2023 Ribbonfarm Extended Universe Roundup

This entry is part 17 of 17 in the series Annual Roundups

Extended universes are a bit passé now, given how even the MCU appears to be struggling a bit. Still, I like the metaphor and am going to stick with it till I find a better one. The public social web has all but disappeared, like an ancient system of rivers going underground after an earthquake. The old roads are no longer safe, and you get mugged on them, like on the Roman roads in the centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire (why yes, I did think about the Roman Empire frequently this year, why do you ask?). Prancing Pony vibes. Dark Forest mood.

Much of the social energy of the old internet has now retreated underground to the cozyweb. Except for a few old-fashioned blogs like this one, there’s not much of it left above-ground now. But there’s an odd sort of romance to holding down a public WordPress-based fortress in the grimdark bleakness, even as almost everything (including the bulk of what I do) retreats to various substacks, discords, and such.

On to the roundup, featuring blog, newsletter, books, and a few more odds and ends. But first, to continue a tradition I started last year, a reintroduction.

Reintroduction

Last year, I had a reintroduction section and it feels like it should be an annual roundup segment. One reason is that the old public social context within which I existed online as a minor public figure is no longer coherent. Now, while I’m still a minor figure to reckon with, a fierce oompa-loompa of sorts in the Wonka factory that is online culture, there is nowhere for me to be a minor public figure. And it’s not just me. It’s true of almost everybody. The only people who manage to be public figures these days, major or minor, are radiation-hardened cartoons who can survive the Dark Forest.

So to repeat the introduction from last year:

My name is Venkatesh Rao, I am 48 49 years old, and am a former engineer and researcher who quit the regular paycheck lifestyle in 2011 to go feral. I’ve been a blogger since 2007, and an independent consultant since 2011, mostly in the tech sector, and have been up to various things over the last 15 16 years. You can get some backstory on the About page, and some helpful starting points on the For New Readers page. For more on my personal background and work, you can check out venkateshrao.com.

Blog

To use a term I riffed on in Worlds in Waiting in September, this was another year of KTLOing — keeping the lights on. Ribbonfarm felt mostly like a personal journal type blog this year, rather than a blog for readers, though a couple of posts seemed to attract an old-fashioned sort of attention. There were only 16 posts through the whole year, and only about a dozen were “real” posts. So that’s a frequency of about 1/month, down from 2/week back in 2007-08, and 1/week through much of this blog’s past.

But several posts struck a new sort of note for me personally. Vastness (13) and Charnel Vision (16) I think are planting seeds for the future of my writing in some way, and represent real thematic and stylistic breaks from the past. Here’s the rundown.

  1. Bracketverse — I: Start to a proto-story/world-building exercise that has 3 more parts to go, and I intended to finish this year, but didn’t have time to.
  2. Salt-Seeking: A navel-gazing post about the nature of blogging as a salt-water medium vs. substacking as a freshwater medium.
  3. Summer of Protocols: A peek at my big consulting project this year, which is also one of my rare publicly visible ones.
  4. Report Cards: I’ve been in study mode a lot in recent years, so I made myself a report card, and riffed about report cards here.
  5. Tessellations for the End of History: Probably the only old-fashioned post for the year.
  6. Permissionless Research: Random riff related to the summer of protocols work. Probably in teh wrong place. Doesn’t quite belong here.
  7. Storytelling — The Penumbra of Mortality: Continuation of storytelling blogchain, focusing on one of my two Big Reads of the year — the complete works of J. G. Ballard. The other was the complete works of H. P. Lovecraft.
  8. Life After Language: Half-assed riff on the nature of language post-AI, that probably deserves deeper treatment in my ongoing writing on AI on the substack.
  9. Hello Again, Seattle: Journal entry/regenerations blogchain post on my move back to Seattle after 4 years in LA.
  10. The Resourceful Life: Another old-fashioned sort of post that sparked a bit of old-style comments and buzz, though the days of viral blog posts are behind me.
  11. Worldly, Yet Carefree: Journal-style entry wondering where the sensibility of Seinfeld disappeared to, and why it’s hard to rediscover something like it in 2023.
  12. Worlds in Waiting: Lovecraftian riff on KTLOing, with yet more navel-gazing about the future of blogging.
  13. Vastness: Continuing my very obscure goat-crow-rat triangle metaphysics blogchain. Writing is not the best medium for this line of thought. Architecture is. Borrowing ideas I learned this year from Kei Kreutler, this whole series is probably an attempt to create a mind-palace primarily with words (though there’s a complex map there too).
  14. The Future of the Blogosphere: Post-mortem on a bit of enshittification that happened to this blog, and the effort it took to fix it, and associated musings of the technological aging of this infrastructure. And yet more navel-gazing. I really have to stop doing this and either live with ancient infrastructure or just suck it up and endure the pain of moving to newer infrastructure.
  15. Touching Transistors: Brief peek at my slow-simmer maker activities that continued in slow mode through the year. The pandemic era hobby has endured and grown slightly, but I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t gotten harder.
  16. Charnel Vision: A rather satisfying philosophical post that got me feeling properly oriented for the first time in years.

