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Normally, I don’t post about magazine assignments I’m working on — because the editors want to keep it secret. But now I’m researching a piece for Wired magazine, and the editors have actually asked me to talk about it openly. That’s because the subject of the piece is “Radical Transparency”. And, in fact, I’d like your input in writing it.
The piece was originally triggered by a few postings on the blog of Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson, and the thesis is simple: In today’s ultranetworked online world, you can accomplish more by being insanely open about everything you’re doing. Indeed, in many cases it’s a superbad idea to operate in highly secret mode — because secrets get leaked anyway, looking like a paranoid freak is a bad thing, and most importantly, you’re missing out on opportunities to harness the deeply creative power of an open world.
Sure, “radical transparency” includes the obvious stuff, like Linux and Wikipedia and MySpace other well-known “open” projects. But I’m also talking about the curiously quotidian, everyday ways that life is being tweaked — and improved — by people voluntarily becoming more open. That includes: Clubhoppers hooking up with each other by listing their locations in real-time on Dodgeball; mining company CEOs making billions (billions!) by posting their geologic data online and getting strangers to help them find gold; Dan Rather’s audience fact-checking his work and discovering that crucial parts of his reporting evidence are faked; sci-fi author Cory Doctorow selling more of his print books by giving e-copies away for free; bloggers Google-hacking their way to the #1 position on a search for their name by posting regularly about their lives; open APIs turbocharging remixes of Google and Amazon’s services; Second Life turning into one of the planet’s fastest-growing economies by allowing users to create their own stuff inside the game; US spy agencies using wikis to do massive groupthink to predict future terrorist attacks; old college buddies hooking up with one another years later after stumbling upon one another’s blogs; Microsoft’s engineers blogging madly about the development of Vista, warts and all, to help sysadmins prepare for what the operating system would — and wouldn’t — be able to do.
Obviously, transparency sucks sometimes. Some information need to be jealously guarded; not all personal experiences, corporate trade secrets, and national-security information benefit from being spread around. And culturally, some information is more fun when it’s kept secret: I don’t want to know the end of this year’s season of 24!
Overall, though, our world is now living by three big rules, which form the exoskeleton around which I’m writing this article. Specifically, I’m going to have three sections in a 2,500-word piece that break off one part of the radical-transparency word and chew it around a bit. The sections are detailed below.
So, in the spirit of the article itself, we figured we should practice what we’re preaching, and talk about the story openly while I’m working on it. In fact, I’d enjoy getting any input from anyone who’s interested. What do you think of the concept? Does it make sense, is it off-base? Got any superb examples that prove that radical transparency works — or that totally contradict the thesis? I can’t pay you for any of your thoughts, but I’ll give you a shout-out in the piece if I use your idea. You can post below or just email me directly.
Specifically, the three ideas I’m researching are:
- Secrecy Is Dead: The pre-Internet world trafficked in secrets. Information was valuable because it was rare; keeping it secret increased its value. In the modern world, information is as plentiful as dirt, there’s more of it than you can possibly grok on your own — and the profusion of cameraphones, forwarded emails, search engines, anonymous tipsters, and infinitely copyable digital documents means that your attempts to keep secrets will probably, eventually, fail anyway. Don’t bother trying. You’ll just look like a jackass when your secrets are leaked and your lies are exposed, kind of like Sony and its rootkit. Instead …
- Tap The Hivemind: Throw everything you’ve got online, and invite the world to look at it. They’ll have more and better ideas that you could have on your own, more and better information than you could gather on your own, wiser and sager perspective than you could gather in 1,000 years of living — and they’ll share it with you. You’ll blow past the secret-keepers as if you were driving a car that exists in a world with different and superior physics. Like we said, information used to be rare … but now it’s so ridiculously plentiful that you will never make sense of it on your own. You need help, and you need to help others. And, by the way? Keep in mind that …
- Reputation Is Everything: Google isn’t a search engine. Google is a reputation-managment system. What do we search for, anyway? Mostly people, products, ideas — and what we want to know are, what do other people think about this stuff? All this blogging, Flickring, MySpacing, journaling — and, most of all, linking — has transformed the Internet into a world where it’s incredibly easy to figure out what the world thinks about you, your neighbor, the company you work for, or the stuff you were blabbing about four years ago. It might seem paradoxical, but in a situation like that, it’s better to be an active participant in the ongoing conversation than to stand off and refuse to participate. Because, okay, let’s say you don’t want to blog, or to Flickr, or to participate in online discussion threads. That means the next time someone Googles you they’ll find … everything that everyone else has said about you, rather than the stuff you’ve said yourself. (Again — just ask Sony about this one.) The only way to improve and buff your reputation is to dive in and participate. Be open. Be generous. Throw stuff out there — your thoughts, your ideas, your personality. Trust comes from transparency.
So that’s the gist of what I’m working on. Let me know what you think!
I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).
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