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Brendan Schlagel

Beyond Blogging: Sketches for Social Longform Writing

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I love blogging. I enjoy forum discussions. All too often, I relish Twitter banter. But these short-form formats are far from the only ways to write online. For certain projects, where I want to explore a subject in depth, it feels like the only answer is: go long.

I’ve been thinking a lot about blogs, writing and online networks, and have recently contributed to two blogchains on these topics (one, two). I also recently participated in the Friends as Force Multiplier workshop, thinking out loud with a small group of thoughtful folks about writing and connecting online.

Big projects are hard in all kinds of ways. Big online writing projects carry a particular set of challenges. I’d like to figure out a tack for two big writing projects I’ve had brewing. More on those below! But first…

Possibilities for Online Longform

What’s are some of the different ways to structure a writing project at scale?

A major theme we’ve been talking about in the Blogging Futures conversation is infrastructure for online writing, from many angles: technical, social dynamics, frameworks for thinking and for public dialogue.

Some structures may bring multiple blog posts together, as I explored in my post Proposal for Near-Future Blogging Megastructures. Other modes of longform may not fit the blogging paradigm at all:

  • Longform guides, e.g. Holloway’s bespoke deep dives into tech-meets-business topics
  • Chapterized works, as we see in serialized novels, or open scholarly monographs
  • Wikis, either massive collaborative ones (Wikipedia), or extensive personal wikis (Roam)
  • Online courses, whether paywalled multimedia courses, openly syllabi, or somewhere in between

As I mentioned, there are two specific projects I’m thinking about a lot right now, and I think each may require different approaches, both for how I structure the writing, and how I share it.

Project 1: Writing on Personal Librarianship


Antilibraries is a project arising from my relationship to books and reading — a hybrid of my own ever-multiplying book lists, and my urge to extend my curiosity in every direction at once. It’s currently a website where I both collect interesting books and host a small community forum. I’d like to also use the site to share in-depth writing about interesting approaches to reading and library-building.

Structure / Format:

I have in mind a series of essays or guides, each addressing a topic I’ve explored in my reading and independent library experiments. The length may vary, say 1k–5k words each. I’d like to focus on things that other readers may find practically useful: how to build your own antilibrary; how to diversity your reading; an overview of various book-related APIs. I have a number of topics in mind, and they’re loosely related but in no particular order, so I think I could publish one at a time.

Audience / Marketing:

I’m writing for bibliophiles with wide-ranging curiosity and a hacker mentality — anyone who wants to read and learn more optimally, experimentally, adventurously. I’ve started a small forum for talking about these themes, and I think there could be some good feedback potential with discussions feeding into more in-depth writing. I’d like to be in dialogue with great book-related newsletters and Twitter conversations as well. I don’t imagine charging for these essays directly, but I could see Antilibraries as a membership site in the long run.

Project 2: Guide to Indie Business Models


I’m fascinated by patronage, crowdfunding, ecommerce, and similar emerging approaches for making a creative practice sustainable. I have a lot of notes about this stuff, from ideas about climbing a “ladder” of indie growth, to audience and monetization strategies, to thoughts on specific platforms. I’d like to compile all I’ve learned about these topics into a big online guide that others can learn from.

Structure / Format:

I have one website that I could repurpose to house this guide, or I could make an entirely new standalone site. I think there’s a ton of stuff I could cover under this broad theme, and potentially expand in the future to more specific sub-areas (like media platforms, marketing tools, and so on). I have an outline started, and I think it makes sense to flesh out and publish the core of this all at once. From there I can iterate and expand, once I see what resonates. I could see the first iteration being in the 5–10k word range, and eventually expanding to double that or more.

Audience / Marketing:

I think this guide will be relevant to many kinds of creators: writers, internet artists, independent designers and technologists, etc. It’s intended as a practical resource for anyone looking to both foster a creative practice and make it financially sustainable, whether as a side hustle or (eventually) as a full-time business. I’d like to make the guide freely available; I also really like the idea of the “unlocking the commons” model, combining public goods and patronage, and I might eventually make this available in some kind of paid format.

Social Infrastructure

My goal is for these projects to be:

  • Meaningful, useful to many people, relevant for the long term (stock rather than flow)
  • Generative, something that can continue to evolve (not a static book; open and online)
  • Relevant to my own deep niche interests; a high-signal beacon for connecting with others who share those interests

One thing I’d like to explore is the sort of persistent infrastructure that enables us to sustain work on big projects over long periods of time. For this, the technical side is the least of my concerns. Much more important is the social aspect: how can I feel like I’m writing for and with others, even at the early, opaque stages? How can I write and share strategically to get others excited about the same things that excite me?

Just knowing other people, even one or two, are invested in seeing a project succeed is a huge motivator! And not only that, having active feedback is a great way to keep the quality high and the writing interesting.

I think what I’m seeking is a system for productively embracing risk, vulnerability, openness. A mindset that inclines me to put things out there, iterate, and respond to feedback. If I do this well, I think the writing will be better: feel more alive; elicit its own self-improvement, find its audience.

A few things I might try, in the service of this goal:

  • Publishing more iteratively (short-form as warm-up?)
  • Open outline (shared doc to start, but also public website, alpha version)
  • More frequent requests for comment e.g. via Twitter
  • Reaching out to specific people by email, for more targeted feedback

Request for Feedback

If you’re interested, I’d like to invite you to comment on notes for both the above projects:

Outline: Antilibraries

Outline: Indie Creator Biz

Please take a look and comment on anything that strikes you! And if you have your own big online writing project you’re working on, I’d love to hear what’s worked for you, or what you’re finding challenging. Let’s write in public together and make a dent on our mega-projects, one page or paragraph at a time.

