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!)

2020 Notes

Browse by year: 2020 - 2019 - 2018


(from convo) Digital nomads are the modern equivalent of deadheads in the 70s


A new hire bringing in their favorite tools for the job is like a new spouse moving into your house with their favorite stuff. “Nesting” at their new employer


Feels like camgirling was the hot thing of 2010s and now onlyfans is the hot thing of 2020s, which mirrors this broader shift from hyper public to hyper contexualized online social interactions (thesis being that camming got saturated the way Twitter Instagram etc did, but continues to form a “public space” for discovery)


There’s a class of things that’s like “streaming for X” or “open source/GitHub for Y”, where ppl assume it works in one industry so it’ll transfer to another, without taking into account the particular cultural context (gaming, developers, etc) that allows those things to be true. Some parts are transferable of course, but without understanding the underlying context it’s hard for outsiders to know which parts are/aren’t


Roam is to bloggers what superhuman is to VCs - cultish product, but also b/c it creates this sort of ingroup unifying effect / externalizable status symbol where none quite existed before (ok, not quite true for VCs re: Superhuman, but maybe for “generally busy ppl who live in their inbox all day”. “Bloggers” is likewise a somewhat imprecise term for what I mean as generally curious and creative writer/researcher types)

Even if you don’t use it, it serves as this symbol to outsiders that “we’re a thing bc we have special tools that you wouldn’t understand the value of.” In both instances, it’s not immediately obvious to an outsider that these groups might have specialized tooling/needs. (“Don’t you just write stuff?” “Don’t you just have meetings w people?”) Having something for that group to show off to others, and to be able to say “See? We’re a thing!” is what makes it so culturally memorable

It seems like many of these products rarely make it beyond cult stage, bc their brand is based on being something other ppl don’t get, and to expand beyond that they have to cannibalize their own brand. But maybe that’s okay, too (for me, anyway, a 3rd party observer) - it’s just fun to see these cults emerge regardless. They’re basically communities w/ a thin layer of company/product wrapped around them


Zoom as example of proprietary community - literally cannot handle distributed interactions so it falls to one person to lead. Instead of fighting against this (trying to recreate distributed interactions where one cannot exist) maybe we should just lean into it


I think I find information suicide (is there a better term for this that’s not so depressing? identity switching?) interesting for the same reasons that other people find longevity interesting. I’m not that viscerallly interested in the prospect of living forever, or even for a very long time, but I am fascinated by the idea of my physical body being a vessel, separate from my brain/consciousness, that I can choose to wipe clean. Why shouldn’t I be able to start a new game under the same body?

There’s some parallel to longevity here bc the answer to both q’s is “biology dictates our social norms”…and in both cases it’s about challenging whether that biologically-driven life trajectory is something we have to cater to after all

Like if longevity is pitched as a failure of the imagination to think beyond our physical bodies and beyond death, I feel like there is also a failure of imagination to think about how else our physical bodies can be creatively repurposed during our current 80-year time span or whatever. If we have alts in our online world, why can’t we have alts in the physical world? (Or maybe alts isn’t quite the right comparison, bc plenty of people do have real-life alts that exist alongside their main identities, whereas I’m thinking more like wiping your current game entirely). I’m just sort of more surprised that ppl don’t play with this more? Or maybe they do and I’m just not aware of them?


Dream topic spectrum has narrowed to just a few things bc I have no other stimulation going on I guess? Now when I go to bed it feels like that’s when the real adventure begins - going to sleep is like embarking upon an odyssey

Reminds me of music festivals, where daytime you’re basically just killing time, recovering from the night before, everything is very slow paced, some ppl pretty much sleep through the day. And then nighttime is where things gets crazy, lights and costumes come out. Similarly my dreams right now are the real adventure, daytime is just passing the time in a quiet beige state


I find it sort of bothersome that there’s no way to opt out of my email inbox. I have an email address, and I use it for lots of things, mostly as a form of verification/identity (signing up for services, etc). But I don’t really want people to use it to reach me anymore

And like, yes, I can adapt to the volume, and become more ok with not responding to things, we all do this, etc…but the fact that I can’t just blanket opt-out of this communication arrangement if I want to feels kinda crazy to me. There’s no way to just…not receive messages from people anymore, and yet it also feels sort of rude if I don’t reply to them. (Esp when they’re not cold emails, but from acquaintances or friends)

I want to be able to just “turn off” my email inbox and use it pretty much solely as a clearinghouse - for managing services that are tied to my email account, and for any other “read-only” email that I can enjoy but am not expected to respond to (like newsletters from friends). Ppl often talk about how great email is bc it’s a protocol you can build on top of, but this is the flipside of it that I really don’t like


