Typology of blog posts that don’t always add anything clear and insightful

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I used to think a good blog post should basically be a description of a novel insight.

To break it down more, on this view:

  1. A blog post should have a propositional claim (e.g. ‘the biggest externalities are from noise pollution’, or ‘noise pollution is a concept’ vs. expression of someone’s feelings produced by externalities, or a series of reflections on externalities). A ‘propositional claim’ here can be described straightforwardly in words, and usually conveys information (i.e. they say the world is one way instead of another way).
  2. It should be a general claim—i.e. applicable to many times and places and counterfactuals (e.g. ‘here is how tragedies of the commons work: …’ vs. ‘here is a thing that happened to me yesterday: …’)
  3. It should be a novel claim(e.g. a new reason to doubt one of the explanations put forward for the demographic transition)
  4. The claim should be described, which is to imply that the content should be:
    1. Verbal (or otherwise symbolic, e.g. a table of numbers surrounded by text would count)
    2. Explicit (saying the things it means, rather than alluding to them)
    3. Mostly concerned with conveying the relevant propositions (vs. for instance mostly concerned with affecting the reader’s mood or beliefs directly)

I probably would have agreed that the odd vignette was also a good blog post, but ideally it should be contained in some explicit discussion of what was to be learned from it. I probably wouldn’t have held my more recent Worldly Positions blog1 in high esteem.

I now think that departures from all of these things are often good. So in the spirit of novel descriptions of explicit and general claims, I have made a typology of different combinations of these axes.

Before getting to it, I’ll explain some part of the value of each category that I think I overlooked, for anyone similar to my twenty year old self.

Worthy non-propositional-claim content

Minds have many characteristics other than propositional beliefs. For instance, they can have feelings and attitudes and intuitions and grokkings and senses. They can meditate and chop onions quickly and look on the bright side and tend to think in terms of systems. They can also have different versions of ‘beliefs’ that don’t necessarily correspond to differences in what propositions they would assent to. For instance, they can say ‘it’s good to exercise’, or they can viscerally anticipate a better future when they choose to exercise. And even among straightforward beliefs held by minds, there are many that aren’t easily expressed in words. For instance, I have an impression of what summer evenings in the garden of a lively country restaurant were like, but to convey that sense to you is an art, and probably involves saying different propositional things in the hope that your mind will fill in the same whatever-else in the gaps. So this belief doesn’t seem to live in my mind in a simple propositional form, nor easily make its way into one.

All of this suggests that the set of things that you might want to communicate to a mind is large and contains much that is not naturally propositional.2

Minds can also take many inputs other than propositional claims. For instance, instructions and remindings and stories and music and suggestions implicit in propositional claims and body language and images. So if you want to make available a different way of being to a mind—for instance you want it to find salient the instability of the global system—then it’s not obvious that propositional claims are the best way.

Given that minds can take many non-propositional inputs, and take many non-propositional states, you should just expect that there are a lot of things to be said that aren’t naturally propositional, in form or content. You should expect messages where the payload is intended to influence a mind’s non-propositional states, and ones where the mode of communication is not propositional.

…in communicating propositional claims

There are different versions of ‘understanding’ a proposition. I like to distinguish ‘knowing’ or ‘understanding’ a thing — which is to say, seeing it fit into your abstract model of the world, being inclined to assent to it — and ‘realizing’ it — intuitively experiencing its truth in the world that you live in. Joe Carlsmith explores this distinction at more length, and gives an example I like:

If asked, one would agree that the people one sees on a day to day basis — on the subway, at parties, at work — all have richly detailed and complex inner lives, struggles, histories, perspectives; but this fact isn’t always present and vivid in one’s lived world; and when it becomes so, it can make an important difference to one’s ethical orientation, even if the propositions one assents to have not obviously changed.

I repeatedly have the experience of ‘already knowing’ some obvious thing that people always say for ages before ‘realizing’ it. For instance, ‘the map is not the territory’. (“Of course the map isn’t the territory. Why would it be? That would be some stupid mistake, thinking that the map was the territory. Like, what would your model of the situation even be like? That the place you live is also your own mind?”) Then at some point it actually hits me that stuff that seems to be in the world ISN’T IN THE WORLD; WHAT SEEMS LIKE THE WORLD IS MY OWN MIND’S IMAGE OF THE WORLD. For instance, long after seeming to know that ‘the map isn’t the territory’ I was astonished to realize that those things that are just boring in their basic essence, like sports statistics and home care magazines, things that seem to be fundamentally drab, are not like that at all. They gleam with just as much allure as the things I am most compelled by, from many vantage points out there—just not mine. And in such a case I say to myself, ‘Oh wow, I just realized something…huh, I guess it is that the map is not the territory…but I knew that?’. Probably reading this, you are still thinking, ‘um yes, you weren’t aware that boringness is person-dependent?’ And I was aware of that. I ‘knew’ it. And I even knew it in some intuitively available ways—for instance, just because I find Married at First Sight interesting, I did not expect my boyfriend to find it so. In particular, in approaching my boyfriend with the news that I have been watching a bunch of Married at First Sight, I viscerally did not expect ‘boyfriend sympathizes with appeal of objectively excellent show’ type observations (in fact he liked it, and I was in fact surprised). But still the boringness of other subjects is depicted to me as part of them, like being red is depicted as in the world (whereas ‘liable to reduce my hunger’ say, is I think more accurately represented by my mind as a feature of myself). And ‘realizing’ that that isn’t right changes how the world that I spend my concrete days in seems.