Proposal for Near-Future Blogging Megastructures

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This post is part of Blogging Futures, a collaborative blogchain-based learning adventure exploring how we can reimagine blogging. Feel free to join the conversation!

Blogging is great, but it sometimes feels like every blog is an island. To have a robust blog society requires connection, community, conversation. Part of the problem is we don’t have many great ways to connect blogs together into larger conversation structures.

Sure we have hyperlinks, and even some esoteric magic with the likes of webmentions. But I want big, simple, legible ways to link blog discussions together. I want: blogging megastructures!

We have one great example of this sort of structure in the blogchain, courtesy of elderblogger emeritus Venkatesh Rao — a way of denoting a loose ongoing conversational series of posts, with a single author or in conversation with another. I’ve started playing with this a bit (see: Networked Communities blogchain) and it’s already getting me excited about blogging again.

But I want more structures; grander structures! So, putting on my speculative taxonomist hat: what else might be out there?

I think we can consider blog structures along a few axes:

  • Number of participants (single player vs. multiplayer)
  • Complexity (graphically) i.e. how much branching and interconnection
  • Directedness (topically) i.e. how much order vs. randomness / divergence

What’s beyond a blog post; beyond a blogchain? One idea is that a collaborative series of posts need not follow a single linear alternating structure, but could potentially unfold more like a Twitter thread, with multiple forks, some dead-ending after a reply or two, others branching off in new, fertile directions. Posts could be published with modularity in mind, short and single-topic, for more conversation-forking possibilities.

With a rich enough seed topic, and multiple participants who are game for exploration, this could lead to a complex tree-like structure. It would add some complexity for visualization and navigation, but some kind of nested outline table of contents view could work. And, thinking of how my own blog ideas sometimes lead me in multiple directions at once, this could make the act of publishing feel more lightweight and generative.

Because words and categorization are fun, some tentative ideas for how we might identify a few such structures:

  • Chain: perhaps the simplest collaborative blogging form; a straightforward back and forth exchange of posts exploring a particular topic
  • Mesh: like a chain, but with multiple participants; still a legible structure e.g. alternating / round-robin style, but with more possibilities for multiplicity of perspectives and connections across posts
  • Fractal: multiple participants and multi-threaded conversation; more infinite game branching; a possibly ever-evolving and mutating conversation, so could probably use some kind of defined endpoint, maybe time-bound
  • Cabinet: one author or several; posts curated into particular collections or series’, often with thematic groupings, perhaps a “start here” page for new readers, or other pointers to specific reading sequences
  • Labyrinth: one person; a tightly sequenced collection of posts with many twists and turns, the order of presentation not necessarily matching the publishing chronology
  • Wiki: any number of participants; structure characterized not by any particular ordering of posts, but by density of internal connections, highly self-referential

In this discussion of, where CJ describes the idea for the Blogging Futures learning adventure, Jared mentions some further ideas for how to structure learning-focused communal blogging: exploring a particular question together; aggregating a collection of resources; reflections on a set of shared experiences. My above ideas are kind of abstract structure seeds, but I think it’s also important to consider how the content — a shared fascination; a particular learning goal — can shape these structures.

This reminds me of an existing blogging megastructure: the classic group blog! One blog, many authors, a shared set of themes or editorial voice. This includes, say, Gawker [RIP] and Snarkmarket and Boing Boing…but another very common example is the university course blog, co-authored over the course of a semester, with each student in a seminar contributing a weekly post. For many this is likely a first introduction to blogging and working in public.

Another example would be kind of the inverse: one author, many blogs! A portfolio; a cathedral if you will. Kevin Kelly gives us one great example, his site spawning various sub-blogs (not to mention several separate but linked sites) like The Technium and Cool Tools and Street Use, each with their own identity.

This all leading me to the question “just what is a blog in the first place?”

We often identify a blog by its signature structure: a reverse chronological list of posts. If my site features a list of short, recently dated essays…well, that’s my blog. Companies and institutions can have blogs too; when they share behind-the-scenes insights they can be great, and when clearly a collection of SEO-bait they’re often awful. The point is, there are all kinds of sites on all kinds of topics that we identify as “blogs” largely by their recognizable structure.

But we can also identify blogging by something less tangible, more of a stance or ethos for written exploration. I tend to think of blogging as “thinking out loud”, a combination of personal essay, journaling, brainstorming and public memo. Not everything feels like blogging, and there are of course all kinds of other great structures possible for serialized fiction, or online courses, too. But framed this way, by shared ethos, I think blogging can manifest in a many different shapes than we’re used to, and open up some potent possibilities for collaboration and dialogue.

Baroque, brutalist, Borgesian — let’s build some blogging megastructures.

Sidewalk Spaces and Positive Gatekeeping

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Continuing my “Networked Communities” blogchain with Tom Critchlow, talking about how we write, how we connect, how we build communities online & more. This is the third post; see Post 1 (me) and Post 2 (Tom) first if you haven’t read those yet!

Tom’s latest post puts forth another way to frame what blogging is for: not as simply writing for ourselves, or even for each other, but to fulfill a wider social obligation to our networks.

I too enjoyed Nadia’s post Reclaiming public life, which talks about the idea, via Jane Jacobs, of “sidewalk life” — the hybrid social spaces that exist between public and private, where we can find a degree of familiarity and trust, but also leave room for serendipity.

