Monday, January 16, 2012

bite-sized ideas

Something funny happened recently. Tyler Cowen gave a TED talk on a topic that he also covered in a book from over a year ago, Create Your Own Economy, retitled (aptly) The Age of the Infovore when it was released in paperback. The topic was "stories"; you can see it here or read the transcript here; the punchline is that fitting messy data into stories is a misleading way to interpret the world, and one that we're strongly prone to.

The talk itself doesn't matter; the strange thing is that this talk was taken almost directly from the book, yet received vastly more attention in talk form than when the book came out. This is despite the fact that a large fraction of the talk audience would have already been exposed to it directly by having read the book (which isn't long or inaccessible or anything), and a huge majority of the audience would have been exposed to it indirectly if the idea had been recapped in the blogosphere at the time by anyone who had actually read the book.

(By the way, I'm sure this isn't an uncommon phenomenon, but the chances of me reading the book when it comes out, remembering it when some part of it takes off later, noticing it when it takes off later, and the gap in time being large enough to clearly attribute the attention to the later abridged presentation, is pretty slim for any given instance.)

Why did it happen like that? Why didn't an idea that is appealing enough to be talked about extensively now that it's a TED talk take off in its original book form? Am I misestimating the numbers and probabilities involved? If so, where and how?

I suspect, simply, that ideas presented in bite-sized form are easier to consider in a thorough manner, because we devote less attention per page to books than to blogs, because we expect blogs to present information in a denser manner. And (obviously) ideas taken out of the broader context are easier to consider independently of the broader context. And (obviously) ideas that are already in bite-sized form are easier to re-hash in a medium (blogs) that only allows for bite-sized ideas.

There's some obvious related cost-benefit analysis, but I'll let you fill in the blanks; I just wanted to point it out. If true, I'm surprised that it's so hard for the particularly appealing bite-sized chunks of books to filter out to the blogosphere.

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