Pursuing Credible Ideas: Think Critically


This past week I told my story about publishing my first book and contracting my second, talked a bit about self-publishing and the value of gatekeepers, and then looked at The Domino Project as a bit of a case study about gatekeeping. For as many people who responded enthusiastically, I also managed to tick a lot of people off, and that makes sense. People are incredibly protective of their ideas and getting their voices heard (and the possibility that they may not be heard is alarming, threatening, frustrating, and sometimes even hurtful, especially now that it's so "easy" to "put your ideas out there.") All of what I've been talking about in those posts, though, was in the interest of provoking some thought and leading us here: to talk about how now, more than ever, we have to be incredibly mindful of how we pursue, find, create, and disseminate credible, quality ideas and information in a time when anyone can add to the information storm.Look, that anyone can publish is a beaten, bludgeoned, dead horse. It's old news. Now we have to be talking about our changed relationship to ideas, how we find them, and what we create when then are no barriers to hitting "publish."


This is the key: as the line between professional and amateur content creation is increasingly blurred, our own mechanisms for finding information that’s valuable, valid, and high-quality absolutely must become more robust. It's a new era of responsibility, a time when we all need to more actively re-engage. The passive television watchers are, at least as far as younger people go, transforming into active content creators. Part of that is thinking carefully about what we create, when, how, and why. It’s the only answer here, and we all have to make adjustments.If everyone is going to be dumping into the sea of ideas, two things have to happen:

1our individual critical thinking skills must become even more refined and

2the people/companies we choose as our gatekeepers/arbiters/tastemakers must be that much more carefully considered.

Freedom Versus Quality

According to Clay Shirky in his notable book Cognitive Surplus,

The great tension in media has always been that freedom and quality are conflicting goals. [ref]Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky, p 47 [/ref]

We all have the freedom to publish. We intuitively know that quality is desirable and beneficial, but how do we know it when we see it? Nearly a year ago, I posted “The Stay Out of School official definition of ‘quality,’” which was largely a hybrid of the definitions I found in Merriam-Webster.Quality (adj.): marked by a concentrated expenditure of involvement, concern, or commitment that results in excellence.I went on to say that you could identify something as having quality if[ref]This is all up for what I'm sure would be a fascinating debate.[/ref]

•   it had fundamental components that were conscientiously selected for appropriateness and excellence.

•   it was well-built and efficient to use.

•   it was beautiful.

•   its maker saw in the end result an extension and expression of himself and his own capabilities.

Back to the freedom to publish. Mr. Shirky points out that new media has “amateur value” because of the very real

“value in ordinary people sharing what they know”


“value in doing something that makes you feel a sense of membership or generosity.” [ref]ibid., p 154 [/ref]

Publishing independently is attractive to people who want to create. The challenge, though, is making sure that for the good of our culture, we’re all adding and publishing in a way that’s ultimately moving us all along to something better. In theory, before we got complacent and started sending crapola to the bestsellers lists, that’s what publishers were hoping to do (in addition to publishing things that would make them money): they were looking for quality.

Change is Not the Same as Elimination

Again, Mr. Shirky:

This big change isn’t utopia. Throwing off old constraints won’t lead us to a world of no constraints. All worlds, past, present and future, have constraints; throwing off the old ones just creates a space for new ones to emerge. [ref]ibid., p 162 [/ref]

That’s what I was talking about when I was talking about Domino last week. There are always going to be gatekeepers and curators who constrain dissemination of ideas. Come to terms with it. We need them, especially as more and more info is thrown into the stream. Start solving that problem: figure out how to better make use of constraints. Shirky also says,

It takes ... effort to get what we need, not just what we want; understanding how to create and maintain it is one of the great challenges of our era. [ref]ibid., p 181. (emphasis mine) [/ref]

And, to button that...

Creating a participatory culture with wider benefits for society is harder than sharing amusing photos. [ref]ibid., p 185 [/ref]

In a nutshell: this ain't easy. We find ourselves in a difficult spot. We owe it to ourselves to think carefully about our next steps. We're setting the stage for critical thinking and ideas in a new era.We have three main take-aways here.

Consumers: Control Where you Direct your Attention

It’s your job, more than ever, to examine what you read, watch, and listen to. Freedom and quality are conflicting goals. You’re often going to have to choose between them. Great critical thinkers have been doing this for ages, but as more information floods the system, we’re all going to have to engage what we encounter on a much deeper level. Analyzing passages (or film) can't remain an activity left primarily to high school students in English class.It’s a lifestyle choice that’s challenging.

Consumers: Form a Better Relationship with your Gatekeepers

Constraints aren't going away. You only have so many hours in the day. You can only give your attention to so much stuff. You can only trust voting and social proof to be so accurate. If you want to give your attention to the absolute best, you're going to use gatekeepers and curators. It's up to you to require that your gatekeepers give quality to you. Reward their efforts. Punish those that give you crap. Make people that vet ideas help you--they want to.Maybe they’ll be replaced. Maybe they won’t. ...but as an institution, they're not going away.As I mentioned before, traditional publishers are still useful and I have chosen to rely on them for now (as have many other writers equally enthusiastic about publishing and encouraging creativity and productivity). As Clay Shirky says, there will always be constraints. If you want constraints (gatekeepers) to act in your best interest, engage them.

Creators: Creating Credible, Quality Stuff is Tough

If you’re going to be a creator, I want to challenge you to create like you’re creating for a gatekeeper whether or not you really are, because good work often does get "picked," in one way or another. Conversely, even now, great work doesn’t always get picked: not in the old publishing structures nor in the new constraints that will replace them. I've personally suffered the disappointments of that reality. Putting your ideas out there is always a gamble. It always will be.Good gatekeepers can help you if you’re creating real, quality stuff.In the same vein, remember that an opportunity to spread an idea doesn’t make that idea better.Challenge yourself to make your ideas and creations powerful and loaded with quality. I’ll do the same.

Elizabeth KingComment