Designing a centralized site for writers

Almost three years ago, I started this blog. It has been (and continues to be) a fairly lonely endeavor, for two main reasons: 

  1. Feeling out of place; my work doesn’t strictly fall under any mainstream writing genre (journalism, poetry, creative fiction)
  2. A general inability to consistently find and discuss interesting ideas 

My burning internal belief helps me push through the first sentiment. As for the second, I usually spend a lot of time aimlessly browsing the web, reading random blog entries and Twitter threads I find interesting. 

And what I recently realized is that there are so many great ideas, discussions, articles, personal websites, vidoes, and content creators scattered all over the Internet — and that if I hadn’t spontaneously gone down some random rabbit hole, I probably wouldn’t have ever found them. (Here’s a curated list of stuff I like, for example.)

So, I had this idea for a website: a centralized place for people to share and discuss their ideas and work with others (with an emphasis on non-fiction, analytical writing).  

The main motivation is to help and connect people like my past self, who, starting out, had no idea where to post or what exactly to write about. I think a site like this could really help people find their footing and the confidence to write.

Core features of the site would include:

  • Supporting articles / essay and microblogging formats 
  • Easily accessible commenting and constructive feedback mechanisms
  • Strong thread / discussion systems 
  • Pleasant and intuitive UI (especially on desktop)
  • Highly customizable and personalized profiles, bios
  • Dominant messaging, liking, and following features

As a starting point, I think the site could include elements from sites like LessWrong and Twitter. 

Case Study: LessWrong and Twitter 

LessWrong is a site that focuses on human rationality and, as the name suggests, being less wrong about stuff. It’s primary formatting is for articles.

I prefer it over Medium or Aeon because the titles aren’t super clickbait-y, the articles are not listicles, and most importantly, LW writers usually get straight to the point. It also helps that LW is moderated and has set a high bar for epistemic rigor, which contributes to higher quality writing. In my experience, it also has the highest comment engageability out of the three. But I digress. 

The fundamental issue I see with LW, though, is that it’s not very personal. 

For example: you don’t get an option for a profile picture, the messaging system feels a bit obscure, the site UI feels very mechanical, and to some, I’m sure it may feel a bit too abstract and intellectual. 

(I say that these are issues, but I think this is mostly because LW cares more about the ideas than the people — which I actually really appreciate.)

In any case, that’s where Twitter comes in. Twitter’s niche is its short form posting, or microblogging. Importantly, the nature of it’s content (brief threads and one-liners) allow for both serious and playful Tweets.

One big problem with article based sites like LW, Medium, or Aeon is that you have to be in the right mood to fully engage with the content — which can range from 500 to 2000 words. But on Twitter, the most mental effort you’ll be exercising is comprehending 280 characters. And half the time, the tweets you’ll be reading are lighthearted and don’t require much brainpower anyways.

More importantly, what Twitter gets right is how personal the site feels. Their UI looks friendly, you’re motivated to connect with friends, and they turn scrolling, commenting, messaging, and liking posts into a habit. You have an emotional connection to the site. 

So, if we take a huge step back and combine these elements of LW and Twitter together, we (broadly) get a site that is a centralized hub of ideas, supports articles and microblogging (basically tweets), and incentivizes users to frequently revisit. 

Further questions and thoughts

What you’ve read so far are the core ideas of this hypothetical site. I’ve intentionally left out specific thoughts and discussions in order to not clog up the post. But here are some further questions and thoughts I have moving forward.

  • Is offering too many options for formatting bad, or too complicated? 
    • Having a specific niche or intended use is easier, more intuitive, and more inviting to the everyday user
  • Would it be smart to implement a categories / filtering feature? 
    • Similar to subreddits on Reddit
    • Lists or topics on Twitter
    • Concepts on LessWrong
  • Would the site be moderated? Would the site have an overarching mission or topic?
    • Contrast LW and Twitter here 
    • LW: 
      • Moderated content and comment section makes for much better writing and discussion, at the cost of a higher barrier to entry
      • Having the focus on human rationality gives each post a general theme, and readers know that that whatever they’re reading has some relevance to applied rationality
    • Twitter:
      • No moderation inevitably leads to worse overall content, but allows for a much lower barrier to entry 
      • Allowing anyone to write about anything can get messy really quickly, but again, gives people more freedom to write about whatever they want, and people can create their own niches
  • Elaborating on other specific details / features I’d want (for another time, perhaps)

Above all, I think what I’d care about most at the end of the day is fostering a safe and encouraging environment for people like me. 

I think about this Paul Graham tweet and Tim Urban tweet a lot. In my own experience, most people in my life have been in the middle class, and external validation is pretty infrequent (but of course, much appreciated). And while that’s not necessarily bad, per se, I think we can do better.

My dream would be an online community filled with the highest class of people, who selflessly and genuinely encourage others in their creative endeavors. As far as I can tell, that doesn’t exist yet.

Followup post

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