I can’t remember where I read the theory, but apparently the salinity of our bodies matches that of primordial seas, so in a sense we never really left the oceans. Our micro-organic aquatic ancestors simply constructed meatbag spaceships with artificial life-support aquatic environments inside to explore beyond their oceanic home world. Much as we might construct generation starships in the future to travel to Alpha Centauri. Air-breathing multi-cellular life forms constitute the space program of primordial single-celled life. They get the missing resources of their primordial environment through clever artificial means, just as we might eventually mine our essential minerals from asteroids or gas clouds we fly by in outer space.

One of the effects of this evolutionary history is that all air-breathing life has to seek out perhaps the most important chemical that’s ubiquitous in the oceans but not trivial to find on land: salt. Salt-seeking is one of the most fundamental behaviors of terrestrial life. Animals in the wild seek out salt licks even at great risk of predation. Humans with salt deficiencies have serious problems, and beyond a point of salt deprivation, you die.

Giraffe and wildebeest at an artificial salt lick in the Pilanesberg Game Reserve, South Africa
(NJR ZA, Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA 3.0)

This evolutionary history struck me as an interesting metaphor, and a superior alternative to the more familiar metaphor of “coming up for air.”

Oxygen, whether extracted from the air or water, is critical on very short time-scales, even by the standards of the lifespans of micro-organisms. You die in minutes without it. So the idea that you might be so swamped by work that you need to “come up for air” is evocative but not quite coherent. I can think of coming up for other kinds of macro-nutrients like water and food at the time scales of uninterrupted work (hours/days) but not air. If you’ve ever actually had to “come up for air” (I did a couple of times as a kid while learning to swim) you know it’s not some sort of restorative break. It’s a panic-inducing emergency of a sort that is not metaphorically like anything else.

But salt-seeking… now that’s an interesting metaphor that operates on a whole different time-scale. If you don’t lose any salt to perspiration, you can go without salt intake for days to weeks (it’s not so much a consumable nutrient as a sort of electrolyte concentration thing I guess).

I’m thinking about this because this past February has possibly been the first time in the 15-year history of this blog that I haven’t posted for a full calendar month. Or at least one of a handful of very rare periods. And I feel a sort of mysterious nutritional deficiency in my psyche. It feels similar to how I feel if I go without eating vegetables for too long, but more elemental. A kind of vague chemical unsettledness.

My Substack newsletter is easier to write (and paid subscriber expectations work as a strong incentive), but at some level, it just doesn’t scratch the same itch as this blog, and I think what’s going on is that blogging is a source of salt for me. The metaphor kinda tracks in an interesting way. Blogging is the primordial evolutionary medium for online publishing. A sort of oceanic wilderness environment for text. It contains illegible salt-like ingredients that have to be explicitly sought out if you leave, and deficiencies will cause serious and mysterious ailments.

A paywalled newsletter that is distributed primarily via email (even if individual issues are unlocked) is a kind of locked-up terrestrial built environment, or perhaps a freshwater environment. To mix my metaphors wildly, a paid newsletter is a spaceship for a blog to explore a non-native environment. It does not naturally contain various salt-like minerals, even if it does contain more available forms of a critical oxygen-like ingredient (money) that allows more energetic forms of life to exist.

You could say blogging is a saltwater medium, while paywalled platforms can be thought of as freshwater or terrestrial media. I initially came up with this metaphor in a thread on Farcaster in November, but I have a much better understanding of it now. And speaking of Farcaster (a Web3-based Twitter alternative), I think one way to understand the evolution of Twitter, post-Musk, is that it went from being a saltwater medium to a freshwater medium. And one of the reasons I’m long Web3, despite the ups and downs of the sector, is that it genuinely tastes “salty” to me the way the old blogosphere did.

So what’s the salt in the blogosphere? And how does it translate to a subtle but unmistakeable difference between the feel of writing a blog on an open-source software stack versus a paid newsletter on a commercial platform?

I’m not quite sure, but it’s interesting that it’s associated with an output rather than an input. The act of writing in public, truly in public, without the conditionals of paywalls and privately owned platforms attached, seems to have an interesting sort of unlocking effect on the brain. I suspect contributors to open-source projects, graffiti artists, and musicians who randomly play in public have a similar relationship with the public work they do outside of market-economic logic. There’s some privilege involved in being to do that sort of thing at all of course, but the point is, at least some of us feel a visceral need to do it.

