We Need More Hemp - AI and Curated Internet Gardens

May 24, 2023

A good friend read a post of mine on this here parochial blog mere hours after I wrote it. I asked him how he saw it so fast and this is what he said:

It’s funny. I deleted my Facebook app like 7 years ago. I never got IG or Twitter but I still crave dopamine hits. So then I got hooked on news sites like NYT and FreePress and National Review and The Atlantic. Then I blacklisted those from my phone. But I still need dopamine hits. So now I compulsively check your blog. It’s like going from cocaine to cigarettes to hemp.

I lol’d at that. (hi btw 👋🏼 hope this was a good hit kthxbai)

My writing and this site is hemp. Once I got over that I started reminiscing about Google Reader, as I’m sure we all still do in 2023. Reader was a daily staple for a huge audience. We maintained our favorite niche writers and checked in to see if they had anything new. And it was exciting when they did! A new Steve Yegge rant to geek out on! The dopamine was real.

I’ve heard various stories about why Google killed Reader. It’s hard not to be cynical about it. But the reasons don’t really matter, the end result is the same. The community went away and everyone started reading and discovering content in a handful of well defined silos. These silos have 100% overlap with social media.

I won’t belabor the problems with social media except to say that the entire purpose of social media is to sell your attention to advertisers and that it’s about to get a lot worse. AI may change loads of things but one thing that’s obvious is that AI is driving the cost of textual content creation to zero. It may be the case soon that AI will be the author of most of the content on the internet.

I’m clearly biased towards the idea of everyone keeping a tiny little walled garden for themselves. A hemp garden. That’s what I do with this little site. What’s so liberating is that it doesn’t matter who reads what I write. The point is not that it’s consumed. The point is that it’s created. It helps me think. It makes me publish. In some ways a personal blog is the opposite of social media, where driving audience is the whole point.

The utility of Reader was that everyone could keep their walled garden and content remained highly distributed but it was discoverable. Today we’re forced onto social media to find and explore what I’ll call “indie” content. Substack and Medium are all trying to answer this problem but they’re still centralized silos. The rise of the email newsletter is a part of the walled garden approach. They’re focused on audience and they cross mediums and muddy up the inbox. The point is that there’s a big spectrum of dopamine and a long tail of content. We already have plenty of the big content silos and these new tools fill spots lower down the spectrum. But we constantly need more hemp. The bigger the long tail of human-generated content, the better the internet will be.

There’s still a decent segment of developers out there that maintain their own hemp production. Most still use Jekyll or Hugo or Gatsby and still have an RSS feed. I love reading them. I love discovering them. I wish Yegge (the old Yegge) posted more. I check for new PG essays at least monthly. And there’s a huge, long, awesome tail of devs and entrepreneurs and philosophers and writers and all sorts of others I love to read.

I signed up and paid for Twitter Blue, not because I’m an Elon-fanboy, but because I believe in the first principles idea that human verification is the only method we have for dealing with the ever-growing tsunami of content destroying our attention. I also strongly believe in the fundamental idea of free speech, something that most of the platforms have abused now for quite some time. Twitter seems to be the best of the silos on this dimension too, but it and Elon are showing their own problems. The even better solution is to own the real estate. And so we’re back to our own walled gardens.

AI is making the attention game so much worse than it was. Tiktok is just the opening act. We need tools that let us control our attention and interest in a distributed environment that isn’t tied to the massive content silos where our attention is the product. The tools we need are going to be built on the old tools we have: websites, RSS feeds, bookmarks, RSS readers. We need a concerted effort to exploit and share these tools. That’s what Reader did that’s missing now.

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