A Few Notes from Too Big To Know

Too Big to Know


After my last post, I thought I should start reading Weinberger’s Too Big to Know. I liked his previous book, Everything Is Miscellaneous, and so far this one is engaging too.

In Too Big to Know, Weinberger talks a lot about knowledge, and how the Internet changes what we know. He says that if the scope of our group is large enough, as is the case with the Internet, there’s usually someone out there with the right knowledge. This is the major advantage of the network — not that real-time collaborative thinking is so great, but if you have a large enough group, there’s usually some person who knows the answer. It may be 1 person in a group of 500,000, but sometimes that’s all you need.

This simple fact makes a lot of sense to me. Weinberger doesn’t necessarily celebrate collaboration. American culture tends to corral us into an idea of group-think. Everything is done in groups. From school to the workplace, we work in teams, brainstorm ideas together, hold meetings to discuss problems, and so on.

In Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking (another fascinating book I’m working my way through), she debunks this group-think mentality and cites study after study proving that people who work alone get better results — better insights, increased productivity, more successful decisions, etc.

The group dynamic, in which you pull in 20 people to discuss a problem, fails on a number of levels. The most talkative person tends to lead the group down the wrong path, Susan explains. The introverts may be pressured by the extroverts into solutions that aren’t well-thought out. And in large groups, responsibility is so distributed that it becomes diluted to the point of evaporation.

If you’re a long-time reader of my blog, you’ll remember that I became disillusioned with crowdsourcing and collaboration earlier this year and threw in the towel on wikis. (In case you missed it, see my journey to and away from wikis.) But Weinberger’s point about the network (at least in the chapter I’m reading) isn’t that we all need to collaborate on teams because two heads are better than one. His point is that if enough people are involved in the group, even if each member is working independently,  chances are likely that some person will have the right answer. The larger the group, the greater your chances for including someone with the correct knowledge.

Now, let me consider a related point, applying this idea to tools. I read the other day that 2 million new blog posts are published daily to the Internet. The other day I noticed that technical problems related to WordPress that I searched for several years ago with luck now have abundant answers and solutions. And it’s just getting better and better. With 2 million new posts each day, at least someone out there must be writing about problems relevant to me, or about the tools I’m using.

Another post I read said that 22% of the active new domains in the U.S. are powered by WordPress. If that’s the case, then no doubt a tremendously high percentage of the people publishing daily posts to the Internet are written by WordPress users. Many of these people not only post information about WordPress, they also create plugins, themes, and other WordPress hacks that provide solutions to problems I encounter.

Now here’s a thought. How much time do you spend working with your authoring tools on technical tasks? What if your authoring tool were the same one powering 22% of these active new domains? If so, no matter what your issue, wouldn’t it be likely that someone out there has already created a solution, whether it’s a plugin, answer, technique, or hack, to a problem relevant to you?

Adobe RobohelpMadcap Flare

By Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer working for the 41st Parameter in San Jose, California. I'm interested in topics related to technical writing, such as visual communication, API documentation, information architecture, web publishing, JavaScript, front-end design, content strategy, Jekyll, and more. Feel free to contact me with any questions.

11 thoughts on “A Few Notes from Too Big To Know

  1. Neal

    Is this just an idea, or is this the start of a series of posts describing how to use WordPress as a documentation tool?

    I ask in all seriousness, because I’m evaluating doc tool options and I haven’t seen WordPress as a viable option.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Neal, I’m currently exploring whether it’s feasible to author in one tool (such as Flare, Robohelp, DITA, or something else), generate an HTML output, and then import the HTML output into WordPress repeatedly (without creating new pages with each import). I have a method that works, but installing WordPres in an SSL environment with proxy server constraints and other issues has turned out to be more difficult than I imagined. So stay tuned. Maybe it will work, and maybe it won’t.

      1. Mark Baker

        Somewhere on the to-do list for the SPFE Open Toolkit is a publish to WordPress plugin. My strategy, however, would be to generate SQL to load directly into the database.

        One could similarly harvest comments via a SQL query and tag them to the version of the topic they applied to, to keep things in sync.

        There are various kinds of tracking that WordPress does not support through its interface but which could be implemented by accessing the database directly.

  2. Laurie Nylund

    I didn’t read this as a suggestion to start using WP as a doc tool, though I guess that would be an interesting topic to explore. Instead, I found myself shaking my head in agreement through the whole idea that a “team” is not everything its cracked up to be.

