23: Seasons

I wrote four drafts of this newsletter that I'm not going to send to you. Each one is about a completely different topic. None of them are bad, I don't think. I just feel ridiculous writing about anything "serious" right now.

I don't want to talk about design patterns for spatial software, cottagecore memetics, media colonialism, or lateral ergonomics. After each draft, I found myself asking "...why?," and I scratched them out and started over.

While I've been a Very Bad Blogger since starting my job at Substack (I promise there will be a day when I am able to write again), I've always thought of my blog as the place where I write about those kinds of topics more comprehensively, whereas this newsletter is a somewhat more personal place to let my mind wander: halfway between a blog and a journal.

I could pretend that I'm genuinely interested in exploring those other topics with you, but the truth is that that's not really what's occupying my mind these days. And I've always wanted this newsletter to be a place for me to write more freely. So, this month, as with every month, I'll give you what's actually on my mind…

My life these days is filled with sunshine and flowers. I made some lifestyle changes in order to make the days more tolerable. I hiked up my rent and upgraded to a bigger place with a spacious backyard. I put myself on a diet. I bought a car for the first time in my life. It's a convertible. It's fun to drive, but I can't help but wonder whether this is the equivalent of a pandemic midlife crisis.

My weeks are a mushy, meaningless blur of swirling rice in a pot of cold water, watching sunsets off my deck, floating on gymnastics rings in my backyard, careening down San Francisco hills towards the water. I'm over my head high, looking to bury myself in a body high.

A long, long time ago, a friend of mine got plastic surgery. Afterwards, she texted me a photo of her recovering body, covered in a giant bruise from her rib cage to her knees. She said that recovery can feel strangely good: it makes you aware of your body's limitations, where all you can do is wallow. Sometimes it feels good to give yourself up entirely to your circumstances, to feel like there is nothing you can do besides what's right in front of you.

Everyone is leaving the city, if they haven't left already. The streets are empty, the street curbs dotted with moving trucks. My social circles are scattered and broken in a way that they never have been, and hopefully never will be again. My day-to-day is not peaceful, even if it looks like everything I'd previously imagined peace to be. These are wartime circumstances, just wrapped in a filter of something deadly and beautiful.

Right now is indisputably a suspension of life, a hand thrown up to protect one’s face, a year in which nothing really matters except survival. I don't want to pretend like right now is just another set of circumstances to be analyzed. It's not. I want to describe it in a way that's different from how I used to talk, but I don't know how because all I really know how to do is use my words instead of my body.

It's August now, and I have so few memories of doing anything this year. I've had a lot of group chats, FaceTime calls, phone calls, video calls, and even a few trips out of town, but those memories all feel translucent somehow, like I could put my hand right through them.

My lack of memories this year makes it easy for me to remember the four separate occasions that I have seen one of my few good friends who’s still in San Francisco; each of which, upon reflection, now seems to mark the passage of pandemic time like the changing seasons.

Spring: The first time we decided to meet in person, it was April, in a park outdoors. I walked forty-five minutes to get there because I didn't want to take an Uber. My fingers turned white as the sun set and I realized that because everything was closed down, I couldn't go inside anywhere to warm back up.

Summer: The second time was in May, my first time venturing into a house that was not my own. I took my first Uber ride in three months, with my mask on and windows down. When I arrived, I was greeted by an atmosphere that was warm and convivial and strangely domestic. Everyone flitted in and out of the common spaces; two friends were spending their afternoon doodling on the dining room table. I'd never seen his place so lively before.

Fall: The third time we met, it was in June, meeting up with another friend who'd briefly stopped back in town. We hung out at a nearby park on a sunny day, playing music and drinking White Claw on a picnic blanket. Seeing multiple friends together at once felt like a rare, fleeting luxury.

Winter: The last time we met was this week. This time, he was leaving for an international trip with no return ticket. His spacious home was dead and empty now, because everyone else had finally left the city. I drove to his house in my new car with the top down, feeling like a person that I didn't recognize. We laid out on the deck, blinking in the frigid sunshine, watching the fog roll over Sutro Tower, with long stretches of silence as we sat, uncomfortable and alone with our thoughts.


A mini-update about my book: if you haven't already seen on Twitter, the official launch day got delayed to August 4th due to COVID-related shipping delays, combined with the fact that apparently you all bought too many copies. (Thank you <3) If you pre-ordered a copy, it'll get shipped tomorrow. (If you already have a copy, it's because Amazon mysteriously shipped out ~400 copies early. Consider yourself lucky!)

If I haven't replied to your email, DM, or message, I apologize. I’m very grateful for everyone's support, and I'm doing my best to get through my messages.

Okay, last thing. I don't typically share interviews of myself in here (you already subscribe to this thing, do you really need more of me?), but I recently hopped on the a16z Podcast to talk to Sonal Chokshi about Working in Public. Sonal's known my open source work since the early days, and she immediately "got" the book and its message. I can be sort of guarded about talking about ideas that I hold close to my heart, but I'm happy with the conversation we had here. So if you haven’t bought the book, but you still want a rundown of the main concepts, you can listen here.

