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A Few Notes from Too Big To Know

by Tom Johnson on Dec 6, 2012
categories: technical-writing

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?

About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm an API technical writer based in the Seattle area. On this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, AI, information architecture, content strategy, writing processes, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out my API documentation course if you're looking for more info about documenting APIs. Or see my posts on AI and AI course section for more on the latest in AI and tech comm.

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