Nadia Eghbal

I often scribble half-baked ideas, reactions to things I’ve read, or something useful I’ve heard. Sometimes they turn into longer blog posts or projects, but most of them sit in my notes app, unused.

I’ve decided to start publishing some of these as a faster way to get ideas out there. They’re updated monthly below. Topics loosely cover governance, how people organize, research culture, ethics, online interactions, and all other sorts of randomness.

When quoting a private conversation, I’ve defaulted to anonymity for obvious reasons, but if you see something you said that you’d like attributed to you, just let me know and I’ll add your name.

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(Please note: you are crawling my brain. These are rough notes, which means ideas are experimental and conviction level is highly variable!)

2019 Notes

Browse by year: 2019 - 2018


The monoculture of celebrity, i.e. WhatsApp/Instagram/Msgr are part of the same FB conglomerate, the same way Kylie/Kim/Kanye/etc are part of the same conglomerate


The love language of giving and receiving links to “an article you might like”


We’re subconsciously moving towards tapbacks, emoji, reactions, etc as an adaptative strategy to reduce the cost of microinteractions at today’s scale. We could take the time to respond with proper words and lengthy messages, back when we interacted with a smaller group of people at lower frequency. For high-frequency interactions, we need a simpler, slimmer way of communicating to reduce mental overhead. (Maybe an obvious point? But I like this as an explicit starting point for product design)


(from convo with a friend) “Social media as the gold standard”: nobody really believes in it, but enough ppl are bought into it that we all participate and make it ‘real’


The phantom urge for completion that lingers between Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V


Free access to content as a positive externality of “privately funded” (aka CPRs, patronage, etc) content creators

Aka they’re able to give away their content for free bc they’re making money elsewhere, from members. This can be true for journalism as well! Instead of charging everyone who lands on the article for access. Reminds me of the Practical Typography author, who only shows the “request to donate” popup to ppl from certain companies

Not so different from ex. Google (Google docs, gmail as a positive externality of their ad business). Also like conceptually how you might think of casual contributors, or casual attendees of a church congregation. We don’t expect much from them, bc they’re not part of the hardcore member community, but they’re welcome to enjoy/benefit from the members’ work, as long as they don’t impose significant additional cost

Another way of describing it: when it comes to content production, maybe the “free rider problem” is a misdirection - it’s not that they’re free riding, it’s that they are a non-relevant audience, who distract us from seeing the actual business model. Manage them in a way that they don’t impose additional cost of consumption, then focus on the people who do matter and are willing to pay


Editors are to writers as code review is to developers. I rarely show drafts of my writing to anyone bc I’m very particular about style, and I like the idea of writing in a “pure” space. But as my ideas have become more unwieldy (for whatever reason), I’m seeing the value of having someone review your work and make it better. Similarly, there’s some code that developers are happy to write all on their own, but in other cases they derive a lot of value from code review - I get it now!


Finding that it really helps when you stop trying to come up with reasons why you keep behaving in an undesirable way, and instead start from the position of accepting responsibility. Shifts focus from excuses to action / remediation


(from convo with a friend) Paintings as “containers of meaning that survive centuries…but sometimes meanings change”


“Make something people want” seems very clearly at odds with doing things ahead of the curve. And yes, I understand there’s an underlying assumption that your goal is to make something that addresses a desire that ppl even they didn’t know they had. But I still don’t think that holds - or rather, if it does hold, it generalizes the original statement so much as to be meaningless (When is it clear that people “wanted it”? At launch? After a month? A year? 10 years? Did you cause that to happen, or did you finally just hit good timing?)

I find it sort of more delightful to think of ourselves as vessels for ideas that float about, riding us around like chariots, until they find the right timing/audience. But whether people “want” your idea or not, you can’t help but be the vessel for that thing. Some people are doomed to be bonded to an idea that nobody likes, but they can’t help but evangelize it. Others are lucky to find themselves attached to an idea that takes off immediately. But you’re not really guiding the ideas, they’re guiding you, and your job is to listen and serve as an intermediary between idea <> rest of the world


Nobody minds Google as an overlord as long as they don’t fuck with our day-to-day. Medium is messing with their UI so much that it’s turning authors off. But Medium has to do this to survive. Google can only afford to do so bc they don’t need to make money off certain products in the same way.

