On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was sitting in my high school U.S. History class.
We watched in horror as the aftermath of the twin towers’ collapse unfolded on live TV. I was in my third year, and at 16 years old thought I was just beginning to understand the world and my place in it. And then in one fell swoop, that world unraveled and was replaced with a new one.
Sitting in that classroom with my textbook open in front of me, I had the palpable sense that the engines of history were restarting. The history described in its pages had suddenly come to life as a living and breathing presence in our lives.
I had waited patiently all year as we moved through the eras of U.S. history, from pre-colonial times all the way to the 20th century. I could hardly wait for us to reach our own time. I naively thought that with all the background history covered, we would finally be able to make sense of the current events we were living through.
But of course, that day never came. To my dismay, we concluded our curriculum sometime in the 1970s. That was all that the final exam would be covering. Seemingly oblivious to the revolution playing out every day on our TV screens, we spent the rest of the year studying the events of history as if nothing had changed.
I remember that feeling of confusion and dismay because it never really went away. In fact it has only grown. Throughout my life, things have just gotten weirder, more unpredictable, and more confusing. The more I’ve learned about what’s happening in the world, the less I understand how the past unfolded into our present.
Joining the Post-Rationalists
Fast forward to 2012. I’d just arrived in San Francisco after two years serving in the Peace Corps, ready to finally start my professional career in the heart of Silicon Valley.
Once again, I innocently assumed that someone, somewhere must have the answers to explain what I was witnessing: the rise of machine learning, the spread of automated self-driving cars, the disruption of every industry by software. Everything around me was in flux. And no one seemed to have any answers to explain where it was all going.
One evening while browsing the question-and-answer site Quora, I came across a link to a blog post called A Brief History of the Corporation, on an obscure blog called Ribbonfarm.
Within a few paragraphs, I was riveted. I sat up straight in bed and pored over this alternative version of the last few centuries of economic history. It was exactly what I had always been looking for – a lens on history that was irreverent, counter-intuitive, penetrating, and most importantly of all, that I could do something about.
The blog post traces a progression of economic eras, using the history of the British East India Company as a model to understand how the world has changed since industrialization. It ended in our own era, arguing that the scarcest resource, and thus the greatest source of economic value, is now perspective.
I finally had a way to make sense of my place in history. I knew it wasn’t necessarily correct, but it was useful. It was a view of history that seemed to include my own beliefs and opinions, my own ideas, my own perspective. And not only include it, but value it as a precious resource.
Discovering Ribbonfarm would end up being more pivotal than the college I went to, the degree I earned, the city I lived in, or the job I had. Because that blog post was my very first introduction to an online community that I eventually learned was called “the Post-rationalists.”
They defined themselves as “post-” because many of them had come out of an earlier online community called “the Rationalists.” Especially a well-known site called LessWrong, where people debated the finer points of what it meant to be a rational, critically thinking human being.
The Post-Rationalist Exodus was led by people dissatisfied by the overly logical approach to life that they found on Rationalist forums. They wanted to talk about and value other aspects of human experience – feelings, intuition, magic, mystery, the subjective and metaphysical. They still believed in reason, but saw “cognitive biases” not as problems to be eradicated, but as mysteries to be explored.
Here is a famous map of the Rationalist universe, including the Post-rationalist offshoots at upper right. It shows how certain blogs, Twitter and Tumblr accounts, Facebook groups, Meetup groups, businesses, and even real cities cluster into groups across the “virtual landscape” of the Internet. This map can be used to navigate through a mid-life crisis, loss of religion, or intellectual quest, much like Frodo used his map of Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings to find his way to Mordor:
It is very difficult to overstate the impact on my life of being involved with the Ribbonfarm community, and Post-rationalists more generally.
Venkatesh Rao, the editor-in-chief and primary writer of Ribbonfarm, became a mentor-at-a-distance, despite the fact we’ve only met in person briefly a couple times. The series of guest posts I contributed as a writer-in-residence, drawing on feedback from fellow contributors, became the foundation of my own writing on my blog.
Members of the Post-rationalist community became my first readers, and later, the first customers of my online courses. To this day, many if not most of my best ideas on productivity, learning, human behavior, and history continue to flow from Ribbonfarm and associated communities. It’s a wellspring of creativity and insight that you would never know existed if you only saw the public discussions on the open Internet.
I’ve never talked much about my participation in this online community, because it never really seemed to matter much. It was all just a lot of highly obscure, nerdy Internet culture for quirky introverts who spent too much time online.
But something has changed in the last year, catalyzed by COVID, U.S. politics, and the continued explosion of all things digital. This virtual geography has become as influential and important as the physical geography of our planet.
Venkatesh sent out an email this week via his paid newsletter, Breaking Smart, that explains what’s going on. I’ll summarize some of the main points below, with my own interpretation and commentary.
