Elderblog Sutra

In this series, I reflect on my ongoing experiments in what I call elder-blogging -- writing on a blog with a significant history.  Ribbonfarm was founded in 2007, and this series begins in 2019, nearly 12 years in (and 1.6 million words, and 715 posts in). The concept is derived from the idea of an elder game in gaming culture -- a game where most players have completed a full playthrough and are focusing on second-order play.

Elderblog Sutra: 1

This entry is part 1 of 9 in the series Elderblog Sutra

I learned about elder games from the classic Steve Yegge post, The Borderlands Gun Collectors Club  (ht Chris Reid). The idea is that in a complex game, after most players have finished a first full play-through, the mechanics might still leave interesting things for them to do. An Act 2 game-within-a-game emerges for experienced players who have exhausted the nominal game. A game dominated by such second-order players  is an elder game. In Borderlands, the elder game was apparently gun collecting.

An elder game tends to be more open-ended than the nominal game. In the ideal case, it is a mature infinite game that can go on indefinitely.

Blogging is now an elder game. After a decade of pursuing virality (out of the corner of my eye — direct pursuit is a recipe for burnout by pandering), the inside of my head now looks like the picture above. A vast mess of unsystematically explored territory, with flags planted on a few legible patches. That’s what organic virality is, epistemologically: a communicable patch of legibility in an ungoverned thought space of interest to many.

An elder game can be contrasted with a late style, which is a style of creative production taken to an extreme, past the point of baroque exhaustion, in a sort of virtuoso display of raging against the dying of the night. Late-style game play is an overclocked finite game resisting the forces of mortality. An elder game is a derivative infinite game, emergent immortality hacked out of mortality.

Old blogs must choose: should they turn into elder blogs, or should they turn into late-style blogs? One does not preclude the other, but you must decide what you solve for.

I don’t grok the ribbonfarm elder game yet, but I do know it’s time to ask: what comes after virality?

Elderblog Sutra: 2

This entry is part 2 of 9 in the series Elderblog Sutra

A necessary, but not sufficient, condition for an elderblog to exist is an underlying pristine blog that is old enough, and contentful enough, to serve as a landscape on which an elder game can be played. Ribbonfarm is at 11.5 years, 715 posts, and nearly 1.6 million words. The numbers are merely skin in the elder game. The spirit of the condition is that a coherent pristine game — “refactoring perception” in our case — should be winding down.

Elder-blogging possibilities obviously depend on the nature of the pristine landscape. Newsy blogs suggest history-based elder games. Blogs based on transient subject matter, such as product or fashion blogs, suggest trend-mining elder games.

Atemporal longform blogs like Ribbonfarm, like cities past a founding era, suggest metatextual  or infratextual games. Skyscrapers on regraded or reclaimed land that reshape territory, versus new roads, tunnels, or bridges that conform to existing territory.

The two are not mutually exclusive. Seattle for example, features many examples of both kinds of urban-planning elder games. These have been played since the city’s pristine game ended with the Klondike gold rush in 1900. Last weekend, my wife and I walked the newly opened Seattle SR-99 tunnel. Over the next few months, the old Alaskan Way viaduct that the tunnel replaces will be demolished. We’re living through a major infratextual porn chapter of Seattle’s elder-game era.

I favor infratextuality. Tunnels over skyscrapers. Infratextuality weaves a landscape into a landscape. The pristine landscape is still there, modulo weathering, aging, falsification, and decay effects. Infratextual elements recode and grow the landscape while preserving memories. Metatextual elements, on the other hand, have a tendency to erase memories and rewrite history.

If you know of good elderblog candidates, I’d appreciate links in the comments, perhaps with a short comment on what elder game is going on there, if any.

Elderblog Sutra: 3

This entry is part 3 of 9 in the series Elderblog Sutra

When you walk, your typical step is a step along the path you’re on. Steps that exit down a new path are exceptions. On the web, exit clicks are the default, voice clicks — which keep you in the current conversational context — are exceptions.

