared “aspie” identity who has said that he runs human in “emulation mode.” He is socially neurodivergent and proud of it. Which is fine. Neurodivergence of all sorts deserves a place in public discourses. Perhaps even a place of honor if we entertain the notion that certain kinds of neurodivergence make you superhuman at certain kinds of thinking. But whatever you think about neurodivergent people and their unique abilities, the fact remains that Twitter itself is dominated by much more typical people. People who mostly aren’t aspie, and don’t “run human in emulation mode.”

Twitter is based on a sort of average, normie, neurotypical mode of relating. A mode that is primarily based on yes-and… improv mutualism, based on a sort of intuitive and unconscious ability to treat people and objects differently.

Neurotypical normies may be uninspired midwits unable to even conceive of glorious technological futures, let alone create them, but like it or not, we do sort the world of relationships into I-it and I-you categories, to use Martin Buber’s terminology, and deal with humans differently than with objects. By co-creating mediocre suburban social realities with them instead of predicting their behavior in “emulation mode” and “winning” free speech debates against them.

Now it could be argued — and increasing numbers of people do — that this is a bad thing and that a superior neuro-divergent emperor ought to rule us neurotypical midwits, but that’s a separate debate about the kind of society you want to live in.

The point is, that’s not the way Twitter works right now, and if it turns into a place that does work that way, certain functions it serves now will break.

One of those, I’m fairly confident, is the function of a highly effective distribution medium for bloggers. Selfish consideration perhaps, but it’s one that interests me. It will remain somewhat effective — maybe Facebook or LinkedIn level effective — but it will no longer be the default distribution channel.

To the extent he is meaningfully able to absorb ideas and suggestions, he has people around who do understand Twitter far better than he appears to, starting with his new best friend Jack Dorsey. He’s also got people like old PayPal mafia buddy and former Reddit CEO Yishan Wong tweeting very good advice at him. Some of those directions might benefit blogs. Most won’t.

At any rate, to the extent Musk is capable of listening, he doesn’t need more ideas from you or me. It’s a waste of time.

But I do have predictions based on the fact that whether or not he takes ideas from people, he can’t stop being himself. Whatever else he does, Elon is going to continue to Elon, as Matt Levine likes to say.

He can no more prevent Twitter from turning into a sort of personal Valhalla orbiting his person than Jupiter can stop being a massive planet. Which means there will be a massive shift from vibe-neutral public space to some sort of Free Speech Thunderdome where Elon sets the Vibe of the Month for you to either rejoice in, or resist.

Be that as it may.

Me, I only wonder about my smaller, selfish concerns.

Despite my growing (entirely different) set of concerns with Substack, one good thing about it is that it gets you directly to the eldest of Elder Gods, the Cthulhu of social media, email.

In the short/medium term, I have no real issues. The Mailchimp newsletter attached to this blog has about 5600 subscribers, and the Ribbonfarm Studio substack newsletter has over 11,000. So whatever happens to Twitter, I’ll survive in the short term.

In the long term though, the future of blogging is about more than the survivability of my one blog. Blogging has always relied on complementary infrastructure for distribution and discussion. And distribution and discussion are domains that have seen wave after wave of aggregation battles in the last two decades. This is merely the latest such battle.

But perhaps, this time, it would be good for blogging to plot a course into the future that isn’t so vulnerable to these battles over aggregated discussion and distribution media.

So is this an opportunity or a threat? I think it’s mostly a threat. The headwinds continue to build. Online media continue to turn into non-convivial corporate spaces. Competing convivial technologies continue to struggle to find a foothold. WordPress continues to age, and has less ability to self-disrupt into a more powerful form with every passing year.

Drew Austin pointed me to this tweet that perhaps sums it up best:

A training program to acclimatize the citizen under late capitalism to learn and love humanity’s new role as spectator and occasional collateral damage in a society consisting of godlike megacorporations and their chaotic interactions? That would be The Marvel Cinematic Universe

Yes, Iron Man is buying Twitter. It might perhaps have been better at least for me if Hawkeye had bought it instead, but he probably doesn’t have $44 billion to spare.

