Blogging peaked in 2009; I was there, just.

Suggestive data

Writing a ‘web log’ was mostly social: like a public diary; as if everyone was a hyper-local newspaper columnist with a letters page. “Here’s what I’ve been up to”; “here’s my reaction to what Dubya just said”; “I just remembered a thing”; “here’s why (a)theists are dumb”. More about process than product.

Half a dozen people used to comment on everything. There were various Spheres, where amateurs and professionals of various sorts thought out loud and gossiped and bitched. Famous economics professors followed my obscure fumbling posts, inexplicably.

It had an economy, thousands of people making a living off it (or anyway someone making money off it). That racket is still there, but the clever or young people long ago moved to Youtube, Insta, podcasts, and newsletters.

Blogs were supplanted by centralised social media. This was maybe because they’re more effective for broadcasting and harvesting status, and because no-one there is aiming for more than ephemerality. (When was the last time you looked at what anyone said on Facebook last year?) In the transition period, your Twitter or Tumblr page got called a microblog. 2 But people moved on, making the original unit superfluous.

My point: ‘Blogging’ has been used for both short-term indie punditry/self-expression, and long-term indie creative/intellectual work. The first is now on social media. The second lives on: I learned more from these personal sites than I did in three stints at university. Many of these sites are called blogs, but I say leave the word to the first thing.

An overlooked fact: the internet dies off at an astounding rate. The average link stops working after about two and a half years. Not only was blogging reactive and local; it was also mortal.

Low High
Low Blog Evergreen
Impressive High Live

Why prefer the bottom-right? Why not write ephemera, or for oneself only?

No binding reason: just if you want to do something big; if your ego or your morals demand it; if you want to seed more than a one-time flurry of agreement, disagreement, indifference, impressions. The rest of this piece is about the second column.

Foundations of long work

1. Slack
2. Perspective
3. Lifespan.
4. Backups (your stuff and your links)
5. Unusually resilient or portable software.
6. Public version control to prevent impropriety (memory holes, retcons, unstable testimony).
7. Maybe a notification for big updates, or a way of reporting diffs.
8. Something worth growing.

Essays vs blogposts

blogging is not a form of writing… Blogging is an activity that is so distinct from the experience of writing that it should be called something else altogether. One does not write a blog post except in the sense that one “writes” a shopping list or a business plan…

Blogging, in my experience, reduces writing to the short-term effects you have on your readers and they have on you. You try to have an immediate, essentially real-time impact on the discourse, which makes it much more like speech than writing. . . .

Thomas Basbøll

So, when I’m in a poncey mood, I say I don’t write blogposts - they’re essays. This ain’t no blog, it’s a site! Basbøll uses “Writing” for the real deal, to be backwards compatible with the likes of Roland Barthes. But this is the most confusing possible name for it.

In a way it’s funny to set up essays as a superior substitute for blogging / social media musing, since “essay” (attempt) was itself self-consciously inferior to big tedious monographs from the start. (“The essay - or microtreatise.”)

But never mind terminology. The inimitable Gwern aims for “long content”, work updated continuously for decades, living, growing piece by piece into magnificence:

how do you write a personal site with the long-term in mind? We live most of our lives in the future, and the actuarial tables give me until the 2070–2080s… What sort of writing could you create if you worked on it (be it ever so rarely) for the next 60 years? What could you do if you started now?…

what would constitute Long Content as opposed to the existing culture of Short Content?…

the pages will persist through time, and they will gradually improve over time. But a truly Long Now approach would be to make them be improved by time—make them more valuable the more time passes.

