13: Thinking out loud


I’ve been thinking about a certain interpersonal dynamic between friends, the one where someone wants to talk at length about whatever’s happened to them recently, or perhaps reflect upon a past experience. They go into storytelling mode, where their eyes glaze into a faraway look, their expression becomes fixed, and they speak in animated, yet measured tones.

You don't interrupt someone in that mode. [1] As a friend, you know it's time to stay silent and refrain from commentary. This isn't a dialogue, it's a brain dump. You just sit, nod, let them do their thing, and hold all questions til the end.

Similarly, I keep a journal, but I also have a therapist. Our sessions don't really resemble a conversation, so much as me rushing to pour out all the words from my head into some glass vase, and her occasionally nodding and asking guiding questions before our time runs out.

Why have a therapist when I can just brain dump onto paper? Because there's something to be said for thinking out loud: not just to yourself, but in the presence of others. [2]

I tend to assume that writing serves one of two purposes. We either write (i.e. type) privately to ourselves, or we write to communicate with others. The former gets ossified into “personal knowledge management” systems (notetaking apps, voice memos, blogging tools), the latter into social media (Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, group chats).

But thinking out loud is neither of these things. When we think out loud, we’ve made a deliberate choice to externalize our thoughts, but we're also not really trying to have a conversation.

I often hear people say that they use Twitter as a notebook of sorts: a way to record their thoughts out loud. I definitely don’t use Twitter this way, but I do think of blogging, newsletters (hi!), and note-publishing as a form of journaling in public. I explicitly don’t want to write for others, but publishing my thoughts is still part of the process. I’d feel incomplete if I kept those thoughts stowed away in private documents, and the reason has nothing to do with getting likes or views.

Personally, I tend to use Twitter and Instagram as scrapbooks, where I collect bits and bobs that fit a certain aesthetic I like, which is why I use both platforms pretty sparingly. But this is yet another version of thinking out loud. Why tweet screenshots of something I’ve read, when I could just save them on my phone?

Regardless of which platform we use to think out loud, it feels like there’s some underlying set of needs that we’re trying to fulfill, which neither journals nor conversations completely address. Here's a few that I came up with (if you think of others I’ve missed, please share!):

  • Rubber ducking: Analyzing, working out an idea by articulating it to someone else

  • Brain dumping: Recording, remembering, creating an “externalized brain”

  • Scrapbooking: Collecting, curating, arranging ideas

  • Signaling: Feeling heard, connecting, emitting a beacon for likeminded people (arguably this is a form of communication rather than thinking out loud? I think of it more like passive signaling, e.g. wearing certain types of clothing)

  • Playing: Having fun with ideas, externalizing the silliness in our heads. Being funny requires having someone who’s listening, even if you're not explicitly trying to talk to them

Thinking through this list, it seems that different people each use different social, collaboration, or personal productivity tools to meet these needs. I'm hard-pressed to think of products that are explicitly tailored to the "thinking out loud" experience, and it feels like we’re lacking certain features within our existing tools. What would those look like?
I think there are two parts I’m interested in. One is this idea I keep coming back to: creators behind one-way mirrors, where people can read and receive your stuff, but not necessarily interact with you. Externalized thoughts are more experimental than what you might post to social media, so they need to live somewhere quieter than in full public view. RSS, newsletters, and podcasts accomplish some version of this.

The other part is that I want to reduce the friction of getting stuff from my brain out into the world. When I’m thinking out loud, sometimes I feel like my fingers can’t type fast enough. Text-to-speech / transcripts for audio memos, lightweight publishing process, simple reading format, and easily searchable history would all be very helpful.

Longer term, making it easier to think out loud gets us closer to creating externalized brains. I really love the idea of externalized brains a way of giving other people raw material to play with, learn from, and reinterpret for themselves. I don’t think social media gets us there, because what I say to an audience is different from what I say to myself (the curse of the fortune cookie). I want to find more ways to say things to myself out loud, and I want to be able to access that equivalent for others, as a way of getting to know the people I follow, or am otherwise interested in, more fully.
[1] If you’ve ever watched Avatar: The Last Airbender, I like to think of this as entering the Avatar state.
[2] “Learning in public” is another version of this that I like.


Posts I’ve written this month.

