'My hit rate is good but not great' – Venkatesh Rao

The founder of low-fi website Ribbonfarm tells us how he made a career out of analyzing movements of the moment – from premium mediocre and domestic cozy to the internet of beefs.
Venkatesh Rao 16x9 hero

Maybe you've come across the concept of premium mediocre: food that Instagrams better than it tastes, putting truffle oil on anything, extra leg-room seats in economy. The idea that more people than ever before can indulge in ‘exclusive’ things that aren't, really, all that exclusive. Or maybe you've read about how online spaces are being taken over by ‘beef-only’ thinkers, as global culture quickly moves more closely towards a state of constant conflict. What about the rise of ‘domestic cozy’ and the ways it has defined a new Gen Z aesthetic, with every brand pivoting to self-care and marketing to cool young people who, even when they're not at home, want to feel like it? 

Looking up these cultural and business trends, you might come across a low-fi blog called Ribbonfarm, which doesn't look entirely dissimilar from Wikipedia but with memes and weird hand-drawn diagrams. It's run by Venkatesh Rao, an LA-based writer and consultant with an unconventional career path. Before becoming one of the leading public analysts of economic and social theory, he earned a PhD in aerospace engineering. He's written a book about decision-making and workplace dynamics as seen through the lens of TV show The Office. He carries out one-to-one work with business executives, acting as a ‘conversational sparring partner’ to stress-test and solve big challenges. Above all, though, Venkatesh helps ground trends in a larger cultural and historical frame. He shares deep dives into emerging cultural and business trends, as well helping to define what's coming next. With a cult online following, made up of people who like the internet best when it feels handcrafted, misshapen and idiosyncratic, Ribbonfarm has helped him turn trend forecasting into a real job. Even so, trying to capture and summarize his body of work is like trying to pin down smoke. Here, we give it a go.

Q. Ribbonfarm – what's the name about?

A. ‘Ribbon farms are a kind of long, thin, strip-like farm, many miles long, but only a few hundred yards wide, with one short end at a water source. I think they're French in origin and were a common pattern of land use in early Detroit, which was under French rule for a while. I learned about them while in grad school in Ann Arbor, near Detroit, and I was taken with the idea as a metaphor for individual writers seeking out their little patch of waterfront on the internet. I added the tagline ‘constructions in magical thinking’ in 2019. I wanted to reclaim the notion of magical thinking as a positive thing and use it to encourage myself and others to indulge more freely in wildly speculative and imaginative modes of thought.’

Q. Was this always the aim of the blog?

A. ‘I started the blog in 2007, but I didn't have an aim. I wrote about anything that interested me. I wrote about business and management because that's what I was up to in my day job, but I also wrote reviews of pop-science books about superstring theory and my own speculations on the nature of consciousness, history, psychology, mathematics and Harry Potter movies. I was all over the place and I kinda didn't care whether or not I met standards of competence to be talking about anything. Blogging has no gatekeeper, and I exploited that affordance to the hilt.’

Q. What kind of writing interests you the most these days?

A. ‘I've lost interest in the “how” of the world – how it works, how to make it work for you, how to succeed in life and your career. I'm in a good, slightly bored place with those kinds of questions. Sure, I'd like more money and I joke about trying to score a mansion, but I'm not going to kill myself trying to get those sorts of things. 

‘Those are the concerns of people in their 20s and 30s. Now I'm 48. I guess I'm more interested in the “why” questions now – about worth and value, why things are worth doing, what's good about life and so on. For better or worse, the “how” chapter in my own life is over. I've navigated my first act as best as I could, landed where I've landed and I've sort of made it work for me.

‘I'm not going to be much more or much less successful than I am right now, and I'm content with that. I'm no hermit, but I've never been particularly oriented towards wealth or social validation, and that's become more true with age. I'm down to an eccentric bucket list of things I want to try to do for the rest of my life. So long as I don't run out of money or starve, I don't have big ambitions in other directions. My writing is coming to reflect that sensibility, I guess.’

