Blogger’s block

May 2015

TL;DR: blogging frequency may decrease here; higher-variance, lower-mean blogging at scraps.benkuhn.net.

I’ve noticed lately that I’m becoming more of a perfectionist about blogging.

Partly I may be becoming a victim of my own (extremely minor) success after seeing four of my posts make the Hacker News frontpage. Suddenly I realized that yes, people actually do care if I write higher-quality, less-trivial posts. Unfortunately, explicitly trying for higher quality doesn’t work very well with my blogging process, which mostly goes as follows:

The basic problem with this workflow is that there’s nothing really feeding into the crucial “get grabbed by some idea” step. That relies on me having a bunch of things bouncing around my head. But if I’m under pressure to publish interesting content, then I have to prioritize, and that means trying to avoid “false starts” instead of letting them bounce around for a while. This prioritization works in the short run, but ultimately results in having a much smaller arsenal of stuff to write about.

So! I’ve made a secondary site at scraps.benkuhn.net where I try to get more ideas bouncing around, by posting less discriminately. You may or may not find it interesting.

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John Maxwell

FYI, I thought the “scraps” were pretty good (not that different from your regular writing in quality). I would suggest exposing them to a wider audience, since your writing is better than most peoples’, but of course you have to do what works for your psychologically.

One thing you might try is collecting ideas in a digital notebook and then Beemind some notebook activity metric. (You could keep it under version control and make commits frequently in order to track rewriting activity.)

I do wonder whether there are certain downsides to having too large of an audience. Maybe fear of judged by a large audience puts people in the closed mode and shuts down creativity. E.g. I wonder if the rationalist community has moved from LW to Tumblr some because Tumblr lets you write down your thoughts with less risk of being publicly humiliated if you’re embarrassingly wrong. There’s no downvote button. (Contra Eliezer Yudkowsky, I don’t think downvote buttons are critical. In the modern era, people share what they like on social media. Much lousy stuff doesn’t get shared and thus doesn’t cause problems. The tricky problem is lousy stuff that gets shared despite being lousy.)

Or more broadly speaking, the current issue with internet discourse, as opposed to internet discourse in the Usenet era that Eliezer writes about, is the fact that thoughtful, boring, analytical stuff has a tough time competing with intellectual junk food like Buzzfeed. This manifests itself on a micro level when e.g. I’m more willing to read a short, comprehensible, engaging LW post than a long, boring, important one.

Once or twice in my life, I cut out my internet use entirely, and I found that over the course of a couple of days my attention span increased dramatically… to the point where I started finding previously boring textbooks interesting. This fits in with my broader view of a kind of hedonic treadmill/set point operating in my brain. E.g. when I quit video games completely a few years ago, everything in my life that wasn’t a video game became substantially more interesting. Unfortunately, it’s hard to create a clear barrier against “junk food”, and the Internet is too useful to abandon altogether. For a while, I turned it off for an hour or so each morning while planning my day, and that seemed to work pretty well.

I wonder if Medium.com is better than either Tumblr or Less Wrong for discussions. Evan Williams says he wants Medium to be a place like Twitter where it’s relatively easy for anyone to find an audience. So you’re not shouting in to a void the way you’d be if you were operating an unknown independent blog. But it’s designed for longform content (unlike Tumblr), doesn’t amplify controversy like Tumblr does, and doesn’t need a downvote button because of it’s sharing-based structure. I’m thinking I might try using it seriously some time.

I’ve also heard good things about Quora. And I guess you could also make self posts on various intellectual subreddits. (Could be a good way to experiment with writing stuff anonymously?)

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John Maxwell

By the way, why do you want to get yourself writing more? Writing blog comments like the previous one feels like time-wasting to me but that’s just a cached intuition.

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Ben

FYI, I thought the “scraps” were pretty good (not that different from your regular writing in quality).

Hmm. Thanks for the feedback! I expect quality to go down (the things I wrote first were the most complete/fleshed-out thoughts), but I’ll re-evaluate whether that’s actually true later. FWIW, I’m thinking of migrating some posts from scraps to main in a more polished form.

By the way, why do you want to get yourself writing more? Writing blog comments like the previous one feels like time-wasting to me but that’s just a cached intuition.

Mostly because it’s a good way to get myself to think about things, and to get other people’s feedback on things. This blog has also been pretty helpful in spreading EA ideas (I know at least two people have gotten seriously into EA because of it, and there’s likely a bunch more).

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Peter Hurford

I’ve really been enjoying the scraps.

As a blogger who doesn’t really blog very often (looks to be about once a month now), I’m unsure how much it is worth stressing out about not blogging. So I’m curious about your motivations and the effectiveness of blogging in the grand scheme of activities you may be doing. (Though 4x HN is really awesome and probably worth it.)

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Ben

@Peter: thanks! I actually think blogging is kind of important for motivating me to continue thinking hard about things that don’t come up during work. Also, yeah, it has strong outreach benefits.

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