CJ Eller

Thinking about tools for thinking about thinking

The first letter to the editor. If you want to write in about anything I have written, please feel free to do so.

By miso

I like the idea of long-form comments. I never really tend to read comment sections on other platforms because I know most of its content is either reactionary or just trolling. Well, it's not true. Sometimes I do open it for fun, to see how many people commented something that's nothing to do with the main purpose of the article.

As you have written on Engagement has it hard, engagement is indeed hard. I've also came to a similar conclusion on Engaging with posts on fediverse. I got very surprised when I moved into write.as to see that other people were actually quoting me on their posts and were adding to the discussion. I don't think I've quite seen this somewhere else. I like this idea of opening read.write.as and looking to see what other writer are talking about, seeing if you have been mentioned, seeing if a conversation is progressing. Yet it's so easy to miss something. If you don't read everything, you might miss out on someone quoting you. Is it a bad thing? I would have said so a while ago. I'm not sure anymore. It creates excitement.

My hope is that such a system will beget real engagement here. It does not have to scale. It just has to matter.

I couldn't agree more what that statement.

I want to take another crack at letters to the editor for my blog – an alternative to frictionless commenting systems.

To do this, I will be using Submit.as for submission management. It allows for people to type in a name and email, draft a letter in the Write.as editor, and publish. Once I receive the post, I can review the submission and publish it to my blog as a letter to the editor with a response, or get back to the individual with an email.

That flexibility to make the conversation public or private is what interests me about a letter to the editor. A letter is long form, private correspondence. When addressed to the editor, however, it can be responded to and published in public. But at its core the exchange is between two people first and can be left that way.

My hope is that such a system will beget real engagement here. It does not have to scale. It just has to matter.

Drop me a line if you'd like.

Design breeds culture and the culture of a space like Twitter leans toward hitting that button rather than really engaging. That said, how much real engagement can one person do in any given day?

This point by Bix bears reflection. Because while real engagement is an aspiration for social software, little has been brought up as to whether it can scale in an individual's life. It takes a lot of effort, as Miso brings up here:

However I think a lot of people simply read and never write. And that's probably for a reason: in order to engage with something it takes effort. Someone needs to formulate their thoughts, put it down, send it. It's not easy. I guess that's why there are a lot of one-click like systems (such as claps on medium). It shows engagement, but i'm not sure how meaningful it is.

The web is a strange marriage of reading and writing. We write and then read and then write responses to what we read, all at an exponential rate. Such a treadmill becomes exhausting.

No wonder one-click systems act as a supposed balm, however wanting of real meaning and engagement. Because one-click systems scale. Hundreds of thousands of people can click “Like” or “Subscribe” on a single piece of content. Can hundreds of thousands of people write long, thoughtful responses to a single piece of content while engaging in a discussion?

In comparison, I think of this fact from Dirk van Miert's paper “What was the Republic of Letters?”:

From the first four decades of the sixteenth century, some 3200 letters, exchanged with over seven hundred people, have come to down to us from Erasmus’ correspondence.

We operate at such a different scale than Erasmus by candlelight. An engagement rate of 700 people would be laughable to high traffic content channels. But even though the web's infrastructure can support thousands of people engaging with m work, I wonder if there is something to the slow drip. Even if I cannot do as much real engagement with many people on the web every day, I want that little bit to be meaningful.

Every day it seems I’ll have a random thought and I think, hmm I should Tweet that. Before long this gets ingrained into your routine and it’s hard to break it.

This thought from Eric Barnes gets at the heart of how digital habits work. Charles Duhigg outlined a useful model for habits in The Power of Habit, and it goes something like this:

  1. Cue
  2. Routine
  3. Reward

“Put another way”, Duhigg mentions in the appendix, “a habit is a formula our brain automatically follows: When I see CUE, I will do ROUTINE in order to get a REWARD.”

In Barnes' case, the cue is having a random thought. Then he proceeds to tweet that thought – the routine. What he leaves out is the reward of tweeting his thought. We can assume there are external motivations coupled with internal ones. This is the habit loop for Twitter.

Looking beyond at our other digital habits through this model can help us better understand why we use certain platforms regardless of their deficits. There is something about habits that can transcend moralistic arguments. Sure, lambast Twitter all you want for privacy and lack of freedom. That does not get at underlying power of the habit of tweeting.

And I think that is where Cal Newport's reluctance comes in about the success of alternatives to the social media silos. As he pens in this New Yorker article:

Despite its advantages, however, I suspect that the IndieWeb will not succeed in replacing existing social-media platforms at their current scale. For one thing, the IndieWeb lacks the carefully engineered addictiveness that helped fuel the rise of services like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. This addictiveness has kept people returning to their devices even when they know there are better uses for their time; remove the addiction, and you might lose the users.

Destroy the habit loop and you might lose the users. Perhaps part of the friction Bix explores here is slowing down to observe our digital habits. Duhigg further expounds on the positive benefit of such activity:

Once you’ve figured out your habit loop – you’ve identified the reward driving your behavior, the cue triggering it, and the routine itself – you can begin to shift the behavior. You can change to a better routine by planning for the cue, and choosing a behavior that delivers the reward you are craving.

There is a pattern common to myself and others – putting pieces of writing writing into other pieces of writing – books. Sometimes it is relevant to the reading – an obituary of the author tucked away in the table of contents. Other times it is not even related – a birthday card that suffices as a bookmark.

It makes me think about how we embed writing into other writing on the web. A newspaper article clipping is replaced by a hyperlink to take you to said newspaper article. Sure, the tactility is lost, but deep down I wonder what else is.