Notes

Notes from June and July have been updated. A few highlights:

  • How to virtually simulate a “fidget experience” / walking outside together? Ex. ppl listen to talks better when they have something to fidget with, and similarly going on a walk together gives two ppl something else to passively look at, which makes the conversation richer

  • Maybe 2020 is the year that solipsism died, and that’s what’s so painful about this year. That for so long, it felt like we were increasingly mastering our environment, able to control every aspect of it, finely tune and dial up and down whichever things we did or didn’t like. But this year, it’s all about ceding control back to the collective. You HAVE to take part in this global narrative, whether you like it or not. By comparison, it feels so...crude!

  • There’s an argument to be made that really successful co’s are post-scarcity and therefore actually the best entities to incubate the arts/culture/literature etc (vs. academia)

Links

  • How to Do Nothing (Jenny Odell): This book taunted me all month while I tried to read it. "I don't have time to read!" I'd scream in my head. "But this book is supposed to tell me how to do nothing!" Anyways, don’t be fooled by the title: this isn’t a self-help book, but rather a lovely philosophical meditation by a thoughtful, well-read human being. I didn't agree with everything in it, but I found myself really liking the author as a person (whom I don't know personally). One section I particularly enjoyed was Jenny quietly eviscerating the secessionists and utopian colonists of the world who try to escape from reality, which I didn't quite expect, and again points to the ways that this book avoids many of the typical tropes and pitfalls to make its case.

  • "Come for the Network, Pay for the Tool" (Toby Shorin): The always-excellent Toby Shorin wrote a great piece about paid communities. I'm not sure that I resonate with the concept of "paid communities" as its own taxonomy, rather than "paid" as a means of enabling other community types, but I love seeing more discourse about subscription models for communities, and Toby introduces a bunch of questions that are worth ruminating on.

  • "By the Books" (Mailchimp): I may have mentioned my love of Microsoft Bob aesthetic in here before – especially these days, as I'm craving all things tactile – and so I love this mini-project that Mailchimp put out of books, essays, films, and podcasts, neatly arranged on "bookshelves" that move when you brush your cursor against them.

  • Wanderverse (Sonya Mann): My friend Sonya quit her job to write full-time. I enjoy her thoughts on just about anything, but I particularly enjoy the physical zines she creates, as well as this refreshing new fiction project she's recently embarked on. Her work always reminds me to think with my hands and not just my head.

  • "280" (isosteph): I'm always on the hunt for more cultural artifacts that tell the story of San Francisco in a way that's not typically portrayed by mainstream journalism, and so I enjoyed this piece by isosteph about driving down 280.

22: Working in Public

Last fall, I mentioned a book I'd read called Free Flight, by James Fallows, about our commercial flight system and the future of flight. It was published in June 2001.

“Man,” I thought, when I saw that date. “That's pretty unfortunate. Can you imagine writing and releasing a book about commercial flight three months before 9/11?”

Well anyways, I've got news: I've published a book about online communities, told through the story of open source developers – written just before the stay-at-home pandemic that uprooted how we think about ourselves in digital spaces. It's called Working in Public: The Making and Maintenance of Open Source Software, now available for pre-order on Amazon.

This was a major undertaking, bringing together five years of research into open source developers, combined with fresh thoughts about how they mirror the creator economy more broadly. I thought I'd take this issue to share why I wrote this book, why I think it matters, and especially why it matters right now.


I was first attracted to open source – public code that everybody relies upon – after observing that its developers are creating trillions of dollars in economic value, while giving away their code for free.

The common explanation for this discrepancy is that open source is a volunteer group effort, like Wikipedia. But, digging a little deeper, I found that the cooperative nature of open source was largely overstated. While examples of large-scale collaboration exist, there are also countless projects maintained by individual developers. (Imagine if Wikipedia were mostly written by one person…which is actually not entirely off-base.)

To address this issue, I started with the hypothesis that “more people should contribute to open source.” If maintainers are overworked, more contributors could help alleviate the burden.

But in practice, this didn't seem to be the case. If anything, too many low-quality contributions were often the cause of maintainers' problems!

Meanwhile, as I tried to make sense of these implications, the world went through a populist explosion, driven in part by the 2016 presidential election, which recast our social platforms not as mere entertainment, but de facto governments lacking geographic borders.

The ensuing chaos changed how we interacted with each other online, albeit slowly. We sought relief from our cacophonous hyper-public spaces, looking to higher contextual ground for quieter, cozier corners of the web to nuzzle into.

I eventually realized that what was happening to open source mirrored what was happening to the world writ large, and that these developers – who’d started experiencing these issues a few years before everyone else – had a lot to tell us about where the world was going.

Maggie Appleton’s vision of the web.

Open source has always reflected the broader social trends of our online world. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, open source inspired people looking to understand the nascent “open web.” Both were about maximizing access and participation, where contributors come together in service of a bigger project.

Since 2016, however, we are undeniably moving into a second epoch of the social web, one in which “public” no longer equals “participatory.” This shift requires that we refactor our understanding of online communities.

It seems clear to me that individuals, not just groups, are defining the next generation of the internet. Social platforms don't just connect us to people we already know, but also serve as a stage for us to discover, follow, and interact with creators. In the shift from “friends” to “followers,” these communities became parasocial in nature, centered around individual creators, rather than a distributed crowd.

Kevin Systrom, who co-founded Instagram, said in 2018 that:

Social media is in a pre-Newtonian moment, where we all understand that it works, but not how it works. There are certain rules that govern it and we have to make it our priority to understand the rules, or we cannot control it.

