CJ Eller

Thinking about tools for thinking about thinking

What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only the semblance of wisdom, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much while for the most part they know nothing. And as men filled not with wisdom but with the conceit of wisdom they will be a burden to their fellows.

This damning of writing (in writing) from Plato's Phaedrus is the exact reason why I benefit from writing.

Memory requires reminding myself over and over again about what to remember. More often than not, that comes from writing about the same things over and over again. Posts reveal patterns of thought. These patterns give me more to write about. Soon enough that thinking/writing cycle reinforces memory.

Sure Plato, writing is reminding, but reminding can lead to memory.

Makes me think of a blog as a model of thought, a memory palace of sorts.


Is there something about a smaller user base and topic-based structure that creates different conversations? I've had a back and forth with Hudson from Body of Water over email about this, and he left me a great response to mull over:

I think inevitably and maybe unfortunately the provenance and purpose of these platforms must be examined. I feel like, strangely, social media is about getting somewhere alone, as an individual: follower counts, post likes—metrics to make one feel success or failure. And forums are about getting somewhere together. And social media maybe began that way, about “me”. I feel like forums have always been about “us”. Maybe that's why such strange and harmful aberrations of culture arisen from social media.

Hudson brings up this dynamic between “me” and “us” with platforms that I hadn't thought of before. It reminded me of a talk from Are.na co-founder Charles Broskoski. Taking an analogy from video-games, he mentions that a platform should be able to work both in “single player” & “multiplayer” mode. The analogy stuck with me.

Because when I think of blogging, for example, it's single player by default. But once you add others replying to your posts, it becomes a multiplayer experience. The most important thing is that blogging works both ways. You don't have to care about the multiplayer component to get something out of writing on the web.

But perhaps what Hudson alludes to is the quality of the multiplayer experience when comparing social media and forums. In that, the two are fundamentally different. Bix touches on this difference when describing Twitter:

The problem isn’t so much public-versus-private accounts as Twitter’s lack of tools for user-driven community building. The test-balloon of being able to control the extent of conversation on one’s own tweets at least partially considers this, but one of the things we lost in the cultural gold rush to social media was the primacy of intentional and circumscribed communities.

The “us” found in forums are built on that primacy of intentional and circumscribed communities. It's about getting somewhere together. People choose to be on a forum for a reason. People know why they're there. With social media there is more of what Cal Newport refers to as an “atmosphere of vagueness.” I think this passage from Digital Minimalism hits home with that feeling when describing Facebook in particular:

[B]y far one of the most common arguments I used to hear from people about why I should sign up for Facebook is that there might be some benefit I didn't even know about that I might be missing. “You never know, maybe you'll find this to be useful” has got to be on the worst product pitches ever devised. But in the peculiar context of the digital attention economy, it makes a lot of sense to people. [...]

An atmosphere of vagueness leads people to sign into the service with no particular purpose in mind, which of course, makes them easier targets for the attention engineers' clever hooks and exploits [.]

And that's where the metrics of follower counts and post likes that Hudson mentioned come in. It's the only thing to go off of on a platform that isn't built to provide an intentional multiplayer experience.

Could you even argue that the single player experience is built intentionally? That's a post for another time.

I suspect that the distinction CJ Eller is circling is the difference between space and place. Forums—as opposed to open networks like Twitter—are more likely to feel like a where as opposed to an ethereal nowhere.

This is an important distinction to think about. It especially makes me ponder how spaces and places play off each other. I write this at a co-working space but will soon be back to my house, a place. The experiential difference between the two is buffered by commuting (space or place or simply an in-between?).

How frequently do we jump between spaces and places online? With little to no buffering time, just the switch of a tab, the contextual switching can be harsh. Jumping from a forum discussion to my Twitter feed is jarring. Why is that?

Open networks won't go away anytime soon, so I wonder if there is a way to make these places more like spaces. What genuine things can be done that isn't the equivalent of making a co-working space more like a coffee shop? Decentralized social networks might play an interesting role here. These are open networks with niche interests, like Mastodon instances that focus on certain hobbies or lifestyles. It takes a space and makes it self-selective like a place.

I wonder what other possibilities could be.

Could work the other way around? What virtues of space could place adopt?

I feel more comfortable writing on forums than I do on social media. Replies come naturally, starting topics second nature. Those same activities on social media, however, trip me up.

