Sharing ideas, work and knowledge used to be an extremely novel concept. It is now increasingly accepted as vital for community recognition and distinction for businesses. We publish all types of information online, but the sharing of ideas, thoughts and insights is arguably the most fundamental and imperative form. With the pervasiveness of sharing, its current manifestation is quickly becoming the lowest common denominator. Our standard methods of sharing are quite old (in internet years) and improvements upon them are yielding diminishing returns. The thought leaders and evangelists of ideas who fostered the sharing environment will likely push sharing to its next step. I believe the focus of this next step needs to be on behavioral and technological improvements allowing shared ideas to more easily grow beyond their initial form and also empowers communities to participate in the process.
With the wide adoption of the blogging platform, information and content soon was distributed at a rate previously unseen — and absolutely free. When content was sparse and costly, the simple act of freely offering rough ideas or stream-of-consciousness thoughts online appeared transformative and altruistic. This new method sure felt like sharing. However, simply distributing free content is not necessarily sharing. For example, a lot of published content is created to fill a perceived demand rather than a need or void. Publishing what we think will be popular rather than what we think will be useful exaggerates the problem of noise suffocating signal.
Many of the ideas we share online do not exist in the rich, collaborative environment experienced through even a simple in-person conversation. We have a lot of people discussing ideas online (through blog comments, Twitter, etc.), but they often seem far too disparate, shallow and individual in nature. If sharing is the equivalent of a dialog, we have all been giving our monologues simultaneously — often times only for the sake of hearing ourselves talk.
The blogging platform has been one of the main drivers of information distribution. Strangely, in the ever-changing environment of the internet, the blog as stayed surprisingly unchanged through the years. Blogging was, and still is wonderful for its original intention — a tool to record a log of thoughts. However, the blog format has become the de facto standard for a much broader swath of online publishing and sharing. Due to this reality, we share ideas that have fleeting lives. Blogs emphasize the new as opposed to the good or promising and therefore create little incentive to improve, edit and evolve our ideas. Steven Johnson has a great talk on where ideas come from. In that talk, he mentions how history shows that ideas need time to incubate. A system where an idea loses relevancy over time is not going to be a strong platform for growing ideas.
The blog also does not allow a method of collaboration where ideas or hunches are able to change an idea’s form from anyone or anywhere. The importance of ideas shared on a blog are highly skewed towards the original publisher which lowers the possibilities for an idea to grow in an organic fashion, the way it so often does. Currently our main platform for sharing resembles a podium when what we really need is a coffee table.
We all have our interests and we love to talk about them. We should not stop discussing the subjects we are interested in, but we should be cognizant of whether the information/ideas/experiences we distribute are useful (rationally or emotionally) to those consuming them. This is not to suggest limiting what we publish, but greater clarity must be provided for what we feel is worth people’s time and what may ultimately be just noise. If we are interested in truly sharing ideas or work, we need to craft the communication of our ideas in the service of the greater community; allowing them to engage with them and contribute to their improvement. Otherwise, we are simply listening to ourselves talk.
This new model of sharing is as much about community organization as it is education. Truly sharing ideas online needs to involve some transfer of ownership from the original publisher to a community willing to help foster it. There needs to be an effort by the individual sharing the content to foster an environment where co-ownership is not just encouraged, but expected. Improving sharing online has to focus on the magic that happens collectively after an idea is created and distributed out to the many — which means being open to having it take a new structure altogether. To that point, it is vital that what we share is at a fidelity and level of accessibility which enables others to easily take some level of ownership and grow the idea beyond the the initial form.
Interestingly, a lot of people are now questioning whether our needs have outgrown our tools. We need tools to allow ideas to exist outside of the ordinary stream of information we consume in order to have the time to grow. We need ways to create richer and more direct collaboration rather than a series of directed monologues acting as a makeshift conversation. We simply do not have those tools.
I believe that nuggets of thoughts or ideas need their own platform to truly be shared, discussed, derived and improved in a collaborative, yet consistent location. I immediately think of the various source control solutions as an interesting starting point. In many ways, software products are the collection of ideas from various people. Some ideas are the culmination of a single person, others are ideas which were iterated on by various people at various points in time. All the large and small contributions (through creation, removal or editing) result in a final product. Could an idea be formed in a similar manner? Could thoughts be committed, updated, branched and/or rolled back by a group of people committed towards generating a larger idea? In a sense, we are doing these types of actions at this very moment, but in a very disparate and unorganized method. Would a tool which helps streamline and organize this process help good ideas grow into great ones?
The Chicken and Egg Dilemma
The movement of sharing ideas online has won. Barring some unforeseen and radical shift, information will continue to be easier to access and still very free. Now that we know sharing is not going away, we need to focus on improving how we do it. I think people are hungry to take that next step in how we distribute and collaboratively grow ideas online. Pragmatically, I think the largest impact can be made by improving the tools we use to publish ideas/work online. I would love to attack this from a hearts-and-minds perspective, but without better tools, it feels empty. Once those better tools exist, we can have the philosophical discussion about the best way to use them.