We all get it at this point: something's changed. But what is it, and how do we navigate and operate in this new world? Are there preexisting examples that can help us understand it? This year, as we're increasingly required to rely upon our online spaces for work and play, it's become even more crucial to deeply understand our underlying social infrastructure.

For me, it was open source developers that helped me make sense of the future. They've long experienced the frog-boiling that came with prior social norms of “everybody participates” butting up against the reality of “participation doesn't scale.” And they have to figure it out in a way that other creators don't. An Instagram creator who doesn't look at their DMs might miss a few good ones. But if an open source developer doesn’t read their bug reports, other people's lives are materially impacted, visible in the form of site outages and security breaches flitting through the news headlines.

I wrote this book because I felt there is so much wisdom we can glean from the world of open source. But the only books I could find reflect an expired reality – the early, communitarian version of open source. By shedding light on how modern open source works today, I hope to prompt new ideas about how the rest of our online world is evolving.

Finally, it's impossible to examine the social dynamics of these communities without also considering their economic implications. Online content is an unresolved conundrum since the dawn of the internet. It's extremely difficult to monetize, despite being worth quite a lot to us socially.

To address this, I decided to evaluate the economics of code and content in terms of a reputation-based economy. We’ve historically treated con­tent as a first­-copy cost problem, which intellectual property helps to solve for. But the challenges facing online creators today derive from playing a repeated game, not a single one. It’s not enough to make one good hit: you have to keep making content to stay relevant. Examining who produces content, not just what they produce, can help us understand how to think about the value of online content today.

Okay, that's my spiel. You don't have to be technically-minded to read Working in Public, just someone who's curious about how creators operate today and how our economy might reorient itself around their work. You can pre-order a copy here:

Pre-order on Amazon

Thank you for reading! On to the rest of your regularly scheduled newsletter.


Notes

Notes from this past month have been updated. A few highlights:

  • I'd rather be a memos-driven company culture than a numbers-driven culture. Are these two things at odds? Do they develop in different ways?

  • What would spreadsheets reimagined as a messaging app look like? Not repurposing existing spreadsheet software for messaging, but a messenger app that's spreadsheet-like. Like the same way Discord is messaging reimagined as audio-first, this would be messaging that's…tactile-first?

  • I kinda want to see someone make the argument that terrible healthcare isn't a bug, but a feature of the United States. Like essentially steelman why bad healthcare is quintessentially American, instead of framing it as a crisis

  • "Builder communities" that are oriented around an activity? (making open source software, playing Minecraft, choreographing dance routines, etc) Getting to know ppl by doing something alongside them is often better than milling around and talking. This was true of offline communities already, but can we now use that as a design principle for online communities as well?


Links

  • Snow Country (Yasunari Kawabata): This book was so sad! It's about a doomed romance between a geisha and her wealthy client (more in the genre of “lonely hearts” fiction), so I knew what I was getting into when I read it, but the heavy unspoken dialogue between characters made it especially sting, like sticking my bare hand into a bucket of snow. If that's your thing, have at it.

  • The Rediscovered Writings of Rose Wilder Lane: Literary Journalist (Amy Mattson Lauters): A pleasant collection of essays by Rose Wilder Lane, who co-wrote the Little House on the Prairie books and also helped define the early libertarian movement. I love this early 20th century, down-home cozy version of American libertarianism, where everyone's preaching self-reliance and homeschooled education. I enjoyed these both for the first-hand historical perspective and Rose’s energetic writing style (her travel essays are great!).

  • “Party in a Shared Google Doc” (Marie Foulston): The title says it all. Marie also shares a link to the Google Doc, so you can see exactly how the party played out. Lots of fun inspiration in here.

  • “Dear Cynthia” (Marcin Wichary): Marcin tells the story of tracking down the photographer of an image that he wanted to use in his book. Reading Marcin's writing is like looking at a Richard Serra: it's process art. He's writing a book about keyboards, and I don't even care about keyboards! But I care about how much Marcin cares about keyboards; his obsessions are infectious to be around.

  • “Sidebar: Mutual Hostilities”: A side project I've thought about is creating an anthology of internet-first philosophies and the seminal works of prominent bloggers associated with each one. I'm not sure I have the stamina for it, but I did like reading this piece examining the relationship between rationalists ("amateur philosophers" who refined their thinking on online forums) and professional philosophers. I've often wondered what professional philosophers think of internet-first philosophers, and vice versa, if they think anything at all.

21: Out of Body

As we've transferred our collective consciousness to the stratosphere, a spaceship veering hastily out of Earth's orbit in a fiery blaze, I've found some strange comfort in the transformed stillness that remains in our physical world.

Our brains have fled to higher celestial ground, while our bodies have been reduced to sims. We're all still physically here, standing on this idyllic beach, jogging along the peaceful water at sunset, lying on the grass in the sunshine, but our minds live elsewhere. I'm an NPC now, and I kind of like it.

