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The Imperceptible Mechanisms of Deep Community

7 minutes read

A history and a theory of the visible and invisible.

Everything visible is irrelevant.

Everything important is invisible.

I started noticing this about three years ago.

Every year for the past two years, I've hosted a weekend gathering for members of the Other Life community.

I don't think there will be drugs this year. I'm more into sobriety lately.

It's mostly writers, software engineers, some artists. People interested in reading, writing, independent lifestyles, technology, exiting institutions, etc.

It's not a big ambitious thing. It's not a "conference" with any overly serious mission. It's not a status thing or a publicity thing, and we usually haven't taken too many photos (though we should). It's never been a real business operation (I just try to break even).

My goal is just to have a relaxing, socially stimulating, and cerebrally rejuvenating weekend once a year for everyone in my community who is—like me, but in their own way—trying to set sail from the normal world of institutions and bureaucracies and megacorps and sin and sloth and conformity, in pursuit of freedom, self-reliance, creativity, and virtue on the frontiers of technological possibility.

And yet the experience, and the results that come from the experience, are always drastically greater than I expect them to be.

In this post, I'd like to advance a theory about how this works.

Why do small, informal, and private social formations often generate the greatest personal—and eventually cultural—impacts?

The Imperceptible Mansion
The annual meetup of the Other Life community. November 4-6 in San José, CA.
The next mansion meetup: We only have 3 beds left; request to book at the link.

Overcoming Algorithmic Polytheism

For a while, I thought the internet would save us.

Then I lived on the internet. I learned that the internet would not save us.

The internet is great for routing around institutional gatekeepers, but you're not really independent if you're aping into social media fashions or jockeying for attention on algorithmic platforms.

My thinking on this has evolved.

Obviously, I spend a lot of time publishing content and building an audience on public platforms.

I also think the contemporary moment for creators—defined by obedience to the style and content parameters of corporate algorithms—is only a short-term blip in the real long-term trend empowering individual creators.

Independent creators today, consciously or unconsciously, subscribe to a kind of algorithmic polytheism. If you publish words on Twitter, you're doing proof-of-work sacrifices to honor one unknowable god; if you publish videos to Youtube, you're doing different proof-of-work sacrifices to honor a different unknowable god. And so on.

When you're chopping up your thoughts, feelings, ideas, and observations into different templates and styles to please a bunch of different gods, you're not penetrating deeper into the one truth of our one world.

Call me quaint, ungrateful, or stubborn but I left academia because I have a real vision of what deep autonomy and mental independence should look like. I know what it tastes like, and we're not there yet. Creating on the internet is undoubtedly better than creating for institutional career advancement, but it's still just a truckstop on the way to where I see culture going.

I think we are nearing the peak of algorithm-optimized writing and creating.

There's a growing supply of anthrobots aping into every high-growth content niche with the same exact Twitter thread formulas and the same exact YouTube titles and thumbnails.

At the same time, people drastically underestimate how much alpha exists outside of algorithmically-selected Schelling points for content.

Deep Community

If you go too far off the beaten path of algorithmic consistency, you risk never being heard. You may never get enough cultural momentum to exist in any meaningful way. That is a real problem.

But if you're too good at algorithmic optimization, you risk building a large audience without saying anything particularly original or important. Not to mention, your domain of exploration becomes very constrained by the parameters on which you build the bulk of your audience.

A large audience grown fast is often a prison, to the same degree and for the same reasons it is also powerful and lucrative.

As I've participated in several public and private digital worlds in the past few years, I've solidified my own picture of what I think will happen next.

There exists a unique solution to the problems articulated above.

I think the solution is authentic, autonomous community, or what we might call deep community. At this point, community is something I know well.

I've experimented madly with different parameters—in person and online, paywalled and free, for fun and for shared goals. There are many private communities today, but most operate as informal little clubs or as normal business models.

I ran a free private Discord group for a while back in the day, but I also built a business grossing more than $100k/year on community-focused initiatives. Though I've only glimpsed the surface of private community at its finest, and only by accident really, I've seen enough to have at least one strong belief.

Private community done correctly is the key to generating original creative work with public impact while avoiding algorithmic enslavement.

"Done correctly" is the big question, but the basic logic is clear and demonstrable.

Creating original work for a few hundred or thousand aligned human beings, all of whom are themselves creating work for the same group, satisfies the social-psychological requirements for developing that work over time.

In a private community, one can earn the respect of others, receive feedback from others, gain stimulation from reading and exchanging with others, etc. With these supports, successful creators can go on to monetize in any of the numerous monetization paths available to creators today. These are all of the core structures that motivate and sustain traditionally successful public writers and artists but replicated privately.

While a private community can replicate the most desirable aspects of public intellectual life, it can also avoid the most undesirable aspects of today's public sphere. In a good private community, there is no convergence to the substantive and stylistic Schelling points of the megamachine.

In a private community, there is no stylistic or substantive template required for memetic survival. Or when such things emerge, as they eventually may, the templates will be distinct from the public templates, giving members of the group a distinctive countercultural signature when their ideas seep into the public. This is even better than having no templates.

The Imperceptible Mechanism

Here is ultimately the most interesting thing...

A small group of independent creators who work privately, in connection only to each other, in a disciplined ignorance of mainstream fashions and algorithmic selection criteria, will generate cultural content that will eventually be interesting and important to larger public audiences.

Why? The reason is that, at any given time, the public square is over-saturated with conformist repetition.

The algorithmic public sphere is constantly in need of original work incubated outside its own dictates; this is the life it consumes as grist for its mill. Real work incubated, originally, outside of algo-pressure, is ultimately irresistible within the algo-public, once it reaches some critical threshold.

Sometimes it will only cross the threshold as an object in itself. This is the classic genre of the subcultural exposé. But that's fine. It makes no difference in the long run how ideas trickle up. The truth always rises in the long run; it doesn't matter how.

The Other Life community is not well known. It hardly exists, in a sense.

And yet I've watched this pressure cooker produce more results than some VC-backed "community businesses," exactly as I described above.

I'm tempted to give a bunch of shoutouts and link to our most successful members' Substacks and books and podcasts and Youtube channels—as well as jobs gained and investment deals made thanks to these meetups—but it wouldn't fit the spirit of the piece.

My whole point is that I don't need to brag, and nobody ever needs to give us credit, for the unstoppable logic of deep community to continue functioning at full throttle.

Everything visible is irrelevant.

Everything important is invisible.

Perhaps the maximally generative community is unknown and unknowable. It cannot be named, it cannot be known, because it means nothing outside of itself.

Its only meaning is to function for its members. It is illegible to public categories and templates precisely because its wager is to ignore public categories and templates.

By enabling members to access the alpha of their own interior, and providing social-psychological support for sustaining their work over time, deep community tends to generate something worthy of public attention.

As soon as generating public attention becomes the focus or goal, the mechanism of deep community tends to break, like sand in its gears.

This is why I've started branding our community-based initiatives under the label Imperceptible.

If this made any sense to you, come to our third annual meetup in less than one month from today.

The Imperceptible Mansion

November 4-6, 2022 near San Francisco, CA


That's the actual place, by the way.

There are only 3 spots left, so we're eager to close registration this week, possibly today.

I look forward to seeing a bunch of you soon.


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