Hey Arnold as maximalism (leaning into the urban landscape and integrating it into the storytelling, vs. most kid’s shows which use suburbia as a minimalist background, to foreground its characters)


Ok here is maybe a theory re: the q about Medium vs Twitter design thing. Twitter is like a public space, but Medium is like visiting someone’s home - a semi-private space you’re invited into

When you’re out and about and using the same platform with multiple ppl, collapsed into one feed, it’s ok if it all looks the same. But when it’s YOUR home, it needs to reflect your personality

(Okay, but then why is this still not necessarily true for Etsy and Ebay? Is there something about displaying physical wares that feels more personal, like it’s more about what you’re selling vs. the software it’s housed in, so it doesn’t really matter? Also maybe b/c all e-commerce software is fairly homogenized, vs. blogs and personal websites, where you have more options?)


Feels like in order to be able to understand the homogenizing vs. highly customizable UI question, need to better understand on an abstract level: when do constraints feel creatively smothering, vs. when does submitting to them feel like a liberating form of expression


Thinking about how 2018 was (for me) all about exploring extreme freedom, and 2019 was all about discovering constraints, and now 2020 feels like the ultimate constraint: external circumstances dictate how I think, what I wear, what I do, what I eat, how often I go out, etc. We are all being extremely dommed by our environment


Just realized what’s really cool about Stardew Valley is they manage to evoke a lot of emotion and attachment to the villagers despite the characters saying very little, but they do it by leaning into stereotypes. They let you fill in the blanks with stuff you already know about ppl and the world, and they do a lot of heavy lifting with symbols, hobbies, and mannerisms of speaking

Like it’s incredible how much you feel like you “know” these characters, but it’s actually bc you know people LIKE them in real life, and then project that experience onto the characters. I guess I find it surprising or clever b/c the naive take on “how to create a super immersive world” would be filling it in with lots of details, like Skyrim or RDR2, to achieve that level of emotion, but you don’t actually have to. In this case, fewer but really on-the-mark details are better bc it lets the player’s brain endlessly fill in the rest


(from a convo) “For awhile it was nothing, so nobody minded the lack of design, but once it looks like starts to look like something, it suddenly looks the same”


Weird when I love a book it makes my brains sparkle with ideas, whereas when I love a movie it just makes me cry or feel elated or whatever primal emotion, but it’s rarely generative for me


If Substack is the longform equivalent for Twitter feeds, might be the longform equivalent for Twitter replies w/ mutuals


Fun to see new “SKUs”/vehicles for interesting ppl to collaborate together…you could even think of them like stages of economic development, Rostow-style, but for tech industry

(from a friend) “Tech only recently discovered culture” <- this isn’t meant as a dig on tech, maybe just imprecise vocabulary (what the heck even is “culture” in this context), but I keep thinking about it. Like of course tech has always had its own “culture”, but there is something different about the past few years where it feels like tech is taking interest in “liberal arts” or whatever you want to call it, and slowly figuring out its identity there. And with that comes a widenening of SKUs for collaboration

Originally the only SKU in recent tech history was startups (maybe prior to that: gov’t-funded research labs? writing software together?). Like if you have a great idea, start a company. That was it. Then it was starting a VC fund and/or angel investing together. Next vehicles I’m looking forward to: starting a think tank / research firm together, starting a media publication / some sort of loudspeaker together

Anyways, regardless of the exact specifics, I like thinking about all these different vehicles that will fall in and out of fashion over time. Sometimes you come across a group of interesting ppl that would clearly form a dream team for something, but it’s like…what’s the right vehicle for their output? So much potential energy that doesn’t always have the right outlet


Something I’m starting to notice is “regional” online slang, but not based on where you’re from, more like “who’s your tribe” online

Ex. there are v diff types of ppl who say rekt, roasted, and shook, or SMH vs “you hate to see it”. It’s not generational or geography-based, I think it’s just tribal?

Has that existed online before? There was definitely nerd-only slang like l33t or pwned, and then there’s general early internet slang like rofl and afk, and then I felt like there was like briefly early gen Z vs millennial slang, but now it feels like there are lots of diff “languages” coexisting online across generations and geographies


(theory from a friend) People vote in national but not local politics bc they know they have more agency over local stuff, whereas national stuff they feel more powerless about, so this is the only thing they can do to affect it

There’s some parallel here to me between how people undervalue local politics, and the idea that “we treat the people closest to us worse than anyone else”. Like somehow having this greater level of intimacy actually makes people take it more for granted


Thinking about my email inbox like an airport or some sort of transit hub for all my other communications

