I wrote a few months ago about how books might evolve as a medium. Since then I have found myself reflecting more on some of the new mediums of communication the internet has afforded us.
Twitter looms large in public discourse, serving as a President’s soapbox, a VC Café philosophique and a placeto dojokes, among others. The form itself is real menagerie, from banal one-liners to threaded diatribes. It feels ephemeral and is hard to search or organise; it is unstructured. It is highly contextual, to be experienced in the moment, rather than after-the-fact. A conversation, not a historic record (though surely Tweets will become cited artefacts soon enough). Twitter is perhaps the platform these confused times deserve (one might posit that the blue bird had a causal role, but that is best left for another time).
Email newsletters feel like quite an old format, but I find myself subscribing to more and more these days. Also a real mixed bag of content, from professional organisations’ weekly updates to the idle wonderings of creative minds. I enjoy newsletters because people seem able to be themselves – Yancey Strickler describes newsletters as part of the dark forest of the internet.
“These are all spaces where depressurized conversation is possible because of their non-indexed, non-optimized, and non-gamified environments.”
There is something private about a newsletter, not just read in your browser but invited into your inbox, placed on your implied to-read list. I find that there are some I archive almost automatically (I should unsubscribe), while there are others I look forward to, just as I look forward to the bi-weekly arrival of Private Eye.
The third form I have been thinking about is by far the most niche, but is also the one which led me to write this post – blogchains. Described and invented at Ribbonfarm:
“A blogchain is longform by other means. Containerized longform if you like. A themed blog-within-a-blog, built as a series of short, ideally fixed-length posts (we’re trying to standardize on 300 words as one container size).”
Distinct from a series, more improvisational, responsive and evolutionary. In writing this blog, I have developed a few larger ideas that I want to build out, but I haven’t felt I have the will (or the audience) to write a big old essay. So maybe I will try blogchains on for size, with this the first one, inspired by James Blake – Assume Forms, on internet mediums.
A foundational premise of this blog post is that jokes are better when you explain them in excruciating detail, so can we all get on board with that please.
If you are denizen of tech Twitter, you have probably heard of Superhuman. For those of you fortunate not to spend time on the Hell website: it is an email client, self-proclaimed “the fastest email experience ever made”. It has achieved its Twitter fame through a combination of invite-only exclusivity, high profile advocates and admirers (mostly proclaiming via Twitter), some noteworthy quirks (one-on-one onboarding, a $30 per month pricetag, beautiful pictures when you hit inbox zero), as well as what is apparently a genuinely transformative email experience.
I say apparently because I wouldn’t know – I am an Android user for my sins, so even though I managed to wangle a coveted invite (I know right), I was rebuffed at the final hurdle: there isn’t an Android app yet. My email signature will not indicate that I am Superhuman, at least not for a while.
In a fit of pique, I wondered whether maybe, just maybe, $30 was a bit much for just, like, sending email? Did I even want to see nice pictures at inbox zero? Why would I want an onboarding where someone else critiqued my emails? Was it actually all just about getting a golden ticket, and telling the world about it?
And thus, NormalHuman was born: the email experience you already have, just with a sprinkling of exclusivity.
I know what you are thinking: this is kind of weird, why are you explaining this quite shoddy attempt at satire? Cool your jets, I’m getting there. Because this post is actually an ode to the internet.
Everyone knows that the internet has revolutionised and democratised access to information blah blah blah. All manner of entities, from individual hackers to not-for-profits to big corporates have brought us products and services that are almost like magic, achieving a mix of fortune and fame along the way.
What I think is less well understood is how easy it is in 2019 for a person with an idea to bring that to the world at speed, with internet scale (even if that idea is a half-baked internet parody), thanks to a mix of tools, community and a little bit of luck. Let me break this thing down for you.
I’m not suggesting that Normalhuman.net is a groundbreaking thing. It is actually quite simple: it is a single page website, with a sign up form, some nice pictures and transitions, a $5 card payment option, and some analytics tracking in the background. I guess what is significant is that ten years ago, that would have been quite an undertaking, requiring a chunk of time and at least some custom development. Today, it took a couple of hours of messing around with some user-friendly point and click tools.
