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

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

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

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

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.