Nothing wants to stay in there for long, the content is sort of nervously transient. it’s a place for ppl to get “processed” in transit to/from something else. There’s bureaucratic stuff in there (credit card notifications, insurance, etc). There are email notifications from other apps you use, which nudge you to get a move on and go back to those apps. Actual letters from friends feel like these sort of beautiful paper missives swirling in a dust cloud of desolation. You’re standing in the middle of a desert, but occasionally you reach your hand up and grab this letter and open it, and in it is some nice thoughtful longform note from someone you like and care about. You fold it back up and release it back into the wind. (Of course you don’t respond, even though you wish you had, and feel vaguely guilty that you didn’t, because you’re trapped out here in the desert wasteland of email. Their letter stays fondly on your mind for the next few weeks, before fading into the dust like everything else)


One possible answer to the eternal q of “Why does media attract such left-leaning ppl?” is that for most ppl, there’s no money in media (as an individual journalist, writer etc - not the industry overall). Right-leaning ppl go off and get high-paying jobs doing other stuff bc of their values, whereas left-leaning people are less likely to do so bc it conflicts with their values. So, crazy posit is that “liberal media bias” is bc working in media (and academia, while we’re at it) isn’t a sufficiently lucrative job, so it only attracts a certain type of person who’s willing to work in those conditions. But making media a financially attractive prospect would balance out POVs represented


Trying out this thought for size…if you’re providing a service for people to start their own businesses, then they need customization options. Medium pages can all look the same bc they’re (mostly) free, or GitHub repos or whatever, vs. Shopify or WordPress which let you customize everything. (Counterpoints: Etsy, Ebay, others? Ok so maybe the difference isn’t about charging money vs. not…)

Why does it feel like big-name blogs are always built on custom websites, but then everyone is fine building their own personal brands on Twitter/Instagram/etc?

In other words: why does building a personal brand on Medium feel icky, but building a personal brand on Twitter does not, even though both are equally homogenizing? Where’s the dividing line between customization vs. platform brand? It feels like there is actually a right answer to this but I’m not quite sure how to think about it yet


Maybe proprietary/centralized communities are like the bullseye on a target? There’s a central figure that everyone coalesces around, but “darts”/followers are sort of randomly scattered all around it. Bullseye (centralized/proprietary), honeycomb (hierarchical/cultish), and scatterplot (fully distributed)


What’s the half life of non-monarchic dynasties? (i.e. does all multigenerational wealth eventually dwindle down due to successors cannibalizing themselves?) And if they do have a half-life, why do people care so much about redistribution of wealth? If eventually their potential energy gets consumed by the ecosystem and makes room for someone new

I mean it’s also possible we haven’t even had enough generations of self-made wealth to understand how this works. We’re just seeing the tail end of Rockefeller Carnegie etc era now. To me it seems likely that all impossibly wealthy dynasties will die out over time, so it makes me feel less angsty about the ones that are being built today. And even, I think, makes the case for why they’re especially interesting / good for the general public, when I look at it from a lifecycle perspective (their job IS to be big and impactful for the relatively short duration that they’ll exist)


People who complain about JavaScript are like people who complain about venture capital (?)

In that, both of these systems have flaws and are easy to criticize, but they’re also wildly popular and just like…reflective of what IS happening, vs. what ought to be. They attract criticism bc they’re popular and flawed, but in the end, they’re just gonna keep existing. I think I have a hard time working up my emotions about either for this reason (perhaps in the past, but not anymore)


Looking at each other’s calendars to find the best meeting time as a form of distributed admin work. We sort of all have this unspoken agreement to do a small portion of the collective work required

Hiring a 3rd party (aka admin) to schedule is the equivalent of a “market-based solution” (in Ostrom’s terms) vs. two or more people figuring it out amongst themselves


Underrated: suburbs as breeding ground for creativity. There’s nothing else to do, so you turn to your computer/phone, switching off between your virtual world and the cozy comfortable cul-de-sacs, shooting the shit with your friends and letting your mind wander

I like living in the city as an adult (though even now, I find myself feeling less attached to it than I used to be), but I actually think I would’ve picked the suburbs again (or even more rural) in terms of where to to grow up as a kid


Something I don’t really get: with some hedonistic experiences, eventually after doing them repeatedly for awhile, they start to lose their novelty/appeal. But other hedonistic inputs don’t have that quality. Why not?

