March 2021: sensemaking about sensemaking

An experiment in research speedrunning

Hello again. I got a handful of new signups from the romanticism post last month, so hello for the first time to you :) Just to warn you, this newsletter has no theme at all and has always been pretty variable in quality. I use it as a kind of habit anchor for writing, where I always at minimum get out this one thing per month. Sometimes this spins up energy for more writing that then spills into blog posts, sometimes it doesn’t.

Right now after a looong winter of lockdown it generally doesn’t. At the beginning of the month I read C Thi Nguyen’s excellent blog post, A story about COVID depression, cooking excitement, and then a clam, where he talks about

… losing that weird obsessive aesthetic fire that always usually drags me along through my life. Like normally there’s something – some new music or cooking project or book – that I’m simmering with interest in. But that’s been more and more distant. Without that life is a slog.

I relate to this a lot. I’m used to always having this ‘weird obsessive aesthetic fire’ turned on, and right now it’s just not. Or at least it’s much dimmer… like it’s still possible for me to get interested in things, but I have to work hard to get there, it doesn’t just happen for free like normal. I’m hoping that spring weather and slightly loosened lockdown restrictions start to fix that over the next month or so.

[Edit: I wrote this post last Saturday, and since then we’ve had several days of sunny weather, I’ve been outside longer, and I already feel a lot better. So I’m more optimistic now about being able to think again soon.]


I did write one blog post this month, using the speedrun format I’ve been experimenting with where I set a one hour timer and see what I can find on a topic. This time the topic was ‘sensemaking’, a term I’ve been confused about for a while:

I’ve been seeing the term ‘sensemaking’ crop up more and more often. I even went to a workshop with the word in the title last year! I quite like it, and god knows we could all do with making more sense right now, but I’m pretty vague on the details. Are there any nuances of meaning that I’m missing by interpreting it in its everyday sense? I have a feeling that it has a kind of ecological tinge, group sensemaking more than individual sensemaking, but I could be off the mark.

Also, what’s the origin of the term? I get the impression that it’s associated with some part of the internet that’s not too distant from my own corner, but I’m not exactly sure which one. Time to find out…

This speedrun went really well, definitely the best one I’ve done yet. The topic also interested a lot of people so it had a very high effort:reward ratio for a blog post – 90 minutes tops of writing and minor edits, and lots of helpful responses. I was roughly correct with my ‘ecological tinge’ guess: sensemaking is supposed about how groups of people come to build narratives and accounts of their experiences. The roots of the term are in organisational studies, particularly in the study of how people interpret and respond to disasters, whereas the modern subcultural version has taken this in the direction of the chaotic information environment of the online culture wars. This does look like a potentially enlightening connection.

The main thing I was still confused about after finishing was how strong the link between the academic field and the internet subculture was. At one end of the scale you’d have an organisational theorist directly starting a Youtube channel or something, and at the other you’d have a very weak link where the subculture just borrowed a resonant word from an otherwise unrelated discipline. I’d already realised during the speedrun that the link was stronger than this weak version, with considerable overlap between the terms, but wasn’t very clear beyond that. Jake Orthwein was able to fill in some of the missing context on twitter – discussion starts here and goes down a couple of rabbit-hole threads of replies and clarifications:

I also got MANY links in a blog comment from Benjamin Taylor with more background context to follow up.

I’d have to do a lot more research to really understand the history myself, but at least I know where to start now. That’s the main idea of the speedrun, to quickly situate myself in a new area.

Finally, I also liked this idea from @stubborncurias, of sensemaking as a communal attempt at worldbuilding, but from inside the world:

Next month

¯\_(ツ)_/¯ who knows at this point. I will do… some things.

One thing I might potentially want to do is play around with another speedrun. The format itself interested a few people, and there was a suggestion of running an event based around doing this:

If anyone would like to try this, let me know! Already have a couple of takers on twitter.