The newsletter is metamorphosing, reorienting, pivoting
In the coming weeks, I’m going to be making 3 significant changes to this newsletter, so this is a bit of a heads-up and resetting of expectations. In brief:
The name of the newsletter will change.
I won’t be doing the podcast track anymore.
The content will get rougher. More drafty and backstage.
The goal of these changes is to allow the serialized projects to develop faster by loosening things up a bit. If all goes as planned, it will make the newsletter easier for me to write, but harder for you to read.
Nothing else is changing right now. It will still be on substack, it will still be weekly, and the mix of free/paywalled issues will stay roughly the same.
I suspect most of you will enjoy the consequences of the pivot, but for those of you who don’t like where this is headed, this is your chance to bail before it gets annoying for you. Caveat emptor and all that sort of thing.
Here are the details, which I think many of you will find interesting.
1. Name Change
First, it’s time for a name change. Names are important. A mis-named thing is a mis-managed thing.
Over the last year, the scope of what I write here has gotten both thematically and stylistically much broader than the original tech-focused scope of Breaking Smart, so the name is increasingly inappropriate (besides being an oblique reference to a TV show that ended in 2013, which increasingly nobody gets). So I will be renaming this newsletter to be under the umbrella brand of my main blog, Ribbonfarm. I’m currently trying to settle on a simple, descriptive sub-brand. Candidates I am considering include:
Other naming suggestions welcome. I’m looking for commodity descriptiveness, preferably literal rather than figurative, not cleverness. Something that reflects the direction I’m headed in, situates this at the appropriate location within the ribbonfarm extended universe (“same thematic scope as the blog, but bigger and more complex projects”), clearly signals the contents, and sets the right expectations.
Once I make the name change in the coming weeks, the substack URL will change, and the home page of this newsletter, will move to an appropriate ribbonfarm.com subdomain. Email delivery should continue as usual though. Substack appears to have a one-click way to make this change smoothly in the settings. You’ll just see the from field change, and some links may be broken for a while.
The main reason for this change is personal, since I like the names of my projects to feel like “true names” in relation to how they feel in my head. But as a side effect, this will also be practically helpful, since managing two independently branded web publishing properties is a pain.
As part of this consolidation, I’ll be sunsetting the @breaking_smart twitter handle, and the link-tweeting duties will be taken over by the @ribbonfarm handle. So if you rely on twitter for updates, you should follow the latter.
Breaking Smart will become an archival brand restricted to the original set of essays/ebook on software eating the world.
2. No More Podcast Track
Second. No more podcast track.
It was a fun and low-effort experiment while it lasted, but I’ve decided I don’t really enjoy the monologue podcast format, and am not particularly good at it either.
Podcasts are a complex and increasingly sophisticated medium, and what I was trying to do — essentially write a weak essay outline and do an extempore audio performance of it — isn’t really a thing anybody wants. It started as a way to add a bit more to the twitter-thread style posts I used to do more of, but I don’t think it adds much. I might still do the occasional thread-style posts, but I won’t be adding an audio track to them. If you want audio, use some sort of text-to-audio. Robots are probably better at reading out my text than I am anyway.
So in future, I’ll be sticking to text with the occasional sketch or cartoon thrown in.
3. Content Pivot
Finally, the content is going to get rougher. This is the biggest planned change.
The idea behind this newsletter, after I made it a paid subscription last year, was to make it easier to work on my longer, more complex projects.
Right now, there are three such projects:
The Clockless Clock book (5 chapters spread across 9 newsletter issues)
The Great Weirding essay collection (3 essays across 6 newsletter issues)
The After Westphalia essay collection (2 essays in 2 issues).
There are more projects in the pipeline that will kick off once in-flight projects wrap (3 seems like my upper limit for parallel processing and also my lower limit for managing stall risks).
These are all roughly monograph-to-book-scale projects, whether or not I publish them in those formats. For various reasons, while it’s gotten somewhat easier, and I’ve been making progress on projects that had been entirely stalled before, it hasn’t gotten as much easier as I’d hoped. So I’m making some changes to address that. Changes that require sacrificing some readability for more writability.
The original idea was to simply serialize the big projects, but as I didn’t quite appreciate then, “serialize” is an extraordinarily strong constraint. It is hard to compose complex works in a single serialized pass.
One way this has manifested is in all the one-off essays I do here — many of these are research side-trails related to the main projects, while others are random non sequiturs that I write simply because I lack the energy on a given week to add to one of the main projects. Writing a bit on a longer project is hard in proportion to how much has already been written, so I want to loosen the constraints on myself to make it both easier to stick to the main projects and wander from them in more directly useful ways. The one-offs will no longer be procrastinations. They will be yak-shaves.
So: I am making up 3 new editorial policy rules, aimed at making things easier on myself, but without letting utter chaos reign.
Rule 1: Out-of-Order is Allowed
Going forward, I’ll be treating the “serialize” constraint more as a nice-to-have feature rather than as a hard rule. Which means I’m going to start occasionally posting things out of order.
