What Iterative Writing Looks Like (and why it’s important)

I’ve been talking a lot about our fascination with “StreamMode”, the current dominant mode of social media. StreamMode is the approach to organizing your thoughts as a history, integrated primarily as a sequence of events. You know that you are in StreamMode if you never return to edit the things you are posting on the web.

A Flickr vs. Instagram comparision makes this somewhat clear. In Flickr, people would catalog their snapshots and tag them, but they’d also occasionally go back and reorganize them. At some point you get enough pictures of diners that you think — hey I should go back and tag up all my diner shots.

Instagram is different. You pick tags, you post, you never return. The post you make today will never be refactored for your identity a year from now. It’s all just one big stream of talk.

StreamMode is Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. It’s also blogs to a large extent (though this is somewhat mitigated through cross-linking and backtracks). It’s internet comments. Email. Secret. Ello. Yo.

While StreamMode has advantages, it’s also creating a world that largely sucks. We’re driven by news pegs, back and forth arguments that go nowhere, the latest shiny things on the radar instead of sustained thinking about older issues. StreamMode also is exclusionary — a stream of twitter comments often relies on extensive insider knowledge to be interpreted. It’s clique-y and egotistical.

It’s also many good things, but left as the only game in town it makes us sick and shallow. We end up hitting Twitter refresh like sad Skinner-boxed lab rats looking for the next pellet instead of collaborating to extend and enhance the scope of human knowledge.

On the opposite pole of StreamMode we find StateMode. In StateMode we are more like Flickr, or Delicious, or wiki. In StateMode we want a body of work at any given moment to be seen as an integrated whole, the best pass at our current thinking. It’s not a journal trail of how we got here, it’s a description of where we are now.

Flickr, as I mentioned, tended more towards this than Instagram. But the ultimate expression of StateMode is the wiki.

Which leads me to the smallest edit I made this morning, but one which I think demonstrates the quiet reflection of StateMode.

Here’s an article I wrote a several days ago on a personal wiki on growth models and Wikipedia. It notes that Wikipedia’s growth model is not exponential, but linear-logistic. Linear-logistic models are associated with biology, where organisms grow exponentially until they hit the bounds of a resource shortage.


The thought around this issue is that as the opportunity for novel contribution declines, it creates a constraint on growth. Wikipedia stops growing because there are less things for people to write.

The weird piece of this is that in most fields this doesn’t happen. Scientific discoveries lead to more discoveries, which leads to more papers. Novels still find new twists on old plots. If you look at non-Wikipedia instances of publication, the curve is exponential, not logistic. So if Wikipedia is about everything, how can it run out of subjects?

Then yesterday I wrote something about the whole Kate Middleton Wedding Dress Wikipedia fiasco. Back when Kate Middleton was marrying Prince William a Wikipedian posted a page on Kate Middleton’s dress. Within 16 minutes a prominent Wikipedian had flagged the article for deletion. A fight then ensued about whether the dress was notable enough — despite the fact that it was probably the most talked about dress in the history of mankind. The incident is generally seen as a prime example of the male-tech-geek-centrism of Wikipedia — as Jimmy Wales said when he stepped into the talkpage conversation — we have a hundred articles on different Linux distros, and we can’t have one article on a dress?



That talkpage includes this brilliant reply to the deletion request that shows how Wikipedia has strayed from the core of wiki thinking — omission is now being seen not as opportunity, but as creating canon:


“It’s a very peculiar argument to me, it seems to be saying Wikipedia should be defined by what….isn’t in it.”

Today I’m looking over my Recent Changes in the wiki, and I see these two articles written over the past week — Wikipedia’s Logistic Curve and Kate Middleton’s Dress. And it occurs to me that Kate Middleton’s Dress is the perfect example of how Wikipedia creates a resource scarcity by limiting the subject matter of the encyclopedia to “things Wikipedia has historically covered”.  As Wikipedia grows, omission moves from opportunity (“let me write that”) to evidence of canon (“we don’t do that here”).

So I go back to the logistic curve article and I link it:



If you’re tired of the endless flame wars and candy fizz of Twitter — if you want to start working on your understanding of the world instead of your position in it — maybe it’s time to join StateMode. You’ll be surprised what you learn when you treat your thoughts as an interwoven whole rather than historical exhaust.

You just might do something you haven’t done for a while: surprise yourself.

RELATED: Bill Seitz’s Why Use a Wiki for Your Notebook.

UPDATE: As further recursion/iteration I found this old quote from Ward C. on c2.com: “[The] community has every right to be cautiously selective in what it will groom.” — which adds another layer into the Kate Middleton story. In StreamMode that becomes “Oops, oh well!”. In StateMode it goes in, and adds nuance.

UPDATE 2: Yes, the relationship of StreamMode and StateMode to the old wiki terms ThreadMode and DocumentMode is entirely intentional. What a commenter said long ago on the first wiki about ThreadMode adequately captures our modern predicament:

A good DocumentMode comment is easier for newcomers to understand than a ThreadMode one. Threads are full of transient misunderstandings and special cases. The important points don’t stand out well. And they are full of egos. The valuable content of Wiki ought to find its way into DocumentMode comments. It doesn’t, always.

Change that to “It doesn’t, usually.” and that’s where we are today.

9 thoughts on “What Iterative Writing Looks Like (and why it’s important)

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