My Information Diet

I’ve told you what I think of the book. Now I’d like to examine my own information diet, as part of my personal process of rethinking it.

Google Reader

I am not someone who gets a lot of emails on a daily basis–I’m simply not that popular. So for many years, Google Reader was my primary dashboard for information consumption on the web. Social media has grown in relative importance, but I’ll go into that a little further down.

Reader is still my first stop when I wake up in the morning. I think of it as akin to the old habit of reading the newspaper in the morning before work–except that I have complete control over the composition of that newspaper. I even have my own comic section, made up of the webcomics I have found since I first discovered the form back in High School.

I’ve been using Reader since 2005, but my subscriptions look quite different from what they were then. For one thing, there is no longer any politics folder. The closest I get to politics are the DC blogs I read who cover some of the politics in my city, and the econ bloggers who occasionally comment on national policy debates. I also read a lot more about technology than I used to.

One of the nice things about Reader is that it provides me with data about my subscriptions.

For instance, the total number of subscriptions I have, as well as their output in terms of individual “items” (usually a post from a blog) over a 30 day period. Brace yourself, it is a lot.

That is an average of 262 items per day; though in general that means a lot more on week days and a lot fewer during the weekend. That’s a lot of items, and I don’t think that this would be a good information diet for most people. But I think this works for me. I may be rationalizing, but for the vast majority of those nearly 8,000 posts I just glimpse at the headline of to see if it’s something I’m going to be interested in, and then move on. There are a few blogs that I will give more of a chance to absolutely anything they write–usually people I know personally or very interesting but very low output writers.

Just look at how few of them I actually click on–388 items. While this isn’t the best measure of what I actually read, since some feeds give me full posts without having to click through, it’s a decent proxy for the bigger producers. It’s only around 13 posts a day, a far more manageable number. I would say the true number is probably more like 20-30 on average. Of those, maybe 5-10 are of any great length.

The producers of content are highly concentrated; there is a power law distribution across my subscriptions.

The top ten highest producing subscriptions account for an average of 191 posts a day; about 73 percent of the total items in my Reader account per day. The main value of Reader, in my opinion, is for following those other 199 subscriptions, which may update less than once a day, maybe even less than once a week or once a month. I don’t have to go to them to see when they’ve updated; their updates come to me. So if I wanted to think about scaling back, the top 10 subscriptions would be the place to do it.

By far the biggest producer is The Verge. An average of over 50 posts per day! This fluctuates depending on what’s going on in the tech world; when I looked at it a few weeks ago they were around 40 posts per day. Most of the posts are what Clay Johnson might call empty calories; quick updates about the tech industry that don’t have much additional content beyond a company announcement or the latest rumor. I have no problem skipping over nearly all of those posts, though occasionally I’ll find one to be interesting.

I’ve written elsewhere on what I like about The Verge’s general approach, but I’ll summarize it here briefly. I have followed the main cast of characters there since they were the head editorial staff at Engadget, and I think they get what it means to be at the heart of a web community. I enjoy listening to their podcast, as much for the personalities of the people as for the specific things they talk about. I trust them not to bullshit me. And I like that they invest in writing long form, visually rich feature pieces on quirky topics like this one.

As part of the process of rethinking my information diet, I’ve contemplated whether there’s a more fine-tuned way to approach my subscription to The Verge. They have RSS feeds for specific topics, for instance; I could cut down on some of the stuff I’m less interested in. But the fact of the matter is that I like being exposed to a broad swatch of technology topics, and I don’t think I’m sacrificing all that much to do so.

I did take all of the top 7 producers out of any folder to stand on their own, so that my other subscriptions wouldn’t be buried by sharing a folder with them. I also learned years ago that the only healthy way to use Google Reader is to give yourself permission to just click “mark all as read” when you don’t feel like going through everything. Breaking out the big produces allows me to mark each of them as read more easily while leaving the smaller, individual blogs that I like to look at later.

io9, Boing Boing, and Lifehacker are about equivalent in their output, and I did think about whether I wanted to unsubscribe to any of them. But when it comes to the cost of subscribing to them, it’s the same story as it was with The Verge–I find it nearly effortless to skip over all the stuff that doesn’t look like it’s going to be of interest. And when I hit a gem on any of these three, it’s usually something really good. For instance, this very interesting post from io9. So I think these are still keepers, at least for the time being.

The Daily Dot I’m less confident in. It’s a perfectly fine publication, but most of the things they cover I am either not interested in, or I’ve seen covered elsewhere. I really only started following it because I wanted to keep an eye on what my friend Lauren, who writes there, was up to. Acknowledging this, I unsubscribed from the main feed and now am subscribed to her feed specifically. That takes it down from around 19 posts a day to more like 3; few enough that I can just shuffle it off to my Media Analysis folder.

Those are the big ones. Before writing this post, I also unsubscribed from ReadWriteWeb, since I felt their quality had been on the decline for a while and most of what they cover is already covered by The Verge. They were another big producer, so that helped. Another way that I improved my information diet was to cut out MG Siegler from it entirely. That decision was inspired by two episodes of Triangulation: the interview with Clay Johnson, and the interview with Gina Trapani. Gina said that the tech blogosphere often seemed like one big male pissing match. Afterwards, I read this post by Siegler and just decided I did not need to invite that kind of crap into my life.

Podcasts

Back in 2008, I took a job that was in Columbia, Maryland, which was a 40 mile drive from Vienna, Virginia, where I was living at the time. Shortly afterwards, I started grad school, the night classes for which took between an hour and a half to over two hours to get to from my job, depending on which campus the class was on and how bad traffic was. Oh, and I started seeing someone in Washington, DC.

In short, I spent an enormous amount of time driving, and podcasts became not only a big part of my information diet, but an important part of keeping up my quality of life. If I hadn’t had my podcasts during those long days on the road, I would have gone insane.

Nowadays, I’m living in DC with my fiancée, I’m done with grad school, and I took a job in Fairfax City–still about a 45 minute commute, but not nearly as insane as it used to be. My podcasts are still an essential part of my commute. I’m pretty proud of this part of my information diet; there isn’t a single podcast here that does anything but enrich my information consumption experience.

I use Downcast for the iPhone as my podcatcher.

Pictured here are four of the short story podcasts that I listen to. Podcastle and Pseudopod are part of the Escape Artists podcast family; a nonprofit group of three podcasts that post a new story each week. They specialize in fantasy and horror respectively, and the third podcast, Escape Pod, specializes in science fiction. The Drabblecast is a weekly weird fiction podcast that I started listening to more recently, and it is a lot of fun. The Dunesteef Audio Fiction Magazine is less consistent in its updates, but I enjoy it in part because it is just a couple of friends who decided to get together and start putting out a short fiction podcast. They don’t focus on any one genre, and the conversations after the story give it the feel of hanging out with two friends you’ve known your whole life.

I recently wrote about Scott Sigler, the man who pioneered the podcast novel. There was a time when most of what I was listening to on my commute were podcast novels, and I still follow Sigler’s as he releases new installments each week. There are also a couple of authors I’m looking forward to seeing podcast novels from, such as R. E. Chambliss, who is working on a sequel to her excellent fantasy novel, Dreaming of Deliverance.