I thought I knew what it meant to be an NPC, that soothing state where dialogue is limited to whatever a game developer could've programmed into you. But the NPCs in my life — neighbors, shopkeepers, passersby — were still capable of toeing the transgressive line, and that was always the danger. In my old life, I'd flee cafes and bars when the baristas and bartenders started asking personal questions, rerouted my daily walks and bus routes when my companions got too familiar. [1]

But now, everyone's really an NPC. We're outright forbidden to get close to people we don't know, and strangely this seems to have made everybody much kinder. Perhaps there's a relief in knowing nothing more is expected of us, except to be polite and maintain our 3 feet of distance and smile demurely with our half-covered faces. (I'm assuming, of course, that everyone's as curmudgeonly as I am.) There is no possible timeline where we progress beyond pleasantries anymore, and this feels nice for a change.

Meanwhile, my soul, liberated from its body, is having a party on the internet. If internet friends are like moon-people, we've all slingshotted ourselves into space. My physical world may have been pleasantly lobotomized — rolling green hills, quiet creaking marinas, and the occasional very dull trip to the grocery store — but my online world has become infinitely more rich and interesting.

Online Town, Netflix Party, Discord, ham radio, 3-D printable gifts sent as CAD files, networked printers (the messages printing themselves out like on a Ouija board), meeting up on Figma, meeting up on Mario Party, meeting up on Animal Crossing, meeting up on Minecraft, meeting up on World of Warcraft. My lack of physical presence isn't a limitation, it's a liberation. Doused by a chemical accident, we've discovered we can morph into silver puddles and reappear wherever we please.

I don't need my body anymore. I'm enjoying learning how to interact using a new, proprioceptive set of senses. Yes, it's tactile, but I'm not really touching you. Yes, it's visual, but I'm not really seeing you. A phone call feels more intimate than a Zoom call. Doing activities together feels more intimate than talking. The best online interactions I've had don't try to recreate the past, but start with the premise of disembodiment.

(Are we in purgatory? Maybe we're having a near-death experience, the kind that happens when your heart rate’s plummeted and the doctors are trying to revive you. The experience only lasts fifteen seconds in the real world, but when you're the one who's dying, it stretches into a glorious eternity.)

Weirdly, Twitter feels like the most boring place I could be right now. It feels too Old World, like trudging to an office building when I've just arrived in the disco afterlife. I'd rather be a spooky spirit ghost haunting the radio waves with my friends, exploring the backwaters of the internet, gleefully playing pranks and dissolving into fits of giggles.

Back in February, a friend mused in our Messenger group: “What if we made our own custom group chat app to hang out on?” The idea struck me as quaint, but unnecessary: after all, everyone knows there are only so many messaging apps to choose from, and most of them are made by Facebook.

Fast-forward two months, and I've hung out on at least three different chat apps that my friends have built for fun. Who knows whether it’ll last; weren't we supposed to be getting more “efficient”, whatever that means? But now, it's the homegrown apps, the suboptimal apps, the janky apps, that give us the texture and variety we're craving, while the sleek apps, the Made by Facebook apps, the 99.9%-uptime apps, feel like chipped plastic, hard and hollow and unappealing.

Maybe our hearts are flatlining right now, but until we’re all revived, I’m enjoying this strange fun interlude. It feels like 2013 again.

[1] Before we had video games, Jane Jacobs called this “sidewalk life” which is probably a nicer way of saying NPCs, but I don't find the term NPC offensive, because I'm just as much an NPC in other people's lives as they are in mine. To me, it's about having a mutual respect for personal space, which is basically required in a densely-populated urban area. In other words, NPC-ing one's environment is an adaptive behavior, not reflective of a lack of regard for humanity.


A funny thing that's changed about writing these newsletters in the past two months is that when I sit down to write, I always feel like I'm chronicling the end of a phase. Writing these updates feels like trying to describe a state that's receding from me, like painting a sky full of stars that are already dead. I don't expect my "out-of-body" state will ring true in another week or two; I already feel my soul being recalled to its physical form again.

Phase 0 (March) was total mind annihilation. Phase 1 (April) was the lone astronaut, floating in a sea of wreckage. Now I'm putting away the video games and the baking supplies, slowly shedding my quarantine clothing. I'm not sure what Phase 2 (May) looks like yet, but when I try to imagine the road ahead, my vision is filled with flowers.


Since we're all lonely astronauts right now, dreaming of our loved ones and our former lives, I thought I'd share a little snippet from Chronic City. One of the main characters, Janice, is a glamorous astronaut trapped in space, waiting to come home. Everything we know about her comes from the letters she writes to her boyfriend, Chase, who lives in New York City:

"Inside [the spaceship] we've managed to kid ourselves that we exist…Oh, the lie of weightlessness! We only feel we're floating because we're forever falling, as in an elevator with no bottom floor to impact. And so, inside the elevator, the human party continues oblivious, the riders flirt and complain and mix zero-G cocktails, or chase bewildered zero-G leaf-cutter bees."

Notes

Notes from the past two months have been updated. Frankly, going through my recent notes was a little horrifying: I’d been mostly making lists of things (I guess this is a habit I fall into when I'm stressed?), as well as pandemic thoughts that were so specific to a particular day or week that they feel too irrelevant to share now. These past couple of months have felt compressible to everyone, I suppose, but this is my way of saying I haven’t had a whole lot going on in my head recently.

