Year One Review
Ribbonfarm Studio is now a year old
Ribbonfarm Studio is now one year old. Time for some reflection.
This newsletter now has 12,277 subscribers total (up about 1000 from 11,250 this time last year), and 732 paying subscribers (up 70 from 662 this time last year). That’s about 5.96% now vs. 5.88% last year. I make just under 32k from this newsletter, according to the annualized revenue Substack reports. Enough that it’s a serious part of my income, not so much that I can afford to quit my other hustles anytime soon. Not that I would want to. I like all my hustles equally.
From what I can tell, I was a C-lister on Substack this time last year, but am probably a D-lister now, because of the continuing parade of all the damn trad media bluecheck types waltzing in with their
inherited poached audiences and Very Particular Set of clickbaiting skills that make them a nightmare for virtuous self-made indies like me. It strikes me as kinda funny — they’re the media equivalents of the Russian state bureaucrats who became oligarch billionaires overnight when the Soviet Union’s assets were privatized suddenly under murky circumstances. They all moved to Londonstack and immediately turned into the movers and shakers of the scene. Until the West took away their yachts and stuff.
As you can tell, I have decided to be at the forefront of normalizing talking about this stuff openly.
I began pivoting the old Breaking Smart newsletter1 around 2019, when the original “software eating the world” premise I’d been orbiting since 2015 began to seem a bit confining. By early 2021, it was clear I needed a proper rebrand and explicit rescoping. I ended up calling it Ribbonfarm Studio because I wanted to align the implied scope with my blog, Ribbonfarm, and frame it for myself as a space for development as opposed to research.
For those who are still confused about it, the relationship between the blog and the newsletter is the relationship between unknown unknowns and known unknowns. I made this cartoon to illustrate last year.
I think of it as the difference between a lab and a studio. I think it’s worked out roughly as I planned. It’s not a perfect system, but it does the job.
When I don’t yet know how to think about a topic, or am still experimenting with style, voice, and process, the output goes into the blog.
When I kinda know what I’m doing, and it’s a matter of execution and/or scaling to bigger word counts, it goes into the newsletter.
Incubator vs. accelerator if you like. Or seed stages vs. growth stage idea startups.
In announcing the changes, I wrote:
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.
Has it worked? Sort of. I’ve definitely managed to get looser about posting drafty and backstage stuff. In part, I suspect, because I’ve earned the indulgence of long-time readers, and have hopefully managed to avoid abusing it.
I don’t know if the newsletter has gotten harder to read, but it’s certainly gotten easier to write.
Serialized projects developing faster? That’s been a mixed bag.
State of Serialized Projects
On the one hand, new serialized projects do seem to develop much faster. Older projects though have all slowed down… the story is mixed.
I started and finished an entire 7-part series, On Lore, in a single 7-week burst earlier this year. Very proud of myself for doing that. I’ve never managed that kind of thing before.
Another, Graph Minds Notebook, is moving along at a brisk pace and has logged 5 parts in 7 weeks.
My most ambitious project, The Clockless Clock is taking time simply because it’s a deeper, more serious book on a tougher topic. It takes a lot of research and backend work to write each chapter, and it took a fellowship year at the Berggruen Institute to even get off the ground. I haven’t posted a new chapter in over a year. It’s kinda demanding, so I don’t mind. It will develop as it develops. The backend work is still progressing.
Another older project, The Great Weirding, which I actually planned out and started on back in 2017 as “Breaking Smart, Season 2,” is going even slower. Here the difficulty is that it is a very ambitious essay series based on current events in all their chaotic glory. Writing about the events of 2015-20 before the history has settled, and without it being merely a set of random hot takes, is tough work. I have a list of small rewrite tasks I need to execute before that series gets unstuck and starts moving again.
And finally, my last open project, After Westphalia, is going slow because it is a Big History type project, with the kind of super-ambitious scope that requires me being in a fairly rare headspace to make progress on. I have very messy drafts for about 5 essays, and 2 have been cleaned up and published so far. This is the one I’m most tempted to just abandon or cut short, simply because it’s hard, and I haven’t gotten very far.
That’s the state of play with the serialized projects. I think I basically have 3 slow-track series going, all difficult for different reasons, and a fast-track lane, where I do quick, shallow-gloss series in concentrated bursts, but only one at a time.
The higher speed of development in the one fast lane is possible because, frankly, 1) my standards are lower for this lane, 2) I’m picking easier topics and treating them in a more shallow way, and 3) I’m posting much less polished work. The On Lore series would probably work as a quick-and-dirty ebook, but I wouldn’t get more ambitious with it. Graph Minds is even worse, there’s a Da Vinci notebook kind of conceit going on there that assumes a very indulgent sort of reader. If I ever compile and publish it, it will be explicitly positioned as a notebook: a long-form shitpost basically.