Which maybe implies that having just a few, monopolistic tech platforms, and fewer “startups” etc, might actually be a perfectly fine, even optimal system, as long as they don’t provoke “political dissent”. Just like how monarchy/aristocracy could be theoretically work, as long as none of their subjects felt that the king interfered with their day-to-day. It was when kings started collecting taxes from peasants living in remote territories who’d never even heard of the king that conflicts started to arise. But if that “tax” can be collected passively, will anyone ever notice/care?


Replication research, but for books. We take the core arguments from certain books as canon, and they inform our cultural norms, but if someone redid the research behind it today, we might have come up with entirely different conclusions. Which isn’t to say that the original analysis was WRONG, but perhaps inextricably linked to the times in which it was written. (Ex. how much of The Power Broker was influenced by researching and writing in the 1970s?)

Also possible that this validation process already happens naturally - ideas have no intrinsic value, we discover/gravitate towards different ones depending on our current tastes, so maybe it doesn’t really matter?


Would love to see more awesome lists (as in, sindresorhus/awesome), but as curriculum for getting quickly up to speed on different research fields / areas of expertise in a self-guided way


If user data (i.e. populating the database) is what makes the narrative of each web app different from each other, despite similar underlying code (ex. Instagram and Twitter are arguably not very different types of products, but actual usage makes them completely different experiences), I think the equivalent would be lived experience for humans, which make each of our narratives very different, despite similar underlying genetic “code”


I wonder if one of the reasons creators (ignore consumer demand for a second) are trending toward podcasts/newsletters is because of the lack of intense feedback loop. Yes, you can see number of listens/opens/subscribes, but both forms of media do a better job of embodying this idea of the one-way mirror. Longform, deeper dive, you can say what you want in a less reactive, ‘like’-free environment


We’re so eager to escape mediocrity that we can’t see how absolutely mired we are in it. If you’re stubborn and try to muscle your way out of it, it’s like quicksand, it’ll suck you down even more firmly. Better to kinda bob around in the sea of mediocrity and quietly observe it, so you really understand what you’re dealing with, then figure out how to slide through it


Instead of asking how some ppl manage to make money at casinos, try to understand why so many ppl are happy to lose money. Understand the baseline instead of focusing on outliers, bc baseline contains patterns, whereas outliers are often unpredictable / random, despite us wanting to find patterns among them

Ex. Studying why most venture funds fail to beat the market seems more interesting to me than studying why Sequoia etc have done so well. Easier to beat a game if you really understand how most people are playing, instead of trying to crib “the greats”


(from convo with a friend) People who get energy from observing others / being immersed in interesting experiences, but don’t necessarily want to super actively engage with them

I like this angle of “I want to be around people, but in a passive sense”, also the idea that doing so actively recharges one’s “creative energy” by providing inspiration


Am I crazy, or are there fewer bands in popular music these days? Like it seems like most popular artists I can think of now are single artists, not groups


(from convo with a friend) If gold is a “battery” for money (i.e. a way to store it), reputation is a battery for social currency


There is a distinct version of nihilism that is uniquely feminine


Theory: monetizing creative content will work best on vertical-specific platforms, e.g. Spotify, GitHub, YouTube, Apple Store (do those last two count?), etc. Or perhaps: the underlying theme is these platforms can operate at a loss, but having the monetization layer helps lock creators and their audience onto their platform, which is the actual benefit of having it. Whereas Patreon can’t sustain the business model as a dedicated funding platform that’s decoupled from distribution

One that I’m not sure about however is Substack, which seems promising despite being more of a “boil the ocean” play like Patreon. Maybe bc there isn’t really another obvious discovery/distribution platform for email newsletters, the way there is for music, code, podcasts, etc? Also, just too early to tell


Diversity exposes you to new ideas, but homogeneity helps you execute. You want serendipity at the edges, but your core “tribe” needs to be fairly stable to maintain sanity, get anything done, and have a coherent worldview. The edges keep things fresh, but they need to sort of “trickle” into the center in a filtered way (like groundwater filtering through soil back into the aquifers)


Platforms as robo-advisors for creators: much like wealth moved from active to passive management for most ppl, we no longer need “active management” via agencies etc for content distribution


