I thoroughly enjoyed John Hagel’s post Stupidity and the Internet where he analyzed the implications of the book vs. snippet debate initiated by Nick Carr’s Atlantic article “Is Google Making Us Stupid?”. Hagel properly broadened the debate away from content format to encompass the social sphere:
But if the concern is about intelligence, thinking and the mind, then isn’t content just one small piece of the puzzle? Nick and many of the digerati who line up against Nick have one thing in common – they are content junkies. They consume content voraciously and care deeply about the form that content takes.
In the heat of debate, they seemed to often lose sight of the fact that most people are not content junkies. Most people use the Internet as a platform to connect with each other. Sure, they are exchanging information with each other, but they are doing a lot more than that. They are learning about each other. They are finding ways to build relationships that expand their understanding of the world and enhance their ability to succeed in their professions and personal lives.
I’m going to back the discussion up a half-step by pointing out that these online relationships are often, initially of a transactional nature. Information is being exchanged and the kind of information used as a “hook” to capture attention may be determinative to the trajectory the social relationship may take and the rate of information exchanged may determine if the social connection can be sustained. To simplify, we are discussing Depth, Breadth and Velocity of information:
Books, journal articles, blog posts and Twitter “tweets” ( 140 character microblogging) could have their relative informational and transactional qualities be represented on a simple graph. Books have the greatest potential depth but the least level of timely, qualitatively reciprocal, informational transaction for the author ( primarily gained from the relationship with the editor or a “sounding board” colleague). Peer review journals are next, with a narrow community of experts sanctioning the merit of the article or rejecting it for deficiencies that put the work below or outside the field’s recognized professional standards. Blog posts can potentially generate an enormous volume of feedback, though at the cost of a dramatically inferior “signal to noise ratio“. Microblogging services like Twitter have hyperkinetic transaction rates but unless used strategically ( for example, by Robert Scoble) or within an existing social network, they generate little other than useless noise.
Attention can be attracted by a clever “snippet” – particularly if the concept itself has ambiguity or nuance that would intrigue more people than if it were precisely defined – but the attention will not be held unless the author can sustain the flow of interesting material, something that requires depth of knowledge about a subject. Even better is to have depth in a subject along with breadth, the ability to think horizontally across many domains to spot emergent patterns, construct powerful analogies and distill a meaningful synthesis. In turn, pulling a willing audience of useful collaborators into a relationship around such intellectual pursuits hinges on first gaining their attention with a comprehensible simplification of complex abstractions and exhibiting a willingness to interact on a reciprocal basis.
It’s not a case here of “Books vs. Google”. Depth, breadth and velocity of information are interdependent and mutually reinforcing.