So a big question here is: how can we find or create more sidewalk spaces for our online communities? And how can we make these spaces feel comfortable and vibrant, so people want to actually inhabit and enjoy them?

The blogosphere does seem like an ideal candidate for sidewalk space, though maybe lacking the density for Jacobsian chance interactions? Being on a social platform like Twitter can feel like being in the middle of downtown in a foreign city you’re visiting. Staking out a claim as part of the indie web can feel like you’re surrounded by your neighbors…but/and like you’re on an open frontier where the closest of those neighbors are miles away. The right structure is there but maybe our job is to increase the population density, if not at large, at least in certain pockets.

I found another post on Nadia’s site, Hidden cities, with some very interesting points about scale and gatekeeping. Basically: some things stay better if they’re hard to find, or intentionally impose limits in order to access them.

So now I’m thinking: how can we productively constrain the boundaries of our communities? How can we be our own gatekeepers, but still feel a sense of generative possibility? How can we navigate the tension between wanting to maintain some kind of consistency and comfort level in a space, and also remain open to serendipitous communion?

Darius Kazemi has an awesome guide, Run your own social, where he shares what he’s learned about maintaining a small DIY social network for his circle of friends. One of the points he emphasizes is that this really only works when kept at a small scale. He has around 50 active users on the network, and reckons that’s near the upper limit. He goes on to say:

Of course, the question is how does this scale beyond those 50 people? Well, that is why I’m writing this guide. I think there should be thousands of these small servers talking to each other.

To support his social network, Darius runs a fork of Mastodon called Hometown where he’s adding some cool features: things like a private local-only (non-federated) posting layer, extended content types, and better list management. He also provides some great tips in his guide, like:

  • Personal onboarding, giving each user a custom introduction to the network, explaining not just the software, but who the other users are, and their group norms and traditions
  • Group activities (e.g. movie night or book club) — things that help socialize everyone with each other, build tight-knit connections
  • And at the end, he brings up the idea of a “neighborhood” concept for federated social networks, as a layer between local (your home server) and public (everyone else)…this seems very in line with spaces designed to foster sidewalk life!

I don’t think this structure necessarily works for every situation, and there may be issues with basically being part of just one “local” community and figuring out how to “federate” certain parts of your conversation out to the wider world. Mastodon still feels a bit opaque to me. But I think the general outline here — how to think about building a community that prioritizes intimacy, comfort, participation — has a lot we can learn from.

I’d like to consider a broad range of possible mechanisms for sparking conversation and making people more comfortable participating in the various places I frequent and share ideas, from my personal blog here, to the Antilibraries forum, to Twitter and email. And I think I’d be doing myself a favor to think less in terms of “building an audience” and more in terms of connecting with individuals or a small handful of people at a time.

Maybe that means starting more blogchains and inviting responses (reading this? want to blog together? let’s do it!) Maybe it’s trying the one-on-one onboarding process for the forum, or making a private section where folks can chat more freely. Maybe it’s sending more emails and DMs. Maybe it’s…starting a tiny local indie social network? Maybe all the above!

The Four Branches of Bad Art

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This is the first post of a blogchain with Jinjin Sun on the theme: “Why Bad Art”. We’ll be exploring the mysteries and pleasure of so-called “bad” art: why we like it, what it actually means, and perhaps how we can make bad art (that’s actually good) in meaningful ways. More to come!

This blogchain conversation is inspired by our mutual love and appreciation for bad art. That’s not to say we enjoy art that is total garbage. There’s a certain sort of mode, or set of modes, wherein bad art is actually good, and I want to dig in a bit and identify what that is, and how it works.

(Also, why we gravitate towards such good badness!)

When we speak of “bad art”, we can mean different things, so let’s start by focusing in on which meaning(s) are most interesting or relevant.

As a simple first-pass taxonomy I’d posit these branches of bad art:

  1. Art that tries and fails: unsuccessful art; art that wants to achieve certain goals, but can’t get there, whether for lack of talent, lack of understanding, or some sort of misguided approach.
  2. Art with inadequate ambition: lazy art; art that doesn’t try hard enough (related to but distinct from art with ambition that is modest but meets its goals, for example purely decorative art); art that could be so much better if only it reached further and really put in the work.
  3. Art with ignorable flaws: art that is pleasing despite itself; art with certain good aspects that outweigh the bad, if only you compartmentalize. A subtype of this is “so bad it’s good” art: guilty pleasure art, its enjoyable aspects entangled with its defects.
  4. Art that’s more than meets the eye: art that camouflages its own true aims; art that only seems bad because you’re not looking at it the right way; art where the bad is a veneer that obscures the good, but with a shift of perspective, inverts itself; ugly duckling art.

The first and second branches describe art that fails in different ways. The third is fun, on a limbic level, but not usually substantial.

The fourth branch of bad art is, I think, the interesting one. And we can break this down further: why can art seem bad, but actually be good if you look at it differently? Or, I also should say, think about it differently — for much of the bad art that’s fun to think about lies in the realm of the hypothetical!

I think a lot of the bad art we enjoy talking about or conceptualizing — often of a kind of absurdist bent, impossible or just plain weird — straddles branches three and four. It’s fun to talk about silly ideas just for the sheer goofy pleasure of it, but it can also be interesting when there’s some kind of deeper idea at play beneath the surface. This might include art that on first glance seems ugly but actually contains an interesting way of reframing definitions of beauty. Or art on a superficially boring topic, but that actually holds some sly critique.

