Homesteading the Blogosphere, or, Why I Keep Annoying Friends By Insisting they Read 10,000-Word Online Essays
I spend a lot of my free time reading epically long blog posts online. I still haven’t decided if this is a wholesome and self-improving hobby, or if it really fills the same role in my life as TV or Facebook or whiskey fills in the lives of others.
I don’t read Buzzfeed, nor “Elite Daily”, nor any of the other spammy listicle crap which people on my Facebook feed seem to like. The “destination” sites in the startup blogosphere, the TechCrunches and PandoDailys, invariably make me feel stupider after reading them. As for “upper-middlebrow” sites with “clean” designs and giant-ass fonts (Medium is the worst offender) — I have a special hatred for you; you’re pretentious and you don’t realise you’re not smart enough to justify it. (The most succinct review I can give for this particular genre is that it’s the written equivalent of TED talks — much as TED talks fit 5 minutes of content into 18 minute presentations, these blogs fit 150 words of writing into 800-word mini-essays. So simple! So insightful!)
For UK news, I still visit the Guardian out of habit, but these days I appreciate it more as an entertainment destination. (There’s a subtle pleasure in seeing what refined forms of retardation appear in the “opinion” pieces linked on the Guardian front page — I mean, the Guardian is essentially now the newspaper of the UK establishment, it booted out the Times long ago, having your writing appear on the front page is a big fucking deal for the kind of people who would care about that kind of thing — and for me I can’t even process these articles as actual arguments, the worldview and thinking processes of the writers are so different to mine, even when we’re of the same nationality, age and social class).
Hacker News I also visit out of habit, but I like it less and less. It’s definitely gone downhill since they started “improving” moderation and booting out anyone interesting. There was an interesting thread with a millionaire living in Moscow, throwing parties with his model girlfriend and networking into Russian high society (the guy was originally a humble SV programmer who’d made consistently good career and investment decisions), but this got super-moderator ‘dang’ all in a tizzy and I think the guy got booted. Don’t get me started on Quora.
I’m also not a huge fan of self-aware “longreads”, the kind of stuff you find on Aeon, for example. A lot of this is actually pretty good, but for my purposes, it has two drawbacks. One, they’re intentionally trying to be like magazines, with many disparate topics, covered lightly. Two, far too many of the writers are those grubby little creatures called “academics”. Fuck the children, my own brain feels abused just reading people like this guy.
Nah, my taste is for self-hosted WordPress blogs, ideally those written by cranky geniuses who have concocted their own elaborate theories of reality. Blogs are the ideal medium to convey cranky idiosyncratic theories of reality — structuring such thoughts so that they can work as a book is really a lot of work to do and so becomes a lot of work to read.
No, the objective of consuming this stuff is not to completely reformat your brain (which would require a book and also would be crazy) but simply to explore the worldview of someone intelligent who sees things rather differently. And figure out why they believe what they do, and maybe tweak and refine your own worldview accordingly. In practice, 9 out of 10 cranky geniuses have a large collection of unique observations which are related but don’t fully fit together into an integrated system of thought. Hence, collections of regular medium-length posts, i.e., blogs.
I’ll link to some of these people in future posts, but they range from Romanian bitcoin barons to professional druids to acid-dropping Californian programmers (these are all real bloggers, and they all have readerships figures in the hundreds of thousands) to many others.
Another interesting blog-related trend is the ease and propensity for communities to form around particular blogs — whether single blogs with large readerships, or ‘spheres’ of related blogs partaking in a link-sharing, reader-sharing orgy.
Put simply, the internet has become a breeding ground for novel ideas ranging from the batshit insane to the legitimately thought-provoking. It’s very tempting to compare the nascent collective intelligence of the blogosphere to academia; at the very least, the whole thing is starting to resemble a rather weird university, but one that actually provides a better-rounded education that any mainstream alternative. Provided you can add your own salt.
I even see some signs that the latter is beginning to pay attention to the former. For example, Brian Caplan — an economics professor and reasonably public intellectual — described the blog of Scott Alexander as “packed with more random highlights than most professors’ life work”. And Scott Alexander isn’t even that great! He’s good, but definitely sub-genius level.
Heck, it’s becoming more obvious that going into academia is no longer the default path for top minds. Two Oxford PhD friends told me of the brightest student on their programme, who decided the academy held no attraction and who took a job at (where else?) McKinsey. But McKinsey people then all leave to do startups, and people doing startups realise the retardation in that area and decide the optimal life strategy given the state of the world in 2015 is to derp around on a motorbike in Thailand and read random blog posts. Hence, Thought & Action.