Reminds me of Ted Nelson's qualm with “cut-and-paste” as adopted by early computing:

To me that was an outrage because no one has yet got a decent re-arrangement system that allows you to see the all the parts of the arrangement as you’re writing. Those words meant something entirely different until 1984. Balzac, the French novelist, carried a razor blade around his neck for cutting up his manuscript. Tolstoy would cut up his manuscripts and leave all the pieces around the floor. This is true cut-and-paste, where you’re re-arranging on a large scale and able to see the relationships between parts.

I used to hate underlining passages in a book. Without making a note of why I found it worth underlining, the passage marooned from meaning. Why did I underline that sentence in the first place? There had to be something in the margins to provide context.

So then I reread a book with those underlines with marginalia. Half of the time the marginalia gives me little to work from. (“Haha” – so I guess I found that sentence funny for some reason?) Others are so grounded in who I was at the time that my present self cannot even understand why I might have found it compelling in the first place. All of the emphasis on marginalia carried over little to future skimming. And maybe that is not what marginalia is for.

Lately I have grown partial to simply underlining. I don't rack my brain over leaving a comment. Even if I know not fully what I thought about a passage, the act of underlining it still comes back to me. I then find the underlined passage in question. Only then do I begin to think more about the passage, jot some notes down, turn it into a blog post. The underline was the most important part, not the thoughts attached to it. That was what set the deeper inquiry into motion

We need such anchors in this sea of words we find ourselves in. One has to be able to catch and release on a whim. On the web, annotation seems like such a well suited anchor. Like underlining, the act of annotating leaves me with a general impression of a passage I found interesting. Only after interrogating the passage beyond the annotation do I find meaning. But I could not have done so without anchoring myself at that point in that blog post, in that article, in that PDF.

Because you have to drop the anchor first. Then you start fishing.

I have been using Hypothesis to make annotations and highlights across the web for a while now. After some time, it struck me odd that I had not tried to turn the tool inward. Why not give others the ability to annotate and highlight my own writing?

So now Hypothesis is native on the blog. There are two things to notice. One, some parts of this post are highlighted in yellow. If you click them, a sidebar will pop up with the annotations therein. Two, if you highlight a part of text, Hypothesis will prompt you to make an annotation or a highlight. Making an account is easy. Think of the account as giving you the superpower to not only annotate here but anywhere on the web.

This experiment is an extension of a broader conversation on building meaningful interaction and context into the web. I have carried around this thought from a post by Bix:

One thing I miss about writing on Medium is highlighting, and it got me thinking last night and again this morning that blogging platforms should do away with likes, or refrain from implementing them if the platforms are under development, and instead implement reader highlights.

Likes are completely devoid of both content and context. If a reader doesn't have anything useful or interesting to add by way of posting a comment, their only other choice should be to highlight something in what they read that especially spoke to or struck them.

And if they do have something useful or interesting to add, why not have it attached to the thing that they read that especially spoke to or struck them? That is the strength of web annotation software – it can allow a spectrum of interaction that still gives context to reader and writer alike.

I hope you will join the experiment.

It's fun to be read, and more so, it's better to be debated, to be questioned, to have to defend one's ideas not from dogma but from reason and science.

This sentiment from Mikka gets at a yearning for most writers – to not simply be read but for someone to take what you have written and engage with it in their own writing.

But what if such a connection won't happen? What if we are just writing in a vacuum? Brendan Schlagel best describes this in a post as “uncertainty of reception”:

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?

He develops this into a further developed cadre of questions:

[W]hat 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?

While we can be unsure about the reception of our own writing, let us be more sure of how we receive the writing of others. Before I wrote here I wrote on Wordpress – 300 + posts of navel gazing. No wonder there was no worthwhile response.

But ever since I started writing here I developed a different posture. I started to interact with the posts of others here, engaging in worthwhile discussions about how to meaningfully connect on the web. It felt like a breakthrough. Not only was the quality of writing better but the writing experience as a whole.

It was a valuable lesson – to shift from the uncertainty of reception of my own writing into the certainty of reception of other's writing, to at least attempt to start those interesting questions, to at least question someone else's writing.

My feeling about why write a book in paper now is that what a book does is it actually stops the flow of information.

This thought from Kenneth Goldsmith touches on something key. We think that the power of the web is like running water. But what good is that water if it cannot be turned off sometimes?

There are many ways this can be done besides writing a book in paper. I am reminded of a technique of novelist Don DeLillo that Inquiry brought to my attention:

Something from it that rather stuck was [Don DeLillo's] habit of putting paragraphs each on their own sheet of paper – I think in part to see how each paragraph stood on its own, as if being merely seen straddled by other paragraphs distracted his mind from sufficient focus to make the most of such a unit.

We usually think of a single page holding as many paragraphs as it can. But DeLillo did not think that way – one paragraph per page. He too wanted to control the flow of information.

So then the question becomes, “How do we do this on the web?” Because there are more ways available than simply limiting internet time.

It has taken on a new context on the web.

Because most writing software is anything but. Editors parade everything but the kitchen sink – fonts, video, italics, images, alignment, audio, color. One can spend hours on what a sentence looks like, let alone what it means.

And the place where one writes can also be where one reads. Messages whiz by as you try to write your own. It can be like trying to have a conversation in a noisy bar where other conversations are within earshot.

Minimalist writing software goes the opposite direction. It promotes the blank page. Who knew that the symbol of writer's block would become marketed as a symbol of freedom?

The tyranny of the blank page becomes the benevolence of the blank page.