We also serve, who write and boost.

A blurred roulette wheel in motion. Image by Angelo_Giordano, CC0
Image by Angelo_Giordano, CC0

There was a time when I would read the whole internet, every day.

Oh, not all of it. But when Usenet — the internet’s first widescale social media — was bridged into Fidonet (a network of dial-up BBSes), my local free bulletin board system began to import several hundred Usenet newsgroups, updating several times per day. I would dial up to this BBS and read my way through all of the new posts on these groups.

Early on, this was easy. Then, as traffic picked up, and as more newsgroups entered the feed, it got harder. Then it got impossible.

Luckily, I knew exactly how to handle this: I relaxed. Rather than reading all the newsgroups, I culled the low-interest ones. Rather than reading every message, I skimmed — and backtracked when something caught my eye.

This was the method I’d already used in the past, when the local BBS’s own forums went from manageable to busy to firehose. The cull-and-skim method is part of the evolution of every communications medium: from deterministically reading everything posted to a probabilistic approach that assumes the good stuff will “bubble up.”

In the Usenet days, that bubbling up happened when a message would turn into a thread and then a mega-thread and then a brawl. Message after message would pop up, day after day, and that meant that if you missed the significance of the discussion in its early days, you’d get plenty more chances to glance over it and decide whether to give it more attention.

That pattern —trickle to firehose, determinism to probabilism — repeated itself over and over. Once, I read all of gopher; then, just the gopher sites that got heavily linked from other gopher sites. Once, I read every new website announced on Jerry Yang’s Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle (AKA “YAHOO”), then just the sites in categories that interested me, then, just the sites that got announced by more specialized directories.

Blogging formalized this process: the blogroll, the reblog, and the “via” link at the bottom of the post were tailored for probabilistic reading — add an RSS reader to follow the sites you discovered because you noticed that they were your favorite bloggers’ favorite bloggers and you were in business.

The moral panic over “aggregation” ran headlong into this practice. While there were (and are) sites that just do “write-throughs” of wire-service copy or newspaper articles for the purpose of diverting ad-revenue, these sites are marginal bad actors (and far less salient to news sites’ ad revenues than the ad-tech duopoly’s rigged markets).

The real function of blogging is to re-inject the story into the reader’s fast-moving attention stream, with context that explains story’s salience. A good rule of thumb for this “signal boosting” is to include enough context — quotes, summaries, analysis — to both inform the reader as to why they should read the story, and why they needn’t bother.

That is, a blog post should have enough detail to let a reader know that the underlying article that inspired it isn’t relevant to their interests and can be safely ignored — what Bruce Sterling calls an “attention conservation notice.”

It’s no coincidence that Twitter’s users — and not its designers and engineers — invented the retweet. In a probabilistic universe of ideas and arguments, the right boost is just as important as the idea that gets boosted.

Cory Doctorow ( is a science fiction author, activist, and blogger. He has a podcast, a newsletter, a Twitter feed, a Mastodon feed, and a Tumblr feed. He was born in Canada, became a British citizen and now lives in Burbank, California. His latest nonfiction book is How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism. His latest novel for adults is Attack Surface. His latest short story collection is Radicalized. His latest picture book is Poesy the Monster Slayer. His latest YA novel is Pirate Cinema. His latest graphic novel is In Real Life. His forthcoming books include The Shakedown (with Rebecca Giblin), a book about artistic labor market and excessive buyer power; Red Team Blues, a noir thriller about cryptocurrency, corruption and money-laundering; and The Lost Cause, a utopian post-GND novel about truth and reconciliation with white nationalist militias.