I wonder whether this is more personal preference than anything – others could just as easily say the opposite. The term “lurker” originated with online forums. Then again, it's a posture that equally describes my participation on social media.

Another part of me, however, wonders whether the structure of forums offers something that gives one more license to contribute than on social media. I know users on a forum differently than I know those who I follow on social media. I don't “follow” others on a forum, yet there's greater context by which I understand them and their role on the forum as a whole.

If social media is a bustling city block, perhaps a forum is like a small town square.

Is there something about a smaller user base and topic-based structure that creates different conversations?

Over the past day I've taken more notice to a common practice from a couple blogs I follow.

Highlighting and bookmarking passages from their web reading.

Simple, yes, but the more I see these bookmarks the more I understand how useful they are – not only to the reader but to me as a reader of the reader.

The highlight is sometimes the only glimpse of an article I'll see. Even so, having that level of context from the blogger allows me to grasp meaning from it. Because I read the writing of the person who is doing the reading for me, their highlighted passages curate for me. Many posts on this blog have come from such highlighted passages. Highlighting and bookmarking are important in that sense, because hyperlexia is a reality on the web. Having different perspectives from which to observe blind spots, then, is crucial.

I come back to a point Jon Udell expressed – context is a service that we can provide others. Because on the base level, highlighting and bookmarking is beneficial to you. But then, once they're on the web, they become potentially beneficial for others – all from making your reading content-addressable.

There are many approaches to take. This post took form because of fellow Write.as user Dino's bookmark posts ( in that sense it's a #ResponseToDino). The simplicity of the post format allows me to receive value from Dino's reading. It lets you focus on one to two passages and gives you context as to why Dino found the article meaningful. Hypothesis has also been a big way for me to catch highlights and annotations from what I've read on the web. The catch, however, is that those annotations stay on Hypothesis – it cannot be serviceable to anyone unless they too have an Hypothesis account/extension. This makes me wonder about ways to make those annotations more accessible – publishing to my blog for instance using a similar approach to Dino. That way my reading can become content-addressable.

Experimentation coming soon...

There’s a weird experiment of sorts happening over on Write.as which CJ Eller calls “silent mentions”, but I’m not entire sure I get it. As near as I can tell, it’s just people posting to the same hashtag. It might not be a reply, as such, at all? There’s no new functionality here, per se, it doesn’t look like; it seems to be a user-generated social-hack of designating a hashtag on your own post and hoping no one else uses it for anything else?

@bix – the genesis of this is that someone wanted to use hashtags as a way to create conversation between authors on Write.as. Since hashtags are content addressable on Read Write.as, the thought was that you could designate a unique hashtag for others on Read Write.as to respond to your posts. That way, when you look at the link of your unique hashtag (like this: https://read.write.as/t/responsetobix), the posts that use it will be there. Sure, there's a definite chance that someone could use your hashtag, but I think that's where prepending it with something like “responseto” comes in to ensure nobody would use it accidentally.

And I completely agree – it's a weird social hack. But sometimes I wonder if platform limitations are where interesting possibilities can emerge. I never would have thought about emoji's as folksonomy until Micro.blog adopted tagmoji's. And why? Micro.blog doesn't support hashtags. But what an interesting alternative that arose from that. So while Write.as does not support comments (yet), the environment is ripe for weird social hacks to emerge. It'll be awkward, some of it won't make sense, some of it won't work well at all (lots of failed attempts on this blog), but it's worth the attempt.

@tmo – As far as a response to your #responsemusic (RWa feed) , I've been enjoying the latest two albums from The Bad Plus – a prog-jazz trio. This tune is one of my favorites.

Respones welcome on Read Write.as using #ResponseToCJ

This idea of “silent mentions” has been brewing on the Write.as forum. All it requires is a hashtag and your blog set up to publish onto Read Write.as. From there, other Write.as users can respond to your posts by using your hashtag in a post on their. Since these posts show up on Read Write.as, and the Read Write.as feed is searchable by tags, you can bookmark your hashtag url as a kind of personal mentions inbox.

The most fascinating part about this proposed system is the “silent” aspect. These mentions slip under the surface – no Write.as infrastructure is built in to notify you. It harkens to the days when retweeting wasn't a press of a button but the copying and pasting of a tweet prepended by “RT” and including an @ mention. There was a kind of intentionality in that action that is lost when you can simply press a button.