Q. People have referred to you as a gonzo economist. Do you agree with this nickname?

A. ‘Gonzo, perhaps; economist, no. For large-scale societal stuff, I think there's a great methodological divide between economic and sociological approaches, and I tend to fall on the sociological side – even on questions that seem like they're purely about hard-edged quantitative economics, like efficiency of markets or minimum-wage policies. 

‘For me, the most interesting thing about market efficiency as a topic is the sociology of specific distortions, like cronyism or nepotism. I kinda don't care about whether minimum-wage policies are efficient or not in a market-clearing sense. I'm more interested in the cultural question of lifestyle rigidity and its relationship to class mobility and wage rigidity. We have inflation going on now, but I'm more attuned to visible narrative signs that might be related to it than to interest rates or bond yield curves. I like to think of the role of economics as providing the easy but wrong first answer to get you started. 

‘I do like some economists and their ways of thinking, but I strongly favor those whose writing is strongly and explicitly framed by historical and sociological narratives. An example is Brad DeLong, who recently put out a great book, Slouching Towards Utopia, which – as it happens – takes inspiration for its title from a WB Yeats poem, by way of a Joan Didion sociological essay.’

Q. In the world of consultancy, you operate in a very niche space…

A. ‘Indie consulting – the kind I do – is a distinct subculture, and is sort of the top layer of the gig economy. Even though the traditional McKinsey-style consulting is on the decline – at least reputationally, if not economically – the indie kind is definitely on the upswing. 

‘My buddy Paul Millerd has written a great book called The Pathless Path: Imagining a New Story for Work and Life. It's about how more people are choosing what he calls unscripted, improvised, alternative careers, and independent consulting is one of the biggest alternative un-career patterns.

‘I fell into it through being visible and talking about consulting-fodder-type topics online. While my writing sometimes makes its way to other corners of the economy, like the art, entertainment or fashion worlds, I'm yet to make a dime from any of them. Which is surprising, frankly. My most well-known idea is probably premium mediocre, which got written up and talked about a lot in design and fashion circles, but I didn't get a single consulting lead out of it.’

Q. Some of Ribbonfarm's early posts achieved a kind of cult status. What were they about?

A. ‘I don't know if I can claim cult status in a world that's full of far bigger cults, but Ribbonfarm has definitely helped shape an interesting corner of online culture over the past decade – not just through me, though I've written most of the blog. There have been at least a dozen contributors over the years – Sarah Perry, Kevin Simler, Brian Skinner, Tiago Forte, Mike Travers, Kartik Agaram, Jacob  Falkovich, Mónica Belevan, Sonya Mann, Drew Austin, Renee DiResta, Artem Litvinovich, Joe Kelly, Taylor Pearson, Carlos Bueno, Jordan Peacock, Toby Shorin and several others – who've helped shape whatever impact it's had. 

‘And it hasn't been a homogeneous sort of impact. There are liberal and conservative views, monarchist and anarchist views, humanist and technocratic views, shitpost-y styles, academic styles, classic magazine styles. And this is a result of my deliberate curation, since I actively sought out contributors who are very different from myself. As we liked to say, the blog is deliberately illegible – a term from James C Scott's book, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed, that I think I can take credit for popularizing online. 

‘There was also the impact of an annual event I started in 2012 and helped run for nearly a decade, called Refactor Camp, which we wound up in 2019, whose alumni have spread out from the original scene and taken some of the currents of thought elsewhere. While many of them – like Sam Penrose, Darren Kong, Nick Pinkston, Harry Pottash, Deepa Shiva, Kyle Mathews, Zhan Li, Morgan Sutherland and others – never contributed to the blog itself, they played a very active role in the events, as well as the online scene that emerged around them on Twitter and Facebook.’

Q. The Gervais Principal, an essay where you considered office politics through discussion of TV show The Office, definitely went viral… 

A. ‘Before you ask, my reference point was the US version, not the original UK version. I think the US version is arguably better and inarguably much more developed, since it went on for many more seasons. 