The H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast is just fantastic. Each week, the co-hosts and occasional guest discuss one of Lovecraft’s works, which they have been going through in the order that they were written for nearly three years now. I started it by going through the archive at the rate that I was capable of reading each story and then listening to the episode. I’ve been caught up for a while now, and really love the show. It’s like a free literature class in my car that I can partake of whenever it’s convenient for me. It also has the same element as the Dunesteef, where the co-hosts are good friends and their conversation is fun to listen to.

I started listening to Econtalk back when I was taking a class taught by its host, Russ Roberts. This is brain food of the highest order. It is ostensibly about economics but in practice discusses just about every intellectual topic under the sun. I am a lot smarter for having listened to it for the last four years.

And then there are my tech podcasts. Back in the day, I considered the Engadget Podcast to be essential listening for my week. The exact same cast of characters now hosts The Vergecast, and it still has the elements that I loved about its predecessor. But I’m at a point now where I give myself permission to just skip the tech podcasts some weeks, especially if I’ve been catching up on fiction. I don’t really listen to TWiT at all unless there’s some special topic they’re discussing that I want to hear their take on. I’m a fairly faithful TWiG listener, and I pick and choose  which Triangulation episodes I listen to based on who is being interviewed.

Social Media

The various social streams that I’ve set up on places like Twitter and Facebook are a big part of my web experience.

Of them all, Twitter remains my favorite.

I follow a lot of people; 531 at this moment. I treat Twitter as my index of interesting people with of many different backgrounds and viewpoints. I don’t feel the need to stay current with all or most, or even a large minority of them. The “mutual follows” – people who I follow that follow me back – is a much smaller core of people, and the people I talk to the most number maybe 15-20. I make use of Twitter’s lists feature to occasionally check up on them specifically.

I love Twitter, I really do. I have made more new friends on Twitter than I have any other single place on the web. There’s something about the structure of how conversations take place there that is just wonderful, and difficult to explain to people who aren’t using it. There’s a lot of serendipity as well; people respond to things you didn’t expect them to, or suddenly two people you follow are talking to each other and you hadn’t even realized they knew the other existed.

The other big social network I use is Facebook.

I used to be very wary of Facebook, back when I first joined it. I think I deleted my account three or four times before I finally embraced it. The event that crystallized it for me was when I was in a friend’s wedding a few years ago. Afterwards, everyone who had been in the wedding party friended one another and started sharing pictures of the wedding. I suddenly saw just how useful Facebook could be.

I have since customized my Facebook experience to make it work for me. Most of the stuff I post goes into groups rather than the main feed. My favorite is a group I created with my friends and siblings to talk about video games, science fiction, art, and general geek things. We have so much fun there that we’ve all been bringing in more and more people to join in. My experience in that group is, to my mind, the pinnacle of what social media is at its best.

A much smaller part of my social media activity happens on Tumblr.

Part social network, part publishing platform, part feed reader, I like Tumblr’s style. I don’t follow very many people on there, but I have found a few fun artists that post there to follow.

Finally, there’s Google+. I was excited about it when it came out, but to be honest, I don’t really spend time on it any more. There are a  few very specific reasons I haven’t abandoned it entirely:

  • The integration with Google Reader makes it effortless for me to share stuff I find interesting there.
  • There are a handful of people I like interacting with who are still very active there, and that’s the main place I end up talking to them.
  • Robert Scoble once put me in a suggested circle – with 400 other people – therefore I have four times as many followers there as I have on Twitter. Hard to resist the pull of attention.
But it’s a vanishingly small part of my information diet.

Offline

The biggest non-web portions of my information diet are books, TV, and movies.

I don’t watch as many TV shows as I used to. My fiancée and I will occasionally find a show to watch through on Netflix, and we’ll usually be following one or two shows that are going on right now. For the life of me I can’t think of any that didn’t begin by watching the first seasons on Netflix or Hulu, though. In general I am a genre guy; I like my science fiction, fantasy, and horror. But truth be told I haven’t been as up on it lately as I was in, say, college.

We occasionally go out to the movies and generally try to find a movie to watch on Netflix, Amazon, or TV Friday or Saturday night.

I read a lot of books. This has always been true, especially back when I was working at Borders. And since I got a Kindle last year, it’s been that much easier to get and read books.

And I do find it much easier to read on the Kindle than to read on a computer or even to read a physical book. It is much lighter to hold and much less unruly than a real book – there’s no accidentally losing your place – and lacks all the distractions that the computer comes with.

The kinds of book I read range from…well, The Information Diet and books like Here Comes Everybody, to the Dresden Files books and other genre fiction. I don’t think the book part of my information diet really needs any work.

Major Lessons from the Book

The most important thing that I took from the book had less to do with the content of my information diet and more to do with the time I spent on it. I definitely get into the bad habit of checking things compulsively. In particular, my email, Google Reader, Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. One thing I am going to set out to do is create bigger buffers between when I let myself check for updates.

I also did decide to scale back on some of my RSS subscriptions, but ultimately I think I’m in a healthy place with them. They don’t rule my life, and I’m content to mark all as read and miss what I miss.

Reading the book made me think that it would be a good idea to do this sort of audit of my information diet. I did make some changes, but not many drastic ones, which has me wondering if I’m too close to it. So if you’re still with me, these 3,000 words later, I’m asking: do you think I should make any changes to my information diet? Am I information obese?

Information, Food, and Democracy

I am a skeptic on the subject of food diets but have been a true believer in the information diet for a long time. I am pretty sure that Clay Johnson had the opposite sort of reader in mind when he wrote The Information Diet.

As I read the book, I kept thinking of things I wanted to respond to and aspects I wanted to explore. But in the spirit of restraint which the book embodies, I will hold myself to just two posts – an overview of my own information diet, and this broader response.

Information Mania

Back in 2004 I was extremely into the political blogging scene and thought that all mainstream news was utter crap. My reasoning was pretty straightforward – bloggers actually linked to things in order to provide context. They didn’t pretend to be objective; they wore their ideologies and biases on their sleeves. The distorting news cycle that mainstream media operated on, and the narrow perspective they approached everything from, drove me crazy. I excluded it from my information diet as much as possible.

I had family members and friends who I could see develop a kind of mania as they followed more traditional news outlets. They didn’t want to talk about anything but politics. They made blunt statements that were insulting to anyone who disagreed with them, under the assumption that no one did, and were genuinely surprised when it turned out this assumption was wrong.

The section of Johnson’s book where he talks about his relationship with his Uncle Warren, a Fox News faithful conservative, really touched a chord with me.

The conversation, viewed from the outside, couldn’t have been considered coherent. It was just an explosion of nonsense—two grown men shouting at each other about taxes, gun control, and healthcare, with some perfectly good turkey between us. That Thanksgiving, Uncle Warren left early, and things haven’t been the same between us since.

I myself came right to the brink of such a fallout on several occasions. Of course I realize now what Johnson has also realized; that my own behavior and my own information diet were part of the problem. I fell into an “us versus them” mentality and I selected for blogs that fed into that. Despite adamantly refusing to affiliate myself with either political party, I was still drawing a line in the sand; my people against everyone else.