It’s not about being pompous or pretending to have timeless wisdom; it’s the attempt to do things that become more and more amazing, which are worth keeping updated, worth living up to.

e.g. Depending on the field, a PhD might involve reading 100 - 400 papers, doing a thousand hours of asynchronous, unpredictable Innovative Work, then writing about 5 papers. Minus the admin, the teaching load, the mandatory courses, etc: call it 6000 hours. If you did this for 5 hours a week, say on a Sunday afternoon after waking late and having brunch and ambling about, you could do something of comparable scale over about 20 years: with no financial implications, no sweat, no mental breakdown. While working full-time on other things, and with my life 30% gone already, I could do 5-10 things this hard, just with suitable long-sighted use of weekends. 3

(As it happens even serious academic work is surprisingly volatile; around half the links in the average academic paper die within a decade. There are often alternative ways to recover the target document, but not always.)

(As it happens I think most PhDs don’t have much impact on the world: they are read by say 4 other people, and maybe should not be read by many more than that. But that’s good: instead I can do a thousand bits, each their own contribution to the future of all things.)

If you’re reading this, you probably have a lot of energy, up to 10 big tickets. What do you want to spend them on?

Examples of great follies

  • Piero Scaruffi is the original: 5 decades of sustained idiosyncratic work. He has steadily built a corpus of unbelievable depth and breadth, including 9,000 detailed album-by-album profiles of musicians, and 10 spin-off books which seem to support him financially. His nearest rival is the much more famous Christgau, whose almost innavigable site is from 2001 and contains most of his vast professional output. Since John Peel’s knowledge dispersed on his death, we shall make do with these two.

  • The next I encountered was John Emerson: a scholar of ancient Chinese philosophy, Victorian history, heterodox economics, whatever. He told me his greatest regret was in not finding a community to challenge and be challenged by, to develop and be developed by. Isolation and the attendant irrelevance and softness is the great risk for independent scholars and I remain grateful to him for warning me. I fear him dead.

  • Gwern. Besides 100 small projects and his incredible reach on bleeding-edge deep learning, he has made himself the authority on so-called brain training, darknet markets, clever anime criticism, and more recently behavioural genetics.

  • Eric Weisstein's MathWorld rivals Wikipedia for scope and rigour (though it is not always forgiving to a beginner). An odd example, because it's the vanity project of a corporation, Wolfram Research, for which Weisstein has been staff encyclopedist for 24 years. Printed in hardcover it is 4300 pages long. Todd Rowland is another major contributor.

  • Michael Orthofer. 5000+ book reviews - or rather, not reviews, just judgments and one sentence. Mostly literature, and obscure and wonderful and rarefied stuff at that. Incredible geographical scope, well beyond the collected staff of most large newspapers.

  • David Pearce is about as influential as any freelance philosopher can be. Along with the similarly distinguished researcher Brian Tomasik, his huge collection of sites on utilitarianism, transhumanism, fundamental ontology, nootropics and psychoactives, animal rights, etc, has inspired a whole community of well-funded independent scholars. (NB: Note his unrepeatable trick of registering dozens of common vaguely related domain names; a spiderweb.)

  • I don't mean to totally demean the public journal style of weblog: there's historical value in seeing what pundits were saying at a given point in the early 21st century. The philosopher Robert Paul Wolff's site is a nice example of the dual nature of a blog: it contains his daily record of American political news and his vast, life-distilling tutorials on the great German philosophers. (Inbetween the two are his recollections of taking tea with Bertrand Russell and dancing with a Pulitzer Prize winner's wife.)

    This dear man makes me reconsider my strict division: leave both in, let a blog be high and low, short and long. Just as long as you do big stuff if you can. Marginal Revolution is the other obvious example doing both; it has a rich enough texture that its posts can refer back to themselves over say 15 year spans.

  • Andrew Gelman's blog manages the contradictions effortlessly. He reacts to hundreds of new papers a year, but posts on a 9-month lag after writing. This allows him to uncouple from the reactive journalistic stuff, and lets us see if his take holds up. I have learned so much from it, and indeed it is an accumulating, long-term project: it documents his shift towards understanding the deep problems in large parts of academic science.

  • Cosma Shalizi's notebooks + book reviews + one-offs were deeply inspiring to me, though he has slowed down a little in the last 5 years.

