Thoughts on Thinking in Public

The internet is the best medium to gain a different perspective from one’s own. The internet enables people to share thoughts as they develop. It’s not the thoughts themselves that are important, though, it’s the process that produces them. It’s better to follow a few people deeply than it is to follow many people widely.

Most people still filter the content they consume at the institution level. They read The New York Times or The Washington Post. This was the only feasible filter when content was bundled such that a reader could only access it via subscriptions to specific institutions. That hasn’t been the case for some time now. The internet has enabled a Cambrian explosion of content of all kinds, with a much wider range of quality. Even within institutions, quality varies widely. Hundreds of people write for The New York Times each year. Most of them aren’t the best source of information on the topics they write about. Ben Thompson nailed it in FiveThirtyEight and the End of Average:

Most of what I read is the best there is to read on any given subject. The trash is few and far between, and the average equally rare. This, of course, is made possible by the Internet. No longer are my reading choices constrained by time and especially place. Why should I pick up the Wisconsin State Journal – or the Taipei Times – when I can read Nate Silver, Ezra Klein, Bill Simmons, and the myriad other links served up by Twitter? I, and everyone else interested in news, politics, or sports, can read the best with less effort – and cost – than it ever took to read the merely average just a few short years ago.

Even institutions that go to great lengths to publish with a consistent voice, like The Economist, can’t deliver the same clarity of perspective that an individual can. That’s not to say that institutions aren’t an important part of the internet content ecosystem. Bloomberg Opinion is a great example of a forum in which individuals with different, often conflicting, perspectives are supported by a common institution. Sometimes Bloomberg writers even use that forum to debate each other.

Of course, the individual has always been the relevant filter for the oldest, most well established content medium: books. Books are great. They are one of the best ways to explore a topic deeply. They are distilled, polished, and packaged to go down as smoothly as possible. That refinement comes at a cost, though. Reading a book is a great way to ingest specific thoughts, but a poor way to get exposed to a different way of thinking. Books provide all of the rush of novel thought, without the hard work of arriving at it. Ironically, Shane Parrish did this thinking for me in Schopenhauer: On Reading and Books. This quote from Arthur Schopenhauer’s Parerga and Paralipomena sums it up:

When we read, another person thinks for us: we merely repeat his mental process. It is the same as the pupil, in learning to write, following with his pen the lines that have been pencilled by the teacher. Accordingly, in reading, the work of thinking is, for the greater part, done for us. This is why we are consciously relieved when we turn to reading after being occupied with our own thoughts. But, in reading, our head is, however, really only the arena of some one else’s thoughts. And so it happens that the person who reads a great deal — that is to say, almost the whole day, and recreates himself by spending the intervals in thoughtless diversion, gradually loses the ability to think for himself…

Sure, good book authors attempt to walk the reader through their thought process, but I’m skeptical that anyone can do that accurately ex post. Whether they know it or not, the author is probably simplifying or imposing a more linear narrative on a complex, non-linear process that produced their thoughts. I want to understand that process. I am less interested in what the writer is thinking about than I am in how they are thinking about it.

I keep a list of the people whose perspectives I find the most thought provoking. They’ve all taken advantage of the internet media to “think in public.” They tweet, write blog posts, appear on podcasts, and create projects that express their ideas. Generously, they don’t wait until their ideas are fully baked to put them out there. They share as they go, refining along the way. If you follow someone closely enough, you can watch a thought evolve, perhaps from a single tweet, to a conversation or blog post, then maybe into a book or a project.

I learn more from following this raw, disjointed, incremental output than I do from reading the more coherent, cumulative output of a book. It’s a bad way to learn about a specific subject. It’s noisy and confusing. There are lines of thinking that lead to dead ends. It’s more work, but by immersing yourself in another person’s perspective, you can learn to see the world as they do.