In a World of Lists . . . Flashback to 1997
The project was a joint publishing venture. My team was working with a team in Australia. We were combining our expertise to build a 200+ book program for kids learning to read and the teachers who teach them. Most of the books were little readers — 8-, 16-, 24-, and 32-page books, written with subtle supports for early literacy.
Two parts of my role as the head of the department were to ensure that the supports were there and that the content would “travel.” The first part called for an understanding of how kids interact with text to gain meaning. The second required knowledge of whether content and presentation would work in classrooms from logging towns in Maine, through the Bible belt, in the land of “fruits and nuts,” to our diverse city schools.
The program was on an educational publishing timeline, which meant a missed deadline would cost an entire year. When a book didn’t work, the manuscript to replace it had to be fit the program and educational standards, had to be of highest quality, and had to be executed quickly — solutions had to be elegant and practical.
That’s when I started to notice. That was the year I first called the words “content,” not a story or a report. 1997. That’s when I noticed something happening in my office was also happening on TV.
“Richard,” I said to a close friend (and educational publisher) in the U.K. “I’m worried about the future. I see a trend in the books we are making and on television. The easiest way to generate content is to build a list — The Top Ten Monster Machines. If you watch close enough you will see how we take one list apart, to make another. Making lists is so much easier and faster than explaining something, writing a how-to, or telling a compelling story. We’re becoming a fast-food content culture.”
I worried that kids wouldn’t learn to enjoy the connections of thinking long and deep. Richard and I revisited the conversation more than once. We talked about it for hours. Conversations like that are the bedrock of our relationship.
Flash Forward to 2007
When I woke up this morning, I found myself publishing on the Internet. . . . with a profile on StumbleUpon, Facebook, Twitter, and Ning, (and others I don’t get messages on.) I’m connected, and I connect people with each other and with information.
Most days it’s fun. Verbal volleyball can be a kick. When Twitter used the term, people, to mean friends for an Internet second, I got a chance to type, “I’ll have my people call your people and we’ll do lunch.” I’ve always wanted to say that.
Cute, but off the page and forgotten, rightfully so, minutes later.
For the last few days, I’ve been thinking about the realities of going wide and going deep. It’s hard to have the time and the bandwidth to do both. It’s hard to keep up with it all. Every day it happens at a slightly faster speed. The wider I go, the shallower I get.
How much can you say in 140 characters? What happens if conversations on voice media become Ims and text messages?
I could ask more questions like that, but I won’t. Instead, I’ll ask you to read those two questions again.
I don’t want 1,500 friends I say “Hi” to every day. If it took only 10 seconds to find each name and to type that one word, that would be more than 4 hours of not thinking.
Maybe it’s too many years of hearing about wasting time. Maybe it’s just my world view. A friend once said something about an onion. She said many folks do fine living on the papery surface. I prefer layer 17.
In the modern world, more alone than ever before. Demographics shout isolation in a crowd. In previous centuries, when extended families dominated the social landscape, a sizeable proportion of adults living alone was unthinkable. Lifestyle choices and advances in modern medicine have left us alone longer. Have we reached out to grasp as many connections as we can in response to feeling adrift?
We need relationships to function. How many and how deeply is the question.
Is it enough to know Liz is ___. Liz feels ___. Liz reads ___. Poke, nudge, smile at Liz.
Are infobytes all we need?
I’m slowing my speed and narrowing my focus. People aren’t items on a list.