‘The blog post turned into a huge viral hit – yes, as did all five sequels. I eventually turned it into a book. The six posts are now 10 to 13 years old, but they still drive a huge amount of my traffic.’

Q. What else drives traffic? 

A. ‘I've had one largish hit viral post every couple of years from 2009 to 2020. Some notable ones include A Big Little Idea Called Legibility, A Brief History of the Corporation, Welcome to the Future Nauseous, The Premium Mediocre Life of Maya Millennial and, most recently, The Internet of Beefs

‘I haven't had a proper viral hit since 2020, and this is kind of by design. I think the age of big-viral-hit long-form, built around memes and clickbait-y writing techniques, is over. The discourse moves along in much more subtle ways now, and I've consciously shifted my writing to what I think of as a cozy style. On the blog, I've gone into a very deep experimental mode, trying to work out new styles that fit the world of today better. This includes experiments with form as well as the content. For example, I developed a style of writing – an extended improvised series – that I call blogchains. For a while, I was experimenting with deliberately anti-clickbait, numbered headlines instead of catchy post titles. Some experiments work out, others don't, but I have fun doing the trial and error. 

‘Blogchains are now my staple form and a way to cast an idea into an anti-viral, anti-clickbait form. A big idea I had was the notion of domestic cozy, a natural sequel to my biggest recent meme and essay on premium mediocre. But I spent a lot of effort consciously writing it as a low-key underground blogchain rather than as a viral-intent big long essay, which would have been easy to do. Domestic cozy as a meme caught on, too, but in a different way than my more conventionally viral posts. In many ways, because it lacks the brash surface idea-drama, people took it more seriously I think, and many people credited me with anticipating the general trend toward cozy cultural trends.’

Q. You've said that Ribbonfarm and Refactor Camp are ‘more like an airport than a community’. Can you unpack this? 

A. ‘People pass through and maybe take some souvenirs with them. I like it that way. A place where people influenced and were influenced for a while. It feels good to see all the interesting things people have done after passing through this airport. I'd say several hundred people transited through this airport over about a decade, as more than just readers. These days I've gone back to mostly being a one-person show and the airport is sort of closed, but this more social chapter was a big part of the story.’

Q. Your writing isn't really about predicting the future in terms of when we'll see flying cars, etc. But you're good at seeing micro trends and behaviors developing more generally. 

A. ‘Ideas like flying cars typically reflect the narrow and shallow conceits of people who aren't doing anything interesting. They're more like consumers of the future, demanding certain products that they think they want. The future doesn't deign to arrive in the expected form factors of our fantasies. 

‘I also like to think in terms of forecasts rather than predictions – ranges of futures. And I like to do that by picking out currents in the zeitgeist, tracing them to their origins and thinking about whether they might grow into giant rivers or turn into marginal trickles. 

‘You have to think in the space of historical currents and be as interested in the past and present as in the future. They're not just dead data to extrapolate. They are live, settling narratives. Different ways of thinking about living history lead to different expectations of the future. History only dies when it no longer has any interesting effect on the future.’

Q. The middle class – how it behaves and where it's going, and what that means for business and culture more generally – is something that you come back to again and again. How come? 

A. ‘I think I have good instincts about where the middle class is headed because I'm extremely middle class in my sensibilities and I like it that way. I'm also not particularly imaginative, ambitious, risk-oriented or energetic, so I tend to follow the crowd along the path of least resistance, most of the time, when it comes to lifestyle choices. 

‘So, my own choices are often a very good indicator of which way the winds are currently blowing. If I'm feeling lazy and inclined to retreat from the world and do mediocre shit, chances are that laziness, retreat and mediocrity are generally on the rise. This is obviously a bold claim to make – a sort of extreme claim to neurotypicality – and, of course, in many important ways, I'm not a very typical person. But, in the ways that matter for larger-scale lifestyle trends, I'm right in the middle of many salient distributions. I'm a good middle-class bellwether of sorts. 

