Robin Sloan
the lab
December 2022

A year of
new avenues

A mostly realistic painting of a street scene in Paris, cobbles below, buildings in sharp perspective above, and right in front of us, a couple strolling, one of them holding an umbrella to ward off the rain, both looking off to the side, attention captured by something we cannot see. It is perfect flânerie.
Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877, Gustave Caillebotte

It’s so power­fully obvious to me, it might as well be written in ten-foot letters of flame: the platforms of the last decade are done.

I said it in April 2022, and I believe it even more today: their only conclu­sion can be abandonment; an overdue MySpace-ification.

This is … tremendously exciting! Some of you reading this were users and/or devel­opers of the internet in the period from 2002 to perhaps 2012. For those of you who were not, I want to tell you that it was exciting and energizing, not because every­thing was great, but simply because anything was possible.

The concrete hadn’t set.

Now, after a decade of stuckness, the pavement is cracking — crumbling — and I want to insist to those of you who lived through that time, and those of you who didn’t: we all have a new opportunity.

This message was emailed to lab newsletter subscribers. The assumed audience is subscribers who feel invested in the future of the internet who also have the capacity, and/or curiosity, to tinker on new projects. (Here’s more about assumed audiences.)

Here’s my exhortation:

Let 2023 be a year of exper­i­men­ta­tion and invention!

Let it come from the edges, the margins, the provinces, the marshes!


I am thinking specif­i­cally of exper­i­men­ta­tion around “ways of relating online”. I’ve used that phrase before, and I acknowl­edge it might be a bit obscure … but, for me, it captures the rich overlap of publishing and networking, media and conviviality. It’s this domain that was so deci­sively captured in the 2010s, and it’s this domain that is newly up for grabs.

It is 2003 again. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram haven’t been invented yet … except, it’s also 2023, and they have, so you can learn from their rise and ruin.

This doesn’t mean you ought to start a company.

As the platforms of the last decade crumble, we might put “founder” culture back on the shelf. Startup finance works fine for building a business of a very particular kind; and, like, thank you for Shopify! Seriously! But, for a decade, this very partic­ular kind of business had a lock not only on internet commerce, but internet culture, too, with only ill effect.

I want to insist on an amateur internet; a garage internet; a public library internet; a kitchen table internet. At last, in 2023, I want to tell the tech CEOs and venture capitalists: pipe down. Buzz off. Go fave each other’s tweets.

It’s plain that neither the big tech companies nor the startup financiers are going to produce the “ways of relating” that will matter in the next decade. Almost by definition, any exper­i­ment that’s truly path­breaking and provoca­tive is too weird and tiny for them to suffer. They are trapped in their stupen­dous scale; lucky us.

We should say: thanks for the browsers. Thanks for the seamless global slabs of compute, available for pennies and less. We’ll use them.

A whale dies in the ocean, and its carcass feeds a whole ecosystem for decades.

The browsers: let’s dwell there for a moment. Because “browsers” doesn’t just mean Chrome, Safari, and Edge; every operating system now offers a trivially available web canvas to which you can add anything you want. Aldus Manutius, who printed the first pocket-sized books in Venice at the turn of the 16th century, would have wept to possess a “page” of this kind.

Next, he would have crit­i­cized it. But first, the weeping!

All along, from the frothy 1990s to the perco­lating 2000s to the frozen 2010s to today, the web has been the sure thing. All along, it’s been growing and maturing, sprouting new capabilities. From my vantage point, that growth has seemed to accel­erate in the past five years; CSS, in partic­ular, has become incred­ibly flexible and expressive. Maybe even a bit overstuffed — but I’ll take it.

For people who care about creating worlds together, rather than getting rich, the web is the past and the web is the future. What incred­ible luck, that this open, decen­tral­ized “way of relating” claimed a position at the heart of the internet, and stuck fast. The web is limited, of course; frustrating; sometimes maddening. But that’s every creative medium. That’s life.

Okay, so, what kind of exploration? What kind of invention? I have some rough (and perhaps only margin­ally useful) notions for new avenues, which I will type out below.

First, though, I want to acknowl­edge that inventing new things, partic­ularly new “ways of relating”, is a lonely task. In the beginning, it’s just you, or, at best, you and your tiny gang of collab­o­ra­tors. You can only HOPE that perhaps a few dozen other people start to pay attention. That doesn’t feel like anything real. It’s difficult.

And … that’s just the way it goes!

The good stuff is always lonely in the beginning. Nothing mean­ingful will get made if its potential makers all wimp out too soon, because they get scared by the sparse crowd, the empty room.

You have to take on the loneliness. You have to strengthen that muscle.

Here are those avenues.

A realistic painting of several young men, shirtless, planing a wood-planked floor smooth. It looks like difficult work!
The Floor Scrapers, 1875, Gustave Caillebotte

Try the new new new thing

Spend some time with Arc, the new browser from The Browser Company of New York. It’s an opin­ion­ated appli­ca­tion that’s constantly flexing and morphing as the team embroi­ders fresh ideas. Using the app at this stage in its devel­op­ment feels almost like following the new season of a TV show.