Anyways...a few highlights:

  • I think I find information suicide (is there a better term for this that’s not so depressing? identity switching?) interesting for the same reasons that other people find longevity interesting. Why shouldn’t I be able to start a new game under the same body? There’s some parallel to longevity here bc the answer is “biology dictates our social norms”...and in both cases it's about challenging whether that biologically-driven life trajectory is something we have to cater to after all. Like if longevity is pitched as a failure of the imagination to think beyond our physical bodies and beyond death, I feel like there is also a failure of imagination to think about how else our physical bodies can be creatively repurposed during our current 80-year time span

  • A new hire bringing in their favorite tools for the job is like a new spouse moving into your house with their favorite stuff. “Nesting” at their new employer

Books

I read whatever spoke to me on my bookshelf last month. This trio of books feels very Phase 1 Quarantine to me, a triptych of dark and lovely tales that helped me gulp past my fears and stare directly into the vantablack of a world coming apart.

  • Industrial Society and Its Future (Ted Kaczynski): I always enjoy reading a good manifesto, because the term "manifesto" seems to give people cover to say whatever it is they're really thinking. Kaczynski’s thesis about over-reliance on systems is way more interesting to contemplate today; his work also provides a nice foil to pmarca's “IT'S TIME TO BUILD” essay. I think Kaczynski would say there’s a fundamental question pmarca didn’t address, which is: But why should we build? In Kaczynski’s view, it’s not that this machine failed us, as pmarca claims, but all machines that will always fail, so long as we continue to build.

  • The Call of Cthulu & Other Stories (H.P. Lovecraft): The horror, the horror! Just kidding, that was Kurtz of course, but I'd like to think Lovecraft and Joseph Conrad would've been friends, creeping their bony fingers around the ugly edges of humanity. Reading these stories feels like screaming into a pillow (“The Beast in the Cave” is my favorite), which is deliciously good at a time like this.

  • The Machine Stops (E.M. Forester): David Laing (who’s great) recommended this novella last month, and I quite enjoyed it. It’s about a world that looks remarkably like ours right now, with everybody living in isolated pods, connected only by The Machine, which works just fine until, well, the machine stops. This felt so on-the-nose to current events that I almost felt guilty reading it. I also like thinking of it as the literary companion to Kaczynski’s work, a bit of agitprop commissioned by his tree-emoji followers: “Is this the world you want? Is it?!”

Links

  • “Spatial Software” (John Palmer): John explores how software can use “spatial interfaces” to provide its users with new ways of thinking and interacting. I'm grateful to this essay because it was the first thing I read post-COVID that helped me find the plot again (to use Venkatesh’s term).

  • “Holy Water” (Joan Didion): Joan's ode to water, and our ability to control it, is a beautiful, deeply Californian essay. It popped back into my head early last month while I was praising the dry goods in my home, holding a bag of flour—sold out in stores—with renewed wonder.

  • “PSST...” (Helen Tseng): A fun little "care package" with magical mystic flair, dedicated to re-grounding its reader in the local and physical. I love stumbling upon quirky projects like these; I also recommend checking out Helen's beautiful personal website!

  • “World Of Warcraft vs. COVID-19” (Nikhil Krishnan): I recently discovered Nikhil's writing on the healthcare industry, which is funny and irreverent and approachable all at the same time. In this post, he writes about a 2005 “pandemic” in World of Warcraft, when an infectious spell that drained a player’s health started spreading through their pets.

20: Mannequins

I turned in my book manuscript a few weeks ago. It took 18 months to complete, if I start counting from the moment when the idea first wormed into my brain. It's by far the biggest writing project I've ever tackled.

Afterwards, I expected to feel a satisfying sense of completion, but mostly I just felt relieved. I didn't think of it as having finished a manuscript so much as having expelled a virus from my body. [1]

What I hated most about this past year was feeling unable to seriously think about anything besides this one thing. Everything I read or talked about was in service to the thing. There was nothing but the thing. I wrote the thing so I could get it out of my head, but I honestly don't even know if it's good. Maybe I got infected by a mediocre virus, like dying unexpectedly from the common cold.

While I was writing, I'd often find myself fantasizing about my post-book life. My other, neglected ideas sulked at me from their dusty corners like long-faced Afghan hounds, and I'd turn away, muttering that I'd be back when all this was over. In my post-book life I will write about all the other things I've been meaning to write about. In my post-book life I will go on a real vacation. In my post-book life I will find myself with an unexpectedly free evening, and instead of writing, I will drink wine and play video games.

I spent my first book-free Saturday lying in bed, doing nothing, letting random thoughts drift through my head and feeling totally bewildered by the concept of leisure time. Then I pulled myself together and started tackling all those neglected ideas. I revisited the mess of notes I'd been pushing off. I drafted up a few blog posts and told myself I'd start publishing again the following week.

But within a week, the small tickle in my Twitter feed's throat surged into a raging infection. I'd seen news cycles take over Twitter before. They usually clear up within a few days, but this one only got worse. I watched it spread: 10% of my feed. 30% of my feed. 80% of my feed. Then, very suddenly, 100% of my feed, fully metastasized, all screaming about the same thing.

I realized, with a sense of horror, that I'd been infected again, this time with an idea-virus I didn't want, but that massively outdwarfed the one that had gripped me for merely a year and a half. With each person it infected, the virus grew stronger, making it impossible to escape. I and others ceased to be real people. We'd been swapped out for wooden mannequins, marching through our day and repeating the same three or four dialogue options. “It's not about protecting yourself, it's about protecting others.” “It's about slowing growth, which means we have to take aggressive measures now.” “Oh, we just stocked up on groceries, working from home, being cautious but not doing anything too crazy, how ‘bout you?”