So I guess I have a 1:3 thinking fast/thinking slow 4-lane highway going on here.
I also have the track of one-offs, random side-trails, and things that have not yet gelled into series ideas. You can explore them in the archives (click on the ‘New’ tab for a reverse chronological listing).
I’ve had several issues on AI and robotics for example, and there’s probably a retconnable series developing there too. But I’m keeping that material in the random one-offs phase for now, since I’m at my limit of waterfall planning energy. Maybe I’ll do an Embodied Intelligence series once I’m done with Graph Minds.
I gave myself permission to do this non-serialized stuff at will, so long as the serialized stuff was moving along and it didn’t turn into a sort of easier displacement activity. I think I constantly stress that principle, but so far, I think I’m on the right side of it.
There’s 4 issues from last year I want to call out in particular, because they illuminate the concept of a “studio” as a space for a socially situated “critical practice” (it’s a pretentious art-world term I hate to use, but I can’t think of a better one).
In Maker Studio, Manager Studio, written just before the pivot, I explored the concept of a studio economy, and the broader cultural-economic philosophy behind what I’m trying to do here.
My first post under the Studio brand, Perpetuated Beta, talks about studios as a sort of working-in-public space meant for peers to drop in on, and the importance of working with other people’s draft output to the extent you can access it.
In One-Tenth of a Second, I posted my rough notes on Jimena Canales book of the same name. This was not a review so much as working notes made primarily as input for my own Clockless Clock book. It’s a good example of what I mean by perpetuated beta, and I’m going to try and do more of it, since people seemed to really like it.
In Coordination Headwinds, I did my first ever review of a slide deck (of the same name, by Alex Komoroske), plus an extended riff of my own. This is also an example of perpetuated beta, since slide decks are generally draft-stage forms of output for most people. Again, this proved surprisingly popular.
The biggest perpetuated beta space on the planet, is of course, Twitter, but it’s kinda hard to inject Twitter energy into the newsletter medium, short of just turning threads into newsletters. I used to do that a lot in the past. In fact, the original Breaking Smart newsletter was explicitly built around twitter-like threads, as some of you no doubt recall). But as I close in on 100 non-trivial threads myself, I find Twitter is no longer as fertile a space as it used to be. It’s getting LinkedIn-ified. I have a vague plan to make an ebook once I hit 100 twitter threads, and then maybe stop using it so much for thinking in public.
Increasingly, the Yak Collective Discord server is turning into my social thinking perpetuated beta space. You’ll probably see me referring to that more, and Twitter less, in the future. I guess I’m going cozyweb.
Plans for Year Two
Year One was really about consolidation, contraction, and rationalization across everything I do, and pivoting this newsletter was the biggest piece of it.
Sunsetting the Breaking Smart brand was a serious relief (the site is still around, but is now basically just a home page for an ebook).
I also shut down the second newsletter I was writing, Art of Gig (the archives of that are finally entering ebook production).
I froze the twitter accounts of these two things as well, and that was great too. So I went from 5 active twitter accounts to 3. More relief.
In parallel, I also managed to execute a complementary pivot on the Ribbonfarm blog, focusing it on the two researchy kinds of writing I’m trying to teach myself to do — fiction, and maker-inspired writing (especially robotics). I also consciously narrowed the scope from a multi-author blog featuring many contributors (and association with a conference that has now wound down) back to just me. I think the era of group blogs is basically over.
It’s silly in the context of a one-person operation, but it feels like I’ve pulled back from being increasingly a manager type in 2019, and returned to being an individual contributor. I didn’t realize how much effort I was putting into stuff like editing guest contributions or fronting conferences until I just decided to stop.
Consolidation, contraction, and rationalization of even a one-person operation is always tougher and less fun than expansion, but it’s always worthwhile. I think I’ll be staying in this state for a while longer, before attempting any new expansions.
I have a vague idea brewing for another newsletter or static site devoted exclusively to fiction, once I feel comfortable enough with that. But it will be a while. My fiction experiments are still in the research stage, and not yet ready to move into the development stage. But if you’re interested, you can check them out on the blog.
So I don’t have plans for big changes to this newsletter in the coming year. I think I’m starting to hit a good rhythm here, and it’s working sort of as planned.
I appreciate all your support, and am looking forward to making progress on the harder serialized projects.
Comments appreciated, as always, even if I don’t always respond.