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9 Mar

The case against writing in public

In my head, it all started with Medium and TED Talks.

And I don't know if you've noticed this about TED Talks, but TED Talks

  • Are short: anywhere between 10-20 minutes.
  • Cater to a mass audience, i.e., usually discuss issues relatable to a mass audience.
  • Are mostly consumed by curious folks during lunch and dinner as entertainment.
  • Are seen as a good way to entertain oneself and gather new perspectives without feeling guilty.

The most promoted Medium blogs usually have the same flavour, although people may not consume them during lunch but, say, while having a commute.

In any case, both don't require any serious dedication, attention, or cognition to grasp. This makes them suitable for loved by a wide range of audiences both young and old.

In my head, a few things happened after Medium and TED Talks arrived on the scene in a big way:

  • The demand for bite-sized edutainment content went up significantly.
  • Edutainers and people delivering TED Talks gained significant distribution, leverage, and opportunities.
  • As a result, people were now increasingly incentivized to write publicly towards lucrative ends.
  • Courses came up, teaching people to write publicly towards lucrative ends.

But at the same time, some more unintended side-effects arose, which no one talks about.

People started writing publicly, but all the writing was surface-level and ephemeral.

And it was designed to be that way, because now, you were not writing to think. You were writing for your readers. Which meant that you were disincentivized from writing anything dense, anything needing significant pre-requisite knowledge, and anything even remotely controversial.

Today, you're totally focused on making your writing simple: writing simple sentences, using simple, pedestrian vocabulary, and refraining from discussing any layered or complex concept, lest your audience get confused and stop reading. You would not want that.

Jargon is a complete no-no, too. If you're writing in public or going on podcasts, you have to go with the default assumption that the audience knows nothing. Consequently, you design your content to be digestable and meme-able for mass reach. You're drawn away from making your own ideas richer, at the expense of distribution.

Is it surprising then, that we saw writing devolve into Twitter threads and LinkedIn posts devoid of any useful detail or nuance?

Is it surprising then, that we saw even sincere intellectuals of our generation get corrupted by fame and publicity?

Ultimately, what we lost in the process was conscientious, exquisite writing.

When I say writing, you can treat it as a synonym for deep thinking.

Good writing is good thinking, reified.

And in my opinion, we are slowly losing the ability to think comprehensively or have long, nested chains of reasoning that aim to map a complex space with precision and rigour.

Writing, when undertaken as the intellectual and emotional labour it is, can be magical. Somehow, we've collectively forgotten how to wield this magic to shape and bend reality.

All that matters to public writers now, is distribution. And distribution is an evil mistress who forces us to sacrifice a lot of our principles and values for getting those eyeballs and the money that follows them.

I'm well aware that even Stoa Daily risks falling into the same trap if we are not careful. In my estimation, we are already caught in the trap. The work that lies before us now is to try to release ourselves from it.

Society gets to us all. But the art of writing shouldn't suffer because of it. We resolve to do better.

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