Visible and invisible feedback loops
We think of blogging as being performative and public. It’s easy to think that you can see what’s happening - you read the posts, you can see a feed of what’s being written and so on.
But I’d argue that most of the value of blogging is invisible.
In an age where comments have moved to social media, it’s hard to see which posts are getting engagement, or who they’re getting engagement from.
Take some of my latest posts for example:
- Reflecting on things I failed to get done at Google has one comment on Commento and one annotation on Hypothesis. Not much to grapple with.
- Some Notes on Executive Dashboards has a single comment on Commento.
Both posts were big outliers though - one was on the homepage of Hacker News and one was re-shared in lots of design email lists. More than that - they both generated lots of fascinating discussions and connections. But it’s all sub-surface.
Yes, some of the conversation happens in semi-public spaces - places like Twitter or Hacker News. And there are tools that might help you uncover discussion and comments across the web, tools like:
- Ampie is an app that gives you a sidebar to surface discussions as you browse the web
- Twemex gives you a sidebar on Twitter that encourages more search, makes it easier to see people’s greatest hits and can help you quickly see who’s sharing an article (that’s partly how I use it)
- Hypothesis is an annotations platform, and if you install the Chrome extension you can see conversations and discussions on articles as you browse (especially for a certain kind of content)
But none of these will let you see the conversations that happen in my Twitter DMs, in various Discord groups or in my Gmail.
We think of blogging as being performative but the value is subterranean. You can watch someone blogging and think that all they’re doing is throwing words into the feed, when in reality they’re sparking many interesting conversations and connections below the surface.
Anyway, here’s a neat story about an underground garden:
Baldassare Forestiere was born in 1879, in a hamlet in Sicily. As a young man, he fled his country and domineering father, a fruit grower, for the U.S. Arriving on the East Coast, he learned about underground construction while toiling on the Croton Aqueduct and the Holland Tunnel. In 1904, eager to farm his own land, he purchased a 70-acre plot in Fresno, with the goal of growing citrus on it.
Then he dug into the ground and—disaster—he struck hardpan, the rock-like soil that is impermeable to water and impossible to cultivate.
He might have surrendered, but he didn’t. Instead, he began carving a home for himself out of that rocky soil structure, using the displaced rocks as building material to reinforce arched doorways and other architectural details.
He also discovered, when he dug underneath the hardpan, rich soil in which he could plant citrus trees, grapevines, and other plants—more than 10 feet below the surface. Planted underground, these plants grew more slowly, but also better—so much so that today many of his original trees are still producing fruit.
Building a home and garden up to 25 feet below the surface allowed him to escape the scorching heat of California:
Forestiere was ahead of his time in designing a sustainable home. He created skylights and tunnels to bring both breezes and sunlight into the space. He positioned his underground planters to catch rainwater, and he built a drainage system with a cistern to minimize flooding. He grew his own food—not just fruit, but also herbs. He had a pool (with a bridge) and an aquarium stocked with fish taken from the San Joaquin River. He even achieved a cool escape from the brutal Fresno summers. On my recent midday visit, the temperature was 99 degrees in Fresno, but it was just 80 underground.
I dunno, maybe an underground garden (blog) isn’t such a bad idea. Maybe, in the scorching heat of social media we need a cooler, darker space for connections and discussion. Where things grow more slowly but still bear fruit 25 years later.