This sort of bad art seems to operate similarly to other types of abstraction, and also to other types of humor, particularly that which is multi-layered or recursive in some way, like satire. In both, a sense of compression, and also perhaps a sort of obfuscation or protectiveness at work, where the bad or at least misleading outer appearance is intentionally masking what’s within. This can be intended either to make the audience work to reveal its inner workings, or to limit those secrets to a very specific sort of audience entirely.

I called this series “Why Bad Art” — intentionally meant as a vague prompt that might be asking the questions “why does bad art exist?” as well as “why do we like to think about bad art?” and also perhaps “why should we make bad art?”

So, what do you think, does this accurately describe the landscape of bad art, and perhaps start to get at why we like thinking about it? Any other thoughts on those questions? Maybe we can talk about some specific examples of bad art we like or think is interesting. What would a good “bad art practice” look like?

Weaving a public web, or, why don’t I blog more?

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Part 1 of a blogchain with Tom Critchlow on the theme of networked communities — exploring possibilities for conversation space, community networks, open writing ecosystems, working in public, the greater blogsphere present and future… More to come, including a nicer way to browse this and other potential future blogchains as soon as I add a section for it on this site :)

I like to write a lot, but I find it difficult to consistently blog — to put things out there publicly. So to expand on the titular question: how do I productively write, publish, and converse in public, in dialogue with other people? And before the how…what barriers make this feel like a harder thing to do than it intellectually seems it should be?

It strikes me there are a few flavors of epistemic uncertainty for the blogger. Roughly, these might be:

  • Uncertainty of purpose: what is this even about? Am I writing for me or for others? Will I achieve anything by writing this?
  • Uncertainty of effort: how much commitment required? How much time, thought, energy? Blogging can seen unbounded, intimidating…
  • Uncertainty of reception: will anyone read or care? Will it resonate, or endure in any perceivable way? Barring that, might it even start an interesting conversation?

Some of these are internal psychological blocks. A number of them relate to how my writing may connect, or fail to connect, with others.

So a couple related questions: what things make it hard to have meaningful networked conversations, ones intended to spark dialogue and explore ideas with others? What are the challenges to feeling like you’re part of an identifiable community when you’re writing?

Platforms for discussion / community always have tradeoffs, and many seem to allow us networked conversation only in a partial or illusory way. We can have great interactions on Twitter, Facebook, Slack — but they can also be inaccessible, or owned by third parties of questionable ethics, or decay quickly.

That’s why the IndieWeb ethos resonates: a society where everyone tends their own corner of a larger garden, exchanging with others as they like. And this implies a very different shape! Where forums, Slack instances, even group chats are fairly centralized, the blogosphere is distributed. And with many scales or layers, but porous ones.

I think when we talk about “networked communities” that’s one of the ideas we’re getting at: that we can be part of multiple communities at once, with shared, partially overlapping sets of interests. And that we can do this while tending our own digital garden, without having to maintain accounts on a dozen different third-party platforms.

Of course this looseness and fragmentary nature makes some things hard: discovery, updates, dialogue / replies. Some of my initial flavors of uncertainty — who will see this? how will it land? might it endure? — are a challenge no matter the platform.

I am knee deep in reading about the IndieWeb, and all kinds of new specs and standards intended to help with this stuff. It’s early adopter territory for sure and the main issue is that it feels quite complex to even get to square one. But I think for us, specifically, the tech side maybe not be the biggest barrier. I think what’s particularly helpful for me, at least, is having some constraints or conventions to support good habits.

Hence…experimenting with things like blogchains! Which really isn’t a technical concept at all — basically another way of thinking about a series of posts — but does give us a new approach to latch on to. I’m hoping that starting up a few will lower the psychological barriers to publishing and give me some momentum to continue posting more regularly.

And of course, maybe the most important thing of all is plugging into or boostrapping our own small communities of like-minded folks to explore things with, whether chats with book nerds on the Antilibraries forum, or talking with you about web writing and wayfinding here.

Lots more we can continue discussing in this chain, from annotation groups, to reviving RSS, to community aggregators, to different types of publics. But I guess part of the point of this format is not pre-planning too much. So, very open-ended segue: what are you most excited about exploring here?

Independent Bookstores and Patronage Possibilities

Memberships, subscriptions, and experiments in unbundling the value of bookstores.

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I came across a Twitter thread recently about the brutal economics of independent bookstores, and it prompted me to consider some possibilities for making the bookstore business more sustainable.

I ended up with some thoughts about how bookstores might experiment with memberships, subscriptions, and patronage; I’ve edited and expanded those thoughts here.

A huge issue that all bookstores have to contend with is that a book’s cover price actually has to account for much more than just the cost of the book itself. And this disproportionately affects smaller, independent stores. Amazon, for example, can mostly ignore these extra costs; books are basically loss leaders plus they have obscene efficiency from scale, strong-arm negotiation, and treating workers like trash. But for indie bookstores, various forms of overhead like rent, salaries, hosting events — these have substantial costs!

On the flip side, when you buy a book on Amazon, all you get is a book. When you spend money with your local bookstore, a large part of each sale goes back to benefit the community. This additional value comes directly and indirectly in many ways. But it can be hard for the consumer to tease apart these benefits from the book they could have easily gotten, a bit cheaper, elsewhere.

One idea for booksellers: identify these specific para-book benefits, and sell them separately.

There are likely many ways this could work, but the main one I have in mind is to offer monthly / annual membership for patrons in the local community.