The hub of the whole thing was built on Carrd. For those who don’t know it, Carrd is the world’s simplest one-page website builder, by one-man powerhouse AJ. I have been using it for a couple of years, and I have huge respect for how the platform has developed in that time – it has added some great new functionality, but it has done that while remaining incredibly simple, staying true to its core use-case (easy to make single-page sites). If you have never made a website before, and want to put something of your own on the internet, I can’t recommend a better place to start – it was my first port of call, and I was off the mark.
I wrote some slightly irreverent copy. But a few word jokes does not a good satirical website make. I needed to beef that sucker up.
Superhuman has an access request form, so Normalhuman had to have one too. The act of a couple of minutes in Carrd, linking up a dusty old Mailchimp account I once set up. The internet doesn’t need another wax lyrical about bootstrapped Mailchimp, so I will simply say: it was easy to do.
Given the wonderful aesthetics of Superhuman, I had to make sure my stock photo game was up to scratch. I hadn’t come across Unsplash before, but their photos were beautiful so I snagged a few for Normalhuman, plus their simple embedding API was just what I needed. I got some nice transitions going, and the whole thing started to look kind of professional. We were cooking on gas.
I wasn’t sure what to do about the endorsements from high profile people, a compulsory component of every wannabe unicorn website – I didn’t feel like I could put real people’s faces up there. Fortunately I was reminded of the slightly chilling thispersondoesnotexist.com, an endless stream of AI-generated faces. I could put a face to a quote with impunity (sorry computers).
I talked to a friend of mine, who said I should add a card payment option in there. Carrd of course has a seamless payment integration with Stripe. I thought why not? And added a $5 widget (proceeds to go to Wikimedia). It was my first time using Stripe. Having worked on a couple of payment integrations for bank wires and credit cards in a previous job, it was kind of uncanny how easy it was to go from no Stripe account, to accepting payments. Truly a wonderful user experience.
Then, in a moment of optimism, I added Google Analytics tracking. Needless to say this was also very easy to do in Carrd.
Not going to lie, I kind of gave up when I got to designing the logo. It is the number eight. Don’t ask me why.
Having made a joke website, it could have gone the way of some of my previous satirical efforts – URLs passed on to like-minded friends, otherwise largely forgotten. But I thought I might as well prod it out into the world, so I did two things. Firstly, I created a Twitter account, and secondly I posted it on Product Hunt.
I’m by no means an active Product Hunt user, but I think it is an interesting community which surfaces some cool stuff (I read their daily email). I’d never “hunted” anything before, but thought it might get some attention if I was lucky – the VC Starter Kit (a masterpiece) had done pretty well on Product Hunt, so there was some precedent for joke websites. I Hunted it, pushing it out into the void.
Back to Twitter, where I have only recently started engaging and posting things on my personal account, having spent a decent chunk of time lurking. While I have some issues with the platform (not for now), it does spark some really interesting conversations, and I have really appreciated the fact that you can engage directly with people a world away. It was in the hope that I tweeted my Product Hunt page, and tagged @Superhuman.
A little bit of luck
So NormalHuman got lucky a couple of times. The Superhuman team saw my tweet, and they seemed to get it. A couple of them followed my Normalhuman account, and retweeted or liked or whatever it is one does on Twitter. The site got some traffic over a few days (~4K people!), some people gave me their email address to apply for access. I got a nice feeling that some people had seen the thing I did, and thought it was ok. Which is about all one can reasonably hope for. I was pretty happy with how it had all gone, and was trying to explain to my family what it was (“so if you follow Tech Twitter…”), when I checked Google Analytics – about 1,000 people were concurrently on the site.