Not everybody seems to need this kind of psyche nourishment. Or perhaps they get it from modes of conviviality that are not about creative production and performance. Maybe sports, parties or shopping do the trick for others.

But the metaphor of creative production as a form of salt-seeking suggests that even though public performance seems to be a necessary condition (personal journals don’t do the trick), the payoff isn’t in the form of relationships to other humans, but in the form of more elemental relationships to a wild context.

Writing on this blog is similar to spending time in wilderness (which has long been a theme around here), either terrestrial or aquatic. A world without artificial boundaries, where the unmediated connectedness of everything is a strong and pressing aspect of reality. A world where you may have to struggle for survival, but you don’t have to spend any time thinking about matters essentially secondary to writing, such as the economics of publishing platforms, boundaries policed by others, and the game theory of relations between platforms, writers, and readers. You can pay attention to whatever you’re drawn to naturally.

Initially, when my Substack newsletter got serious enough as a source of income that I could not casually blow it off in favor of saltwater blogging, I thought the difference had something to do with the kinds of content the two media seem to favor. I thought Substack was for stuff I’d already figured out how to write steadily and easily, and WordPress was for stuff I was still figuring out how to write. I thought Substack was for more legible and trend-linked themes like tech trends (I’m writing a lot about AI there for example), while WordPress was for illegible groping around unformed themes.

While these differences do play a part in the unstable balance I’m still trying to strike here, I feel there’s a more fundamental difference that the metaphor of salt-seeking gets at. Perhaps words like “wildness” or “freedom” or “nomadism” get at it, but within the specifics of writing as a medium of salt-seeking, perhaps words like “improvisation” and “shitposting” get at it better.

The primordial web, as embodied by the blogosphere, had a kind of lawless oceanic openness to it. This “salt deficiency” feeling, and this unexplainable urge to go write in a certain mode in a certain sort of medium, is strong enough that even if I am very busy, as I am now (two big consulting projects are in high gear simultaneously, I have a trip coming up tomorrow, and I have tax paperwork to get through), I feel I have to take a “salt break.”

And it’s interesting that there seems to be no particular formula to writing that satisfies the salt craving. Though I do have specific things I want to write here, the saltiness comes from something more basic than ideas or styles. It’s a way of being in the world. It’s like the difference between nomadic and settler lifestyles.

And importantly, it’s not an obsolete way of being in the world and likely never will be. The evolution of terrestrial and freshwater life forms did not empty out the oceans. Not only did the saltwater wilderness continue to evolve, some lines of terrestrial evolution even returned to it, including the one that produced what is widely regarded as the second-smartest life-form around, dolphins.

I suspect there is both more biomass, and more life-form variety in the oceans than on land.

That makes me think saltwater and freshwater media will not only continue to co-exist in the future, saltwater media might even continue to dominate, even though they seem to be in retreat right now. Not only will paywalls not eat the “wild west web” as people seem to fear, the latter will possibly outlive this fragile-seeming commercial new new media landscape.

What’s more, I suspect it is the case that while saltwater media can survive without freshwater or terrestrial media, the converse is not true. The latter can only survive if there’s a large reservoir of saltwater life around, anchoring important chemical cycles in the biosphere. Just as the public sector can kinda exist without the private sector, but the converse has so far never happened outside the heads of psychotic Ayn Randians.

Applied to blogging, we humans are not well-adapted to either saltwater or terrestrial/freshwater media. We are like the early creatures that crawled out of the ocean onto land, and are poorly adapted to both. In media terms, we’re not sharks, apes, or dolphins, but more like gasping primitive amphibians. We don’t have salt licks we frequent. We actually return to the ocean periodically to get our salt.

But technological evolution is a more fragile thing than biological evolution, and I suspect the real threat to saltwater media is not competition from freshwater or terrestrial media, but intrinsic evolutionary stalling. Saltwater media can’t stay stuck in nostalgia for blogs, RSS and email listservs that didn’t need to worry about Gmail’s spam filters. They need to evolve too. I like some of the thinking Robin Sloan is doing on this stuff.

I’m going to personally hang on to my little puddle of saltwater here as long as I can, but it feels like it’s time for newer, better kinds of saltwater media.

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About Venkatesh Rao

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


  1. I’m reasonably sure the saltwater thing you saw was from this tumble meme:

  2. As per usual a great post – a salty wave washing over my “meatbag spaceship” refreshing my salts and flushing stale nutrients & gases back to the sea of tranquility. Refreshing and nourishing both ways. Triggering this…

    Salt and osmosis go together as our “meatbag spaceship”s would not be able to transfer salt / ions and “deficiencies will cause serious and mysterious ailments” at best, or you  shrivel and die at worst.