It was extremely bad for me. It made me unhappy and dissatisfied, and every so often I would become downright unpleasant company.

I was right about mainstream news, but was unwilling to recognize that the problem was not the medium but the type of content. Since I considered myself a part of the new media crowd, I didn’t give new media as critical an eye as I did traditional media. The only exception was the critical eye I turned to those blogs of a different point of view.

I’m still a techno-optimist and I still think that most news is crap, but I have come to realize that there is a lot more crap on the Internet than off of it. This is because there is a lot more of everything on the Internet, good and bad. The digital age gives the producers of crap some new, powerful tools that they didn’t have before, as Johnson describes:

Even more than television, Fox routinely tweaks the news on the Web to make the news more palatable to its audience. Even when it takes content from other sources like the Associated Press and puts it on its website, the organization tweaks the headlines to make them more attractive to its conservative audience. The AP’s story “Economic Worries Pose New Snags for Obama” turned into “Obama Has a Big Problem with White Women.” “Obama to Talk Economy, Not Politics, in Iowa” turned into “White House Insists Obama’s Iowa Stop for Economy, Not 2012.” And “Malaysia Police Slammed for Cattle-Branding Women” turned into “Malaysian Muslims Cattle-Brand Prostitutes.”

Fox isn’t about advancing a conservative agenda. For its parent, News Corporation, it’s about the dollars. Fox changes these headlines on the Web not because it has an agenda, but because people click on them more, meaning that more advertisements can be shown, and more money can be made.

So I have, for some time now, agreed with the general proposition that the information we consume has an effect on us on our emotional and intellectual state of mind. This is an idea that is old and familiar to me, and it is a crucial part of the story told in The Information Diet.

But it isn’t the whole story.

Food Morality

Something else that is common among certain members of my family and friends is the propensity to moralize on the subject of food.

A lot of the time, this centers on the “obesity crisis” or “obesity epidemic”; something that is apparently a very important public health issue. An uncle of mine once assured me that it was only a matter of time before national life expectancy began to fall as a result of this problem.

The food moralist’s story is a key piece of the story that Johnson wants to tell in The Information Diet. Consider the following:

Today, 13.5 million people die each year of heart disease and stroke, and 4 million from diabetes-related complications–far more than die in automobile accidents. heart disease is now our number one killer, and it takes more people to the grave in the United States in five years than all our war-related deaths combined. Instead of dying from the cold of winter, we find death in cholesterol.

The way this story is framed is at odds with my understanding of the material progress that has been made in developed nations over the last two hundred years. But I didn’t want to just dismiss it out of hand, so I went to see if the known facts were what I had thought that they were.

The following are the facts, as I understand them, with links to primary sources.

First, my uncle’s comment aside, life expectancy has been rising consistently for centuries. It’s been rising more slowly in the last few decades than it was, say, right after the discovery of penicillin. Nevertheless, it has continued to increase. I understand that the past is not prophecy; it could start to decline. But it hasn’t so far.

But what about the specific risk factors of being obese? What about heart disease and stroke? After all, as Johnson points out, “heart disease is now our number one killer.”

Just because something is the biggest relative cause of death does not mean that it is a bigger problem than it used to be.

According to the CDC, “Overall, death rates for heart disease and stroke have decreased in the United States in recent decades.” They hasten to add that “rates for incidence and death continue to be high”, and to talk about how it is higher among some socioeconomic groups than others. But they don’t include a breakdown of whether those higher rates have increased or declined – a number I would be very interested in seeing.

According to the American Heart Association, “From 1997 to 2007, the death rate from [cardiovascular disease] declined 27.8%” and “the stroke death rate fell 44.8%, and the actual number of stroke deaths declined 14.7%.” Not only is the stroke death rate down, the actual number of deaths is down despite the larger population. This is not the rate at which people who contracted these diseases died from it – this is the number of people that died of these diseases per 100,000 people in the overall population.

This 1997-2007 period is squarely in the middle of the 1990-2010 period that Johnson cites as one of enormous growth in the obesity rate. People were getting fatter but the things that they are at higher risk for was killing them less often. This is hardly finding “death in cholesterol”.

Now, these are just the death rates–it could be that the incidence rate of heart disease and strokes has increased, but medical science has advanced so far that it’s actually overcompensated and the number of people per 100,000 in the population that actually died of them decreased. And I’m not saying that it’s a good idea to be overweight, or that you can eat nothing but chocolate for three meals a day, seven days a week. Obviously dietary choices have health consequences; a friend of mine knew someone in college who ate nothing but ramen for a month and actually ended up getting scurvy.

I just don’t see the smoking gun here. This is no existential threat, no “crisis”; this is a lot of people eating in a less healthy manner than a physician would probably recommend. But they are still, on average, living longer. In particular, the things that overweight people are at risk for are killing them less often.

I believe that what we eat is a personal and quality of life issue, not a moral one. Some people may have less energy and feel bad about themselves because of the kind of food they eat regularly. On the other hand, some people may be happy eating food that they enjoy but being overweight to some degree. There are trade-offs to be made, and everyone must weight those trade-offs for themselves.

This disagreement over whether food is a moral issue or a personal one is paralleled in the conversation about information.

Saving Democracy

Johnson does not just want you to fix your information diet for the sake of self-improvement. He wants you to do it because he thinks it will be good for democracy.

The role that information plays in influencing politics is complicated and difficult to measure. It’s something that my father thinks long and hard about over at The Fifth Wave.

Johnson appears to hold to what I would describe as the traditional progressive hypothesis: the more informed the governed, the better the quality the governance in a democracy will be.

once you lose the fluff and start really seeing what’s going on, new priorities arise that require new tactics to accomplish.

He recognizes that there isn’t a straightforward relationship between the amount of information available and policy outcomes. For instance, he spends a whole section taking down the notion that mere “transparency” is actually effective at holding policymakers accountable.

Like the calorie counts from food, transparency is ineffective at arming the masses unless there’s a strong will in the public to arm itself with the knowledge of how this information affects us, and how to effectively read the metaphorical labels. People will be no less obese—and no less ignorant—unless they have the will to consume less of the stuff that’s bad for them, and more of the stuff that’s good for them. While transparency can help the problem, it alone cannot fix it.

Admitting that mere transparency isn’t enough to achieve mass enlightenment does not mean that Johnson thinks such enlightenment is impossible, however.

He then offers a laundry list of how you can make a difference, ranging from the kinds of problems you should focus on:

My plea to you is to start sweating the small stuff at the expense of some of the big stuff. Washington isn’t the land of vast, radical changes, it’s a battleship waiting to be nudged in the right direction.

Nudges such as:

If you’re worried about federal spending and the budget, don’t concern yourself over the debt-ceiling debate. Work to change procurement laws so that government can get access to the same things the private sector has without paying an arm and a leg. We spend so much time figuring out what programs to spend money on, comparing their priorities to one another, and blanket cutting them when they’re deemed too luxurious. It’s the equivalent of trying to lose weight by cutting off your legs. Optimizing how government spends its money is at least as important as figuring out what our money gets spent on, and there are real, pragmatic solutions to getting there.

