Short Nows and Long Nows

Me thinking out loud about this mailing list; feel free to skip this one

One of my greatest inspirations online is Gwern.net. Gwern is a pseudonymous writer and researcher who has done a pretty good job of maintaining his anonymity over the years. He writes on a variety of topics and is hard to pin down, but a list of his strongest skills probably looks something like: statistical analysis, machine learning, and long-form writing.

He does have a newsletter consisting of updates to his site, but his site is not a blog. His pieces are designed to be interesting reads on an arbitrarily long timescale, which he contrasts with a blog:

‘Blog posts’ might be the answer. But I have read blogs for many years and most blog posts are the triumph of the hare over the tortoise. They are meant to be read by a few people on a weekday in 2004 and never again, and are quickly abandoned—and perhaps as Assange says, not a moment too soon. (But isn’t that sad? Isn’t it a terrible ROI for one’s time?) On the other hand, the best blogs always seem to be building something: they are rough drafts—works in progress. So I did not wish to write a blog. Then what? More than just “evergreen content”, what would constitute Long Content as opposed to the existing culture of Short Content? How does one live in a Long Now sort of way?

His answer explains quite well how he has mustered the dedication to work on such a project:

My answer is that one uses such a framework to work on projects that are too big to work on normally or too tedious. (Conscientiousness is often lacking online or in volunteer communities and many useful things go undone.) Knowing your site will survive for decades to come gives you the mental wherewithal to tackle long-term tasks like gathering information for years, and such persistence can be useful—if one holds onto every glimmer of genius for years, then even the dullest person may look a bit like a genius himself. (Even experienced professionals can only write at their peak for a few hours a day—usually first thing in the morning⁠, it seems.) Half the challenge of fighting procrastination is the pain of starting—I find when I actually get into the swing of working on even dull tasks, it’s not so bad. So this suggests a solution: never start. Merely have perpetual drafts, which one tweaks from time to time. And the rest takes care of itself.

(Gwern writes like someone who has had too many ideas bouncing around his head for years. The skill of his prose is one thing, but the density is immense. It’s great.)

He calls the notion of long-term thinking a Long Now website with Long Content. I’ve thought several times about starting a site like that, and drafted several, but I didn’t dedicate much time to them.1 Plus, much of the mysterious nature of his site stems from his historical interest in illicit topics coupled with his pseudonymity: in the days of the Silk Road, Gwern wrote extensively about it and other darknet markets, for example; even if I did have a pseudonymous identity with a following, I’d still not be terribly concerned with topics like that. These days, in my view, the dark web contains little of interest to folks who aren’t interested in illegal goods and services.

In other words, Gwern has used his anonymity well, but I don’t think I need it myself.

I think the sorts of topics of interest on a Long Now site are harder to come by than topics worthwhile for a regular newsletter. The above-quoted comment about poor ROI for the time is noted, however; it makes me sad to consider how unlikely it is that anyone will read a piece from this newsletter dated more than a few weeks ago. The trouble is that, with Long Content, lots of topics are somewhat dead in the water, especially more personal ones. I doubt my more personal reflections would have a place on such a site.

Still, if I look at my archive for the last several weeks, there are a decent few pieces I think I could put on a Long Now site. I’m considering a hybrid approach where I write for this newsletter and place applicable pieces on a different site for safekeeping. Let me know if you’re interested in this idea.

My reasoning is this: many pieces are reactions to current events, and many of these are pretty insubstantial compared to professional coverage or comments from public figures more closely connected to them. For instance, I think a combination of Barack Obama’s memoir and Glenn Greenwald’s Substack is surely a better historical record of the Obama administration than something I would write about the topic, barring some particular rare insight. But these pieces can sometimes still be fulfilling to write and enjoyable to read even if they don’t make sense on a Long Now site. There is a balance somewhere.

The operative question is this: how many years from now will a given topic still be interesting? Some are timely, as above, and some are timeless, like (in my opinion) epistemolgy. Much is timeless because of its contribution to the historical record, but it’s very difficult to find things on the internet, so the odds of being useful to the historical record these days are slim.

I endeavor to write toward the Long Now enough to curate an interesting site full of my writing, whether that site actually ends up existing or not. I’m curious how easy this writing would be to retrieve in, say, 30 years if I took no particular action to preserve it. Will Substack still exist? Will HTTPS still be the standard internet protocol? No idea!

If you have any particular thoughts on this topic for what you’d like to see, please let me know.

1

Indeed, this mailing list is the first time I’ve actually put meaningful time into a writing project over a longer span of time than a weekend.