Writing on a Social Web

The internet is already a social network, Christopher writes and I agree. Hypertext is built with linking at its core, personal website is the writing spot, and syndication is the distribution we need.

In Robin Rendle’s wonderfully written essay (Note: I said “written” but it is so much more than words! Please have a read and get a taste of the wonder of the web.), he explains that newsletters took off and blogs died down because websites today are difficult to make, can’t notify people of new work, and aren’t able to pay writers easily. In short: accessibility, distribution, and monetization.

No doubt that making a website is hard. But the word “making” here slightly misses the point. Making a website is never an end in itself, owning it is. Owning a website means you have sovereignty over its form and content.

Robin mentions, and I absolutely love it. I used it for a while for my Chinese blog before Alex kindly helped me move it to host on Vercel (Note: Even using a static site generator like Eleventy was way too technical for me.). Blot makes a website out of a folder. Publishing a post is as simple as moving a file from one folder to another. This is what writing on the web should feel like: easy, fast, and accessible.

I like this quote of Hemmingway’s: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” If there’s truly “nothing to writing”, a writer should not need to worry about how to run a publishing house.

As for distribution, the system we have in place—RSS—never gets picked up by the mainstream because there’s an abstraction layer missing to make it more user-friendly.

Podcast, also powered by RSS feeds, was able to become popular because it has podcast apps as the abstraction layer (Note: This is somewhat true for AI, too. The virality is largely attributed to the simplicity of chat interface. You don’t learn about the bells and whistles of running LLMs, you just text it.). A user doesn’t need to know RSS existing to subscribe to a podcast. They just search the pod’s name and click the big fat follow button. And this is made all the more convenient when podcast apps are built in as default in operating systems like iOS.

If podcast clients are where people listen to podcasts, browsers are where people read the web. This is why Robin thinks that RSS never reaches critical scale because it never gets built into browsers. We have bookmarks, histories, extensions, but we don’t have a way to follow our favorite websites. The interface infrastructure was not there to facilitate mass adoption.

Currently there are a couple of new browser products out there that bring fresh perspectives to what a browser can be. I really hope they can explore this uncharted but promised land! Namely, making it easier to get updates from websites, abstracting RSS behind...I dunno, a button?

Anyhow, the web can be a beautiful place full of idiosyncratic personal sites. We don’t need social media because the internet is already a social network. Let’s weave our own web!