The First Schism
The First Schism in modern history was the Industrial Revolution.
Over the last few centuries, something new called “the economy” split off from community life. Work had always been inseparable from the community where it took place. The only economies were household economies, with family members producing much of what they needed themselves. Industrialization for the first time created a “business world” with “workplaces” dedicated to labor.
It was much easier to perform a specialized skill, get paid in money, and then buy everything else you needed from others, versus trying to run a completely self-contained household economy. Consuming thus became central to how we participated in society – the “consumerized” society that we all live in now was born.
Now we are in the midst of the Second Schism, driven by the inexorable rise of the Internet. The concept of “community” is again being unbundled. This time, it is the “necessary” and “optional” parts of community that are splitting apart, like a giant iceberg cracking in two.
The energy and time we once spent in “optional” community interaction – chatting with the neighbors, attending church services, joining local clubs, going to the movies, volunteering – has forked off and largely gone virtual. It has morphed into a vast network of online “scenes” where people gather to talk, play, create, collaborate, and share their experiences.
These scenes include Minecraft players, anime fans, productivity geeks, Apple fanboys/girls, Twitch streamers, Fortnite players, Beliebers (Justin Beiber groupies), The Office fans…to name just a few out of literally countless niches and clubs.
These groups interact and hang out together in Facebook Groups, Slack channels, Discord servers, Twitter feeds, Clubhouse rooms, virtual worlds like Roblox, and countless other places online. But they transcend any particular channel – they are true communities that persist even as social media platforms come and go.
The “necessary” parts of community that were left behind by this Second Schism now exist only as a severely reduced, basic life support system. This includes the most basic kinds of in-person human interaction we need to survive – the brief “thank you” to your meal delivery driver, the smile and nod to your neighbor from behind a mask, the smile to the local barista as you pick up your curbside order.
COVID hasn’t caused so much as revealed just how threadbare “offline” community has become in the digital age.
This migration of community to online scenes could be called “sceneification”, and it has been happening in some form for decades. Early versions took the form of “fan clubs” around hobbies (sports clubs, chess clubs, computer clubs), books (Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Game of Thrones), movies (Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, the Marvel Universe), and TV shows (Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica, The Walking Dead). Before that, we had music scenes around certain singers and bands (Elvis Presley, Queen, Nirvana) that could reach nationwide or even international scale.
But it was the rise of the consumer Internet in the 1990s, and especially the popularization of the social web starting around 2007, that allowed scenes to break free of the limits of local geography and time zones. No longer did interest groups have to find enough members willing to drive to a specific place at a specific time. They could self-organize online and become massive networks with incredible buying power, socializing power, and even political power.
Online scenes now attract most of our discretionary attention and social energy. They stream into our living rooms from unknown locations in cyberspace to every Internet-connected device.
Even when we meet people in person, the conversation cannot help but wander to the latest Netflix show, social media controversy, or trending meme. Virtual events are now as real as anything that happens in the physical world. Increasingly, we have to designate courses and meetings as “offline” or “in-person” because the default is virtual.
While there are still physical spaces like churches, mosques, temples, sports stadiums, concert halls, and comic-book stores, these spaces are no longer the centers of our community and cultural life. They survive as the skeletons of a previous era of our civilization.
It’s tempting to cast judgment on this situation. It feels sad and perhaps wrong when compared to an idealized vision of how communities looked in previous eras. Virtual environments still don’t have anywhere near the fidelity and intimacy of traditional gatherings – the smell of food wafting in from the kitchen, the subtle body language, the overheard snippets of conversation – which can make them feel exhausting, rather than enlivening.
But there is tremendous power in recognizing how the world is changing without judgment. It isn’t necessarily good or bad – it just is. Even if you are determined to change it, it helps to start by acknowledging what is happening.
A century ago, during the First Schism, our great grandparents discovered that it was easier to live and work in a city, where they could access everything and everyone they needed, versus living in a small town in the country. The wrenching, decades-long process of urbanization triggered as many worries and fears about the impending threat to our humanity as the Internet does today.
We are likewise now discovering that it is easier to find and hang out with people who have similar interests, tastes, and goals online than in the physical world. It is no accident that, in the COVID era, many people are reversing the trend of urbanization and moving to larger dwellings far from cities. We can now access everything and everyone we need online.
We are all citizens of the Internet now
We’ve all noticed the decline of our local, in-person communities. But if that’s all you’re seeing, you’re only seeing half the picture.
There is a cultural renaissance thriving online. It rivals anything seen in the first Renaissance hundreds of years ago in its imaginativeness, diversity, and scale. In the 15th century, only a small number of elite artists and musicians, with rich families as patrons, could afford to contribute to the flowering of civilization. Now anyone can fire up a Patreon and crowdfund their own art.