There are also tools available to us, and tools yet to be made, that can help us do the job.

We can also improve our government without waiting on government to act. Organizations like PopVox.com, for instance, make it easier for people to translate what they want their representative to do into the language our representatives speak. There’s a whole world of technology out there waiting to be used to help members listen to their constituents, and it’s likely—now that much of our discussions about politics are public—that we don’t need government to act: we can build tools that listen to what people are already saying, make that information public, and question our elected officials when they’re voting against their constituencies.

I’m not denying the value in what he’s saying, I just really wonder how much exhortations like these are going to make a difference.

I don’t pretend to any special knowledge on the relationship between information and politics, but it seems to me that when you write a book encouraging people to have a nice, balanced, reasonable information diet, it encourages people to be nice, balanced, and reasonable. In my admittedly limited experience, it is rarely the nice, balanced, and reasonable people that move history.

I keep going back to the circumstances where policy or norms moved in a direction that I, personally, consider to be good. For instance, when the web rose up against SOPA and PIPA and managed to get those bills tabled. In my opinion, it wasn’t the well informed, reasonable people that made that happen. It was Wikipedia and other major websites going dark and essentially sending the message “STOP SOPA OR NO MORE WIKIPEDIA/LOLCATS FOR YOU”, lighting a fire under the typical web user to get pissed off in their representatives’ direction.

Or a much more important example, the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King and the student activists of the 1960’s were not just nice and reasonable people, they were extremely shrewd about the media of their day and the rhetoric that they used. They picked their battles very carefully to have the maximum emotional impact.

That is what I thought of when I read the following line in The Information Diet:

As much as I’d like to use the political skills I’ve learned in the past 10 years to drive a traditional campaign, doing so would go against the principles of the book.

Call me cynical, but I tend to think that if the problems that Johnson thinks are solvable do get solved, it will be because some very effective propagandists and rhetoriticians get behind it. It won’t be because people are suddenly more reasonable and informed, and decide en masse to get behind the solving of practical problems.

That’s just my instinct. It doesn’t help that I went to a grad school that distinguished itself in the field of Public Choice theory, which tends to make you skeptical of the notion that a more informed populace translates into better policy outcomes.

I should also say that I’m skeptical of the hypothesis that things are so much worse and so much more polarized than they were in the past. I think the fact that we all share this big information space called the Internet means we’re exposed to the loud and angry among us much more than we used to be. I also think that technological change and an increased overall wealth now allows us to support the Fox News’ and MSNBC’s–the Krispy Kreme donuts of information intake–rather than the bland mass products of old like CBS News. But I don’t really think those bland mass products were any better for us.

A Book Worth Reading

So I don’t really think a good information diet is going to save democracy, but I do think that there are big benefits to be had by taking the time to scrutinize your information diet. Johnson made me think not just about the content I consume, but the amount of time I spent obsessively checking for updates.

The Information Diet is, for me personally, exactly the kind of meal I need to have more often in my own information diet. It challenged my perspective on a number of margins but was reasonable and inoffensive while doing so. More than anything, it made me think. It also introduced me to interesting tools like EveryBlock.

I really can’t recommend this book enough. It’s only 160 pages long and very well written. I got more out of reading it than I have from books three times its length.

Once you’ve read it, I recommend Darrell Huff’s classic How to Lie with Statistics as a good companion piece. It’s even shorter than The Information Diet and is an excellent guide to sorting the sense from the nonsense.

Scott Sigler’s 1,000 True Fans

Four years ago, Kevin Kelly wrote a post describing how creators could achieve success in a small niche. He called it the 1,000 true fans strategy.

A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author – in other words, anyone producing works of art – needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.

A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can’t wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.

The point is not that you specifically need 1,000 of them, but that a small number of these true fans can be enough to let an artist make a living. Seeking to cultivate such fans is a far more reasonable goal than trying to ride a blockbuster to the head of the tail.

Some information recently released by writer Scott Sigler reminded me of Kelly’s post.

Few people have invested in building up their fan base the way that Sigler has. He pioneered the podcast novel years ago, giving away his book in weekly audio installments. He has a website which fans can register on in order to comment on specific posts and episodes, interact with one another on the forums, and even update a wiki about his science fiction universe. Whenever someone signs up on his site, he gives them a shout out in that week’s podcast. If you post a lot on his site, he will include you as a character in one of his books–usually a character that meets with a grizzly end, which his fans eat right up. He also has a very active presence on all the major social media, and responds to the fans who engage him there.

He has reaped the benefits of investing so thoroughly in his fans. First, he got a book deal with the small publisher Dragon Moon Press. That book managed to rocket up the Amazon rankings on the strength of his fans’ promotional efforts alone, which then secured him a book deal with major publisher Crown.

However, Sigler has continued to publish his Galactic Football League series independently, without any backing from Crown. He and his business partner, A Kovacs, started Dark Overlord Media for the sole purpose of publishing the first book in the series, The Rookie. They published a high-end book with a lot of extra goodies and charged a steep price–more than $30.

They pulled it off, and have continued to publish the successive books, iterating their approach each time. They’re now on their fourth book and have hit on a formula–determine the number of physical books to be printed based on pre-orders, and after the last physical book has been delivered, only offer digital versions. This minimizes the financial risk to them–they only print as many as there’s demand for–but you have to have pretty devoted fans to pull this off, since they have to pay the money well before the product even exists.

The post that made me think of Kelly’s 1,000 true fans was this one by A Kovacs:

It took us fifteen hours to sell 1,000 copies of THE MVP. Fifteen is not a lot of hours:

  • In 2009 it took us 13 days to sell 1,000 copies of THE ROOKIE.
  • In 2010 it took us 6 days to sell 1,000 copies of THE STARTER.
  • In 2011 it took us 3 days to sell 1,000 copies of THE ALL-PRO.

Do they ever say “the fourth time’s the charm?” If not, I might start saying that myself; try and make it a thing. Scott and I have been very happy with our year-over-year performance, but I won’t lie: it is some kind of wonderful to be able to move 1,000 copies of a premium-priced, plushed-out hardcover in less than one day.

The books cost $34.95, so Dark Overlord Media just basically made $35,000 in fifteen hours. Certainly, you will have to subtract the cost of printing from that, and certainly, since Sigler has a partner it won’t all go to him. But you can bet that they continued to sell more books after those first fifteen hours, and that this isn’t the only source of revenue they have going in.

One of the crucial changes they made this time around was to include a free digital copy of the book for anyone who purchased the hardcover. In fact, 2011 saw a big shift in Sigler’s digital strategy in general; he started offering more small purchases in the Kindle store, like this short story collection which started off at a promotional price of $0.99 in order to get him more exposure on the Amazon rankings.

I was curious how much of a difference ebook sales have really made to his bottom line, so I asked.

His answer surprised me.

I expected that ebooks were a big part of his success in 2011, I did not expect that they were already the majority of his company’s revenue.