Asking open source projects to take on “interns” is like asking artists to donate work to charity auctions


Feels like research is particularly suited to not having primary collaborators remain within your org, bc inspiration can strike from anywhere. For most other types of roles, they HAVE to collaborate with their colleagues bc they have the most context for your work. Engineering can be a slight anomaly with open source, but I feel like it’s really extreme with research, bc you just want to work with / take inspiration from whomever has the best ideas, and sometimes you don’t know who that’ll come from, like it could literally be a random conversation with a stranger at a cafe


Ideas use humans as “steeds” / pawns to fight their battles. Every conversation you have is a small skirmish in the neverending war of language (and ideas more generally!). Whichever idea prevails in that conversation goes on, tournament style, to fight another battle in another conversation with someone else


Encryption doesn’t favor the defender, it just favors whomever is holding the keys, which is borderline tautological, bc the same is true for basically all programming (ex. consider any root/sudo/admin permissions, when placed in the wrong hands they become a weapon). If anything, I think this underscores the painfully inherent “dumbness” of technology, bc that statement can ONLY be interesting if you read it through an ideological lens (assume “the defender” is worth defending). What happens when an undesirable actor gains control of the keys? Is the defender still worth defending? Police use dead people’s fingerprints to unlock iPhones. If defender(D) is a variable that can stand for anything, who cares?

Implicit in the original statement is a belief that it is possible to ensure freedom / maintain control through better technology, which I think is a dangerous line of thinking


Permabear as null hypothesis


They’re not all quite facing the stage, though. If you look closely at an audience, there are always observable patterns and norms, smaller clusters of groups, etc. There is still localized context, little villages and neighborhoods, even among an audience that is then ostensibly oriented towards something “bigger” than all of them

Maybe another way of saying: even superfans have their own subcultures. You have one identity that’s tied to the “stage” and another that’s tied to a smaller group of people (who all share that same “national” identity with you)


(from Death and Life of Great American Cities) Coordinating WITHIN each level of hierarchy is actually the hard part. We tend to focus on coordinating between levels (i.e. vertical coordination), but that’s comparatively much easier than within


The customer is not the creator, it’s the patrons (maybe!) And/or, treat as a two-sided market?


Underrated: celebrity endorsements now happen by advertisers paying to reach the celebrity’s audience, instead paying celebrities to appear in front of the advertiser’s chosen audience (ex. appearing in a TV ad). Even if ideally these are demographically similar, celebrity has more control over one vs. the other


Zuck is Chipotle and Jack is Taco Bell


Crypto projects have many contributors right now bc it’s a hot new space, which leads to a lot of assumptions about how we think it works, but they should also observe mature OSS projects to see how that’ll play out over time. (Or, who knows. Maybe the economics are/will be so fundamentally different that it will follow an entirely different trajectory)


Moving from collaboration -> coordination in OSS


Maybe part of the reason why ppl get so riled up about “who can participate” in OSS is bc it’s a utility. OSS infrastructure is not a hobby, maybe it’s code you NEED or rely on, so if you can’t participate, or you feel ostracized, that has a much bigger impact than not being able to join another type of community. On the other hand, it’s no different from a company providing you with a product (for free!) that you may not get a say in. Especially bc you can fork, and bc developer tools are such high substitute/elastic goods


Three types of maintainer roles: creators, coordinators, and curators


Knowledge loop is in the cloud, that’s humanity’s shared progress. But personal wisdom is only stored locally, which means you can’t share it with others, it will die with you. You can upload it to somewhere visible, but if someone clones it to their brain, they need to set up their environment in order to run it. And it’s setting it up on their local machine that’s actually the hard part, which we’re each doomed to keep repeating. Others can make their “code” visible to you, but they can’t run it for you.

I keep coming back to this idea…wonder how to better articulate the difference between these two types of knowledge (and why is it that humanity’s “knowledge loop” doesn’t have the same problem? Why is some knowledge more universally executable than others?)