This exit bias of hypertext makes it difficult to match the deepening-attention experience of the printed book. In a book, page-turnings far exceed book switches. A page-turner is a a thriller that reinforces the  stay-on-the-trail bias of print. Even the most difficult books tend to sustain 2-3 page turnings per session. Online page-turners by contrast — think Taboola listicles with one titillating nugget per page — fight a losing battle from Link One. Even if you don’t supply outbound links, there are always open tabs lurking in the background: competing books within thumb-reach.

My hyperlinking philosophy has always been to avoid fighting the medium. Successful online content works by deepening the stream of consciousness rather than fighting the exit bias. Three models do this particularly well: single-page longform, streams, and threads.

Single-page longform works like a meditative-attention gravity well that gets harder to exit the deeper in you go. My longest post is 14,422 words, 4x a typical magazine feature. It would need ~30 page turnings if it weren’t on a single page.

Streams work by letting topic-level attention go stochastic, and deepening conversation-level attention. Twitter and Facebook invite you to swim upstream in place, always in the now, modulo some atemporal algorithmic vorticity. The archives of an elderblog invite you to swim downstream into long-term settled memories via internal links.

The thread (sutra in Sanskrit) is the youngest and most exciting innovation. You deepen the stream of consciousness by working with the smallest possible chunks. Originally 140 characters.

Of the three, the thread is the most likely to disrupt the printed book.

Elderblog Sutra: 4

This entry is part 4 of 9 in the series Elderblog Sutra

The idea of hypertext trails predates the internet. Vannevar Bush envisioned trails and trailblazing as early as 1945, in As We May Think.

I am part of a long tradition of trying and failing to build trails technology. I led a team at Xerox that built a product, called Trailmeme (2008-12, RIP), that created navigable, visual trail maps of web content that looked like this.

It was a lovely product that did exactly what I wanted. We just couldn’t find a way to sustain it.

Failures stay with you in a way successes don’t. I’m still licking my wounds from that failure, but I’m also still trying to figure trails out. So are others. Every couple of years, somebody takes a fresh tilt at the problem and fails. One part of my elderblogging experiments is a second serious stab at trails, this time from the content side rather than the technology side.

The closest we’ve ever come to trails has been the special case of chronological ordering, which eventually became the stream UX metaphor. But piggybacking chronology as a way to get to trail-based organization is not only limiting, it is a kind of cheating. Like floating down a river, but pretending to be moving under your own power.

The best generalized embodiment of trail-based organization can be found on blogs, in the form of post series. But such series rarely go beyond 2-3 parts.

But we’re close to cracking trails. The key breakthrough has been the rise of threads on Twitter (an invention arguably attributable to Marc Andreessen). Twitter threads are genuine trails, even though they’re confined to a single platform. They are not chronological sequences. The key idea: trail-like structure is created during the act of authoring, not as part of subsequent curation. The trail authoring and blazing problems are coupled.

Elderblog Sutra: 5

This entry is part 5 of 9 in the series Elderblog Sutra

One of the challenges of writing an elder blog is that by definition the archives are extensive, and of very mixed quality. At some point, all formally imposed structure — categories, tags, series, “best of year” or “most popular” lists — buckle under the sheer weight of content. Once you’re past a few hundred posts, with reasonably dense internal back-linking, your only hope for recovering some sort of structure from what is essentially a little walled-garden artisanal web is algorithms. Thanks to John Backus, I have an algorithmic lens on the unkempt wilderness of ribbonfarm for you today.

John mined the archives to compute the internal linking structure, which I then massaged further into an internal page rank for the archives. Here’s a little video of John playing with a graph visualization tool.

 

And here’s the spreadsheet with the mined data. Feel free to make a copy and play around with the data and my PageRank-esque formula, which generates this view of the archives:

The “Adjusted Page Rank” here is a function of three variables:

  1. The number of posts linking to a post. A good post should inspire the author, and hopefully other contributors, to cite it in future posts.
  2. The age of the post. If a post doesn’t accumulate backlinks, it sinks into obscurity. About half the posts in our archives have no backlinks.
  3. The “weight” of the author. Contributors who have written more are weighted less, so Sarah and I have the two lowest weights, at 1.0303 and 1.0037 respectively.

Note that external inbound links are specifically not included in this ranking. This is a purely internal measure. If you want the formulas:

Author_weight = 1+1/(num_posts)

Adjusted Page Rank =  Author_weight*num_links/age

Where num_posts is the number of posts with at least 1 backlink.