Same thing applies to this response hashtag. You have to actively seek your hashtag page just as you actively seek your mailbox, expectant yet unknowing what you'll find. At most you know whoever is contacting you is purposefully seeking you out – they looked to see what your hashtag was and decided to use their Write.as post on their own blog to respond to what you were writing in a (hopefully) constructive manner. That intention could lead to a kind of discourse that rises above interaction.

So I will append this post with #responsetest , a hashtag to test out how these response hashtags could work on Write.as. Feel free to look at the other people who have tested out the functionality by using the hashtag feed here. If you have a blog that is set to “Public” (publishing to Read Write.as), feel free to write a post about this and use #responsetest in your post to see it pop up in the hashtag's feed link.

I love the highlighting, annotation, and bookmarking features of Hypothes.is, but desperately wish I had more direct access to own this sort of data on my own website in a more straightforward manner. (I’ve already got a PESOS method, specifically I wish I had a POSSE method.)

This is something I've too thought about with Hypothes.is. On an annotation level it appears tricky to do, but things look more tenable when you go one step above annotations.

Hypothes.is allows you to create page notes – annotations on the page level. So, technically speaking, you could write a blog post on your own site, grab the Markdown, and push it into Hypothes.is as a page note. Would it be redundant for longer posts? Sure, but I think it could work for smaller ones where you are generally replying to a piece of content rather than annotating passages.

This is something I'll try out starting with this post. (view page note)

A contribution to the “Blogging Futures” blogchain. Feel free to read and contribute here.

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?


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.

This passage from Brendan's latest contribution to the chain asks an interesting question – what does a persistent infrastructure for writing on the web look like?

Like others have written here, I think that this persistent infrastructure exists in many technical forms already – from aggregators and blogrolls to blogchains and Webmentions. That is where the emphasis on social infrastructure comes in. It is only in contributing to what's present that anything can persist.

That is why Twitter's Bluesky project can be considered a slap in the face to the many maintainers of decentralized social media platforms/protocols. As Anil Dash put it,

Don’t develop it, invest in the efforts that exist.

And I think we can take a similar approach to writing on the web. Investment doesn't have to mean large sums of capital but can be an investment of effort, to keep writing and iterating on the tools we have. That maintenance can be worth so much more than we realize.

We don't have to reinvent the wheel but we have to keep the wheels we have rolling.

Part of the American Colossus blogchain

There is a thread in the beginning of H.W. Brand's American Colossus: The Triumph of Capitalism, 1865-1900 that is revealing to our current technology landscape. It starts with the origins of shareholding.

Brands points to shareholding origins in railroads. These were some of the first large corporations in America, and such size required a constant surge of unprecedented funding that even banks were wary of:

The capital demands of the railroads required expanding the pool from which that capital might be drawn. One way of acquiring capital was to borrow it from banks or other lenders. Railroads did borrow, but often their business plans were too risky, their collateral asserts too meager, or the banks too cautious to cover all the roads' investment needs.

Borrowing alone couldn't scale these businesses. That is where shareholding comes in:

The other technique was to sell partial ownership—that is, shares of the railroad corporation. This spread the risk among the many owners and allowed for more-rapid expansion than borrowing alone did.

Shareholding not only fueled the railroads but sparked growth in the financial markets in New York. Where once thirty shares at most were exchanged, hundreds of thousands of shares passed through the NYSE.

This shift caused an even greater shift to happen, a present-day thread that had its origins in the Gilded Age of America:

The massive sale of shares led to something new in American economic history: the divorce of ownership from management.

Brand explains further:

Previously, owners typically managed their firms, leaving little distance between the interests of ownership and the interests of management. But as ownership spread to hundreds and then thousands of people, the vast majority of whom had no responsibility for day-today management of the firm, owners and managers could develop interests that diverged and occasionally collided.

And as you read American Colossus, this thread contains to reveal itself in the shifty schemes taken by these individuals and corporations. These acts start to make sense when considering ownership isolated from the day-to-day considerations of management – less about people and more about abstractions. Such a divergence can be seen in the tech ventures of today. Decisions can be justified for business growth (ownership) but at the expense of employees (management).

It makes me wonder about where ownership and management converge in tech and elsewhere, about how the split can be mended where it is broken and whether that can still happen with shareholding.