Booksellers already often employ a number of additional ways to generate revenue, e.g. frequent buyers clubs, events, cafes and bars. I love all those things, but the thing I’d also like to see is for bookstores to go a step further and — a la indie podcasts or arts nonprofits — solicit direct patronage.

I can think of a half dozen local bookstores where I’d gladly pay something like $100 / year to support their existence and ongoing contributions to the community. Maybe more, if my membership included other benefits like events and discounts.

Not all a given store’s regular customers would take this next step to become financial patrons. But would enough do so to make a meaningful difference in revenue? I like to think so!

Right now we’re experiencing kind of a moment for memberships / subscriptions, from entertainment unbundling, to niche membership sites (e.g. with Memberful), to paid newsletters (e.g. with Substack). While I’ve seen some talk of “subscription fatigue”, to be honest I think we’re nowhere near peak subscription.

This sort of model — subscription-based memberships — can often be an ideal model for both creators and consumers. It gives businesses / creators sustainable, predictable revenue. And consumers get to more directly support the things they care about. Stability, and stronger ongoing relationships, are of course a plus for both sides of the equation.

I like how Buster Benson put it: “unbundling a bookstore’s community presence” and related services from the actual book sales. This doesn’t mean a bookstores would opt out of the business of selling books entirely — though the question of whether this might be feasible is an interesting thought experiment — but it does mean making more clear what the separate activities of a bookstore are and how we as consumers or patrons might value them.

Some specific membership possibilities include:

  • Monthly / annual subscription options
  • Various pricing tiers; possibly using a “pay what you want” model
  • Combining the above with an annual membership drive (see: indie podcast fundraisers e.g. Maximum Fun, along the public radio model)

And some possibilities for various rewards / member benefits:

  • Regular discounts on books, events, cafe items, etc.
  • Special exclusive events or book clubs
  • Exclusive swag (prints, books, apparel, mugs, bookmarks)

For bookstores that do a lot of events, Withfriends is an awesome platform that combines event ticketing with membership support. Many arts and music spaces are adopting this; it seems to offer a great hybrid of one-off ticket sales with patronage-based recurring revenue.

For powering a subscription-driven membership model, there are numerous options, ranging in complexity from Patreon (popular all-in-one platform) to ways of integrating on your own site via tools like Memberful, WooCommerce, and many others.

Thanks to Joe Ahern for pointing me to one great example of an Oakland bookstore, E. M. Wolfman, already adopting a membership model:

If Wolfman is important to your life and you believe in what we are doing and you want to host or attend more free events and more pop-ups and see more publications and weird music shows once in a while and film screenings and classes and literally a zillion other things, we now have an easy way for you to help make all that happen!

Wolfman Books was funded in the beginning through bookstore sales. Yet, as we have grown from a one-person DIY space, selling mostly used books, into a non-profit publisher and community arts hub, we need our funding to grow, too, and could use as much dependable, community support as we can get—even if it’s just a small monthly amount.

For $3, $5, $10, or $15 a month, you can help us host all of our free events, publish and pay our contributors, and sustain vital community art space for all of us to continue gathering and creating! It’s really simple to sign up and works as an automatic monthly charge you can cancel at any time.

I just signed up; I hope you consider supporting as well.

I would love to see more bookstores — and other community / learning / creativity oriented businesses and orgs — experimenting with this kind of thing. I’m sure there are others using this model I’m not yet aware of; if you know of any please let me know!

Personally, one thing I’d love to try is a sort of pop-up book showroom for Antilibraries, where I’d curate an extremely good selection of books, and visitors would pay (perhaps by donation) for the experience of browsing and discovery.

I imagine this as a kind of biblio-speakeasy, niche gallery space — or a bookstore where every single book in the store is a “staff pick” with description card. Actual purchases would be optional, or maybe not even possible from me directly.

This would definitely be a small scale experiment, and not necessarily a viable business, but still something I’d like to try. I think there are many other possible bookstore experiments it would be cool to see, for example an online/offline hybrid model combining local book space with niche online book club community.

Bookstore folks: if this sounds interesting but you’re unsure about some of the specifics, I am happy to chat about how this kind of thing might work. Or, if you’ve tried this or considered but seems like not a good model for you, I’d love to hear more about that, too. Let’s talk!

Join the discussion here:

Repos Beyond Code: A Collection of Creative Uses of GitHub

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One of my secret hobbies is following all manner of cool GitHub repositories. My chops as a developer are limited, but it’s always fun to learn about new technologies and poke around the READMEs to get a sense of how various apps, libraries, utilities, toolkits, and side projects are used.

GitHub is mostly used for projects based on code, so it’s these that make up the large majority of the projects I’ve starred.

But I’m particularly interested in how GitHub, and its underlying protocol Git (about which more below) can be used for things that are not based in code. So for a while I’ve been maintaining a separate list of fascinating projects on GitHub — to date over 60 repos across a wide variety of topics and forms.

I’m calling this collection Repos Beyond Code — right now it primarily lives on, and you can find the whole thing embedded below.

While GitHub is a proprietary platform, it’s built around the open-source software tool “Git”, which has become the de facto standard for version control. If you’re not a developer: version control software is what enables things like tracking line by line differences in text files, collaborating with a team and resolving conflicts when multiple people are editing a document at the same time, and restoring earlier versions of files when needed (if a recent change caused a bug, for example).

