An introduction to backpage content

February 22, 2023

There’s a certain flavor of content that I keep running into but have a hard time categorizing.

For example: here’s a data-driven guide to all the variations of boba order. Here’s an interactive web guide to game theory. Here’s an article describing a unique property in language. Here’s a video essay on existentialism. Here’s an MIT admissions blog post on ambition. 1 2

How would you describe these pieces of content? What is the uniting theme here?

I think most people would say that they’re “interesting” pieces of content. Thought-provoking. Creative. Fun. My favorite attempt comes from a friend who called it “slightly niche, very interdisciplinary life-related stuff”.

While these descriptions point to some broad truths, they miss a degree of specificity that I hope to expand on in this post, using a term inspired by my high school newspaper: backpage content.

What is backpage content?

I like to think about backpage content as a soft spot between Rigid Formality and Shitposting; it often tackles topics that aren’t traditionally considered serious, but are interesting and engaging. This can include anything from pop culture to philosophy to scientific research. “Indie” is a good word to consider here.

The tone of backpage content leans towards casual and being irreverent, while the work itself maintains a strong sense of rigor, integrity, and high production quality. The specific medium doesn’t matter, as long as the work is public facing, feels authentic, and passes your internal vibe check. This description is intentionally broad to allow for subjective interpretation.

Consider this data-driven article. I would not call this a capital-I Important topic, but it certainly is an interesting one. It’s written and designed well, and the interactive components provide a unique and fun viewing experience. Fantastic vibes; many such cases by The Pudding.

I think a great case study are subsets of YouTube video essays: Folding Ideas creates fantastic, well-researched videos deconstructing various themes and trends in media. Johnny 2 Cellos has made many brilliant video essays dissecting Bojack Horseman.3 Again, these topics are neither trivial nor earth-shattering – but they still spark curiosity and intellectual interest.

Another prime example I’ll bring up are online projects. Neal Agarwal’s creative coding projects immediately come to mind. The subgenre of Explorable Explanations attempts to unite play and learning through interactive elements. Constraint Systems offers a unique collection of web-based tools. I consider projects like these to be backpage content because they explore uncharted territories in creative coding and innovative web-based tools.

(I want to bring up the elusory TPOT post-rat crowd on Twitter as another source of backpage content on a micro-scale, but I don’t know how to describe it well. Some good descriptions for the uninitiated can be found here and here.)

What is not backpage content?

There’s a very particular vibe I have to get from a piece in order to categorize it as backpage content. I want to talk about a few things that don’t qualify for me.

Life and culture articles from major news publications. Even though they’re supposed to be looser and more creative, I find this type of material to be way less engaging than the content I listed earlier. I suspect this has to do with publications being tighter with editing and the (older) audience they cater to. Regardless, there’s something there that detracts from the vibe and my overall consumption experience.

Meta-level content. For example: Blogging about blogging instead of blogging about interesting ideas. Writing a Twitter thread on how to optimize your Twitter feed instead of tweeting about foreign policy or biology.

Engagement farming. Twitter threadbois. Motivational posts on LinkedIn. YouTube channels that have found a niche which gets clicks, and as Bo Burnham eloquently put it, will only stop beating that dead horse when it stops spitting out money. You know the type. These all usually fail the authenticity test in my eyes.

Insight porn. Content that feels intellectually stimulating but lacks practical value or application. In other words: ”If I’ve really found a way to hack my motivational system 100%, why am I writing about it instead of solving global coordination problems?”

This type of content feels more insidious than the prior grifter-esque content because it’s much harder to notice. Is Naval Ravikant’s whole Twitter account insight porn? What about TED Talks? Are these things exposing you to valuable ideas or offering reductive explanations of complex issues? This feels like a case-by-case vibes-based decision for me.

(I’m not saying that all insight porn is bad. But some manifestations of it – I’m thinking about self-help and psychology-adjacent content especially – rub me the wrong way. Again: this is a case-by-case vibes based decision.)

Zooming out

I hope that the examples I’ve provided are giving you a sense of the type of work I’m talking about.

Broadly, I interpret backpage content as beautiful things that inspire others and evoke feelings of joy, wonder, curiosity, and play. This loose umbrella definition allows for the incorporation of different styles, mediums, and aesthetics, which I would say is very much in the spirit of it all.

1. My high school newspaper called the last page of each issue the “backpage”. The content generally consisted of thematic top ten lists, personal columns on social or cultural trends, and topical infographics or photographs.

2. Also, apparently “Backpage” was also the name of an advertisement website in 2004 that was shut down by the U.S government due to alleged involvement in human trafficking. So that’s an unfortunate coincidence.

3. In case you haven’t seen it, I recently tracked every running gag in Bojack Horseman. Check out the project here.

Thanks to VL, KT, and SC for reading drafts of this.