I think this is in large part because it helped what true fans he had to promote him to more marginal fans. As Kelly explains:

This small circle of diehard fans, which can provide you with a living, is surrounded by concentric circles of Lesser Fans. These folks will not purchase everything you do, and may not seek out direct contact, but they will buy much of what you produce. The processes you develop to feed your True Fans will also nurture Lesser Fans. As you acquire new True Fans, you can also add many more Lesser Fans.

Every so often, for instance, Sigler’s big publisher Crown would discount the digital version of one of his books they had published, often without even letting him know. When he noticed, he would announce it to all his fans across social networks and his own site. This was a call not just to pick up the cheaper copy for themselves but to let others know about the discount; people who might not otherwise have made the plunge to buy the book are much more likely to do so when it’s going for a dollar or two. This in turn helps him build up his fan base yet further.

All in all, Sigler should serve as inspiration for creators who are trying to find their place in the new digital landscape. You don’t even have to make it as big as he is in order to make a decent living. And then you’re living the dream of making a living off of your creations; what more could you ask for?

 

My Love Letter to Video Games

When I was maybe three or four years old, my mom would drop me off at the house of a woman that would watch me for the day. She had two sons, who were a lot older than me. The younger of the two, who was maybe 9, figured out a really clever way to keep me distracted. He would turn on his Sega Genesis, hand me the second controller, and promptly start playing a one-player game. I was convinced that I was doing something, so it felt like we were playing the game together. He continued to encourage me like I was really accomplishing something. It was pretty clever.

It wasn’t long before I had the opportunity to actually play.

Gaming in Green

In kindergarten, the system I was constantly exposed to was the Gameboy. It seemed like everyone had one but me! Of course, in retrospect, I don’t think many of my classmates had one at all. There would be one or two of them people had brought to SACC after school and we would huddle around them and hope the owner would let us have a turn.

I can’t remember if it was for my birthday or for Christmas, but I got my Gameboy, the first system I ever owned, when I was just five years old.

 This was so long ago and I was so young that I get the chronology kind of screwed up in my head in terms of what games I got when. Based on the year that I got the Gameboy, I’m pretty sure my first game was Super Mario Land. I definitely remember playing it, getting stuck on specific parts, and doing them over and over until I finally advanced or ran out of lives.

The last level in particular game me trouble. In it, Mario is flying around in an airplane–in space(?)–where he fights some alien who never really made it to King Koopa level infamy.

I acquired a ton of Gameboy games when I was in elementary school, ranging from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II, Tetris, Looney Tunes, and Link’s Awakening, the very first Zelda game I ever played.

The game I remember with the most nostalgia is Super Mario Land 2: The 6 Golden Coins.

There was this sixth grader, Tron, who had it. We would all sit around Tron and watch him play, and sometimes he’d let someone jump in. I wanted it. I wanted it with the intensity that only a little boy who has fixated on something can muster.

It may be a little sad, but I will probably never be as excited about any material thing ever again as I was when I unwrapped a present that Christmas and discovered it was that game. Not because the game itself was so intrinsically amazing, but because I was a 7-year-old, I wanted it so badly, and I got it for Christmas.

My grandparents got me the game on Christmas Eve. I was much more eager to start playing the game than I was to find out what other presents I was getting. So when I woke up Christmas morning, I just started playing it, and assumed that my parents would come get me when it was time to get up. Well, my mother noticed my light was on and popped in to tell me to go to sleep, because it was three in the morning.

I can’t think about the joy I felt about Christmas as a kid without thinking of what it was like to get and play that game.

After I got back to school, Tron was still playing the game, but he was stuck on one part–the Space Zone. Which I just so happened to have beaten over the Christmas break. He couldn’t believe that some kid was better at the game than he was, so he made me prove it. So, I did.

Nintendo Fanboy

I got the next game in the series when it came out (“it’s the first game ever where you get to play the bad guy!” I told my dad with excitement, “yeah, that sounds great” he replied with dripping sarcasm). With it, my grandmother got me a subscription to Nintendo Power magazine. It had the next to last installment of a Super Metroid comic miniseries, which got me hooked right away.

I read every single issue of Nintendo Power for years. It was, in fact, the only magazine that I ever had a subscription to.

That magazine was instrumental in turning me into the kind of gamer that I would be until I was in college. There were PC gamers, and the Sega and Sony faithful. I did play the occasional PC game, such as Age of Empires and Starcraft, and I would play other consoles at my friends’ houses. But for many years I was a dyed in the wool Nintendo fanboy; and I never owned any other brand’s console. In retrospect, Nintendo Power dished out a lot of what was basically propaganda, and I ate it all up.

When I was 9, my dad got the opportunity to do a stint at the embassy in Paraguay the following year, so my parents wanted me to start learning Spanish. My incentive for reaching a certain goal (memorizing “Cultivo una Rosa Blanca“, and explaining what it meant) was that my parents would get me a Super Nintendo. Needless to say, I made damn sure I met that goal!

It came with Donkey Kong Country, which I found particularly exciting because Nintendo Power hadn’t just covered it, they sent a video promoting it!

I played a ton of SNES games over the years. There was Mortal Kombat II, Street Fighter II, Earthworm Jim, ClayFighter, Super Metroid, and many more. While we were in Paraguay I ended up unwittingly acquiring three games that were Paraguayan-made fakes. The first was the original Super Mario Kart. I could tell something was amiss, as the box was entirely in Japanese except for a bit on the back which read “To be sold exclusively in Japan” or something to that effect. The game was entirely in Japanese–but I played the hell out of it anyway.

The others were Toy Story, and Earthworm Jim II. The latter was the real tragedy, as it just did not work right. I had borrowed a friend’s copy and really wanted one of my own, but the thing just glitched out after a few minutes.

The Nintendo 64 came out right around the time that we would be coming back from Paraguay, so I started saving up my allowance. I opened my very first bank account in order to buy the N64. I was 12 years old at the time and needed to make it some sort of joint account with my mom for it to even be legal. But I saved up enough eventually and the N64 became the first console I bought with my own money.

I explored every nook and cranny of Mario 64.

Nintendo Power sent me another promotional video, this time about Starfox 64. It was really laughably ridiculous, and to my great joy I found several copies of it on YouTube:

The Rumble Pack: “A FEEDBACK DEVICE THAT LETS PLAYERS FEEL THE GAME!”

Which really just meant that it vibrated every so often in response to something that happened on the screen. I’m not ashamed to admit that my 12-year-old self watched that video like five times in anticipation of getting the game.

I had seen the original Starfox played by the older brother of a friend of mine–we used to sit and watch him play games all the time, back before I had a Super Nintendo of my own–and I still hold a special place in my heart for Starfox 64. The nature of the game was such that there were a bunch of different paths you could take to beat it, and I eventually explored them all. I played it again recently for the first time in years and found that I could still beat it in less than an hour. Like riding a bike.

Another favorite of the N64 era was Super Smash Bros, arguably one of the most original fighting games in its mechanics. Sophomore year in High School, a couple of guys I knew from school would come over to work on our Government class project. Instead of working on that project, we listened to Adam Sandler tapes and played Smash Bros. Those two guys are both going to be groomsmen in my wedding; so the game has a bit more sentimental value than most for me.

The game that is inextricably linked with the N64 in my mind is The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.