It’s one of the main mechanisms used for collaborative, tracked creation and sharing of text — specifically and most often code, but in practice (and potential)…almost anything! And I think the fact that Git is almost always used in the context of writing code makes it all the more exciting to see uses that break that mold and demonstrate its wider applicability.

Some of my favorite use cases, to name a few I see repeatedly:

  • Would-be-blog-posts
  • Resource lists
  • Guides and handbooks
  • Documentation (of code or otherwise)
  • Books and zines
  • Curricula and syllabi
  • Reading lists
  • Open data sets

Why do I find these projects so interesting? And why does the fact they’re found on GitHub contribute to that?

Part of it is a fascination with the diverse ways we can use technology to both create and share. First, it’s interesting to see how version control software and “working in public” can enhance the processes of writing, editing, and collaborating, helping to bring about all kinds of interesting work. And second, I love how the ethos of open source and the tools (like Git) that power it can extend the ways such work is shared, archived, branched, remixed, and made all the more valuable by being both publicly accessibly and malleable.

Here are a few of my favorites from the collection so far:

If you like opening lots of new browser tabs a little bit I’d start with the links above. If you like opening new browser tabs a lot, go ahead and click each item below!







































































































































































Learning Patterns, or Lenses

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Some initial ideas for “learning patterns” — building blocks that might be components of great learning experiences. After, of course, A Pattern Language.

As in APL, these patterns could operate on a few different levels, organized perhaps by scale or context. They encompass lenses for thinking about interactions with subject matter, communities of learning, the contexts or settings within which that learning happens, and more. (This concept drawn from The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses.) They aren’t yet organized in any particular way, but I have an inkling they could be.

Patterns, lenses — however you want to think of these ideas listed below, they’re fragments, food for thought, unassuming but, I hope, full of potential energy for unlocking different ways of thinking.

Patterns / Lenses for Learning:

  • Rich, provocative texts
  • Directed inquiry / reading
  • Group of learners with shared goal(s)
  • Self-contained learning group
  • Network of learning groups
  • Loose institutional affiliations
  • Bibliographic edges; expanding library
  • Mixture of reading and conversation
  • Vague prompts (productive ambiguity)
  • Knowledge and question sharing
  • Alternating cycles of intake and output
  • Application of learning to projects; experimentation
  • Fractal perspective(s) on a subject
  • Acute awareness of the adjacent possible
  • Available structures of accountability
  • Malleable superstructures
  • Respectful conflict / debate
  • Adjustable cadences
  • Flexible note-taking mechanisms
  • Storehouse for the distillation and maturation of ideas
  • Evolving terrain of learning paths
  • Optionality in attentional direction
  • Time and space for deep work
  • Information hyperliteracy
  • Emergent leadership
  • Multitiered commitment levels
  • Porous subject boundaries
  • Temporary and / or local constraints
  • Cooperative exchange
  • Diversity of opinion
  • Periodic crystallization
  • Infinite access (unbounded resource pool)
  • Clarifying limits
  • Focal points for learning efforts
  • Variegated textures (of people, topics, goals, questions, answers…)

Do I Have a Book Buying Habit?

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Do I have a book buying habit? I like to think not; I like to think that I have discerning taste, that I buy books carefully, I like to think I mainly only buy books that I really want, valuable books, with enduring wisdom or captivating narratives or ideas eminently relevant to my personal growth — books that shall, of course, prove to be formative to my personal and intellectual development.

Yet this can’t entirely be the case, because I’m near incapable of entering a bookstore and leaving it without at least one acquisition, or five, or a dozen, often of books that I hadn’t heard of previously, ones that I didn’t even know I wanted until I saw them, gave them a a cursory look, and decided they must be mine. Despite my best intentions this process doesn’t always leave room for measured, informed decisions.

Sure, when I find a book that looks interested I’ll look it over as closely as I possibly can in a minute or two. I’ll skim it, turn it inside out, even (LTE reception-god willing) look it up on Amazon to try to glean the gist of the appraisal of the crowd-mind. This gives me only vague reviews and partial summaries, of questionable trustworthiness, but anything helps, really. I look for excuses to disqualify a book, to let a 3.5 star average rating banish the book to my wish list rather than the stack I bring to the register.

I have an “Antilibrary” list that I maintain (in some self-vexing redundancy) both on Amazon and in some corner of my personal computer. This list is my super wish list,  the cream of the crop,  a separate one made principally for triaging the endless other book lists I’ve collected over the years. My antilibrary is an important extension of my extant book collection: my reading list of infinite potentiality, my repository of still-to-be-absorbed ideas. It contains many hundreds of books.

If antilibrary-worthiness were the only thing that informed the trajectories of my purchases, I’d be more resolute in buying only those books I’d already researched and determined were most important to me at any given time. But it’s not quite that simple. Being in bookstores — I mean really physically getting in there and immersing yourself in the aisles, scanning the shelves and skimming the spines, pulling out the ones that catch the eye, reading blurbs and rifling through pages — changes the calculus on all that.

One of the most important things that the bookstore-browsing experience adds for me is, of course, the element of serendipity that comes from being surrounded by thousands of books that are as yet unheard of, and at once at my grasp. I can coast along the collections that others have curated, simmer in surprise amongst all the obscure and exciting books that Amazon’s algorithms would never dare shove in front of my face because, let’s face it, they just don’t know me that well.

I try to remain sanguine about the potential complications of amassing a huge library; I’d like to do my best to forecast the consequences and take steps to mitigate any problems. With a prudent investment strategy, by 35 I expect to have enough money to house my books lavishly. And with concerted efforts in self-improvement I expect to have the will to winnow my collection to only the absolute best. I’ll give the rest away, returning them to the eternal lifecycle of the absolute godhead book.