It became apparent that Benedict Evans had included the link on his weekly newsletter, which goes out to >100K people, which explained the sudden influx of traffic. As a reader of said weekly newsletter, it was kind of cool to see my joke website included. I emailed Benedict, who informed me that it was one of the most-clicked links that week. Still not sure what to do with that one.
But I am sure that it totally obliterate my previous metrics, with a halo lasting for a little while as some other people picked it up. As of writing, >17K people have visited the site, >2.5K people have applied for access, and, in the most miraculous outcome of all, 18 people paid $5 for lifetime membership, with all profits to go to the Wikimedia foundation.
So that was all good fun.
Some miscellaneous thoughts I may unpack a bit more later: Twitter is an incredible place to spread information (or disinformation). Newsletters with large readerships are a powerful tool. People are pretty willing to give out their email address. People are mostly up for a laugh.
To people who visited the site: I hope it made you smile (I know it’s not like ha-ha funny, we’re in wry smile territory here and that’s ok).
To people who applied for access: I am sorry that I don’t (currently?) have an email client to offer you. GDPR mandates that I let you delete that data if you want, just hit me up if that is the case @GetNormalhuman.
To the people who paid $5: you are absolute angels. I will be making a payment to Wikimedia forthwith.
To team Superhuman: kudos for being cool about it. If you will still have me, I’d love to give the service a try, even just on my old Macbook Pro.
To Benedict Evans: thanks for the boost, that was fun.
To AJ and all the people who made the tech I used: thank you for the leg up. Keep doing what you do.
I am conscious of course that this kind of wide-eyed one-eyed optimism has lead to all sorts of issues for technology companies big and small. There is much more nuanced and thoughtful reflection to be done. But I had an enjoyable micro-experience of the positive power of the internet, and I wanted to share it here.
Andy Matuschak put out a very interesting piece recently, “Why books don’t work“. While the title is slightly clickbait-y, the content is a substantive and thought-provoking argument that non-fiction books are not actually good tools for conveying knowledge. That the central premise of book-based learning – “people absorb knowledge by reading sentences” – is not generally true*. Instead, people depend on “metacognition” (thinking about what they are reading) to actually absorb and internalize what they have read, which is not something that comes easily. And even those books which appear explicitly designed to facilitate learning (e.g. textbooks) depend on context to actually act as useful learning tools, whether that context is a course, a classroom or a discussion group.
The prescribed antidote is fortunately not an accepting shrug, but instead that this is an opportunity to “make new forms… it is possible to design new mediums which embody specific ideas”. To improve on the book medium “so that its “grain” bends in line with how people think and learn”. Matuschak acknowledges that this is a tall order, but proffers Quantum Computing, an initial attempt with his collaborator Michael Nielsen.
Matt Clifford included the piece in his weekly Matt’s Thoughts In Between newsletter (subscribe!), with the salient observation that this is a bet on human design in the face of the evolved book medium (which is often a brave bet to make). But books are a technology that haven’t changed in millenia (even e-readers try to mimic paper as much as possible), while our means of information transmission have transformed and proliferated unimaginably. Now seems as good a time as any to reconsider this cornerstone of human knowledge. And while Matuschak’s piece says “it doesn’t even necessarily mean abandoning paper”, I do think if something replaces the medium, it will likely be dynamic and tech enabled.
With these thoughts fresh in my mind I was interested to come across Going Critical, by Kevin Simler, which weaves interactive simulations into a very interesting piece on diffusion through a network. The piece is interspersed by illustrative examples that deepen understanding of quite complex phenomena in a very intuitive way. I recommend you give it a read.
This particular approach worked very well, and was very memorable. But I think what struck me was how appropriate it was to the specific topic, but that it wouldn’t necessarily be generalisable. Which lead me to a general observation: I think that if something does replace books, it won’t be another monolithic medium, but a rich mixture of forms. Kevin shared a rangeof hisinspirations. I look forward to seeing others’ explorations, and may even break out of the box myself.
*In a perfect and slightly ironic illustration of this phenomenon, I found myself having to revisit the original article quite a bit to remember the details, having read it a few days ago.