It felt as if the insides of my brain had been unwillingly scooped out and taken from me, like something from The Body Snatchers. I didn't want this virus. I had my own small set of homegrown strains that I'd been eager to unleash upon myself. But every person I encountered was also infected, so we could only mechanically flail our limbs and parrot our practiced lines to each other.

The last friend I saw in person – about two weeks ago now — set a timer on her phone for an hour. We tried not to talk about it, but we lasted 16 minutes before the virus consumed our minds and mouths and voices, late into the night.

The financial market crashed, but I guess I'm also quietly mourning the crash of our social markets. Of course things will bounce back, but in the meantime, I feel totally paralyzed by the sameness that's been forced upon us, stretching into an interminable horizon. While the virus grips our minds, all other thoughts are rotting in the wings, waiting for the market to recover.

This virus is stronger than anything else that I could talk about. On the other hand, being part of this grand global experiment is probably way more interesting. (When's the last time this many people were forced to think about the same thing, all at once?) At least, that’s what I tell myself I’ll think when I look back on this time in five to ten years. Ideas don't belong to people, anyway, so I've succumbed for now. I don't have a choice in the matter, and neither, it seems, does anyone else.

---

[1] I wrote about idea-viruses last year, meaning that I think of people as a conduit of (“prophets”), rather than the driver of (“founders”), ideas.


Apropos of nothing, here's my current workout routine. It's a loose mix of HIIT, aerial circus, and kickboxing stuff that I like to do. I wouldn't say it's the most optimized routine, but right now, doing the same thing every day feels comforting, like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

  • 15-min run along the water

  • Stand on platform by the beach, lower body circuit, do:

    • 20x jumping jacks

    • 15x air squats

    • 15x lunges with double pulse at the bottom + high knee

    • Hold lateral lunge, 15x toe taps (same leg as lunges)

    • Switch legs, repeat lunges + lateral lunges on other leg

    • 15x split jumps or jump squats

  • Repeat however many times until I feel like I'm gonna die

  • Stand and gaze upon the water, briefly contemplate my existence

  • 15-min run home

  • Abs interlude, do:

    • 15x V-ups (keep legs dead straight)

    • 15x straddle V-ups (straight legs)

    • 15x pike V-ups (legs bent to tabletop)

    • 25x jab-cross situps

    • 15x scissor kicks

  • 10x burpees

  • 15x mountain climbers

  • Upper body circuit, do:

    • 30x pushups

    • 15x bent-over rows on each side

    • 15x double bent-over rows

    • 15x double curl to press

    • 15x overhead tricep extensions

    • 15x deadlifts

    • 15x kettle swings


Notes

Notes from this past month have been updated. A few highlights:

  • There’s some parallel between how people undervalue local politics, and the idea that “we treat the people closest to us worse than anyone else”. Like somehow having this greater level of intimacy actually makes people take it more for granted

  • Why does building a personal brand on Medium feel icky, but building a personal brand on Twitter does not, even though both are equally homogenizing products?

  • Underrated: suburbs as breeding ground for creativity. There’s nothing else to do, so you turn to your computer/phone, switching off between your virtual world and the cozy comfortable cul-de-sacs, shooting the shit with your friends and letting your mind wander

  • Something I don’t really get: with some hedonistic experiences (like college drinking), eventually after doing them repeatedly for awhile, they start to lose their novelty/appeal. But other hedonistic inputs (like sugar) don’t have that quality. Why not?


Links

  • Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right (Jennifer Burns): I've often wondered why Ayn Rand is such a lonely figure, despite her success. If her work was so popular, why didn't she have more intellectual peers? This well-written biography gave me some clues, including her staunch atheism that clashed with the rise of a religious right. Ideas aside, I find myself endlessly tickled by Rand’s grumpy personality (at one point she describes the “disgusting California sunshine” when she's forced to move from New York to LA). I also find something lovely about how she chose to live her life, totally immersed in ideas, even as they made her miserable. She may not have been well-liked, but damn this woman knew what she wanted.

  • The City & The City (China Miéville): I haven't read this book recently, but I can't stop thinking about it whenever I’m outside right now (less than an hour per day, I promise!). It's about two cities that are built on top of the same geographic space. The residents from each city maintain separation by observing social norms like not looking at each other, ignoring sounds from the other “city”, etc. When I first read this book, I thought “man, that's a super interesting idea, but totally unrealistic”. Now that I'm living in a version of it, I keep thinking how pandemics are a really good plot device that I hadn't considered before.

  • “How Carrots Became The New Junk Food” (Douglas McGray): How baby carrots became a thing, as told by the CEO of Bolthouse Farms. Apparently they made a deliberate propaganda campaign (not even tied to their company’s name!) to reinvent the image of carrots. What I particularly loved about this is how baby carrots were deliberately marketed as a junk food rather than a health food (they come in little plastic packages, they're crunchy like potato chips). Lots of fascinating brand decisions that are covered in here.

  • “The Hunt for the Death Valley Germans” (Tom Mahood): A very entertaining read from a retired civil engineer who got obsessed with an unsolved search-and-rescue mystery. Taking matters into his own hands, he successfully tracked down a missing family that had disappeared 20 years before. The ultimate nerd snipe. And, of course, a story of amateurs triumphing over experts, which is always my favorite kind of read.

