Cory Doctorow, how to blog and the completeness of unfinished work.

Cory Doctorow speaking at PICNIC ’10 (photo by Maurice Mikkers) 

At the end of last month I was sitting in a fab old building in Amsterdam listening to Cory Doctorow talk about how to blog. A couple of things he said lodged firmly in my mind: he told us to think of a blog post as a piece of jigsaw puzzle when you don’t have the box lid and that it’s readers who help reveal the picture.

Cory is one of four writers behind (and very much in front of) the technorati world’s favourite blog Boing Boing. Because of that (a celebrity blogger – surely he’s worth a few hits) I meant to write him up immediately.

I’m pleased I waited.

Earlier this week I was trying to explain to a client/friend (they merge) how their web site could change using blogs and other forms of social media but to do so they would need to start thinking of it more as a work in progress, what the customer pinned down as a “corporate brain dump”. I was trying to convince them to stop believing their credibility relied so heavily on offering the outside world completed thoughts.

That took me back to Chip and Dan Heath’s marvellous book, Made to Stick, in which they write about how gaps in our knowledge are the (obvious) reason we are curious – our driver for asking questions, sharing our thoughts, looking for answers. Incompleteness essentially gives your reader work worth doing – it makes them want to read, want to think, want to come back.

All well and good. A thought, I’m thinking. Then I find myself sitting opposite the most eclectic man I know. Simon Baddeley (he’s the tall one in this picture) starts talking to me about the Zeigarnik effect – which suggests that people have a better memory for incomplete tasks than those which are complete.

Quickly back to Amsterdam and the reason I was at Picnic O7 for the European Bloggers UnConference where fellow Brummie Paul Bradshaw is telling me to me about a tool kit he’s developing for online journalists which will help them encourage their readers to take their story to a a new level and show them how they can change the circumstances in the story. It’s an extension of his understanding of distributed journalism; news as evolving loops between writer and audience.

Back then to my book case and as I’m reading Getting Things Done (thanks for the tip Antonio). The author David Allen is telling me that completeness was a luxury of the manufacturing age – an order for a thousand widgets was completed when said widgets were made, packed, shipped, delivered and signed for. Many of us no longer live such work.

All of which makes a lot of sense to me and leads me to think that a key 21st century skills is to knowingly leave stuff unfinished rather than the 20th century habit of doing so because we are disorganised, lazy or easily distracted. Or have I just come up with my most sophisticated excuse yet for procrastination?

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  1. I came across Zeigarnik in connection with gestalt psychology. Older colleagues were talking about incomplete gestalts and predicting the future. They found her work useful. How much of a sneeze must you hear before you know its a sneeze and not a cough? How much of the first bars of a tune must you hear before you recognise it? They were saying that because their growth may be logarithmic their character is well formed and rooted long before they are widely recognisable – e.g to the outsider the difference between an onion and and oak in their early stages is not easily discerned yet their futures are very predictable to those who do know, and in retrospect to those who didn’t. As you know there is an accompanying view that novel trends have their lustiest growth unrecognised because they grow parasitically on more familiar forms, their presence only known via the decay of the familiar form as its energy is sapped by the newer. Discuss this notion in relation to narrowcasting versus broadcasting.

  2. nick booth says:

    That’s interesting Kevin. It makes sense to me – a bloke. It may make less sense to my beloved. The interesting thing about the Getting things done book is it helps you turn incomplete ideas intp practical actions you can do next – and so get things done. It helps you complete lots of smaller tasks – in pursuit of a longer (perhaps less focussed) goal.

    Our experience on a neighbourhood level here is that small practical steps need to make sense on a day to day basis, even though they may not complete the bigger ambitions. (the unfinished task).

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