Ribbonfarm Studio Newsletter

As you may be aware, I have a paid Substack newsletter called Ribbonfarm Studio, which is ~70% paywalled. It was a very solid year there, with 45 issues, 2/3 focused on two serialized projects called Protocol Narratives and Mediocre Computing.

You can catch up at the separate State of the Studio 2023 roundup. The newsletter has settled into a stable voice now, and it’s interesting to see how it’s noticeably different from the voice here. It’s more current-event focused, more “professional” in some ways, and I rarely try writing experiments there. I mostly stick to a practiced style I’m comfortable with (almost to the point of boredom) because I can reliably churn it out week after week, even when extremely busy.

It’s a nice network-effect-boosted income stream that has additional strategic underwriting type benefits in how I manage my consulting work, but writing on Substack remains something I am somewhat ambivalent about. There’s an exposure to various platform risks and the need to track annoying culture war stuff playing out on it that I fundamentally don’t care to pay attention to. It doesn’t affect the writing itself, but there’s a cognitive overhead tax you have to pay to be on Substack, in return for the low-maintenance income. It’s a bit like how living in a rental in the urban core has constraints that don’t exist for a single-family home in the suburbs. There’s a different sort of tax associated with running your own WordPress blog too of course, in terms of having to stay on top of technical maintenance (much like home ownership in the suburbs), but it’s less annoying.

I’m not sure I’ll stay on Substack long-term, but I’ll be there for at least the next few years probably.

Books

The Art of Gig two-volume book (print and ebook), which I published in 2022, continues to chug along with modest sales. I had plans to market it better and develop the website into a more complex online destination for the gig economy crowd, but simply couldn’t find the bandwidth to do it. So it remains just an unmarketed book.

The Clockless Clock is a book project that’s a sequel to Tempo, and being serialized on the newsletter, but I have it in a separate category in my mind. I’ll probably be refactoring that in a significant way this coming year. And possibly moving it to its own home off the newsletter. It’s grown up enough to get out of the incubation zone.

My backlist of old volumes continues to chug along as well. If you’re new here you can check out and buy the dozen book-like objects on the books page.

In a brave mood, I’ve signed up for an annual license for Vellum, a nice bit of publishing software I used for the Art of Gig books. I might try to book-ify more of the archives here, especially from the Snowflake and Charnel ages.

Reading

I did a lot of good reading this year. You can catch up in the Recently Finished section of the updated Now Reading page. The highlights, as I’ve mentioned already, were getting through the complete works of J. G. Ballard and H. P. Lovecraft.

Socials

I continue to be socially active on Farcaster and Bluesky, and present but passive (beyond minimum-effort link posting and boosting) on Twitter. I occasionally post on Substack Notes. I think I’ve temporarily retired from the public social web in the sense that it’s no longer something I care to strategize about or build “network capital” on. It’s just a place I hang out with people I already know, mostly in out-of-sight smaller places rather than large public ones.

I’ve basically stopped caring about actively cultivating reach and distribution of any sort (not that I ever did care much — it was largely a side effect of simply having fun in various places — Quora for a while, then Twitter), even if it means “leaving money on the table” like people are always trying to tell me not to do. Media distribution technology is in a deeply messed-up late evolutionary state, almost fully captured by various toxic forces, and it feels like too much of an uphill soul-crushing battle to be worth it on the margins for me personally.

My email distribution channels and word-of-mouth presence are healthy enough to sustain my writing for the time being, and in the long term… we’ll see. Web 2.0 distribution is a grim death march through a world of engagement-farming hustle zombies, trying to avoid getting bitten, and Web 3.0 distribution hasn’t been invented yet. And AI is now clumsily interposing itself as a layer of interpretive intelligence I guess we’ll have to learn to speak through, around, or past, like SEO 20 years ago. I had an idle thought around putting all my writing into a GPT, but that feels like a bit of a heavy lift.

All in all, it doesn’t feel like a great or interesting time to be aggressively investing in increasing reach and distribution of any sort (unless you have TikTok talents and inclinations I guess). I’d rather spend the time/energy thinking and writing, even if fewer people read what I write.

I’ve never been one for yard-by-yard grinding as far as marketing and self-promotion goes. So besides keeping an eye open for elegant and interesting emerging distribution technologies with significant non-grindy leverage, I’m content to just coast on what modest reach I already have, and retreat from spaces where even that feels too soul-crushing.

PR Stuff

In some sort of mark of modest arrival, there was a feature on me in a boutique print magazine called Courier earlier this year. I’m going to call this the high water mark and call it quits as far as being taken note of in (relatively) mainstream media goes.

Social media activity is in some ways the ground game/war of the attention economy, and it’s entered some sort of ugly endgame I’m increasingly disinclined to participate in. The corresponding air game is not in much better shape, and I’m even less inclined to participate in that.