One tiny problem here of course is that the category of “absolute best” is not only amorphous and subjective, but unfathomable and ever-growing, too. I could muster all the willpower and curatorial prowess in the world and still find myself with an insurmountable mountain of reading material, upon which I could feast and gorge for a hundred lifetimes and still not eat my fill.

But hey, what can you do? My working solution is to approach each bookstore I enter with both reverence and appetite — house of worship and candy shop all at once. I enter with anticipation, and expect to find gold, but also try to temper my desires and be reasonable in what I allow myself to take home. I savor the experience of browsing and of discovery, and try not to let that magic be ruined by excess zeal. For any book left un-bought…there’s always the antilibrary!

Also, I try to keep in mind the fact that, just based on simple math, I’ll never read more than a few thousand more books over the remainder of my life, and so I must choose well. But still, 50+ books a year, for many decades to come — a few thousand is a large number, and one filled with potential. Those books contain multitudes. As a vessel slowly filling with words and ideas and time spent digesting them, I am, relatively speaking, still a good deal more than half empty. Thus the book-lover’s byword: may I filter well the word-water that pours in, absorb and treasure it, let it enliven my head and heart, repair my health, and if I’m lucky make me eternal.

An after-drizzle; an echo rain.

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An after-drizzle; an echo rain.

The droplets return for another pass, rebound off the front that preceded, slingshot back through space and time. We were fooled, by the gap the pause the sunshine smile, then snapped back through the gauntlet, double-wet, showered again, submitted for the second time that day to the pummel of the sky.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that I’m merely setting the scene, priming you with a sly sketch of the weather patterns circumscribing the main action of this story. But this is it; this is the story, the action.

These weather patterns — these deja vu drizzles, these persistent storms — these are our protagonists.

The above, an opening to (perhaps) a piece of speculative fiction about the climatology of conscious entities, patterns in which some sort of emergent intelligence has been noticed in the ways that winds and rains attack the world.

Perhaps they are malevolent, or perhaps they’re just playful, curious, provocateurs, testing how they can affect our reactions. They probe the hyperobjects of human activity; trace the micro-patterns our movements etch into the environment, our negotiations of landscape, shifting hour-by-minute, our habits of resource use, our adaptations to the environment.

Until now we’ve maintained the illusion that it’s been us, more than anything, shaping the environment. That and time and chance; nothing with a will of its own. Until now…

Species of Spaces for Work, Learning, and Collaboration

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There are so many different organizational models for how people form communities of work, learning, and creative collaboration. What are the most interesting and innovative? I’d like to take a partial stab at a tentative taxonomy, considering models ranging from hacker school, to guild, to science lab, and more.

This combines several of my interests: the future of work, creative networks, systems thinking, emergent behavior, community-building, innovation. I’m not really approaching this as a serious research project, but rather a way to think in a bit more depth about how work happens, in hopes I might glean some lessons I can use in pushing forward my own work and community activities.

I’m particularly interested in the less common ones; those that go beyond the traditional “product team” or “classroom”, for example, and perhaps haven’t been studied as much. The following are some of the first such community models that came to mind. I have a feeling there are many more we can learn from…

Hacker school: Tons of these have popped up over the past few years. They surely vary quite a bit in quality, but the best of them do seem to provide valuable education in practical skills, in a powerful collaborative setting. I’m interested in this sort of elective, focused learning within a specific discipline. Obviously tech skills are in demand; most such programs focus on training web developers…but I can imagine all sorts of areas where a similar structure could be interesting. I think this sort of learning space may be most effective when it combines both structure and freedom to explore; both individual work and opportunities for collaboration.

Dojo: I’m interested in looking further into learning environments centered around physical activity and education. This could involve places where students learn from direct physical participation (motor skills; embodied learning; for example a piano conservatory or a wood shop) and acquire tacit knowledge, learning in an experiential and highly contextual process. I think it could be fascinating to draw lessons from the social dynamics and modes of communal learning in areas where physical and mental learning merge; everything from dance to fine crafts to yoga to athletics.

Coworking space: This one’s of course closely related to tectonic shifts in how many kinds of work are organized, with many people transitioning from offices and steady employment to independent work taking place in a sort of liminal zone. Such work spaces offer the resources of an office, plus a community; access to like minds. These spaces can provide structure, and serve as a sort of regular, grounding space, which may balance the sometimes-terrifying freedom of totally self-directed work activity. Shared studios, usually with just a few people rather than dozens or hundreds, can offer something similar — greater community than a home office, but much more intimate than a giant bland shared office space. New environments for knowledge work are growing increasingly important; it will be interesting to see what else emerges…

Guild: This is related to some of what I mentioned above re: crafts, physical / embodied learning, but with the added dimension of some sort of more explicit form of training or mentorship. Traditionally guilds imply physical trades or crafts, but I think the meaning has expanded to include other professions e.g. authors. I’d like to examine the history of guilds and apprenticeships; explore the sort of relationship that can develop between teacher and student in an educational setting that blends work and school.

Science lab: Collaborative inquiry is awesome, and this is basically a lab’s primary purpose. In a lab, everyone is working towards some common goal, as opposed to something like a coworking space where people are co-located but mainly still work individually. This doesn’t have to be limited to science labs, though that’s perhaps the easiest to visualize — I’m sure similar forms of activity can be found in all sorts research organizations, whether in industry, academia, or government. In some ways this sort of work structure may closely resemble that of guilds, but I think with a guild there’s more collaboration in the training process, less so once one’s mastery is established. And I bet there are also a lot of interesting differences in how labs function in diverse fields or departments.