(I know I have hardly explained or defended this claim that ‘realizing’ is a thing, and important, but I’m not going to do that properly here.)

All of these ‘realizations’ seem to be non-propositional. You already had some proposition, and then you get something else. I think of ‘realizing’ a proposition as acquiring a related non-proposition. To realize the proposition ‘other people have inner lives’ is to take in some non-proposition. Perhaps a spacious sense of those other minds being right there around you. If you are communicating a proposition, to have it actually realized, you want to get its non-proposition partner into the recipient’s mind also. This isn’t really right, because each proposition probably has a multitude of intuitive realizations of it, and each intuitive sense of the world could be part of appreciating a multitude of different propositions. But at any rate, communicating a proposition well, so that the other person can really make use of it, often seems to involve conveying a lot of its non-propositional brethren.

Worthy non-descriptive communication

Closely related to non-propositional content is non-descriptive communication, which I shall call ‘evocative’ communication.

I’m thinking of a few different axes as being related to descriptiveness of communication:

  • Verbalness (consisting of words, e.g. “donkeys are nice” vs. a video of a nice donkey)
  • Explicitness (saying in words the thing you mean, rather than demonstrating it or suggesting it or subtly causing it to creep into the background of the picture you are painting without naming it. E.g. “I want us to follow this protocol” vs. “Most reasonable people are following this protocol now”)
  • Neutrality (not setting out to affect the readers’ emotions except via content itself)

I think of the most vanilla communication as being explicit, verbal and neutral. And this seems pretty good for conveying propositional content. But I suspect that non-propositional content is often conveyed better through evocative communication.

(Or perhaps it is more like: communicating propositional claims explicitly with language is uniquely easy, because explicit language is basically a system we set up for communicating, and propositions are a kind of message that is uniquely well suited to it. But once we leave the set of things that are well communicated in this way, and given that there are lots of other ways to communicate things, non-descriptive forms of communication are much more likely to be helpful than they were.)

Relatedly, I think non-descriptive communication can be helpful in making the ‘realizing’ versions of propositional claims available to minds. That is, in really showing them to us. So in that way, evocative communication seems also potentially valuable for communicating propositional content well.

Worthy communication of non-propositional things descriptively

Going the opposite way—trying to communicate ineffable things in words—also seems valuable, because a) groping nearby propositionally does contribute to understanding, and b) only understanding things in ineffable ways leaves them unavailable to our reasoning faculties in important ways.

Worthy non-generality

I thought that if things were not general, then they were particularly unimportant to talk about. All things equal, isn’t it way better to understand a broad class of things better than a single thing?

Some ways this is misleading:

  • Understanding specific things is often basically a prerequisite for understanding general things. For instance, devising a general theory of circumstances under which arms races develop will be harder without specific information about the behavior of specific nations historically, to inspire or constrain your theorizing
  • Understanding specific things one after another will often automatically lead to your having an intuitive general model, through some kind of brain magic, even in cases where you would have had a hard time making an explicit model. For instance, after you have seen a thousand small disputes run their course, you might have a pretty good guess about how the current dispute will go, even if you couldn’t begin to describe a theory of argumentation for the relevant community.
  • Specific things are often broadly relevant to the specific world that you live in. For instance, exactly what happened in a particular past war might determine what current obligations should be and what sentiments are warranted, and who is owed, and what particular current parties might be expected to want or take for granted. Which is perhaps only of much interest in a narrow range of circumstances, but if they are the circumstances in which we will live for decades, it might be consistently material.

Worthy non-originality of content

On my naive model, you don’t want to repeat something that someone else said, because there is implicitly no value in the repetition—the thing has already been said, so re-saying adds nothing and seems to imply that you are either ignorant or hoping to dupe ignorant others into giving you undeserved credit.

But on a model where many claims are easy enough to accept, but hard to realize, things look very different. The first time someone writes down an idea, the chances of it really getting through to anyone with much of its full power are low. The typical reader needs to meet the idea repeatedly, from different angles, to start to realize it.

In a world like that, a lot of value comes from rehashing older ideas. Also in that world, rehashing isn’t the easy cashing in of someone else’s work. Writing something in a way that might really reach some people who haven’t yet been reached is its own art.

