Most people still filter the short form content they consume at the institution level. They read the New York Times or NPR. This was the only feasible filter when content was bundled such that a reader could only access it via subscriptions to specific institutions. That hasn’t been the case for some time now. The internet has enabled a Cambrian explosion of content of all kinds, with a much wider range of quality. Even within institutions, quality varies widely. Hundreds of people write for the The New York Times in any given year. Most of them aren’t the best source of information on the topics they write about. Ben Thompson nailed it in FiveThirtyEight and the End of Average:
Most of what I read is the best there is to read on any given subject. The trash is few and far between, and the average equally rare. This, of course, is made possible by the Internet. No longer are my reading choices constrained by time and especially place. Why should I pick up the Wisconsin State Journal – or the Taipei Times – when I can read Nate Silver, Ezra Klein, Bill Simmons, and the myriad other links served up by Twitter? I, and everyone else interested in news, politics, or sports, can read the best with less effort – and cost – than it ever took to read the merely average just a few short years ago.
On the internet, the best filter is not the institution, but the individual. While institutions attempt to publish content with a consistent perspective (e.g. The Economist), an institution cannot deliver the same clarity of voice that an individual can. Thats not to say that institutions aren’t still an important part of the internet content ecosystem. Bloomberg Opinion is a great example of a forum in which individuals with different, often conflicting, perspectives are supported by a common institution. Sometimes Bloomberg writers even use that forum to debate each other.
Of course, the individual has always been the relevant filter for the oldest, most well established content medium: the book. One of the problems with books is that, as a consumer, you can only observe the end result. I’m less interested in what the writer is thinking about than how they are thinking about it. I want to understand their perspective and the mental models they hold. In most books, the thoughts have been distilled to the point that they almost seem obvious. The reader doesn’t get to observe the writer’s context, the dead ends they encountered, or their conversations with others. Sure, good writers will try to walk the reader though their thought process in their writing, but I’m skeptical that anyone can do this accurately in hindsight. Whether they know it or not, the writer is probably imposing a narrative on a highly complex, non-linear process that they don’t understand themselves. This is the best part of following internet writers. You get to “see how the sausage gets made.” If you follow an internet writer closely enough, you can watch a thought evolve, perhaps from a single tweet, to a conversation or blog post, then maybe into a book or a project. As an observer, I’m not better positioned understand a writer’s thought process than they are, but I find that I learn more from following the discrete, incremental output of internet writing than I do from reading the more coherent, cumulative output of a book.
I’m grateful to people who think in public on the internet. Most of them share their thoughts through writing, so I’ll call them “internet writers”. Some internet writers have had tremendous impact on the way I think, even more so than my friends. I keep a list of the internet writers whose perspectives I find the most thought provoking.
Of course, it’s seductive to spend all your time consuming the thoughts of others. You get all the rush of a novel thought, without the hard work of arriving at it. Ironically, Shane Parrish did this thinking for me in Schopenhauer: On Reading and Books. This quote from Arthur Schopenhauer’s Parerga and Paralipomena sums it up:
When we read, another person thinks for us: we merely repeat his mental process. It is the same as the pupil, in learning to write, following with his pen the lines that have been pencilled by the teacher. Accordingly, in reading, the work of thinking is, for the greater part, done for us. This is why we are consciously relieved when we turn to reading after being occupied with our own thoughts. But, in reading, our head is, however, really only the arena of some one else’s thoughts. And so it happens that the person who reads a great deal — that is to say, almost the whole day, and recreates himself by spending the intervals in thoughtless diversion, gradually loses the ability to think for himself; just as a man who is always riding at last forgets how to walk.
As I wrote about in The Machine Stops on First Hand Ideas, I often have to remind myself to stop consuming streams of other people’s thoughts and allow time and energy for my own direct observations and thoughts. This post is an attempt at that.