A Note About Notes
A form beloved by seventh graders and the internet
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Different mediums create conditions for particular kinds of media to thrive. The novel is a specific form that took hold after the invention of the printed book. The pop song is a specific form contingent on the constraints of 20th-century recording technology. The multi-hour interview show is a specific form made possible by podcasts replacing broadcast radio, and the binge-worthy scripted drama is a specific form that evolved as streaming replaced cable.
Sure, you can write a book chronicling your stream of consciousness with no narrative through-line, record a continuous 11-hour chamber music composition, or make a feature film with a single act instead of three, but don’t be surprised if they go unnoticed. The exceptions prove the rule that fighting a medium’s conditions is like swimming against a riptide.
What specific forms thrive on the internet? I’ll leave it to other digital naturalists to compile an exhaustive list, but I can present one for your consideration: notes.
Yes, notes, like the kind passed between middle school classmates. Notes are short. You’ve got to be able to fold them into a paper airplane you can throw to a friend when the teacher isn’t looking, or, you know, fit them into a tweet, adapt them into a TikTok, or post them as an Instagram story. Notes are about one thing, although they can be about anything: gossip, advice, ideas, doodles, quotes, lists, questions, insults, insights, etc.
Notes are written for specific people, not for everyone. You write notes to friends, crushes, enemies, and frenemies, but never to some abstract “audience.” Often, the more specific your note, the farther it travels, because there are other people like your friend, crush, enemy, and frenemy on the internet, and they will feel like it was written just for them. Whether you’re on Reddit, iMessage, Discord, Gmail, YouTube, Notion, or Mastodon, the internet is a place for passing notes—a giant note router. Substack was onto something when it named its new social media feed “Notes.”
And that brings us to another key feature of notes that helps them outcompete other forms online. Notes are for passing. A note is written to be shared. It might be profound, ephemeral, intimate, sly, funny, or maddening. It might be polished or raw. But the whole point of a note is to travel from hand to hand, mind to mind, heart to heart. You read it and you pass it on.
If you want to swim across the San Francisco Bay, it’s a good idea to track the tides and currents. And if you want other people to read what you write, it’s a good idea to investigate the forms that thrive in your medium of choice. You don’t need to adhere to these conventions, but understanding them gives you the power to dance with them instead of being ruled, or ruled out, by them.
Because I’m writing it for the internet, this is a note about notes. I hope you find it passable—worth your time, and worth sharing with others who might find it useful.
Eliot Peper is the author of 10 best-selling novels, including Bandwidth, Cumulus, Veil, and, most recently, Reap3r. He also works on special projects and tweets more than he probably should. The best way to follow his writing is to subscribe to his newsletter.
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This is a great framework, thanks for sharing. I’ll pass it on :)