I’ve spent the past few weeks tinkering with my personal site.
I want my personal site to be the place where I can think out loud and iterate: I have largely abandoned the process of “publication” where I spend a month writing a post and iterating on it and then I hit send and it is done and I move onto other things. (I think that is a valuable craft, but I prefer to do it in newsletter form.)
The pieces of writing that I’m getting most excited about lately are things that evolve over time. Some of these are definitionally dynamic, like my post of words.
Some are just situationally dynamic: I think the content of them will evolve over time. This post, I think, will be one of them: I will keep on adding to it as I change my site.
I am thinking a lot lately about the phrase “incrementally correct personal websites”, as coined by Brian Lovin via Guillermo Rauch. Brian’s takeaway is to order posts by last updated date rather than creation date, which is good — I plan on borrowing that!
But an even stronger manifestation of this concept is Gwern’s use of duration as a metric, rather than timestamp, which I think is even more accurate: most pieces of writing have a series of time associated with them rather than one or two or three timestamps.
I also enjoy Gwern’s use of “status” here: a piece can be finished or unfinished or ongoing or anything, really:
The “status” tag describes the state of completion: whether it’s a pile of links & snippets & “notes”, or whether it is a “draft” which at least has some structure and conveys a coherent thesis, or it’s a well-developed draft which could be described as “in progress”, and finally when a page is done—in lieu of additional material turning up—it is simply “finished”.
I think there’s a concept of reification here that’s important! There’s a sense of evolving a thought from idle distraction to snippet to half-baked thought to draft to final piece: I have historically thought of a site as a thing that captures only the last stage but now I am interested in creating a software for handling all phases well.
Capture vs. synthesis
The oppressive atomicity of the “post”
One issue of this approach is that a lot of infrastructure (newsletters, RSS, etc.) is set up to think of the “post” as the primary unit: you have a linked list of content, each item in that linked list has a single version, and that’s your site. It’s non-trivial to publish changes to a given “post”, especially if you want to dramatically change metadata (like a post title or overall structure, that sort of thing.)
There are some interesting approaches to this problem.
Paul Stamatiou publishes individual RSS feeds for long-running posts. I’ve adopted this approach for things like the words that I have learned. Paul also emphasizes the “Updated” date rather than the “Published” one
Andy Matuschak publishes items as “notes” rather than posts. This approach is more dramatic: it completely eschews indices or feeds in favor of being a DAG of items that, like hyperlinked index cards, can be referenced and popped off the stack as need be.
Andy also has a bunch of writing that doesn’t fit into this system, as documented on his primary site
Document vs. argument
Essays build books
Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.” — Anne Lamott
The diagram at the top of this post ends with the “essay”, which again is largely due to the frustrating and somewhat unsolved atomicity of the post.
This feels untrue: I write essays about a very short list of topics, and I think most of these essays deserve to be conjoined or at least read in conversation with one another.
There’s something appealing about slowly reifying and gluing together discrete thoughts and snippets until they form an essay, and then gluing those together until they approach something like a book. I am picking the word “book” here not to represent a goal of publication or paper but to stand-in for something a bit grander than an essay: maybe a “thesis” is the right word.
Or perhaps thinking about this in terms of “books” and “essays” is to miss the point entirely.
The beauty of hypertext, and the goal for my work on this site, is to throw off the shackles of these very specific and context-laden nouns. Writing can change over time, and to ascribe to it a given shape or size or process of consumption is to fit it in a jail cell.