  • Nassim Taleb has for 15 years maintained a single page(!) with 160 entries all loosely tied to the idea of 'opacity' or systemically unobservable factors in all kinds of domains.

  • Bill Christensen's collection of 3,200 ideas, indexed by the first time a science fiction writer had them, and when they were realised in real life. Also an exhausting feed of all highbrow discussion of the ideas or sci-fi itself.

  • Peter Gibson has been building a database of Philosophical Ideas, 20000 so far, where he tries to tag high-level premises and so allow basic cross-referencing and comparison of philosophers. I don't think this site is a good way to learn philosophy or the history of philosophy, but as a tool for generating surprising ideas...

  • Bill Beaty is a very clear example of how odd and wonderful you can become if you spend decades tooling around on your own.

  • Kurtis Frank wrote the original version of pretty much on his own. It's now a respectable commercial operation, one of the few half-trustworthy sources in the great sewage-ridden field of nutrition and nootropics. But originally it was his research summaries and enthusiastic anecdotes about all the stuff he had personally swallowed.

  • TVTropes is not an auteur product like the others, but its scope and sheer depth represents far more than a lifetime of work. It's one of the most successful pieces of collaborative long content. It will live.

Independent and academic scholarship

I haven’t said anything about where to do this work. (In what institution.)

A lot of the sites I list in the accordion above are by part-time autodidacts, or retired scholars. I suppose this is because the incentives in academia are so often towards either small publons or giant monographs, each of which are set in stone once done. (Unless they are grossly flawed enough to trigger academia’s slow, dumb immune system.) (Or my search process is biased towards lone wolves.)

But the average academic work is more lasting than the average internet work. But it isn’t only durability we’re after. But it’s also more rigorous than the average internet work.

Robin Hanson has spotted a trend among independent scholars, a systematic bias against rigour, and so against durability.

over time amateurs blow their lead by focusing less and relying on easier, more direct methods. They rely more on informal conversation as analysis method, they prefer personal connections over open competitions in choosing people, and they rely more on a perceived consensus among a smaller group of fellow enthusiasts. As a result, their contributions just don’t appeal as widely or as long.

Take Hanson himself: he has about 100 academic publications, two big books, and something like 3000 blog posts. Which will be his biggest contribution in the end?

Maybe tenured academics are the people best placed to do long content: lots of time, lots of connections, some pressure towards rigour and communicability. But you should be able to do it outside uni, if you’re wary.

Think tanks are the usual way to be a full-time intellectual outside academia. But there are innovations that could enable group reinforcement and dialectic on a wider scale, for the many great part-timers: is the fullest version so far. Also The Winnower; The II. Preprint servers and post-publication review.

See also

  • Long content is really uncommon. Even great internet writing with a view to the long term (e.g. Eliezer Yudkowsky’s sustained braindump of 2007 to 2009) is never updated, when its problems are found at all. This should worry us, since it implies it’s hard to do. Maybe few people have stable enough goals and interests to do this, or just enough time.

  • The situation may be even worse in open source software, with projects overwhelmingly dead by 6 months old.

  • Basbøll, ‘What is blogging?
  • Gwern, ‘Long Content
  • Stock and flow (2010)
  • This has something to do with Digital gardens, but those are just an intermediate public phase between raw notes and final essays. Alive though.
  • Link rot

  1. By analogy, a good example of "High scale, low durability" are the incredible temporary buildings made for World's Fair expos.
  2. Which makes Insta and Tiktok 'picoblogs'.
  3. 20 hours at the weekend, 50 weeks a year, for 60 years = 60,000 hours. Probably quarter this for most people, owing to family commitments, senescence, value drift, illness, akrasia. So only 2 or 3 astonishing, unbelievable monuments to human wonder.

    For most people this is only sustainable for things you love doing, if then. But there are plenty of those.


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Tags: longtermism, self-representation, writing, lists


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