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the Law of Significance

Thursday,  12/18/08  08:33 PM

Chris Anderson is one of my favorite writers and bloggers, but he occasionally falls prey to The Law of Significance.  (You can tell something is Really Important because people write about it with Capital Letters.  Dum dum dum.)  Chris has unearthed some amazing insights in his time; the Long Tail is one of the truly interesting new ideas in business spawned by the Internet era.  But once you've found a few key insights like that you begin thinking of yourself as a Thinker (note capitals), and it inspires you to promote everyday observations to the status of Laws.  You could imagine Chris might drop a piece of toast, find that it landed face down on the floor, and discover the Law of Toast.  I call this phenomenon the Law of Significance (note capitals and boldface).

The latest example is Chris' Law of Transparency: you can't be open in all things all of the time.  So I don't even know if that's true, but if it is I don't think it rises to the standard of a Law, it is more like a reflection.  It works better if you make lots of observations about lots of things and let other people anoint some of them as Laws than if you keep trying too hard to be Significant.  (For one thing, you won't be the target of critical blog posts :)

Chris is working on a new book called Free, about business models where you give stuff away for free, and while that is no doubt all very interesting (and I'm sure his book will sell) I don't think it is all that fundamental.  He reminds me a lot of Malcom Gladwell, another Thinker who is under the spell of the Law of Significance; once Gladwell had written Tipping Point (pretty fundamental point), he came out with Blink (somewhat fundamental) and then Outliers (not fundamental at all).  I like Gladwell and enjoy his articles in the New Yorker a lot, and like his blog.  But not everything he observes is a Law.

Let's see how Chris decides to distribute Free, do you suppose he'll give it away?

This post began with an email exchange I had with a friend; he noted:

Years ago Esther Dyson restated Stewart Brand's theory that "information wants to be free" in an article she wrote about the Internet.

In her $500/yr newsletter.


[Update: He *did* decide to give it away... good dogfooding! ]