  • “Network Status” (Lumi): Lumi is a platform for package manufacturing. They made this website to track the "uptime" status of supply chains, given the ongoing disruptions, which I just thought was rather clever. I like thinking about physical supply chains like software and vice versa, in that both are forms of infrastructure.

19: Internet friends

You might've seen a bunch of these fun social graphs circulating around Twitter a few weeks ago. For example:

There was something surreal to me about seeing my world unexpectedly centered by a stranger on a few hundred pixels. These days, I think of my time on Twitter as primarily social. I don't have anything to shill (for now, anyway). I reply more than I tweet. Mostly, I come on Twitter to hang out with other people I know from Twitter, and maybe meet some new people along the way. And so I felt a bit surprised that these relationships would be interesting enough for anyone to graph in the first place.

I've been doing some version of “socializing on the internet” since I was old enough to use a computer: chatrooms, games, forums, blogging sites, social media, group chats. I've never really stopped hanging out with strangers online; I just move towns every couple of years.

Subconsciously, I figured my use of Twitter differed from my early online days, back when divulging a single photo of yourself was a coveted act of friendship. Back then, I thought of myself as having “internet friends” and “IRL friends”, and those two worlds didn't overlap in any way. My online social life was filled with people whose names I didn't know, doing things that had absolutely nothing to do with our day-to-day lives.

Once everyone got on social media, my online interactions switched from being “people I know from the internet” to “people I know from real life”. My internet friends started sending me Facebook requests. I'd accept, then scroll through my friend list, amused to see their real names appear alongside other people I knew. To me, Facebook was a place for IRL friendships – after all, I’d signed up with my college email address.

Similarly, my Twitter account is tied to my real name and public identity. Twitter has real-life consequences: I've made close friends, relationships, found most of my interesting work through Twitter. Although I'm loathe to admit it, Twitter has become the operating system for my offline life. [1]

Seeing those graphs, though, I had the strange sensation that my online-offline world was looping back onto itself, where internet friends and IRL friends are becoming indistinguishable from one another. If I'm ever asked how I met one of these friends, I say that we met through Twitter, which is shorthand for “I know this person from a particular friend group whose shared social context is Twitter.” I think of them as IRL friends, because they are very much a part of my real life.

But what does it mean to have “Twitter friends”, anyway? If a Twitter friend is someone you hang out with, work with, party with, date, does that make them an IRL friend, even if you met them online? Or is it just that internet friends are slowly cannibalizing our offline world?

An old college friend called me from Germany out of the blue the other day. We hadn't spoken in years, but we immediately fell back into familiar territory, reminiscing about rum and tequila, late-night döner, that time we tried to sneak onto a military base to eat Taco Bell. (Mmm, Taco Bell.) I could feel the shape of our friendship through the phone. It was cozy, palpable. His voice made me feel centered in my body.

We started out on a phone call, but he insisted that we turn on FaceTime, if only for a moment. I hesitated, hedged, protested. I was conducting our impromptu reunion from the backseat of an Uber, sweaty after kickboxing class, en route to a friend's house. Truthfully, I feel uncomfortable about connecting my body to my disembodied voice these days, used to being permitted to hide behind screens and text.

He persisted, and I finally agreed, rolling my eyes. Standing on a quiet street in the Mission, I switched on my camera, held it up to my face. A pause...and then I saw him pop up on my screen, eyes warm and crinkling, smiling widely. “Ahhhhh, there you are!” he beamed, clearly thrilled to see me. It made me happy. He was right: it didn’t feel like a proper reunion until we saw each others' faces.

I think about the first group of friends I made when I moved to San Francisco, a patchwork of roommates who've lived in various apartments across space and time. When I think back to those early years, I remember us huddled on a couch in our impossibly tiny apartment, watching movies. I remember a butter fight that broke out in the kitchen, ridiculous costumes, impromptu wrestling matches. I remember spending hours and hours in our living room, talking about nothing, vaguely wishing that time didn't exist, until one of us would finally take a forbidden glance at the clock and herd the rest of us to bed.

By contrast, my internet friends keep house in group chats, endlessly texting screenshots and links and silly memes to each other at a pace that I find challenging to keep up with, my phone an endless glowing forge of possibility, flickering with every new message. When I reflect upon our shared memories, my vision is filled with blue and white: the colors of our message bubbles flying back and forth. I peruse screenshots, not photos, to remember the good times. It's not that we don't have photos together; it's just not where my brain goes first.

My internet friendships look a lot like my IRL friendships, but they lack corporeality, are impossible for me to get my fingers around. When we hang out in person, our offline interactions look a lot like our online ones: talking, analyzing, processing, thinking out loud, asking questions, reflecting, words, words, words. Our brains are directly wired into one another. Our bodily expressions are confined to heart-eyes, wow, angery, cry, or whichever limited faces our messaging apps allow us to make. We blow blue bubbles at each other. We convey our emotions through slang and punctuation, express our love through memes.

I like to think about these friendships as space friendships, like growing up on Mars or the moon instead of on Earth. A moon-woman might be genetically human, but she'd be stretched tall, willowy and pale.