A decade ago, I used to be at least mildly flattered by mentions in mainstream media outlets (at various points this blog has been mentioned in the NYT, Economist, and various other places), even if it did nothing for reach or traffic (something I learned back in 2008, the first time I got a mention in the NYT). New Media attention was less flattering but more practically useful. The first decade of this blog was marked by a sort of organic, low-grade, zero-effort PR presence in the form of parallel streams of dribbles of mentions on old and new media. Then suddenly, around 2017/18, that started ramping down rapidly as media went through cataclysmic shifts and you had to compete with Trumps and pandemics if you wanted mainstream attention. One revealing sign was that I was suddenly getting far fewer random media requests to comment on random things (fun one: a major TV network asked me if I wanted to be a talking head for a documentary about AI in porn).

Podcasting exploded around then, and for a while, I was fielding lots of podcast requests instead (a medium I’ve never gotten comfortable with). That peaked during the pandemic and it’s pretty much died down now. The landscape seems to be mostly established medium-to-large podcasts now (similar to how blogging had a window of entry 2003-07).

I did have a few interesting podcast appearances this year. The highlight was probably going on Jim O’Shaughnessy’s Infinite Loops. Jim’s a fun host, which is the main necessary condition for podcast appearances to be enjoyable. But overall, I think I’m mostly going off podcasts as well. It’s too much work unless the host really knows what they’re doing.

The one PR medium I still enjoy is speaking gigs, and this year speaking gigs took me to Singapore and Istanbul, which was fun.

The tldr is that I think mainstream media attention, like social media presence, is also increasingly not worth the marginal effort it takes to get (and I’m used to a zero effort level), and not fun to cultivate (except when you happen to be personal friends with a journalist who is also interesting as a person). Here, I have no stable nonzero current of low-effort notoriety I can ride. I’m only as visible as the last thing I wrote that some journalist happened to notice, and the half-life of public presence is counted in hours now.

So basically, the Ribbonfarm Extended Universe is effectively dark matter as far as the broader world is concerned. Only LLMs will be paying attention to it by default anymore. Which I’m curiously fine with.

Yak Collective

The Yak Collective, now entering its fourth year, remains one of my most satisfying online activities. It’s a collection of random people doing random tinkering and self-study projects. It’s the home of 2 study groups I participate in (on governance studies and distributed systems), and a robotics project. We also occasionally do paid consulting projects together.

Consulting

My consulting work seems to be at an inflection point. I’ve mostly said no to new clients in recent years, since I’ve gotten increasingly picky. This is partly the result of having a few more stable long-term clients I enjoy working with, and the welcome underwriting from the newsletter income, which stops me saying yes to stuff simply because I need the money.

This is one of the reasons, despite other misgivings, I’ve stayed with Substack.

Writing the Art of Gig books/newsletter was cathartic in a way. I had to get that chapter of life out of my system. I’ll turn 50 in 2024, and I have a feeling I’m not the right person to do the kinds of gigs I wrote about anymore anyway. They are a younger person’s game. The gigs I have now don’t look much like the gigs I wrote about in those books, but also not quite like the gigs I think I’ll want to be doing in a couple of years. They are transitional gigs of sorts. They have some of the new features I want (such as long-term, steadily deepening work in specific domains as opposed to generalized management, and a slight move away from 1:1 sparring towards supporting teams and organizations), but the full picture is not clear yet.

The long-term gigs I have right now should keep me stable through 2024 at least, but in 2025, in my 50+ life, I’ll be looking for a change of both substance and pace. I don’t know what that will look like, but it’s time to start finding out.

2024 Outlook

I’m entering the new year with too much on my plate already, to the point that I think I’m overbooked already and need to cut a few things. I’m not used to this. I like having significant free bandwidth to decide how to allocate early in January. This year, I’ll have to fight to make room for new stuff, and be aggressive about killing old stuff to do it.

I have some ideas about what to do in every part of the extended universe, but the first order of business is to clear enough room just for plain old idleness. So I suppose my real resolution is to do more of nothing first.

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About Venkatesh Rao

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

Comments

  1. Thanks for keeping on inwhat you refer to as “war of attention economy” that has created so much waste in our heads and surely has no heart.

    Ta ta to 2023.

  2. thanks for the fascinating work in 2023. definitely adds value for those willing to go deeper in the articles/blog posts they consume.

    typo :

    Permissionless Research: Random riff related to the summer of protocols work. Probably in *teh* wrong place. Doesn’t quite belong here.

  3. Wrinkledlion X says

    Please keep up the bracketverse stuff! I know I’m just a random stranger on the internet, but that post really transported me.

  4. Just wanna say I’m super grateful for the existence of Ribbonfarm; it helped make me more certain that it’s possible “to live like this”, which for me is something like an internet street busker/preacher. Hope you get to continue this for as long as possible. Happy 2024 Venkat!

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