‘I like to imagine I'm like the Common Man in RK Laxman's cartoon in The Times of India. Every day for decades, the cartoon featured the figure of a bemused common man, silently witnessing the events of the day. Except I talk a lot. Upper-class and working-class cultures just don't really appeal to me. So, I have all my skin in the middle-class game.’

Q. The pandemic seems to have made quiet quitting and not taking work too seriously a priority for more people than ever before. What's your take on this? 

A. ‘I think the dust is still settling post-Covid, and neither the work-from-home revolution people nor the get-back-to-work employers are going to get 100% of their preferred outcome. I don't think it's the draw of work-life balance so much as a significant weakening in the ability of employers to manage in traditional ways and create satisfying work environments. I suspect people have had enough of domesticity and want the pendulum to swing back toward work, but employers can't figure out the right formula for the post-Covid world. 

‘There are two factors here. First, older in-person managerial styles simply don't work very well in virtual mode. Second – and this is the more important factor by a mile – the rewards of traditional careers are falling rapidly. 

‘Work is more demanding and stressful due to entrenched lean-operation models – the principle of doing more with less – running into extreme uncertainty calling for fat and surpluses. The relative attraction of home and work hasn't changed. Commutes suck but, for middle-class information workers, the office is a nice place in good times when work is fulfilling – often nicer than home life with its domestic pressures and thankless chores. And also nicer than the claustrophobia of local community life, though we don't seem to talk about this part much.’

Q. So, don't take the office for granted folks…

A. ‘Work is where we can explore and develop the most expansive aspects of ourselves. But when work gets too demanding, and there's no higher purpose beyond making money, you start to wonder why you're bothering. Why are you killing yourself dealing with the effects of wars, supply-chain crises and various culture wars? And all with an insecure, incompetent manager demanding that you come into the office because they can't yell at you properly over Zoom. 

‘You might be willing to deal with it all if your job is developing cancer drugs or space probes, but most jobs are simply not that inherently meaningful. We have to do meta work to construct meaning, by contemplating how our work fits into the broader world – and that meta work has gotten far harder. Is truck driving meaningful work? Well, it depends on whether you're delivering cancer drugs or Coca-Cola. Danish programmer David Heinemeier Hansson put it well in a December 2021 essay: burnout is often due to being under-purposed rather than over-worked. 

‘Our horizons have shrunk down to domestic scale – not because domesticity is suddenly more attractive, but because the world beyond domesticity has become temporarily less fulfilling and meaningful. But the fulfillment and meaning of domestic or even local community life aren't enough for modern humans. We all unconsciously look for ways to connect with the whole universe to the edge of what we can see. We remain the exploratory humans who first restlessly wandered out of a small pocket of East Africa. Just because the broader world is a tough place right now, it doesn't mean that we'll remain content with domesticity. Minds that have seen pictures of Pluto and black holes aren't going to be happy with lives that don't extend beyond the next pile of laundry or dishes.’

Q. Are we about to adopt a shorter working week, then, or start working fewer hours?  

A. ‘A three- or four-day week? That's the wrong question. Work, in the sense of paid employment with scripted time commitments, is an arbitrary category. I prefer to think in terms of time spent on non-domestic concerns. Most of us probably like the amount of time we typically spend on such concerns today, whether it's 35 hours a week or 100, and we'd be bored if forced to spend less time. The mix might shift from 100% job to, say, 50% job, 30% gigs and 20% entrepreneurial risks. But it'll all still be work.’

Q. How much do you work in a typical week?

A. ‘I haven't worked at a traditional job in more than a decade and I spend only up to 10 hours a week on billable work. But I think I still end up spending about 40 to 50 hours on work, more loosely construed, including writing, speculative thinking, reading, studying new subjects and working with collaborators.’

Q. You seem to be able to make sense of niche online cultures particularly well. Which behaviors or trends have been catching your attention recently? 