Why are there like no mergers in tech? Was there a point that became the “death of the merger”, or were tech companies never destined to have mergers in the first place? Are mergers a uniquely non-tech corporate thing? Should tech M&A just be A? Would love to find something on this topic


Diffing the behavioral patterns of small, localized communities vs. large-scale societies


Seems that journalism is optimizing for objectivity over relevance, maybe they should focus on the latter instead, as a way of adapting to modern consumer tastes (meaning: I care less about “objectivity” in the news, would actually prefer to follow a high-quality curated POV / “expert”). Maybe the idea of being objective/trustworthy to a national audience just doesn’t make sense anymore


The social power dance of getting others to use your preferred messaging platform


What would a narrative for “mobs as force for good” look like? They feel overwhelming in the moment, but maybe it’s just how we realistically induce change over time. As an explicit alternative to gov’t / legislative process, seems like it is actually more appropriate in certain situations.

Libertarians seem to hate “mob mentality”, but maybe mobs are the purest form of libertarian government?


There’s a big difference between “getting paid” and “capturing value”. Maintainers could get paid a basic subsistence income, but that doesn’t resolve the q of “how do they capture the actual value of their work”


Who would a horse girl vote for


Tension around idea of a rating system for OSS libraries is bc maintainers don’t want to be asked to do more work bc there’s no reward in doing so, at a greater cost to the public (developers who need it, and by extension, consumers - i.e. all of us - who use their software). Both are acting rationally in the absence of better rewards. Good example of how a subpar incentive-reward system is constraining innovation


Curious why we aren’t reframing the decline of journalism as the rise of content creators? Still messy, to be sure, but there’s a great “unbundling” narrative of people being free to research, write, and report on interesting stories independently of an institution. Similarly to music artists breaking free of agencies and record labels. We haven’t yet figured out all the mechanics (i.e. $$, platform), but it still feels like the right direction to move towards


Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “decisive moment”, frozen and expanded into 300 years. Can we fit our entire lives inside in the moment when a glass vase shatters into a thousand pieces? (Perhaps this is a form of the hauntological?)


(from a convo with a friend) Hierarchies of cults as waterfalls. You’re “blessed” by someone else with a bigger following than you, and then you start to form your own cult as a result, many of whom are followers of that original cult leader. Their followers gravitate towards you. But each of you are managing your own little cults at different “tiers” of a bigger system, with “water” (followers) flowing throughout


Labels and other metadata help you compress jumbled ideas/information (i.e. categorize memories), but not necessarily expand them again (i.e. retrieve memories)


Tropical islands are the supermodels of the global economy. Their destinies have been sort of pre-decided for them based on their appearance (i.e. tropical islands become tourist economies). (Not saying this is good in either case, just observing!)


Cults of personality are like the church sermon (audience gathers to listen to one person, even though they have shared identity/values, given that they all showed up to the same event)

“Online communities” are like the church group after (ppl come together more loosely, mill around with cookies and lemonade, nobody’s in charge)

As our online social systems continue to move towards the former, need to update our mental models of what a community is


The creator-curator dynamic = Jesus and his apostles


Amazing how receiving emails as a digest gives me license to skim in a way that I didn’t feel comfortable before (when they come in one-by-one), even if the content is the same in both cases. Wonder where else that mechanic applies / where it’s underutilized


Twitter as an unofficial, opt-in reality show - you agree to live your life in front of a public audience in exchange for some “compensation” (reputation). Hanging out in person is like hanging out off-camera


(from a convo with a friend) Reddit is more of a “forum” than “social media”…what’s the difference? I think a forum is where people gather to discuss a common interest, whereas social media is more of one-to-many broadcasting?

A forum is all these people congregating onto one spot in sort of a decentralized fashion, whereas social media is the muezzin’s call to prayer, drawing everyone to the mosque


All power can be boiled down to information asymmetry (confidence low on this one, need to think about it more, but I think that’s a thing). Or perhaps: asymmetry of access to that information?


