For those who know me, it’s no secret that I’m averse to social media and its black-box network effects. I think that much of the web as we currently experience it falls far short of its potential for meaningful and thoughtful communication.
But I’m not here to belabor that point either. Despite platforms that manipulate attention, monetize surveillance, and design addictive interfaces, the web is also host to a lot of great thought and creativity.
Warren Ellis has been credited in various places as saying “The Republic of Newsletters and the Isles of Blogging, my friend. That’s what’s left. Messages in bottles from hermit caves by the sea.” (I remember reading the original instance of the quote in one of his newsletters, but it is now lost to the abyss of deleted emails).
It’s fascinating to see the network effects of the Isles and the Republic over time. For example, author Robin Sloan’s newsletter from a week ago quoted a recent entry of Ellis’s newsletters in which Ellis wrote,
Something else for my to-do list is to retune my internet. I’ve been taking five minutes here and there, but I need to give it a couple of hours soon. Here are the rules. Facebook is for misery, so don’t use it, at all. Twitter is for news, so just read it. Instagram is for joy, for as long as Instagram lasts, so filter it well. RSS is for information, good writing, music and the Isles of Blogging.
I like the spirit of “retuning your internet.” I could never handle Twitter for news (I limit it to begrudgingly syndicating links to my blog), and Instagram is for liking my wife’s photos when I look at it once a week. His description of RSS resonates with my use of it, and newsletters also.
The Isles and the Republic are great ways to see how seemingly disparate thoughts and thinkers make their way to each other across ideological and disciplinary distances. For example, Alan Jacobs, a professor of Humanities at Baylor University whose work has received blurbs from /The Paris Review/ and /The Atlantic/ but also /Christianity Today/ and The Gospel Coalition (look at the reviews), has on multiple occasions cited Ellis on his own blog. Jacobs also happens to interact with Robin Sloan. And Austin Kleon, a “writer who draws”, is also acquainted with Jacobs and Sloan credits Kleon in his newsletter as turning him on to the aforementioned Warren Ellis quote.
So we have a British comics/screen /prose writer with futuristic interests, a Christian humanities professor who’s respected by both evangelicals and secular literati, a bay area author of magical realistic novels, and an writer /artist who meditates on creativity, all drawing inspiration from and riffing on each other’s thoughts (the one exception might be Ellis, whom I’ve only read referencing Sloan).
The early days of the web encouraged an optimism among many that it would catalyze mutual comprehension among people of differing ideologies, disciplines, and backgrounds, and foster greater empathy amongst its users. While that outcome seems more the exception than the rule, the messages in bottles passed between the Isles can carry messages from people whose interests and convictions might differ wildly from our own. Right now, the Isles and the Republic seem to be the closest thing to the lofty vision of the web’s early enthusiasts. To paraphrase Alan Jacobs in How To Think, the value in these communications isn’t that they come from people who are like-minded, but like-hearted — hearts that seek to understand and to share the good they have with the world.