And not only art – vast swaths of what we broadly call “culture” have migrated online. Musicians deprived of concert revenue are making intimate documentaries. Sports events are playing out in empty stadiums and being streamed online. Every hobby or interest has a corresponding subreddit and legions of YouTube channels with endless advice and discussion. And religion now takes place just as much in private Whatsapp prayer threads as in houses of worship.
In the 20th century Marshall McLuhan taught us that “the medium is the message.” Now we are learning that “the medium is the community” as well. Choose where you hang out online, and by extension you’ll be choosing your friends, your influences, your beliefs, and your future.
I’ve seen sceneification powerfully shape my own life in recent years.
Many of my friends I’ve found through my participation in various online scenes, such as productivity geeks, the Quantified Self movement, enthusiasts for “tools for thought,” and the Post-Rationalists. I found my business partner through these networks, as well as my employees and customers. When I need feedback on a blog post, or help on a project, I reach out to these communities where I know people share my values.
A couple years ago when my wife and I moved to Mexico City, a single tweet led to us finding several of our closest friends within a matter of weeks. And any time we visit a new city, I know I can meet up with people from the online scenes I’m a part of.
This virtual scenescape is no longer just for ubernerds and Internet junkies. It’s breaking out into the real world before our very eyes. The New Yorker recently wrote about the Rationalists, putting a spotlight on an online community that has started to exert its influence in the non-virtual world. It’s like the cartoons in Roger Rabbitt are leaping off the page to take their place among us.
We’ve seen it during COVID, as so many people who never spent much time online suddenly have to get all or most of their socializing needs met virtually. We saw it in the attack on the U.S. Capitol in January, when an insurrection planned primarily online turned into an occupation of the U.S. seat of government. And we saw it with the GameStop rally, where a single small community (out of thousands) on the content-sharing site Reddit was able to coordinate their efforts to roil the stock market for two weeks, triggering billions in losses for hedge funds and Congressional hearings.
What has changed in just the last year is that if you don’t know about the virtual scenescape, or don’t know how to navigate it effectively, you’re increasingly going to be left behind. You’re going to have fewer options, fewer ways of understanding how the world works, fewer sources of leverage, and fewer enriching relationships based on something other than physical proximity. You’re going to look at the world and only see civilization crumbling, stripped of its basic humanity.
I increasingly see my work not just as instruction on how to improve your productivity or capitalize on your knowledge. It’s really about showing people what it means to be part of this online renaissance and its virtual communities. Or as my business partner David Perell puts it, how to be a “naturalized citizen of the Internet.”
Because in order to be part of it, you have to get off the sidelines and engage. What helped me really feel part of the Postrationalist community wasn’t reading a blog – it was when I formed relationships. I spent time with people whose ideas resonated with me. I volunteered my time on collaborative projects and contributed my ideas to the collective hivemind.
Amidst all the talk about “becoming an online creator” and “building an audience,” we’ve lost sight of the essential role of community. You don’t have to and shouldn’t go it alone. Who you go on a journey with is just as important as your destination.
I see so many people going online and shouting into the void in the 50,000-person stadium that is the open Internet. They publish their ideas and work on the most public feeds, which are the least valuable and the least generous. You have to find a smaller niche where you can show up as a human being, develop a reputation as a giver and not a taker, and build a critical mass of trust that will encourage people to pay attention to what you’re working on and give you the benefit of the doubt.
Relatively few people will ever successfully build a platform and make their living as an online creator. That path isn’t for everyone. But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy most of the fruits that online scenes offer. You can find a sense of belonging among a small community of peers you trust and respect, without needing to be famous. And if you do one day decide to build an audience, that community will be the perfect testing ground and stepping stone from which to launch your endeavors.
The basic survival kit
There is a “basic survival kit” you need to navigate the underworld of virtual scenes.
Online communities tend to be fire hoses of information, so you need to know how to manage large volumes of information so that it empowers you instead of overwhelming you. You need to have a certain level of productivity in your work so you have the surplus time and attention needed to explore the virtual world. You need to know how to express your thoughts in formats that are shareable online, such as writing, graphics, and videos. These are the skills I describe in my post on The Digital Productivity Pyramid and teach in my course Building a Second Brain.
But most of all, you need to find some fellow travelers. People with curious minds, open hearts, who are up to interesting things in the world. After all, we don’t want everything we create online to stay online.
That is what really changes your life – when you change your own social environment. We are the sum of the 5 people we spend the most time with. The Internet makes it possible to pick who those people are for the first time.
Thank you to Alexandra Zamora, Colin Cox, Kyle Eschenroeder, Russell Michalak, Norman Tran, and Ross Griffin for their feedback and suggestions on this piece.
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