Zelda Throughout the Ages

The very first Legend of Zelda game I ever played was Link’s Awakening for the Gameboy. Which is funny, because it’s a very peculiar game in the franchise–for one thing, Zelda isn’t in it, at all! For another, the Gombas of the Mario universe make a random appearance. Regardless, I absolutely loved the game, though it took me forever to beat.

Even more than Mario, the Legend of Zelda franchise acts as a reference point for every console I’ve ever owned. The only exception is the Super Nintendo; I did play A Link to the Past but many years after I got the console, and many, many years after it came out.

I can’t even remember how far back rumblings about Ocarina of Time started. All I remember is the teaser screenshots that Nintendo Power seemed to offer what felt like every month for years. Consulting Wikipedia, it seems I’m not exaggerating–it was teased in 1995 and didn’t come out until 1998.

Getting Ocarina of Time was the second most excited I’ve ever been to get a game, after Super Mario Land 2. Once again, I got it as a Christmas gift.

I have a distinct memory of my dad coming down to the basement, Christmas Day, and watching me play it. He commented on how amazing the graphics were. Of course now it all seems so blocky compared to what came after, but that memory of my dad’s remarks are like a snapshot of one moment in the progress of gaming graphics.

There was something about Ocarina that just captured people’s imaginations. I’ve seen people argue that various Zelda games were superior in one or more dimensions, and most of the time I get where they’re coming from. But Ocarina just had some quality that’s hard to put your finger on that made it fun, that makes people want to go back and play it all over again. And what gamer of our generation doesn’t instinctively feel hatred at the words “Water Temple”?

Many years later, the summer after I graduated High School, I used it to get my friend Kelly into gaming. She was content to watch me play through it to begin with, as she enjoyed the storyline. Then she had a go at it.

I think every gamer at some point in their life has the experience of trying to get a non-gamer into it. It always starts out incredibly frustrating, because everything that seems obvious and intuitive to you turns out to have been something completely learned, and the only way to learn it is with experience. There is no quick way to gain experience, so you watch as they walk off cliffs or respond to some new stimuli in a way that seems completely inexplicable to you.

Kelly crossed the threshhold, and became one of my closest gaming buddies. These days, she’s gaming a lot more than I am. In fact, she’s played the latest Zelda game, and I have not!

The sequel, Majora’s Mask, doesn’t get nearly as much attention but I had a blast playing it. I think a lot of people were expecting more of a straightforward sequel to the narrative of Ocarina, and Majora disappointed them in that. Still, as a standalone game I think it’s pretty solid.

Wind Waker is one of the few games for the Gamecube that I really remember. Nintendo went with an aesthetic that was drastically different from the previous two games, and the choice was quite controversial at the time.

I thought the look of the game was fine, and it really is a very fun game. I remember a reviewer at the time saying that it had the potential to be the best of the Zelda games, if you didn’t have to spend a cumulative million years sailing from place to place.

It was probably the best game that came out on the Gamecube, though. There weren’t many memorables ones, unfortunately. Others included Tales of Symphonia, Mario Kart: Double Dash, Soul Caliber II, and Smash Bros. Melee.

The last real Zelda game that I played was Twilight Princess, which came out when I was in college. It was designed for the Gamecube, but didn’t come out until the Wii was on the market–so I played the version for the Wii.

Twilight Princess was a direct response to people who had an adverse reaction to Wind Waker’s playful aesthetic; it was made for people who wanted to see a grown-up Link kick some ass. In that, it delivered, with the addition of occasionally turning Link into a badass wolf, but saddling him with this thing:

In the end Twilight Princess is probably my least favorite of the Zelda games listed here. There was nothing wrong with the game itself; though I found it much too easy to beat. Maybe if it was the first of them that I had played, rather than the last, I would feel differently. I do have some good memories around it–I played this with my friend Sam in Kelly’s dorm during the day, when we were between classes and she was off working. Sam would leave his Wii and his copy of the game in her dorm after he went home, resulting in a great deal of distraction from class and studying on her part. She ended up beating his copy of the game before he did!

The College Years

I commuted to college, which in practice meant I ended up spending most of my time hanging out in my friends’ dorms and off-campus apartments. This meant the consoles I ended up playing were whatever they had, and nine times out of ten this meant it was a Playstation 2.

Three games really stand out in my mind from this time. The first was Soul Caliber II, which a friend I got ridiculously competitive over.

It was, in retrospect (and maybe even at the time), pretty crazy how much time we devoted to trying to one up each other. He always had a slight edge on me, and it drove me crazy. Of course, we ended up getting so good that no one else we knew ever wanted to play with us–talk about counterproductive!

There was also Guilty Gear X, one of the most absurd and fun fighting games ever made, which began each match with the nonsequitur statement “HEAVEN OR HELL” (and yes, it was a statement, not a question).

Finally, there was Dynasty Warriors 4: Empires. This game has a Risk-like conquest element, which is really just an excuse for you to kill hundreds and hundreds of soldiers. It is a truly addictive game, which we would take turns at until we’d all conquered ancient China, and then begin again. It also featured some of the worst voice-acting, and most awkward fake arm gestures, possibly ever conceived of by any human mind.

Kelly and I still play it every so often.

Everything Else

A lot of things happened after college. I started seeing someone seriously. I got a job 30 miles from where I lived. I started grad school 40 miles from where I worked. In short, free time suddenly became a lot more scarce, and what time I had I wanted to spend with my better half.

It worked out really well–I finished grad school, got an even better job, and we got engaged. But during this whole time I barely played any video games at all.

Even putting all that aside, my gaming was already waning. In college, it was my younger brother, not I, who went out at some crazy hour of the morning to wait in line to get the Wii when it first came out. And he had to do this many times before he actually got one–he was very dedicated to his goal. When I moved out, I left my consoles with my siblings because I knew they would get more mileage out of them than I would. At that point I was too busy doing–well, just about everything else.

I have slowly started trying to reconnect with my gaming roots. I reclaimed the old N64 at my parents’ place, and I play it every so often.

The biggest pusher in my life is my brother, who gave me Starcraft II two Christmases ago and Portal 2 this Christmas. Circumstances have made me into a PC gamer–not that I’m complaining! Those are some excellent games.

Gamer Culture

I suppose I’ve just come to realize that being a gamer is an important part of who I am, in the same way that being a sports fan is an important part of a lot of people’s lives. One does not have to acknowledge video games as an art form in order to recognize that gamer culture is culture. There are creators and critics, consumers and commentators, and above all, communities.

We live in an increasingly interconnected age, but we gamers knew of communities of interest long before we took to the web. Some of the greatest and longest lasting friendships I’ve ever had have been cemented through gaming. Now we’re online, connecting to one another in unprecedented numbers, and having a ton of fun doing it!

 

Cultural Innovation — Putting Together the Pieces

My goal in 2012 is to write at least one paper and try to get it published. The paper I have in mind is inspired by three men, and their corresponding books. These are Friedrich Hayek and The Constitution of Liberty, Thomas Sowell and Knowledge and Decisions, and Everett Rogers and Diffusion of Innovations. I want to put the pieces together in order to make a single, solid argument, but I suspect I’m going to need a few more pieces before I can get there.