    Permeable meatbags and salt water are constantly able to reach equilibrium – free-ly. Substack et al & Chokepont Capitalism interfers with osmosis.

    But freshwater is now delivered by owned irrigation pipes. More like “a kind of locked-up terrestrial built environment” than rain, rivers and lakes all in a system with the saltwater. Luckily my meatbag is able to wonder around land and dip into freshwater and lick salt licks. Not so with “a kind of locked-up terrestrial built environment”.

    I didn’t even know you have a freshwater “locked-up terrestrial built environment” feediverse.

    I do agree – in the long run –  with you that 
    – “Not only will paywalls not eat the “wild west web” as people seem to fear, the latter will possibly outlive this fragile-seeming commercial new new media landscape.” And

    – “What’s more, I suspect it is the case that while saltwater media can survive without freshwater or terrestrial media, the converse is not true. “…

    But the bifurcation points will be devastating in the short run. Disequalirium returning to equilibrium. Enshitification & Chokepont Captalism below.

    You may be able to set up your own pipe – your Substack (read: freshwater “locked-up terrestrial built environment” feed)  but the pipes and system are owned, and are controlled with wiers, valves etc and have a unique to humans attribute – all your water inputs – creations – allow:
    1) the owner of the “locked-up terrestrial built environment” to turn you OFF at ANY time. And if veto’d – tap turned off – you / we will get “panic-inducing emergency of a sort that is not metaphorically like anything else”.

    – Witness FB turning off news to  Australia as a negotiation tactic which did provide a  “panic-inducing emergency of a sort that is not metaphorically like anything else”.
    – Currently  “Google tests blocking news content for some Canadians in response to proposed online news laws”
    Very freshwater irrigation “locked-up terrestrial built environment” system veto swich to “off”.

    Do you really think Substack will be any different?  Your cash flow is mediated by a Musk / Thiel financial processing system!
    – “and Substack usually takes a 10% fee from subscription payments.[14][9] Wikipedia
    -;”The guys [they sound so ‘sweet-freshwater-y!] devised a system of taking a 10 percent cut from subscriptions (Stripe, the credit card service that processed the fees, would take 2.9 percent, plus thirty cents per transaction),”

    So Venkatesh – your creativity on Substack makes for another wierd anthropological artificial system – the ability for freshwater to TRICKLE UP. Nothing trickes up – water flows down – everything moves to entropy – but money and Stripe! Thiel & Musk – your freshwater siphoning system. If you want a metaphor, try a mine tailing dam and Stripe. Stored water stagnating – algal blooms –  poisoned by alterior and human made molecules eventually bursting and causing a flood of finalcial disaster to those in the lowlands – you on Substack. All your readers. Freddie Mac. GFC. Info droughts. Coordination problems. Domino effects / slippery slopes. 

    2) your analogy “it’s [ saltwater] associated with an output rather than an [freshwater] input” is apt.
    And is “outside of market-economic logic.”.
    And so, as you say “the payoff isn’t in the form of relationships to other humans, but in the form of more elemental relationships to a wild context”.
    Which nourishes the saltwater  ecosystem, not dries it up as per the  “locked-up terrestrial built environment” of Substack freshwater.

    More like a dropping if your mask:
    “A world without artificial boundaries, where the unmediated connectedness of everything is a strong and pressing aspect of reality.”

    Your salt seeking words – “but within the specifics of writing as a medium of salt-seeking, perhaps words like “improvisation” and “shitposting” get at it better.” Maybe.

    Cory Doctorow’s word for freshwater “locked-up terrestrial built environment” is Enshitification”. And concept in Giblin & Doctorow’s book “Chokepont Capitalism”. 

    Enshitification –  as yet unrealised at Substack but in full swing at FB, Googl etc. See “Pluralistic: Tiktok’s enshittification (21 Jan 2023)”. As Google won’t even return a pluralistic result- try: pluralistic [dot] net/2023/01/21/potemkin-ai/#hey-guys
    We don’t think of existential risk or death often. Yet Substack has all the seeds of restricting and polluting our freshwater with the long feedback causing saltwater dilution in future.