  • "Hidden cities": A post about internet subcultures that are semi-public, but don't necessarily want to be found


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

  • (from convo with a friend) Vine as Pompeii: a ruined city, but preserved for all time

  • Intellectual labor is the new working class ("mining of ideas"), the new luxury is gonna be to not engage in anything that drains the mind at all. "Basic as high-end" -> non-intellectual / non-status signaling as high status. Kinda relates to vgr's stuff on mediocrity. But I think it goes one step further: mediocre implies self-awareness and choice, basic says you never even had to try. The god of mediocre is sloth; the goddess of basic is an ingénue

  • Seeing the state of someone’s desktop is kinda like seeing the inside of someone’s home, with all the value judgments that come with it

  • Thinking about what a Freudian interpretation of left-right politics would look like, i.e. “rebelling against public space as parental authority”

  • Shorter feedback loops as a means of grasping towards the future we so desperately crave, but actually longer feedback loops might be better to make actual progress, bc shorter leads to incrementalism? i.e. is accelerationism just a form of incrementalism?


Useful articles I’ve read this past month.

  • “Why I’m Leaving Medium” (Tiago Forte): Fantastic read on the value of paywalls, based on Tiago’s experience, which summarizes my feelings on how paywalls are frequently misunderstood. Paywalls aren’t about monetizing the content itself. They’re a filtering mechanism for creators, who use them to make their readership more meaningful. (Also pairs nicely with the Something Awful piece below! SA became a paid community not to make money, but to filter out the trolls.)

  • “Fuck You And Die: An Oral History of Something Awful” (Taylor Wofford): Something Awful marked a time in my life that I’d like to believe bears no resemblance to my present day, one in which I ate way too much Domino’s and actually had Photoshop skills. (To be clear: I’d still eat Domino’s every day if I could.) Given that I knew nothing about Silicon Valley-flavored “tech” back then (ah, what a time), it’s shocking to realize how much SA influenced internet culture more widely. Also, lots of good nuggets here re: how early online communities are capable of enforcing norms and sanctions in ways that social platforms can’t really do today.

  • “Everything is Fertile” (Nick Cammarata): I loved this personal essay about finding novelty in the mundane, and how our own minds provide more opportunities for adventure than any external stimulation.

  • “The Dark Forest Theory of the Internet” (Yancey Strickler): Yancey’s take on how online social activity increasingly takes place in private or semi-private spaces, and how they resemble physical spaces more than social media. I’m not quite sure that Liu Cixin’s “dark forest” theory applies here (vs. simply, say, “dark matter”), but I still love seeing more people talk about the weird, growing social space between public and private. (I’m probably just salty because I’ve been honing my own “dark forest” theory on an entirely different topic, so maybe this means I need to expand my repertoire of metaphors beyond sci fi bestsellers.)

  • “Load-Bearing Internet People” (Eric Raymond): This was maybe more of a personal ‘whoa’ moment than anything in the content itself. Eric Raymond, who wrote “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” -- a piece that defined a generation of open source as something accomplished through the collaboration of many, rather than one -- recently published this post about how some individual developers are more “load-bearing” than others. I can’t describe the feeling I had when reading this, but it was sort of queer and warm and strange all at once. The times, they truly are a’changin.


Relevant books that I’ve read this month.

  • In the Beginning...was the Command Line (Neal Stephenson): Once upon a time, Neal Stephenson fell in love with an operating system named MacOS, who eventually stomped on his heart. After wandering about in a “Jungian fugue” and questioning the purpose of operating systems at all, he found love again, this time with Linux, who he met unexpectedly in Palo Alto thanks to a Dilbert cartoon. This is his love letter to an ex, in which he explains why he doesn’t need her anymore, because as mesmerizing as he finds each toss of her glossy mane and chiseled exterior, he’s better off with Linux, who, despite possessing the rude, hulking mannerisms of a barmaid, knows how to treat him right.

  • Perplexities of Consciousness (Eric Schwitzgebel): I want to find a counterargument to the premise of this book, because I liked it too much. Schwitzgebel argues that our self-reported experiences are the least reliable way to anchor ourselves in the world compared to our physical environment (as he puts it, “the uncharted wilderness is behind your eyelids”). Until now, I think I’ve explicitly operated on the reverse: I tend to see our external reality as malleable, while our subjective perception can’t be argued with. After reading this book, I’ve tried to invert my locus of thought: external is “known”, while my internals are fuzzy and unknowable. (An example of unknowability: I’d previously assumed I dream in color, but when I really think about it, I’m not sure that my dreams, nor consciously recollected memories, can be described with color at all.)