A. ‘I'm glad I manage to make it look that way, but I'm not actually very good at this. I have several younger friends who are way more attuned to the niche margins and I rely on them to spot and flag interesting things for me. In return, I let them make fun of me when I blunder into new cultural niches. 

‘I suspect what makes it look like I'm good at this is that I'm not invested either in preserving particular subcultures or exploiting them, so I'm able to look at them relatively dispassionately and get a sense of which ones are going to remain marginal and which ones might break through. My hit rate is good, but not great. Like everybody else, I sometimes let wishful thinking color my judgment: expecting subcultures I like to succeed and ones I don't like to fail. 

‘I think we're in a bit of a dead period with dull but serious things dominating discourse. Nothing's really popping. It feels like we're in a wait-and-watch period as everybody scans for patterns in the pandemic-mode exit pathways. We're still mostly in goblin mode, not yet ready to make culture again. With apologies to Mean Girls, there's a lot of trying to make “fetch” happen. The few things that have popped, like the Dimes Square scene, seem almost forced.’

Q. Dimes Square is a small pocket of lower Manhattan that skateboarders and fashion kids gravitated to last year, followed by many so-called tastemakers and influencers. It managed  to earn itself its very own reality TV show and nickname as the world's first-ever meme neighborhood. But, as with all online trends, the cycle burned short and fast. Dimes Square is no longer such a big talking point. Memes, on the other hand, are impossible to get away from. And this is something you covered a few years ago, in terms of how brands should embrace meme culture for their own good… 

A. ‘Oh, I think memes are done. It's all about vibes now. That might sound glib, but I mean it seriously. Meme culture was a specific decade-long thing that peaked with Harambe and has been in decline in terms of influence since. The Wojak and Chad extended universe ate the endgame. Wannabe memesters have to work too hard now, with edgelord dedication and risk-taking, to have an impact. The rising investment is also adding a kind of edge that makes them less playful than they once were. Memes are almost a kind of professionalized work now. 

‘Vibe-driven culture took root during the pandemic and will stay around for a while. TikTok was an accelerant and, to a lesser extent, Instagram. Memes still rise and fall, and Gen Z seems to have its own unique style with them, but they no longer drive culture like they once did. 

‘I think marketing has moved away from trying to ride social media phenomenology overall, and Elon Musk's acquisition of Twitter signaled the beginning of the end of traditional social media. The best marketers see this and are trying to re-engage with the fundamentals of the art. One of the most interesting results has been the growing interest in lore, which first emerged in the crypto world and post-extended-universe movies [Marvel Cinematic Universe, DC Extended Universe, Star Wars, etc]. I wrote a series of essays about that, called On Lore. Think NFTs on the one hand and [TV] shows like The Mandalorian, Andor and She-Hulk: Attorney at Law on the other. 

‘The common factor is getting away from epic narrative modes and focusing on the interstitial micro-narratives and background world-building elements. AI-generated prompt-engineered content is going to feed into this and drive it faster in the coming years, and NFTs are going to emerge from the valley of disillusionment as a much more powerful medium. Artists who blend AI and crypto elements are particularly worth watching right now. They're inventing the future of marketing as we speak.’

Q. You've noted that online culture is in ‘an arms race between bullshit and intelligence’. Who's winning that one? 

A. ‘I'm optimistic. I think intelligence is winning, in particular by retreating to more cozy, shard-like cultural contexts. The big bullshit amplifiers, like virality-based technologies and advertising-clickbait-based media business models, are on the decline. But there's a cost to this victory. It's getting harder, perhaps impossible, to create what feels like global modes of consciousness, whether you're talking Christianity, communism, or Coca-Cola. Instead, we have a rapid divergence of streams of mutually unintelligible and incommensurate culture and meaning-making. The Tower of Babel that was the early social web has collapsed. Decentralized and divergent culture is upon us.’ 

A version of this article was first published in Courier issue 50. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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