F. A. Hayek: Trial and Error and Local Knowledge

At any stage of this process there will always be many things we already know how to produce but which are still too expensive to provide for more than a few. And at an early stage they can be made only through an outlay of resources equal to many times the share of total income that, with an approximately equal distribution, would go to the few who could benefit from them. At first, a new good is commonly “the caprice of the chosen few before it becomes a public need and forms part of the necessities of life. For the luxuries of today are the necessities of tomorrow.” Furthermore, the new things will often become available to the greater part of the people only because for some time they have been the luxuries of the few.

-Friedrich Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty

Hayek argued that everything in human society–from technology to words to ideas to norms–begins its life as something developed and adopted by a small subset of the population. Some tiny fraction of these end up gaining mainstream adoption.

When I read The Constitution of Liberty two years ago, I became enamored by this very simple framework. It seemed an elegant explanation for how cultures evolve over time, through a process of rote trial and error.

On the other hand, I found the fact that Hayek didn’t elaborate on the process any further to be frustrating. If I had my way, I would throw out every last section of that book except the bits on cultural evolution, and have had him make up the other 400 some pages by digging deeper into this concept.

What Hayek is known for more widely is his work on local knowledge. In particular, “The Use of Knowledge in Society” discusses how the price system makes it possible for people to act on their specific knowledge of time and place without needing to get the much more difficult to acquire big-picture knowledge. Speaking of a hypothetical man on the spot, he wrote:

There is hardly anything that happens anywhere in the world that might not have an effect on the decision he ought to make. But he need not know of these events as such, nor of all their effects. It does not matter for him why at the particular moment more screws of one size than of another are wanted, why paper bags are more readily available than canvas bags, or why skilled labor, or particular machine tools, have for the moment become more difficult to obtain. All that is significant for him is how much more or less difficult to procure they have become compared with other things with which he is also concerned, or how much more or less urgently wanted are the alternative things he produces or uses. It is always a question of the relative importance of the particular things with which he is concerned, and the causes which alter their relative importance are of no interest to him beyond the effect on those concrete things of his own environment.

Hayek’s entire worldview was built around the idea of complex human systems which required more knowledge than any one individual within them could possibly have, something that Leonard Read captured more poetically in “I, Pencil“. The process of cultural evolution involved individuals and small groups trying out something new, which is observed by others who decide whether or not that new thing fits in with the particulars of their own circumstances, needs, and taste. In short, it doesn’t require much knowledge to come up with something new, and then an incremental amount of local knowledge is brought to bear as more individuals get exposed to that new thing.

But, as I said, he didn’t develop this system in any real detail.

Thomas Sowell: Knowledge Systems

The unifying theme of Knowledge and Decisions is that the specific mechanics of decision-making processes and institutions determine what kinds of knowledge can be brought to bear and with what effectiveness. In a world where people are preoccupied with arguing about what decision should be made on a sweeping range of issues, this book argues that the most fundamental question is not what decision to make but who is to make it–through what processes and under what incentives and constraints, and with what feedback mechanisms to correct the decision if it proves to be wrong.

-Thomas Sowell, Knowledge and Decisions

Sowell begins Knowledge and Decisions by explicitly recognizing his intellectual debt to Hayek in general and “The Use of Knowledge in Society” in particular. Yet in the book he goes far beyond any level of detail that Hayek provided on the subject, at least that I am aware of.

One of the crucial components of the book is the emphasis on feedback mechanisms.

[F]eedback mechanisms are crucial in a world where no given individual or manageably-sized group is likely to have sufficient knowledge to be consistently right the first time in their decisions. These feedback mechanisms must convey not only information but also incentives to act on that information, whether these incentives are provided by prices, love, fear, moral codes, or other factors which cause people to act in the interest of other people.

Clearly, feedback mechanisms must play a huge role in Hayek’s process of social trial and error. Feedback mechanisms are what determine what is considered “error” and force people to change course. As Sowell explains, they take many forms:

A minimal amount of information–the whimpering of a baby, for example–may be very effective in setting off a parental search for a cause, perhaps involving medical experts before it is over. On the other hand, a lucidly articulated set of complaints may be ignored by a dictator, and even armed uprisings against his policies crushed without any modification of those policies. The social use of knowledge is not primarily an intellectual process, or a baby’s whimpers could not be more effective than a well-articulated political statement.

He added “[f]eedback which can be safely ignored by decision makers is not socially effective knowledge.”

So discerning what outcomes we should expect from the various forms of social trial and error requires identifying the relevant feedback mechanisms. The feedback that potential new words faced takes a very different form than the feedback a new product on the market faces, or a publicly funded project.

The particulars of these feedback mechanisms, along with the incentives and institutional context, determine “what kinds of knowledge can be brought to bear and with what effectiveness” in each given case.

In many ways, Knowledge and Decisions is just good old-fashioned economics–it deals with incentives, with inherent trade-offs, and with scarcity. But it is a particularly Hayekian take on economics, with its focus on the scarcity of knowledge in particular and the role of very localized, difficult to communicate knowledge.

I don’t think Sowell gets nearly enough credit for this work among economists generally or even among Hayekians.

Everett Rogers: Curator of His Field

This book reflects a more critical stance than its original ancestor. During the past forty years or so, diffusion research has grown to be widely recognized, applied, and admired, but it has also been subjected to constructive and destructive criticism. This criticism is due in large part to the stereotyped and limited ways in which many diffusion scholars have defined the scope and method of their field of study. Once diffusion researchers formed an “invisible college” (defined as an informal network of researchers who form around an intellectual paradigm to study a common topic), they began to limit unnecessarily the ways in which they went about studying the diffusion of innovations. Such standardization of approaches constrains the intellectual progress of diffusion research.

Everett Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations, 5th Edition

After I read Constitution of Liberty, I realized that there was probably a literature behind the kind of phenomena that Hayek was talking about. The term “early adopter”, which has become part of the mainstream lexicon, must have come from somewhere. Hayek was unfortunately of little help; he cited old theorists like Gabriel Tarde. While the diffusion literature owed a certain intellectual debt to Tarde, he was writing nearly half a century before the modern field emerged.

I eventually happened upon Diffusion of Innovations, Everett Rogers’ book, the various editions of which basically bookend the entire history of the field in his lifetime. Which is quite helpful, because it began in his lifetime–and the first edition of the book was instrumental in its formation.

Where Hayek and Sowell’s works are within the confines of high theory, Diffusion of Innovations is a thoroughly empirical book, at times painstakingly so. There is not a single concept that Rogers introduces, no matter how simple, which he does not illustrate by summarizing a study or studies which involve an application of that concept.

Rogers helped formalize many of those concepts himself with the first edition of the book, published in 1962, when the literature was pretty sparse and dominated by rural sociologists. Since then, it has expanded across disciplines and in volume of published works. As a result, in the last edition of the book, published only a year before he died, there were many aspects of the diffusion process that had been solidly demonstrated by decades of work.

The books always served as a tool for both introducing the field to those unfamiliar with it, and attempting to steer future work. In the final edition, Rogers highlights not only what the literature has managed to illuminate, but its shortcomings. In short, the book has just about everything you would want if you were attempting to get a sense for what work has been done and what has been neglected.