Do women report having massive life/philosophy shifts on hallucinogens as often as men do? I have zero data for this besides anecdotal, but although I know a roughly equal number of men/women who’ve tried hallucinogens, I can’t think of any women I know who’ve said it completely changed their reality and showed them “The Truth”, even if they enjoyed the experience. Wonder if it has anything to do with men not generally being given space (slash not being inclined to, however you think about it) for emotional vulnerability/introspection


Reality distorts at both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum


Dubstep as Tibetan singing bowl -> “mental cleansing” activities


If you’re stranded in a desert, and your only source of input is a tin can, your life becomes about that tin can. If you’re stuck on an island, and all you have is a volleyball, that volleyball becomes your best friend. This is why the story of the Little Prince and the flower is so illustrative. And why maybe, in the end, it doesn’t really matter who you partner with, bc whomever you thrust into that position will become your world. You will find meaning in them, whomever they are

(And yet, some partners seem obviously better than others…why? Something to do with how they influence your experience of your environment, I think…we’re still all playing the game of life, even if the game has no inherent value, so you’d want a partner that helps enhance the experience, or at least doesn’t impede you?)


Writing-as-masochism: I think I weirdly enjoy baking layers into my writing, then feeling the pain when people miss the hidden meanings. Logically speaking, it’d make more sense to express the idea more blatantly, but it’s more fun to find just the right edge of nuance, fine-tuning as closely as you can without spilling the beans.

In other words: writing is usually seen as the process of finding clarity, but if you look at it from the other direction, what if the joy comes from the process of obfuscation?


What if the biggest existential threat is that ideas become more important than people. Tyrannical rule of ideas (i.e. memes-as-viruses) over their human hosts?

Feels like we focus on AI bc it’s more “humanlike” (not to mention something we seem to have more control over), but the runaway power of ideas seems much more dangerous!


Seems strange that co-parenting is bundled up with dating, when it could just as easily be separated out and reframed as an economic partnership. I guess dating is the biological collateral you put down on that contract?


Keeping a changelog of your identity: if journaling contains the raw data, would love to summarize and track the actual changes made, i.e. versioning my identities


Private thoughts are like raw steak, putting it out there is like ground meat. Once you start cutting into raw steak, you’ve exposed it to the air and pathogens around it, which starts to change its composition

Not always bad if/when you’re ready to expose private thought to others, but it is different from keeping it in a “sterile” state

Slightly separate angle: I think some kinds of thoughts (like self-reflection and personal philosophy) get corrupted when exposed to air, bc they are so easily exploitable, despite not really being teachable

Goes back to hypothesis that only some ideas (i.e. anything added to public knowledge loop) can propagate over generations, personal wisdom is always localized: can only be learned by you, and will die with you


Maybe instead of producers vs. consumers, should frame as cities (producers) producing content (goods) as an externality


Instead of thinking, “My old ideas were amazing, now I have to figure out how to do that again”, it weirdly helps to think “My old ideas weren’t that great anyways, you have nothing to lose”. Devalue the past to fear the future less


Decided I am pro-23andme bc I realized in most cases, the risk of not knowing what’s in my body is probably worse than the risk of my personal data falling into the wrong hands

Privacy fears go both ways: maybe with ads and social data we were too lax, but being too strict with your privacy can be just as bad. I’d rather be able to make informed decisions about my health. Think data privacy will be resolved in time on a macro level, but not by any singlehanded stance taken against it. You don’t want to literally die on this hill over an ideological position


“Big in Japan” phenomenon is growing: celebrities with sizeable tribes of devoted fans, but who aren’t known outside of their audience. Whereas previously I think it was more based on geography, or generational. Now it’s just that there are enough potential audiences to build your own sizeable fiefdom without being known outside of that. Memes/celebrity are no longer universally known, but relegated to internet “kingdoms”


The very rich and very poor can be quite similar in their political views, given that both feel dissatisfaction over the social norms being imposed on them. They want to be able to do things differently; they feel misunderstood by, and a general distaste for, the general population and “the way things are done”


How to think about a modern justice system that gradually escalates, instead of one mode (“leak all information to the public”)? Should start as a “local” matter for the people involved and that person’s immediate community. Escalating to public can be useful if and only if local routes have been exhausted without resolution. It’s like taking something to the Supreme Court when local courts fail. It’s an escalation tactic, but it’s not the first resort.


Limited attention for the number of books you read in a lifetime -> ditto for the people you spend time with. Much like choosing the best books to read, why spend time with people who are anything less than bespoke in your view (whatever that means to you)


If time/exclusivity/experience are the new luxury goods, then it seems attention allocation (more than $$!) is the most important socioeconomic dividing line worth examining today


Therapists are the boy in Omelas (we dump our emotions onto them so we can have happy healthy productive relationships elsewhere)