    And we may end up in a Neal Steapheson novel Snowcrash.
    From Wikipedia “Much of the world’s territory has been carved up into sovereign enclaves known as Franchise-Organized Quasi-National Entities (FOQNEs),[9]: 14  each run by its own big business franchise (such as “Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong”, or the corporatized American Mafia), or various residential burbclaves (quasi-sovereign gated communities).”

    And Substack & Stripe (Thiel / Musk) provides a proto  – Snowcrash as a possible ‘reality’;

    “the Metaverse is populated by user-controlled avatars, as well as system daemons. Although there are public-access Metaverse terminals in Reality, using them carries a social stigma among Metaverse denizens, in part because of the poor visual representations of themselves as low-quality avatars. Status in the Metaverse is a function of two things: access to restricted environments such as the Black Sun, an exclusive Metaverse club, and technical understanding, often demonstrated by the sophistication of one’s avatar.”.

    Snowcrash has a cheesy nice outcome yet the breaking of the freshwater “locked-up terrestrial built environment” and returning to natural cycles and saltwater was a nightmare – for people like me.

    Snowcrash Aside: A weapon to both hate & love called “Reason”….
    – “”See, I told you they’d listen to Reason,” Fisheye says, shutting down the whirling gun.””
    “This device is a high-tech upgrade to the needle pipe described in Ray Cummings 1928 novel Beyond the Stars. David Gerrold wrote about something similar in his War Against the Chtorr novels”
    technovelgy dot com/ct/content.asp?Bnum=1746
    – “Reason” from Snow Crash just became real :
    http://www.reddit › comments › beaupn – 17 Apr 2019 

    Thanks for the freely available freshwater! May it flow free forever. Sweet fresh water.

  3. Hey, thanks for this post.

    Just wanted to chime in and say this is why I keep on coming back to this blog – it seems to be the only place left where I see someone who is thinking about things. And not in a way that is “false consciousness of universality” – but more like, someone who is aware that they are just an agent in a wider world, but the wider world is the world in its whole unknowability, unbounded. And trying to make sense of things.

    I was thinking about the information content of the internet – I was thinking about whether the internet grows linearly with time. And I realized, of course it doesn’t. There was an exponential growth (right after the big bang), as all the information out there accessible to humans started being coalesced into a networked digital form. But eventually you run out of new information to put into the internet, there’s so much new information linear time gives you vs. throwing everything that has ever existed in there at once.

    The social media sites that stand now – twitter, reddit, tumblr, facebook, youtube – seem like galaxies that coalesced out of the big bang. Their forms and functions where idiosyncratic and coincidental, and their cultures so as well. (Although of course they are inexorably influenced by the geopolitics of human existence -)

    I heard a counterargument that there is more information because there are more and more sensors – of course this is false, you might get more and more precision, but you’re not gaining more dimensionality, and realistically you are adding more noise than gaining more precision. It reminds me of people finding constellations in the night sky – what you get is a map of the human mind, not a map of reality.

    And with ChatGPT, we’ve gotten a snapshot of the internet, a cosmic microwave background of all the data we’ve ever digitized. It seems like some people are satisfying their saltwater urge with technologies like Character AI, which is probably a good enough simulation, like how video games currently simulate and satisfy the obsolete cultural urge to imperialism. Otherwise, there is a cornucopia of parasocial relations.

    TikTok seems to be where all the kids are nowadays, and it seems like a nice playground, but not the real deal. (I have a feeling that the Chinese know what they’re doing better than Americans, in terms of this regard, in terms of social media sustainability.)

    Ted Chiang wrote that the difference between sufficiently advanced technology and magic is that technology is available to everyone, whereas magic is available to only a select few. And it really was a select few, those who were just lucky, like how Mark Zuckerberg could get everyone on his platform just by offering one. And as the internet dies a slow heat death, it becomes a technology, like agriculture – and how it produced an outpouring of culture when the first city-states coalesced, and untold suffering I’m sure, whereas no one really thinks about farming anymore, except by simulating it on social media games I guess. (It really is interesting – maybe people who were more adept at agriculture were naturally selected for, and we are their descendants?) Perhaps we are at an extinction event where “people who are good at the internet” (i.e. social media influencers) produce more offspring. If they do. Hard to say. Maybe it’s the technologists instead.

    If technologists preserve the technology like the Arab world, then maybe what will reignite the spark are the social media influencers who survive in Christian Europe.

    I’m sure there’s a connection between magic, saltwater, and creativity. And for most of human existence that was a rare resource. People who hunger for saltwater may become digital nomads as the internet dies a heat death. And yet it is nice to find a saltwater oasis like this.

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