There are aspects of the diffusion literature which are quite Hayekian. In particular, the emphasis on uncertainty and discovery processes.

One kind of uncertainty is generated by an innovation, defined as an idea, practice, or object that is perceived as new by an individual or another unit of adoption. An innovation presents an individual or an organization with a new alternative or alternatives, as well as new means of solving problems. However, the probability that the new idea is superior to previous practice is not initially known with certainty by individual problem solvers. Thus, individuals are motivated to seek further information about the innovation in order to cope with the uncertainty that it creates.

The various mechanisms which Rogers describes which individuals employ to reduce uncertainty–trying the innovation on a partial basis, or observing how it goes for peers who have adopted the innovation, or measuring the innovation against existing norms, to name a few–can be seen as clear cut cases of economizing on information.

In many ways the diffusion model that Rogers lays out is the detailed system that I wanted Hayek to develop. Rogers discusses so many specific aspects of the process; such as the role of heterogeneity and homogeneity, people who are more cosmopolitan or more localite, the different categories of adopters–including the familiar early adopters–and on and on. Rogers concisely describes and categorizes the various feedback mechanisms against adoption in the system.

On the other hand, the beginning of the process–the actual generation of the innovation–is where the literature is by far the weakest. Rogers cites several who have criticized it for this, and agrees that it is a problem. He points out several attempts that have been made to address this problem, but it’s clear that not nearly as much work has been done nor are the results as solid.

Part of the problem is the historical origins of the field–the diffusion literature began with rural sociology, where innovations were developed in universities who then peddled their wares to American farmers. The single most influential study dealt with the diffusion of hybrid corn, which seemed very clearly to be a quantifiable improvement over its alternatives. As such, many diffusion studies have the perspective of assuming that an innovation should diffuse, that there is some problem with the people who reject rather than adopt.

How did the pro-innovation bias become part of diffusion research? One reason is historical: hybrid corn was very profitable for each of the Iowa farmers in the Ryan and Gross (1943) study. Most other innovations that have been studied do not have this extremely high degree of relative advantage. Many individuals, for their own good, should not adopt many of the innovations that are diffused to them. Perhaps if the field of diffusion research had not begun with a highly profitable agricultural innovation in the 1940s, the pro-innovation bias would have been avoided or at least recognized and dealt with properly.

Moreover, the outline of what he believes is the process by which innovations are generated is a very directed, top-down process. It involves “change agents” that are consciously attempting to solve problems and diffuse some innovations. I’m not arguing against the existence of such agents–they are obviously an extensive part of society, from medical researchers seeking a cure for cancer and pharmaceutical companies attempting to get their drugs mainstream adoption, to Apple coming up with a completely different kind of smartphone and tablet and bringing them to market.

But the change agents, as Rogers and the diffusion literature envision them, are only a part of Hayek’s story of social trial and error. Consider language–new words and phrases emerge all the time and diffuse through a process which I am certain is identical to the one Rogers describes. On the other hand, I highly doubt that there are “change agents” who developed these new words and phrases in a lab somewhere and then promoted them. I think the process is far more organic.

Rogers also discusses the role of norms in terms of how they hinder or help the diffusion of an innovation, but left unsaid I think is that those norms are themselves undoubtedly the product of a previous diffusion. In Hayek and Sowell’s framework, traditions and existing norms emerged in response to trade-offs that needed to be made throughout a culture’s history. As Edmund Burke put it succinctly in Reflections on the Revolution in France:

We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages.

The trial and error process that Hayek envisioned built up that “general bank and capital of nations, and of ages” as societies developed increasingly effective ways to manage their trade-offs.

Rogers does touch on this point of view from a couple of angles. First, he describes the work of Stephen Lansing in uncovering the astonishing effectiveness of the local knowledge contained in the religious hierarchy of Bali, as he described in his book Priests and Programmers. This was a case where the seemingly beneficial innovations of the Green Revolution proved inferior to what seemed like mere superstitious practice.

The Balinese ecological system is so complex because the Jero Gde must seek an optimum balance of various competing forces. If all subaks were planted at the same time, pests would be reduced; however, water supplies would be inadequate due to peaks in demand. On the other hand, if all subaks staggered their rice-planting schedule in a completely random manner, the water demand would be spread out. The water supply would be utilized efficiently, but the pests would flourish and wipe out the rice crop. So the Jero Gde must seek an optimal balance between pest control and water conservation, depending on the amount of rainfall flowing into the crater lake, the levels of the different pest populations in various subaks, and so forth.

When the Green Revolution innovations were introduced to the region, crop yields dropped, rather than increased. This intrigued Lansing.

In the late 1980s, Lansing, with the help of an ecological biologist, designed a computer simulation to calculate the effect on rice yields in each subak of (1) rainfall, (2) planting schedules, and (3) pest proliferation. He called his simulation model “The Goddess and the Computer.” Then he traveled with a Macintosh computer and the simulation model from his U.S. university campus to the Balinese high priest at the temple on the crater lake. The Jero Gde enthusiastically tried out various scenarios on the computer, concluding that the highest rice yields closely resembled the ecological strategies followed by the Balinese rice farmers for the past eight hundred years.

Clearly, Balinese society had arrived at this optimal solution through some process. But Rogers does not delve too deeply into this.

Rogers also acknowledges that the literature may have focused too exclusively on more centralized processes.

In recent decades, the author gradually became aware of diffusion systems that did not operate at all like centralized diffusion systems. Instead of coming out of formal R&D systems, innovations often bubbled up from the operational levels of a system, with the inventing done by certain lead users. Then the new ideas spread horizontally via peer networks, with a high degree of re-invention occurring as the innovations are modified by users to fit their particular conditions. Such decentralized diffusion systems are usually not managed by technical experts. Instead, decision making in the diffusion system is widely shared, with adopters making many decisions. In many cases, adopters served as their own change agents in diffusing their innovations to others.

Though recognizing that such processes exist, it’s clear that the work that has been done on this is much thinner than the more traditional, change agent based research.

Questions That Remain

As I said, all three of these pieces have some holes in them, and those holes aren’t necessarily filled just by putting all of them together.

The next logical step would probably be to seek out more material like Rogers’, where a lot of work has been done and concrete conclusions can be drawn. Any work on how new words and phrases emerge and proliferate would probably be a good start.

Online communities also have many customs, such as hashtags on Twitter and the hat tip among bloggers. The advantage to customs like this is that they leave behind recorded evidence, unlike, say, an oral tradition. We know, for instance, when hashtags first became popularized among Twitter users–it is documented. A great deal of work is being done by communications scholars on subjects such as these; this could also probably provide some more solid leads.

What I want to argue is that innovations are generated in a Hayekian trial and error process, and some subset of them gain mass adoption in the manner described by the diffusion of innovations literature. I want to describe the role that local knowledge plays in that process; how the feedback mechanisms and incentives shape what innovations are generated and which ones ultimately are adopted.

But there’s more research to be done before I can make a case for this thesis that is solid enough for me to be comfortable with.