P&B: Toby Shorin
This is the 5th edition of People and Blogs, the series where I ask interesting people to talk about themselves and their blogs. Today we have Toby Shorin and his blog, subpixel.space
Toby is a writer, researcher, technologist, and co-founder of Other Internet, an applied research organization whose goal is to study and build social technology.
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Let's start from the basics: can you introduce yourself?
Hi, I'm Toby. I'm a blogger, a researcher, and depending on the day a designer and a consultant. I am also a lover, a reader, and many times a fool. My friends would call me an artist-founder. I co-founded an organization called Other Internet where I do much of my research and writing these days. I live in Brooklyn, NY.
What's the story behind your blog?
When I started my blog in 2015, I was working as a UX designer at my first tech startup job. I was very critical of the digital design field at the time, and I wanted to write in a way that would deepen design discourse. That gave me the name of the blog. Sub-pixels are a concept in image rendering, virtually calculated fractional pixel locations that can improve resolution and object tracking. I was referencing this to mean "there are sub-pixel 'values,' i.e. human values that are below the pixels that we should care about." My first posts were all along those lines, critiquing various products or design paradigms. Most designers were not particularly interested or receptive to my ideas, and the first posts weren't that good anyway. Eventually I met some people my age who were thinking about the same ideas as me. Many of them were centered around the Are.na community in NYC. At that time, I started thinking about more abstract topics, such as questions of culture and religion and meaning. I wrote a long post about astrology inspired by my new friends' astrology Slack channel, and more longform cultural analysis about aesthetics and major cultural trends. This is when I started to develop real techniques and ideas as a thinker, and set the foundation for my later work.
What does your creative process look like when it comes to blogging?
When I first started I got most of my ideas just from walking around downtown New York. The visual culture here is so intense that one can get an education by simply walking around and looking at what people are wearing, at what advertisements are depicting. When I started off, it was enough to simply ask questions about what I was looking at and then try to explain it from first principles. That method required collecting hundreds of contemporary culture references, which I could collect by simply being on the ground and noticing lots of things. You see the outcome of this in in essays like After Authenticity and Haute Baroque Capitalism. The more theoretical essays also required plenty of background research of course, but in the beginning I was inventing my own frameworks a lot of the time.
As time has gone on, I've asked larger questions with more historical roots. I've turned more to older reading material, especially from the history of philosophy and ideas. I've found that if I'm ever stuck and don't have good ideas, I usually just need to read more. I usually start having good ideas after I've read two or three new things, as long as they are strong pieces of work. As I've engaged more with older ideas, I realized that the most important theorists of culture, historically speaking, have been comparative literature scholars and philologists. McLuhan, Raymond Williams, Susan Sontag, Jung in the 20th century; before them, Nietzsche, Herder. At some point I realized that I am a kind of philologist like these thinkers, but the "texts" I am reading from include the ephemera of consumer advertising and snapshots of online discourses.
Do you have an ideal creative environment? Also do you believe the physical space influences your creativity?
I share a studio with some of those friends I mentioned, but do most of my writing at home. I circulate between 3 locations in my house: my desk, my kitchen table, and a comfortable chair in my living room. I am a fidgeter and a pacer. I stand up and sit down and walk around a lot when I'm working on a complicated idea. A whiteboard is also indispensable. Although I now live in a quiet part of Brooklyn instead of downtown Manhattan, I still find that aimless walks outside are productive for thinking. For digital tooling, I use Simplenote to capture ideas on my walks, typically document my research collateral in Notion, and use the mindmapping tool Simplemind when I want to arrange ideas. I also have a Remarkable tablet which has really brought new life to my physical note-taking habits. My newest tool is a digital voice recorder which I bought to record interviews. I should emphasize however that the most important thing in my creative environment is my books. I take notes in the margins of my books and that's part of the reason reading is so generative for me. Recently I read an interview with Randall Collins, a sociologist who has produced a number of pathbreaking and fascinating works, in which he stated that he believes it's important to own your own books for this reason.
A question for the techie readers: can you run us through your tech stack?
Subpixel Space is a Jekyll blog. I use Siteleaf CMS for front-end workflows. The blog is hosted on Mediatemple, which recently got acquired by GoDaddy (RIP). I've been paying them too much money for years, but I don't have the time to do a refactor and switch to hosting on Netlify, which is where my personal site and the Other Internet site are hosted. I ought to do that soon...
Given your experience, if you were to start a blog today, would you do anything differently?
The name Subpixel Space feels kind of juvenile to me now, and because Space is '.space'— the TLD—people often assume it is just called "Subpixel." I actually made this mistake twice now. Other Internet uses the domain otherinter.net, and people often call it "Other Inter." This always annoys me. I also made a lot of bad design decisions when I started the blog, so there's a ton of technical debt involved with cleaning up the codebase. I've become much better as a web developer (not that I do much of it these days) and have shipped more complicated projects with much less code.
Financial question since the web is obsessed with money: how much does it cost to run your blog? Is it just a cost or does it generate some revenue? And what's your position on people monetising personal blogs?
- Mediatemple: $240/year
- Siteleaf: $84/year
That's all it costs, but damn that Mediatemple bill grinds my gears. If you're wondering, you can deduct all this on your personal taxes if you have enough expenses to warrant an itemized deduction.
I think monetizing personal blogs is fine, I just don't generate enough content to do it. The common way to monetize writing now is a Substack newsletter, which I don't have for my own blog (we do have a company Substack). This isn't quite the same as blogging, in my opinion. Blogging is when you write on your personal site. To your question on what I might do differently if I started now: I might just have started a Substack. There are many advantages to doing so, and I don't blame any bloggers starting out who do it today. But I still encourage everyone to build their own personal site from scratch, by hand. It's cool to know how to build a website. It's cool to know a bit about how the web works. A hand-made website can be a better surface for experimenting with self-presentation than the opportunities we have in daily life. And if you blog on your website, all the better. There is nothing better than mindlessly wandering across the web and landing on someone's cool blog.
Time for some recommendations: any blog you think is worth checking out? And also, who do you think I should be interviewing next?
I'll point to 3 blogs. Earlier I mentioned Randall Collins. His blog, the Sociological Eye, is one I just discovered this year, and it's really good. Collins is getting up there in years, so make sure to give this one a read and archive it while it's still around.
My friend Chia Amisola is a prolific blogger and web artist. They write very intelligent and deeply heartfelt essays about a lot of things, like the internet and love and religion and games, but always structured by really incisive introspection and personal experience. Chia's blog made me cry more than once. They would be a good person to interview.
Lastly, the blog Carcinisation is a special one. The person who writes it has had a big influence on me as a writer and independent thinker, and in recent years they have dedicated themselves to analyzing the shell game of social & behavioral psychology. Those fields, along with behavioral economics, are the ones having a big replication crisis. Their approach to taking the fields apart is carried with such seriousness and such mirth at once you can't help but love it.
Final question: is there anything you want to share with us?
I just finished up a project and have a little bit of free space, and I'm thinking of building a library page. I've always admired people who keep a running list of books on their personal site. Boris Anthony and Christoph Labacher have really gorgeous sites for their collections. I've had a channel on Are.na for this for years, but I'd like to build one to go on my own website. I've never really built something very complicated using an API, so it's also an exercise in learning a new web development skill for me. I think it'll be a chance for me to give ChatGPT's coding assistance a try too.
Thanks for the interview Manuel!
This was the 5th edition of People and Blogs. Hope you enjoyed this interview with Toby. Make sure to follow his blog (RSS) and get in touch with him if you have any questions.
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