Professional kitchen: This is another example of a situation where you have a team working together at a high level. It’s collaborative work that’s both physical and mental; work that depends on order and teamwork and experience. I’ve only seen professional kitchens in action on TV, but it seems like it requires incredible focus and coordination. Other similar examples might include sports teams, dance troupes, orchestras… I’m thinking of any team of elite professionals working to create something for others (often ephemeral, physical, or both) as differentiated from e.g. an academic lab where goals have more to do with solving problems and producing knowledge. These are my own distinctions, but even if they’re tenuous or hazy I think it’s interesting to consider possible differences in things like motivation and output and types of collaboration across the sorts of work people do together.

Online community: This may be a bit different from the others but I imagine that e.g. the “Twittersphere” can be measured in some sense as a real space, and the shape of this space has important ramifications for how we not only exchange information, but actually collaborate in all sorts of ways, across various industries, interest groups, niche communities, and other cross-sections of the broader world of Internet users. Some of these networks are more private (Facebook friends; Slack colleagues) and some are more public (Twitter followers; fellow forum participants), which inevitably shapes how discourse happens and how groups are formed and evolve on these platforms. There are many other degrees or axes of variance which I’m sure also have great impact on the sorts of communities that emerge; this is a huge area, definitely worth exploring and taxonomizing further.

Libraries for Everything

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What interesting things could use a library? What needs some sort of dedicated repository — whether online, in a book or museum or other space, for an audience large or small? What needs to be collected and treasured and shared? Might these libraries be crowdsourced, Kickstarted, collectively created, intensely personal…perhaps something else entirely?

One thing I’ve thought about quite a bit is extending the idea of the “pattern language” to other domains — for example, patterns of everyday thought and action, or specific patterns for learning activity. This could be applied to other cool things too. To take a general example, it’s common to see pattern languages for design and technology, for example Google’s “Material Design” language.

Part of the fun here is in coming up with something just unique and specific enough that it hasn’t been done already, but not so obscure that it isn’t actually useful! I’m not sure if a “pattern language for storytelling” would fall into the category of too commonplace or overdone, but it could be a lot of fun to play with, trying to extend with innovative ideas for narrative creation, even new forms of writing.

Perhaps a library actually shouldn’t aim at being comprehensive. It can sometimes be overwhelming to try to create an encyclopedic record of any possible thing in a given category; instead, it can feel both more approachable and more personal to collect only those most important and powerful examples, models or archetypes for others in their orbit.

The very nature of creating a library is an inevitable and continuous process of curation that must reconcile infinite potential with finite constraints. That’s both the whole point, and part of the fun, because there are so many viewpoints and systems and particular modes of curation that can be applied — the very process of definition and rule-creation and the iterative act of curation according to those rules is what causes a library to take shape.

One project I have in the back of my mind concerns nonlinear narratives and the different ways these can be conceived of and constructed. I think it would be fun to describe — and / or propose — various patterns of narrative construction. I’m interested particularly in varieties of temporal form, in cataloging simple forms from which more complex things can be created — kind of an inventory of pieces, of the miraculous discrete automata that story structures have the potential to be, in the right hands.

Another interesting type of library: those of physical objects. This can seem mundane, if we think of simply a collection of objects e.g. “here’s my collection of cool rocks I found on the beach!” — to take a specific example from my own collection tendencies.

How does such a collection — that pile of rocks, or anything really — come to acquire the aura or status of “library”? What imbues it with any sort of greater structure or meaning? Why does it matter; why should anyone care?

Maybe it doesn’t matter; maybe you shouldn’t care. Most collections may simply reflect some human predilection for accumulating things, for seeking beauty and order. This often doesn’t take the form of some grand pursuit, but certain things can make this endeavor more interesting.

For instance, we can layer another dimension of meaning atop the objects themselves. Take, for example, the process of object-based storytelling — inventing narratives or fictional contexts, imagined histories and creative detours spawned from observing certain physical realities of interesting objects. It’s a process of using those objects as sources or seeds for something greater, for some kind of more potent creative act.

So, my pile of rocks may not be a library — but when I use these rocks as fuel for a creative writing project, I can consider the rock themselves as a shorthand, obfuscated card catalog or reference key to the invisible, imagined library of vignettes which they inspire. This writing project I’m alluding to is simple on its surface, but I think actually pretty powerful — it provides an interface between the physical and imaginative worlds I co-inhabit every day.

Some other interesting nontraditional library projects that come to mind:

The Long Now project and its various associated collections, from its Manual for Civilization, assembling a foundational reading list, knowledge necessary for rebuilding the modern world; to its Rosetta Project, working to build a comprehensive digital library of human languages…

Libraries of seeds and species and DNA sequences, literally cataloging the stuff of life, collecting and preserving such materials for study and safekeeping…

Software libraries — ways to collect and reuse code, increase the modularity and efficiency of programs, save people from having to reinvent the wheel…

There are of course all sorts of fascinating libraries, collecting all manner of important cultural artifacts, so many it would be impossible to list them all! In some sense, perhaps, all museums are libraries. Maybe any collection with an open, public orientation, whose contents are meant to be shared, deserves that designation. I’m no expert, but I like to think I know a great library when I see one. Even trying to assemble a list of favorites…well, that’s a project for another day.