Obviously, there’s room for enhancements here, but it’s a start. Thanks John!

Elderblog Sutra: 6

This entry is part 6 of 9 in the series Elderblog Sutra

Last time, we took an content graph view of this elderblog. Now let’s take a word-count view. There is something pleasantly honest about word counts. They strike a thoughtful balance between weighing writing in too-literal (compressed file sizes) and too-abstract (post count) ways. Ribbonfarm has averaged 11,491 words/month over its 11.5 year history.

3 month moving average of ribbonfarm word count

The two spikes in 2007 and in 2017 are explained by me flushing out a pile of private drafts when I started, and the publishing of the longform course participant essays respectively. The steady accumulation is even clearer in the cumulative word-count graph:

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Elderblog Sutra: 7

This entry is part 7 of 9 in the series Elderblog Sutra

In the opener for this blogchain, I mentioned Edward Said’s idea of a late style and argued that elder blogs need to be the opposite of that. I found some clarity on what exactly the “opposite” of a late style is in this reflection by Argentine novelist César Aira whom I’ve never read or even heard of before. Aira has this lovely reflection:

Also, after the happy recklessness of youth, when things get done, if they do, in spite of the doer’s aspirations, it’s counterproductive to persist in striving for quality. I have always subscribed to the idea of High or Highbrow Culture, Art with a capital A. And art is not something that should be done well. If doing it well is what counts, it’s craft, production for sale, and therefore subject to the taste of the buyer, who will naturally want something good. 

Aira’s response to the siren song of “quality” was to reset his sights internally on a private project that is impossible to finish by construction: an encyclopedia. That way, all actual output becomes marginalia around the core, invisible, black-hole project. If you’re solving for an invisible infinite game at the core of your work, then the finite games around the periphery cannot turn into mind traps.

I felt a shock of recognition reading this essay. It mirrors my own thinking in an uncanny way, down to my own private, half-serious idea of an encyclopedia (though I’ve been thinking of it as a glossary for a private language), and the associated psychohistory project as the core of what I’m up to. It also harmonizes with my growing suspicion that mediocrity is The Way.

The heuristic here is the opposite of “live every day as though it were your last.” For creative work, it makes sense to live every day as though you were going to live forever, even though that’s obviously not true. That’s how an elderblog can avoid the trap of late style.

(ht Matthew Spencer, for the Aira link, in response to one of my mediocratopia posts, so some nice thread crossing there)

Elderblog Sutra: 8

This entry is part 8 of 9 in the series Elderblog Sutra

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the general problem of why creative work gets harder over time, beyond the specific challenges of elderblogging, and how that growing difficulty manifests. I give you: The Elder Game loop, or why Act 2 is harder than Act 1.

Very few people have ever beaten the Elder Game Loop in history (outside of feel-good movies like Rocky V and Rocky Balboa).

The short version of this is that creativity is easiest with cleared decks, and it gets harder to clear decks as you age. Or in one word: baggage.

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Elderblog Sutra: 9

This entry is part 9 of 9 in the series Elderblog Sutra

A friend recently remarked that I seem to have become concerned with my “legacy” lately (in both past and future senses of the terms). It struck me as an understandable gloss on some of my current interests, but fundamentally off somehow. To think of this blog as my “legacy” seems not just laughably self-important, but a category error of sorts. The word legacy seems like a non sequitur in the context of my interest in my personal history/baggage/madeline-indexed memories. So I decided to probe the idea a bit, starting from the dumbest, most literal-minded angle I could think of: raw time accounting.

Apparently, the number of people who have ever lived is about 108 billion (so about 7% of all who have ever lived are alive today). At an average lifespan of say 40, that’s about 4 trillion years of homo sapiens years in the species historical memory bank. If you live to an average lifespan of say 70 years, your personal story will, in raw data terms, constitute about 16 trillionths of all subjectively experienced/enacted history. If you prefer objective, chronological time comparisons, your 70 years is about 5 trillionths of all time, the universe being about 13.2 trillion years old.

These two measures are the personal temporal equivalents of the pale blue dot, but much worse.

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