So in the Clockless Clock book for example, with 5 chapters done, if Chapter 11 happens to be clearer in my head than Chapter 6, I might write that first. Of course, this means creating better project scaffolding for each project, such as a draft table of contents etc.
But even with good scaffolding and some thoughtful stubbing, it will become harder for you to read this newsletter, even though it will become easier for me to write it. Fair warning.
Rule 2: Collateral is Fair Game
I’m also giving myself permission to post undisguised collateral matter — in the form of research notes, book/paper reviews, notes on references, and so on — as newsletter issues. For example, something that might end up as an endnote, or as an appendix, or on the cutting room floor, or as transient scaffolding, might show up as a newsletter issue.
Copyediting quality might be lower for these collateral based issues, and you might even see the dreaded acronym TK show up. Collateral-based issues should also be somewhat shorter. My target length for this newsletter has been around 2000 words, but lately, lengths have been creeping up. Of the last 4 newsletters, 3 have been over 4000 words, and one was almost 6000. I want to cut this trajectory of increasing bloat off, and one way to do that is to allow myself to post shorter, more fragmentary things.
So for paying subscribers — you’ll be getting fewer, rougher words for your money. It will be a barbell: longer drafts interspersed with shorter fragments.
I’ve avoided this in the past since it feels like fobbing off kitchen table scraps on readers. That’s why directors’ cuts of movies are often more annoying than the theatrical releases. A lot of low-grade self-indulgence that should be edited out gets packaged in. But not always — see the long-but-watchable Zack Snyder cut of Justice League vs. the awful and unwatchable Joss Whedon cut.
The reason for this rule is I realized I was actually starting to neglect necessary backend work and prematurely “shipping” more fragile mainline serial content, which is bad. So I figure, it’s better to do the backend work in public view and risk annoying some of you, than not do it at all and have the project suffer.
I already do this sort of thing in a disguised way, by dressing up what are essentially outtakes as stand-alone essays, with some reader-friendly removal of dependencies and specialized vocabulary that has not yet been established. An example is the Superhistory, not Superintelligence post, which is really a preparatory research note for Chapter 10 of The Clockless Clock. But packaging as one-offs is a lot of work that slows down the main projects, and it would be easier to just write it in the (unserialized) context of the book, loose ends, dangling references and all. In fact, as part of this pivot, I plan to reclassify a bunch of the apparent stand-alone posts as research notes associated with one of the bigger projects.
The overall goal is to reduce pure non sequitur one-offs to zero while accepting some inefficiency elsewhere. Everything must move one of the bigger projects forward in some way, but it’s okay to do it inefficiently, muddling along sloppily rather than marching in a straight line.
Rule 3: Lighthouses are Okay
In developing a portfolio of bigger projects over a long period, you inevitably find areas of interesting overlap. Lighthouse ideas emerge to illuminate and guide the development of all the projects without being part of any of them. For example, all 3 of my current projects (and probably most of my future projects too) are strongly shaped by themes like serendipity, the future of computation, and culture war. But I don’t necessarily want to include those themes in any of them directly.
The thing is, things that serve as lighthouses for me personally, by making writing easier, don’t necessarily add clarity for you, the reader. In fact, they might well add obscurity and distraction.
For example, the idea of serendipity informs all three projects, but I’ve never written up a note about it. It would be nice to turn my collected notes and references on that into a newsletter issue. So I am going to allow myself to do that. In the past, I’ve been reluctant to post these since they don’t always fit neatly into any thread, and can seem like obscure and unmotivated to people who’ve signed up to read about more clearly scoped things.
But I’ve decided to give myself permission to muddy things up for you in order to improve clarity for myself.
Why The Changes?
As I said at the top, the goal of these changes is to allow the larger serialized projects to develop faster by loosening things up a bit.
But there’s also a larger reason. I’m trying to rationalize all my activities to be simpler and easier to manage. An important first step for me was shutting down my other newsletter, Art of Gig, a month ago. Another was adopting 2 long-term rules across my projects — no new top-level projects, and minimum 10-year commitments.
This change with this newsletter should simplify the management of my social media (one less twitter account) and publishing brand (new readers of either my blog or this newsletter are often confused by the existence of the other thing, and thrown off by cross-references).
Over the last few years, I’ve also sort of settled into a relatively effective way of writing while being Extremely Online. Unlike people who retreat from social media and go waldendponding to do “deep work,” I find that I do better work when I’m continuously partially immersed in Twitter.
I think I’ll be able to sustain that approach better with these changes. Here is a diagram of what unfortunately has the ominously managerial look of a pipeline diagram. The grey boxes are my critical path.
So that’s the new deal here. This newsletter has been going in its current form for just over a year (and almost 6 years overall, with a couple of twists and turns along the way), and the blog it’s getting bolted onto as a dowstream stage will be 14 years old come July. I hope the combination will make the whole Content Deathstar a lot more powerful.
I hope expectations have been properly reset and nobody will be surprised or annoyed by where we go in the next few weeks.
To summarize — new name, no podcast, and rougher content that is more aligned with the big projects, but more loosely structured.
Name suggestions and general feedback welcome.