Ex. college-style partying eventually starts to lose its appeal for most people, but eating sugar is still just as enjoyable, on a visceral level, as when you’re 6 years old. (Specific examples might vary between people, but you get what I mean)

Is e.g. eating sugar just a purer form of wireheading? Like the stuff that eventually gets old is bc the novelty of it actually derives from its narrative, which starts to feel familiar and therefore less interesting (new relationship energy, college partying, etc), whereas other experiences are pure clean hedonistic input

Like for me it feels like eating bone marrow, oysters, sashimi, beef tartare, caviar, etc never gets old, bc the thing that gives me joy about it is directly inputted into my brain, with nothing else interfering w/ it


Is there a word for when a symbol is more representative than reality? Ex. a laughing emoji better translates the sense of me laughing than a video of me laughing

(Maybe this is just another version of uncanny valley, but not really about inducing disgust or revulsion, it’s just that the middle ground just isn’t as good of a representation)


Starting to feel like ppl need personal SLAs that detail the messaging apps they do/don’t “support” (iMessage, email, whatsapp, etc). Ex. I might have a Telegram or LinkedIn account but I won’t respond to your messages on there, too much inbound to support every channel

Part of what is/isn’t supported also depends on who’s messaging, what they message about, and overall volume to that channel. Ex. I support Signal only bc hardly anyone messages me there (and the few who do are close friends), but I’d be less responsive to ppl I don’t know on there, vs. it’s more acceptable to cold email or cold DM on Twitter. And I support iMessage only bc I only use it with friends, don’t use it for work etc, but I wouldn’t respond to a random person on iMessage

I’ve gotten significantly worse at supporting Twitter DM since I tried funneling more ppl over there vs. email. It’s still better than email I think, bc the messages are shorter, but the tradeoff is higher volume which makes it harder to respond quickly vs. before

Whereas my disinclination to use e.g. WhatsApp is mostly product-related (no reactions, and the notification badge disappears when you open it, so I forget to go back and check it). But enough ppl that I know use it that I feel like I can’t fully “deprecate” it


“Tech platforms are basically government” now, not bc of their widespread reach and influence, but bc they’ve become this sort of dreary bureaucracy thing where we sigh and wish they did better, but know they won’t

Infrastructure is dominance with a whimper


Friend flings are fun (aka the equivalent of a romantic fling, but with friendships)


Wonder if anyone will eventually build discovery tools / recommendation systems for group chats or if they’ll always remain undiscoverable (i.e. that’s kinda the point, you need a trusted friend/invite)

The long arc of technology seems to bend towards legibility so wondering how that’ll play out wrt group chats


Content itself bifurcating in the same way that content creators themselves are bifurcating (monopolistic platform + long tail)? It’s skewing both more longform and more granular, but nothing in-between


Wonder if I could map out my primary friends and relationships as a musical score


Reading chronic city and thinking about degenerate lifestyles. If neo-degenerates are the crypto Lambo fly girls in to your summer house in Malibu kind of degens, then Perkus Tooth is the classical version, the spiritual predecessor to neo-degens, in which he sheds social norms in dogged pursuit of the truth (whatever that means)

In that sense, classical degens have more in common with monks, although monks took an ascetic interpretation. Monks are about restriction as a means of reducing distractions (neo-monks are, of course, the IFers and soylenters and dopamine fasters), degen approach is about living a purposely unfiltered life so as not to miss any truthiness that might come your way. Classical degens avoid discarding any important clues that might aid in the pursuit of truth, which manifests as excessiveness. (Degens as the maximalist counterpart to monks?)

I don’t even really know if I’d classify neo-degens as truth-seeking (ditto neo-monks - they’re both commodified versions of the original) but in both cases it seems like there’s this extreme allergic response to default status games, which manifests in either ascetic or maximalist behavior


Anti-pattern recognition

“the true essence of madness is seeing everything around you as a meaningful symbol” - toby

Chronic city, pattern recognition are both (in diff ways) about learning to avoid the tendency to find symbols where there are none

“Being basic as a virtue” is sort of a stop-gap prevention mechanism from inadvertently descending into madness. Forces you to resist temptation to pattern match. And more broadly: if you’re truly dedicated to truth-seeking, switching up your identity and blowing up your life every so often keeps you on the run from the eye of sauron. Fool the pattern-matchers, render yourself unrecognizable from dark forces

Another version of this is the Trouble Coffee founder who got tattoos and wore the same clothes everywhere because she was afraid of forgetting herself. “The more people who recognized her, the more she stood a chance of being able to recognize herself.” (Cayce being afraid of logos and branded clothing in Pattern Recognition is relevant here too)

There’s some common theme here that I like…something about how you can create these external markers to do something that you don’t fully trust yourself to do. And also, how external markers can form a protective shell to mask our true identities, allow us to safely disappear


Time lapse video of house parties over the years from age 4 to 90


Reading books is like reading tarot (searching for meaning in symbols)