Worthy non-originality of communication

I think I also kind of imagined that once an idea had been put into the ‘public arena’ then the job was done. But another way in which unoriginality is incredibly valuable is that each person can only see such a minuscule fraction of what has ever been written or created, and they can’t even see what they can’t see, that locating particularly apt bits and sharing them with the right audience can be as valuable as writing the thing in the first place. This is curating and signal boosting. For these, you don’t even need to write anything original. But again, doing them well is not trivial. Knowing which of the cornucopia of content should be shown to someone is a hard intellectual task.

Typology

Here is my tentative four-dimensional typology of kinds of blog posts. Any blog post maps to a path from some kind of content on the left, through some kind of communication to publication on the right. Content varies on two axes: generality and propositionalness. Communication varies in evocativeness. And blog posts themselves vary in how early in this pipeline the author adds value. For instance, among posts with a general propositional idea as their content, communicated in a non-propositional way, there are ones where the author came up with the idea, ones where the author took someone else’s idea and wrote something evocative about it, and ones that are repostings of either of the above. Thus, somewhat confusingly, there are 16 (pathways from left to right) x 3 (steps per pathway) = 46 total blog post types represented here, not the 36 you might expect from the number of squares.

I include a random assortment of examples, some obscure, zooming probably required (apologies).

Main updates

  1. Lots of worthy things are hard to describe in words
  2. ‘Realizing’ is a thing, and valuable, and different to understanding
  3. Details can be good
  4. Having ideas is not obviously the main place one can add value

Takeaways

  1. It’s good to write all manner of different kinds of blog posts
  2. It’s good to just take other people’s ideas and write blog posts about them, especially of different kinds than the original blog posts
  3. It’s good to just take one’s own ideas and write second or third blog posts saying exactly the same thing in different ways

Other thoughts

These different sorts of blog posts aren’t always valuable, of course. They have to be done well. Compellingly writing about something that isn’t worthy of people’s attention, or curating the wrong things can be as bad as the good versions of these things are good.

Epistemic status: overall I expect to find that this post is badly wrong in at least one way in short order, but to be sufficiently interested in other things that I don’t get around to fixing it. Another good thing about rehashing others ideas is that you can make subtle edits where they are wrong.

Notes

  1. Older posts here 

  2. I don’t want to make strong claims about exactly what counts as propositional—maybe these things are propositional in some complicated way—but hopefully I’m pointing at an axis of straightforward propositionalness versus something else, regardless. 

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I think the main theme of these is something I think of as "talking to the elephant", in the sense of the elephant-and-rider metaphor.

To the extent that people consist of subagents, those subagents have different communication channels. The elephant-and-rider metaphor is a division into two subagents; the "rider" subagent is the one which understands and responds to "propositional" claims and explicit discussion. But the "elephant" subagent largely ignores that kind of explicit discussion; it mostly responds to emotional valence, status signals, connotations, stories, imagery, etc.

I first started thinking about this when working at an online used-car startup. If a salesperson wants to sell someone a car, they need to convince both the "rider" subagent and the "elephant" subagent. The "rider" was relatively easy: our prices were great, we gave pretty strong contractual quality guarantees and third-party inspection results, our reviews were strong... all the explicit evidence made a good case for buying from us. But the "elephant" was harder. A traditional dealership would make someone emotionally happy with the car via a test drive, body language, a snack, and maybe some sneaky reciprocity tricks. Our sales were all over the phone, which made it a lot harder to communicate via non-explicit channels. We couldn't talk to the elephant very well.

The same applies to blog posts. Any blog post has an audience, and deciding which particular subagents of the readers to speak to is part of choosing an audience. Let's think about how this applies to the desiderata from the top of the post:

  1. "A blog post should have a propositional claim." -> Still a solid rule, but if my audience is elephant-like, then stating the claim is not a very good way to communicate it, in the same way that Bourbaki-style "definition-theorem-proof" textbooks are a bad way to understand math. I would say that the "realizing"-type things discussed in the post still correspond to propositional claims, but the goal is to communicate the claim to a subagent which doesn't respond to explicit statement and explanation.
  2. "It should be a general claim" -> Also still a solid rule, but again, stating the general rule is not necessarily a good way to communicate it. People understand through examples; "concrete before general". Even when a post is just presenting one or more specific examples, there's a background assumption that those examples contain generalizable information, otherwise there'd be little reason to study them.
  3. "It should be a novel claim" -> The rule I personally try to follow is "don't write something which somebody else has already written better". But "better" is in a pareto sense; the communication style/channel matters at least as much as the "claim" or explicit content. It is still not-very-useful to write something which targets the same communication channel, with the same explicit content, at a similar quality level to existing sources.
  4. "The claim should be described... Mostly concerned with conveying the relevant propositions" -> Still a good rule, but again, the communication channels need to be chosen for the target audience, and that includes choosing which subagents to talk to. Conveying the relevant propositions is still the right goal, but explicit and verbal description is not necessarily the right way to do that.