The merits of shitposting

Roughly a year ago I got into an exchange with John Ohno about the merits of shitposting. Amongst other things, he said:

“Shitposting is the most joyful form of writing (for both author and audience) and also the most information-dense form to be readily consumed. It trucks in surprise and in completely lateral insights.

All other forms of communication are degraded versions of shitposting. This is why, as philosophy has advanced, it has more and more resembled elaborate shitposts.”

He then continued to elaborate (here and here):

“Shitposting = taking the absurd seriously and the serious absurdly, erasing the line between them. Producing intellectually-rigorous answers to serious questions, and probing seemingly-shallow domains for hidden depths. In other words, being open to unknown-knowns.

The essence of a shitpost is that an intelligent person gives themselves permission to look outside the set of preconceptions we call “serious discourse”, which is primarily arbitrary and aesthetic, and use critical faculties on the material found there.”

At the time, I didn’t really understand. Hence the questions I put to him. However, recent activities have moved me a little further along the road to comprehending the merits of shitposting. These activities are:

  1. Involvement in a Yak Collective study group focused on online governance
  2. The reestablishment (sustainability TBC) of a weekly writing and publishing cadence
  3. Private experimentations with fiction
  4. Interactions with a socio-technical system through the lens of product management

The first is an experiment in collective sensemaking around a particular topic. The second and third are exercises—with different tempos and mediums—that involve taking barely-even-half-baked ideas and pushing them out in order to see what they’re made of. The fourth is a multi-disciplinary activity that involves soliciting feedback and manufacturing alignment across multiple domains in order to achieve an outcome with a valuable, measurable impact. The common factor amongst them all? Colliding thought processes and/or models with a variant of reality.

Now, think about shitposting:

  • Small units of thought…
  • …delivered at high tempo…
  • …into a shared environment…
  • …in a deliberately novel manner…
  • …that provoke a response…
  • …which enables emergent adaptation

Squint a little and shitposting starts to look like continuous integration/deployment methodologies for software development. Except it’s continuous integration/deployment of (i)ideas into a shared environment. Benefit lists of CI/CD—like this one from GitLab—could easily be talking about the benefits of shitposting. The idea that shitposting = CI/CD is also reaffirmed (to me, at least) when the contrasting proposal is made: longform media (like books) = monoliths.

Shitposting seems like a good idea, and I’d like to move towards actually doing it. The question is: how? If shitposting is said to be a consequence of two things…

  • Rate of thought
  • Release of thought

…then which is it best to focus on? Having more thoughts or distributing them?

You have to start with the chicken instead of the egg—release thoughts. But once that’s done, the either-or can be escaped because they reinforce one another. Start releasing thoughts, start having more thoughts. Releasing thoughts ratchets up rate of thought. This is true of activities other than shitposting, though. Writing generally can have this effect, and so can other activities like talking to people or drawing.

The difference with shitposting is, as John Ohno pointed out, the information density. Shitposting is not the same as posting shit. Consider the y axis of Venkatesh Rao’s “attention management turnpike” in Against Waldenponding. It references talking about people, events, institutions, markets and ideas. The merit of shitposting comes from dancing up and down that spectrum without anchoring on one point too strongly for too long. Anchoring consistently on ideas isn’t shitposting; it’s becoming a living, breathing fortune cookie. Anchoring consistently on people or events isn’t shitposting; it’s being a talking head.

Framed differently: imagine a musician playing an instrument. Shitposting is playing different instruments in different ways, with every act of previous play informing future acts of play. It is not playing the same instrument and/or playing the same way. There is a constant, iterative evolution. One that, gradually but perhaps not gracefully, takes one to some interesting places.