Most friendships start as relationships of proximity, whether we met replying to the same tweets or working in the same office. But because internet friendships are birthed in a weightless space, they tend to grow differently. I expect more of my friendships will straddle this line between online- and offline-first, instead of being as compartmentalized as I remember growing up. My Twitter life isn't that different from the version of me who used to post dumb memes on message boards, nor the version of me who gets drinks with her colleagues after work. It’s just that these friendships now stretch across multiple universes.


[post-script that started out as a footnote but got a little too long]

[1] Some might say that Reddit is the modern version of online forums. While I think Reddit might be a direct analog, Twitter is arguably its spiritual successor. The major difference between being a Twitter “regular” and a forum regular are follower counts, which track status in a way that's more visible and transferable. Gaining followers means you'll be more widely perceived as a person of interest, which isn’t necessarily true about being a forum regular.

In other words, there's a reward system attached to being Extremely Online now, and twelve year-old me is thrilled. It seems more obvious when we use terms like “YouTube creator” or “TikTok star”, but if you'd told me back then that I could make a living off of what is essentially hanging out on forums all day (i.e., turning my Twitter activity into paid work, a sleight-of-hand performed over and over again), I wouldn't have believed it.

It feels like blogging is still frozen in amber today because we haven't yet figured out how to attach status to it. People have been blogging for decades, but the most successful bloggers still look surprisingly old-school, with entire micro-communities that thrive solely in their comments and adjacent forums. Although there are an endless number of blogging platforms, they’ve all struggled to create value beyond utility. They provide technical infrastructure for writing and publishing, but not social infrastructure. Eventually, these platforms churn out, with a new prom king crowned every couple of years (Xanga, LiveJournal, WordPress, Blogger, Tumblr, Medium...).

No platform seems to have figured out how to make blogging a legibly high-status activity. I refuse to believe that this is just because bloggers are too cool for platforms, because the same argument could've been made for online forums and gaming, and yet we have Twitter and Twitch.

I love that monetization is something you can do on Substack, but I don’t actually think it’s a killer differentiator on its own. Processing payments still doesn’t take a platform beyond utility (this is where Patreon got stuck, in my view). A writer’s ability to charge for subscriptions is just one expressed outcome of their underlying value; platforms also need to mint that value in the first place. So what will be the parallel measure to Twitter followers that eventually makes writing a high-status activity? (Maybe the size of one’s email subscriber list?)


Notes

I brought my notes back because I got a bunch of nice messages last month from people who liked them, and honestly, it just feels weird not to do them, even if my thoughts are less interesting these days while I’m more heads down. So! Notes have been updated. A few highlights:

  • Starting to feel like ppl need personal SLAs that detail the messaging apps they do/don’t “support” (iMessage, email, whatsapp, etc)

  • Wonder if anyone will eventually build discovery tools / recommendation systems for group chats or if they’ll always remain undiscoverable (i.e. that’s kinda the point, you need a trusted friend/invite). The long arc of technology seems to bend towards legibility so wondering how that’ll play out wrt group chats

Links

  • Chronic City (Jonathan Lethem): I think I might love this book in the same way that other people love Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. Jonathan Lethem is one of my favorite authors, but this book in particular is one whose world I find myself returning to all the time. Chronic City is a solipsist’s Bible: I first read it in 2012 while living on a small island in Belize for a month, tapping on the corners of my own distorted reality. Since then, its characters continue to occupy my mind, living out their stories in parallel to mine. I re-read it again this month and really think it is the perfect novel, especially for anyone navigating post-truth worlds in urban environments.

  • Magdalene (FKA twigs): I've been traveling a bunch recently, and this album has gotten me through a lot of plane flights. FKA twigs has a way of reorganizing my head when it's feeling muddled, like dipping my hand into cool dark water and catching all the errant sparkles that are bouncing around the edges. Her new album came out right before the holiday season and it’s carried me through the dregs of 2020.

  • Panelcode (Jeremy Douglass): I’m a sucker for hand-rolled cottage systems; I could happily spend my days making pattern languages for everything in my life. So of course I loved this markup language that Jeremy created for describing visual compositions as layouts. (I want to turn these layouts into a sticker pack!)

  • “An app can be a home-cooked meal” (Robin Sloan): Perhaps a longer explanation as to why I enjoy things like Panelcode. Robin talks about making a messaging app for his family, with a grand total of four users, and the joy of building things just for yourself, much like a home cook as opposed to a professional chef. (Reminds me of this tweet from Omar about the idea of “my grandmother’s operating system”.)

  • Uncanny Valley (Anna Wiener): Anna's memoir about living and working in Silicon Valley. I wasn't sure what to expect when I read this. It's not just a book about working in tech, but a book that touches my corner of tech: both one of my former employers (GitHub) and several mutual friends. While I think my overall experiences and takeaways differ from Anna’s, I was surprised by how much this book touched me personally, namely her experience of being a non-tech person entering tech relatively late (“late”, meaning, of course, our early-to-mid-twenties). Unlike most of my friends, I didn't move to San Francisco for tech: I moved here, like a blind and lucky idiot, for the weather, and lived and worked in SF for a couple years before doing anything that could really be considered “tech”. Reading Uncanny Valley gave me an outlet to identify and grapple with my own feelings as someone who often feels both fiercely protective of tech and also not quite “of” this world, which is something I didn’t know I needed.

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