    As a former engineering manager, I know it was often more effective to gather ideas individually from people first, letting them think through our conversation, and then cycling back through with them again. Instead of the more common “kick-off” meeting that can end up as a free-for-all (or just a bunch of people passively listening to what the “boss” said, I wouldn’t gather people together until a bit after the project actually started, suggest the accrued ideas and then “present” the various paths as more a facilitator. I could call on specific people to elaborate–because otherwise the quiet ones rarely spoke up. That way we could get beyond the squeakiest wheel ideas, and still riff on the possibilities as a group to hone in on a good path going forward. But I can attest that the more people involved the harder this is to accomplish. I had teams ranging from 3 to 60, and less was more in many cases. And this made pairing up a tester or a developer with a writer on a path that they were already bought more effective in the long run.

    I will definitely check out the books you mentioned, Tom, and as always, I really enjoy your blog as you often give me a lot of food for thought.

  3. Larry Kunz

    Tom, it’s easy to say that the right answer is out there somewhere. The problem — and I know you know this — is finding that right answer and, once you find it, distinguishing it from the avalanche of competing answers.

    The situation becomes even murkier when, unlike the example of a WordPress plugin, the answer isn’t a clear-cut, true-false proposition. I’m thinking of questions like “What’s the best way to avoid the fiscal cliff?” or “What leadership techniques work well?” As you continue reading the book, I hope that Weinberger will address this need to curate information.

    Meanwhile, even with all their shortcomings, crowdsourcing and collaboration perform one very useful function: the best answers tend to bubble up to the top. Not every time, and not always in a predictable way, but often enough.

  4. Mark Baker

    Larry, this comes back to the long tail. The long tail is messy, but the answer is in there somewhere.

    If I decide to deal instead with curated sources, many of those sources will not include the information I want — curation is expensive, and always driven by an agenda.

    So if I use curated content, I have to curate the curators. If I access the long tail, I have to curate the results myself, or through my social network, but either way I have to curate, so why curate the curators when I can curate the long tail for myself?

    The fact is, we don’t trust the curators, and we have the tools to curate for ourselves — thus our preference, as Weinberger says, is to include it all, filter it afterwards.

    Yes, curation is necessary, but now we have to tools to curate for ourselves, and we curate better for our own needs than the professional curators. Thus writers need to move away from curating content to providing content that is easy to curate.

  5. Marcia Riefer Johnston

    Tom, I look forward to hearing more from you about this book. Its subtitle alone endears it to me: “Rethinking Knowledge Now That the Facts Aren’t the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room.”

    Not “is in the room.” Is the room.

  6. Cathy Arthur

    Hi Tom,

    I just finished’ Quiet’ and found it very illuminating, and your post is most interesting. If I may comment on your statement

    ” she debunks this group-think mentality and cites study after study proving that people who work alone get better results — better insights, increased productivity, more successful decisions, etc.”

    I think it is more that introverts – people who are have a preference for thinking things through thoroughly and deeply – should not be overlooked. Current western culture particularly values loud and talkative over quiet and reflections. Yes, mostly the resarching and thinking is alone, but introverts can function quite nicely in the extrovert culture. The tricky bits are making the time to reflect, research and investigate AND speak up at the right time.

  7. Pingback: Everything is too much | one man writes

  8. Vinish Garg

    I feel that we evaluate a new tool for documentation (such as WordPress), the general tendency is to start with its shortcomings (what it cannot do) rather than listing down the *possibilities*.

    I have used many HATs and I used Arbortext Editor as well. WordPress may not be an optimal solution to begin with but it does not mean that it is ruled out right away. I have considered it and I talked about it in my post: http://enjoytechnicalwriting.com/2012/06/06/wordpress-as-technical-documentation-platform/.

    At present, I am using helpiq.com (A WP based authoring environment), for documentation of a credit repair business in the US. The more I explore it, more I am convinced that we can really scale up WordPress for an *effective* (not the best) documentation tool. I am also working on documentation for an LMS marketplace based in London, and we are using WordPress for developing the knowledgebase.

    HATs such as RoboHelp, Help & Manual, Doc-To-Help and of course Flare may be popular but these too have some limitations. So is true with WordPress (such as XML support though my associate is optimistic to find a workaround for that as well). The key is to weight down the pros and cons of a platform for our specific requirements rather than a general matrix of comparison.

    1. Tom Johnson

      Vinish, I want to talk with you more extensively about WordPress as a tool for documentation. I just haven’t had time. I hope to get to his later in the week. I don’t think the table of contents feature is the showstopper. What’s difficult is the security flags that WordPress produces. I can’t get my security group at work to buy off on a wordpress solution due to security issues.


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