12: Lines and fixed points

Hello!

Sometimes when people say things to me, I picture their sentences diagrammed on a blackboard, with soft gossamer trails of hidden meaning streaming out beneath, like a bubble wand dipped into solution and dragged across its underbelly.

We use language as a consensus layer to interface with other people's minds, but every spoken word contains a stack trace of alternate meaning. If I want to understand someone better, I just listen for the echoes in the words they express, tapping to hear the hollows, tracing with my finger the shapes of each muffled sound scrabbling around itself, then chiseling them into my mind, like a Rosetta Stone.

The content we create is no different. There's the object you ultimately end up with, which you can share around with others, but it was made by remixing elements that already exist. Information is like energy: it's neither created not destroyed, but merely transmuted through a series of chemical reactions into new stable forms.

Once I started thinking of content this way, it felt as though all the points were scattered around me into lines, the sun striking a glass vase at just the right time of day, sending rainbows dancing about the room. We tend to value code, words, and media based on what we can see: the stable item, the cabochon jewel gleaming opaquely in the palm of one's hand. But rotate it, cut it into facets, and hold it up to the light, and a thousand new worlds reveal themselves.

Pick up a snippet of code, rotate it, and see how it catches the light. Pick up a tweet, a blog post, a paragraph of a book, rotate them, and see how they catch the light. Every object contains the fingerprints of its creator, and it tells two stories: one is the visible thing in front of us, which is identical to everyone, whereas the other is derived from personal meaning.

I think we struggle to properly assign economic value to content because we keep treating these lines as fixed points. Content, like language, is a function of the people who interact with it. It's why liking a post, and following the person who wrote it, are two separate actions. One is a point, and the other is a line.

I was reminded of this when reading about the lawsuit brought against Conan O'Brien for allegedly "stealing" someone else's joke. As Conan helplessly pointed out, given the volume of content that's created today, sometimes two people just come up with the same joke. And so if everyone's writing the same jokes, the joke itself doesn't really carry value anymore. Rather, it's valuable because Conan told it, and not "a man in San Diego". While this poses an existential threat to the idea of intellectual property, I don't think what got us here is going to get us through the next era of content creation.

There was a time when we didn't see a piece of wood as anything but a piece of wood. Once we realized there was more than we could see with the naked eye, it opened up new avenues of exploration. Similarly, we still treat content as dead objects, with no additional value or complexity beyond what every other person can see. But I think if we stop viewing them as commodities to be bought and sold, and instead treat them as dynamic organisms, we'd see there's a lot more that we need to figure out how to value.

Writing

Posts I’ve written this month.

  • “The Twitch argument for GitHub Sponsors”: I kinda binged on streamers this past month, so when GitHub launched their Sponsors payment feature, I tried to think about it through lessons learned from Twitch streamers. Namely, can GitHub help attach status to individual maintainers?

  • “The rise of few-maintainer projects”: I wrote a piece for Increment magazine’s open source issue last month. It’s about the transition from open source projects as communities -> individual creators, which contains some nuggets of the longer piece I’m working on.

Notes

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

  • Generalists are good at identifying and synthesizing and exposing problems, but they don’t usually have enough skin in the game to solve them. I think this is also why interdisciplinary fields have useful but limited application

  • Thinking of group chats not as chats, but as chatrooms: physical spaces where you can drop in and see who’s around. Messaging apps are ostensibly asynchronous, but actually also synchronous?

  • Service dog status is the medical marijuana license of urban pet owners

  • Thinking about how maybe progress isn't actually linear, but cyclical: diff ideas that take turns becoming more/less prominent at diff times. To me, this is not at odds with an optimistic view of the world, in the same way that understanding bull vs. bear markets is neither nihilistic nor cynical, but observational. Also what I don't understand is if progress IS always "going up", is it asymptotic? Is it possible to ever be "done" or is progress always expanding, like the universe? I think it's weirdly maybe EASIER for me to think of it as cyclical, then, rather than linearly upwards

  • Maybe we assume the world is making progress bc we make local progress in our own brains (I learn all these things as a human progressing from age 0 to age 90 or whatever) and extrapolate up to global scale

Links

Useful articles I’ve read this past month.

  • “The Gentle Side of Twitch” (Nicole Carpenter): A look at the people who read books, knit, and paint on Twitch. I liked that she highlights the wide spectrum of relationships that creators can have with their audience: everything from “a musician performing to a stadium-full of fans”, which are more performative, to quieter streams that feel “more like a knitting club”, which are more like a community.

  • “Patronage As An Asset Class” (Simon de la Rouviere): Thoughts on what a “patronage market” could look like. I’m not sure I believe assets need to be tied to physical objects, but I like the idea of building off the COST tax, i.e. people pay based on wanting to preserve future access to a thing (which could be the creator themselves, too!). Not dissimilar to using a counterfactual approach to valuing infrastructure (i.e. value = what would it cost us if this infrastructure didn’t exist), I think.

  • “The Rise of the Microgrant” (James Gallagher): I might just be in the thick of it, but it sure feels like more people are talking about microgrants than they were two years ago. I think ISAs (income share agreements) made “human capital” cool. Whatever the case, it’s been fun to watch, and this post is a solid overview of the ways that microgrants are cropping up in modern form.

  • “A Conspiracy To Kill IE6” (Chris Zacharias): The story of how one team at YouTube secretly dropped support for IE6 without asking anyone, thus nudging global traffic off of IE6 overall. I love stories about browser compatibility, and this one is particularly well-written, like a sci fi thriller!

  • “Journalism’s Dunbar number” (Damon Kiesow): An argument for local journalism focusing on relevance to its immediate community as a means of finding a viable business model. I don’t agree with everything in here, but the overall thesis parallels how I think about the value of patronage: finding high relevance among a smaller group of people, which is fundamentally different model from, say, crowdfunding or display advertising.

Books

Relevant books that I’ve read this month.

  • Watch Me Play (T.L. Taylor): More ethnographies! This one is an ethnography of Twitch streamers. There are a ton of useful parallels to open source in here, particularly around the economics side. It was also cool to read about the author’s process, which seemed admirably thorough. She spent years visiting the Twitch offices; going to conferences and esports events; meeting with streamers, esports players, producers; and visiting streamers in their homes. While her writing is of an undeniably academic flavor (drink every time you read the word “labor”), there were times where I found that framing useful, supplying vocabulary for ideas I'd previously struggled to express.

  • To Engineer Is Human (Henry Petroski): A book about how failure is a necessary part of engineering that drives innovation. It’s a brave position to take, given that the author is writing about civil engineering, where “failure” means bridges collapsing and people dying. I feel like I kinda got the point after the first chapter or two, but it's a quick read, with interesting metaphors and case studies. I kept thinking about Don Norman’s Design of Everyday Things while reading this and wondering how the two would get along. Norman’s position is that UX failures aren’t the user’s fault, but the designer’s, whereas Petroski seems to be saying “Don’t blame the engineer either! Failure is just a part of how we improve technology”.