The original web browsers, back in the 1990s, suggested new activities, new problems, new opportunities. Does this next-generation web browser suggest anything new? I’ve only used it for a little while, and already I think the answer has to be “yes”. (Don’t miss the uncanny cutouts of live web pages available in Arc’s “easel” function … )

Arc is currently available only for Mac, and there is a waitlist. (If you received this newsletter via email, go check the copy in your inbox for an invite link.)

Think deeply about discovery

How might you help people find new things on the internet? How might you give new things on the internet a mean­ingful audition, without turning it all into a game that can (and will) be hacked and mastered?

I suspect the best answers are grounded in good old-fashioned human recommendations, but who knows? Maybe TikTok has it right; maybe everybody deserves one (1) audition with the capri­cious god-algorithm of the realm. Maybe there’s something to be isolated and improved there.

Either way, this is a big deal. Publishing on the internet is a solved problem; finding each other on the internet, in a way that’s healthy and sustainable … that’s the piece that has never quite fallen into place.

Climb into an overlay

The deep structure of the internet stymies peer-to-peer protocols; I wrote about this earlier in 2022.

In response, some people are turning to simple, secure overlay networks that make peer-to-peer addressing easier, or indeed, even possible at all. ZeroTier and Tailscale are the leaders here, and they’re both very impres­sive services. A few years back, I set up a ZeroTier overlay network just for my own computers (laptop, desktop, Linux box, cloud instance) and it has been a tiny revo­lu­tion in my technical work.

I am 100% convinced there are inter­esting new “ways of relating” waiting on these overlay networks, these pocket internets. They might require config­u­ra­tions beyond what’s currently supported, but these companies are suffi­ciently young and flexible that, presented with a compelling idea, I get the sense they’d just … implement it!

Maybe you should set up a ZeroTier or Tailscale network with a few friends or collab­o­ra­tors and … see what happens?

Go digging in the crates

What half-forgotten old protocol might be revived and repurposed?

Consider the example of RSS. Designed for blogs and news websites, its greatest success had nothing to do with those formats: RSS is the protocol that powers podcasting, all of it, under the hood, invisibly.

Where else is the wiring already in the walls? What new signals might you send?

My own avenue of exploration, a new protocol called Spring ’83, takes direct inspi­ra­tion from the internet of forty years ago, in partic­ular the hilarious simplicity of RFC 865, the Quote of the Day Protocol. I think there’s a lot of energy still coiled up in those early RFCs.

Make a thing with which you can talk about the thing

I feel like this is a common pattern: a community is building something new, and they talk about it … on Twitter. Maybe Discord. That’s fine, obviously, but there’s a sense in which it gives away the game on the first move.

Back in the 2000s, a lot of blogs were about blogs, about blogging. If that sounds exhaust­ingly meta, well, yes — but it was also SUPER generative. When the thing can describe itself, when it becomes the natural place to discuss and debate itself, I am telling you: some flywheel gets spinning, and powerful things start to happen.

This is related to my opinion that the very best movies are about movies, the very best books about books.

When the meta conver­sa­tion happens elsewhere, it’s like a little energy leak. Maybe that’s the energy you need.

Make exemplars before services

Remember that a single exemplar of a new format can be a profound contribution; in art and culture, maybe the MOST profound. These are the works that found genres.

Blogs are a useful example. The first blogs were static web pages, edited by hand, with new posts appended to the top. It was only after the format was proven out that other people — different people — came along and built software and hosting services expressly for blogging.

If you want, you can be that first example! You can edit by hand!

Work with the garage door open

Less an avenue, more a way of approaching an avenue:

This isn’t a time for “products”, or product launches. It’s not a time to toil in secret for a year and then reveal what you’d made with a shiny landing page.

Rather, I believe it’s a time to explain as you go. Our “work”, in an important sense, is to get into each other’s heads; to blast out cosmic rays that might give rise, in other minds, to new ideas.

It’s been a decade of products, smooth and sleek; apps with chamfered edges. I am inter­ested now in visions, compulsions, provocations.

Patrick Tanguay on Umberto Eco:

[Eco] uses Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and Curtiz’s Casablanca to show that cult classics are cults “precisely because they are basically ramshackle, or ‘unhinged,’ so to speak.” It’s their imperfectness, the disjointed parts, that gives fans something to attach to, something to remember, something to cite.

I am inter­ested in something to cite!

Don't settle for Mastodon

I suppose this is an anti-avenue, because: Mastodon is not it.

When you tell me about Twitter vs. Mastodon, I hear that you got rid of the flesh-eating piranhas and replaced them with federated flesh-eating piranhas. No thanks, I’m still not swimming in that pool!

I’m not saying you shouldn’t create a Mastodon account, or that you can’t enjoy fun, perco­lating conver­sa­tions on that platform. I’m just saying that it does not, to me, represent a suffi­ciently inter­esting exper­i­ment, because it accepts too much as settled.

The timeline isn’t settled.

The @-mention isn’t settled.

Nothing is settled. It’s 2003 again!

December 2022, Oakland