And perhaps it is would be best if blogging were to fade away gracefully, without passing the torch of independent convivial media technology to a suitable successor. Maybe the future is about neither corporatized platform technologies, nor Quixotic indie conviviality.

Maybe it is about an entirely different kind of media environment.

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About Venkatesh Rao

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

Comments

  1. Anastasia says

    I attribute some of the decline of blogs to the fact that they’ve been monetized to death, and I think more people are getting sick and tired of constantly being barraged by ads or expected to pay anyone and everyone for content. And, I get it – on both sides. If you’re writing and creating content, you should be paid for those efforts. On the other side of the equation, when everyone wants a piece of your wallet, most people eventually have to pick and choose where to give that money because they can’t afford to pay everyone. It’s very akin to what’s happening in the streaming world – no one wanted to just make deals with Netflix to house and stream their content there. Everyone wanted to have their own service because they didn’t want to have to share the profit. And I think the same holds true with blogs. There are certainly people out there who make money – good money, in fact – blogging and posting on social media. Jim Wright of Stonekettle Station and Chris Brecheen of Writing About Writing come to mind. But I think there are (and will be) fewer and fewer folks able to crack that “my blog writing can make money for me” or even the “lots of people regularly read and comment on my blog” code. The blogging world is so over-saturated at this point that it’s nigh impossible to make a big enough splash to get noticed and draw an audience.

    (Side note: I loathe the comparisons of Musk to Stark. Musk has none of Stark’s intelligence, nor does he seem capable of anything remotely close to Stark’s character arc wherein he begins to use his money for better purposes)

  2. I’ve always seen Facebook as the social media site for “boring middle-class types”. It’s full of pictures of dogs, kids, nature hikes, vacations, and nights out with friends. Facebook users get feedback and likes from friends/family/co-workers. They don’t have to worry that they don’t have much to offer the larger world. Their cat pictures are enough.

    On Twitter, the boring middle-class types usually have fewer than 1000 followers, unless they are a firebrand on some topic or have a niche skill. They map to the very small account users who don’t get much out of Twitter because they don’t have the connections. Twitter seems to work best for niche/subculture famous people who are at least somewhat known from someone else (like media, blogging, art/writing, YouTube). I suspect this is why you find Twitter convivial and most small account users do not. You’re not typical of the average Twitter user at all.

    I hope that Substack, Patreon, or some other site can evolve and adapt to keep blogging alive. I think a lot of people are tired of Twitter and are looking for something more thoughtful/nuanced that’s relatively free of drama but still immediate, relevant, and interesting.

  3. Twitter is the very epitome of the attention economy, which is why all of our journalists and politicians rushed in. The users are managed by a secret police which became politicized in the Trump era just like everything. It is quite effective because a user cannot defend against it and has no rights. How this reflects the detached coolness of international style and bourgeois values is beyond me. Musk promised to throw the secret police out of the window which caused a huge outcry among so called “liberals”. That’s all very odd but one shouldn’t take concepts like “bourgeois”, “liberal” or even “middle class” at face value. They are mere analogies just like the “court” of the monarch. Real courts had a proper rank order, something which was taken deadly serious. The king wasn’t just a supreme celebrity.

    He’s also got people like old PayPal mafia buddy and former Reddit CEO Yishan Wong tweeting very good advice at him.

    At any rate, to the extent Musk is capable of listening, he doesn’t need more ideas from you or me. It’s a waste of time.

    Sure but people constantly talking about what their politicians should do without much hope that they will indeed listen to them. They still believe to live in a democracy, something I thought was your favorite kind of governance too?

    I’d have much less advice than the mafia buddy in his Twitter thread: make Twitter an open source community, install a BDFL, give it a constitution – a second founding – and a proper development process. Everything else just flows from there.

  4. I’m disappointed in your stigmatising treatment of aspie/autistic people in this piece and find your assumptions about neurotypicality versus neurodivergent ways of being simplistic and insulting. I suggest you get to know a greater variety of neurodivergent and autistic people personally and see how you feel about your writing above afterwards. Many of us are horrified to have our neurodivergence represented in the public’s eye by someone like Elon Musk, whom we would gladly ship off to Mars at the first opportunity.

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