The barbell, yet again

Philip Morgan

"All the world's information."

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I get so frustrated with people calling the Internet "all the world's information", and thinking of smartphones as access to "all the world's information in your pocket".

These phrases are marketing pablum, and a painful oversimplification of the reality of learning, knowledge, and expertise.

No less careful a writer than Ben Thompson has annoyed me by calling the Internet "all the world's information".

Where on the Internet will I find the name of the person who brought the first corporate anger management training to market? What was the story of that going from non-existent to a thing corporations now spend money on? I'm certain there was a time when no mental category for "anger management training" existed at all. I care because I want to interview this person for The Self-Made Expert.

I think about the difficulty of accessing this kind of information all the time. Yes, I'm a weird person, but the difficulty I face in finding the information I seek is not an isolated, weird, non-problem. It's endemic, and it undermines progress in important domains.

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Information Wants To Be Free. Information also wants to be expensive. ...That tension will not go away. -- Stewart Brand

Is this just a manifestation of Stewart Brand's observation?

In other words: "Of course you can't easily search for who brought the first corporate anger management training to the market, Philip! That's the part of information that wants to be expensive!"

Maybe. As the Internet matures, I do wonder if there's an additional sorting that's happening. Using Stewart's quote as the framing lens:

Low-quality information is OK with being free. High-quality information wants to be expensive.

If this is becoming true -- and I'm not 100% sure that it is but I suspect it is -- then discerning consumers of information are going to start seeing information value as a function of its price. Price of $0 = zero value.

Officially going out on a limb here: if this is becoming true, then content marketing will break. It'll cease to function the way it traditionally has. Traditionally, the price of the outputs of content marketing (free articles, lead magnets, emails, webinars, etc) is set to zero in order to achieve maximum reach and earn the trust of some of those it has reached. In a new world of collapsed trust in free information, this lack of trust in free information would limit its reach, and prevent those you hope from reaching from ever noticing your free content.

I think that some amount of regular publising is the table stakes for an expertise-driven business. Most of us set the price of our publishing output at zero and distribute it via an email list.

In the future information landscape I'm describing here, we'd need to set a positive price for our publishing output. Books and paid access to more frequent publications (newsletters, email lists, etc.) would become the table stakes. Perhaps rigorously curated free information would at least partially bridge the gap between low-quality free information and high-quality paid information.

Again, I'm not at all certain this is how things will move, but it's a possible future I think we should be prepared for. Publishing a lot now with the price of your output set to zero is a pretty low-risk way to prepare for whatever future norms around the value of information come into play. It's excellent practice no matter how the rules of the game change.

If your work is about frontiers, edges, innovation, and creating the future, the Internet is not all the world's information. It is a useful tool in building the future, to be sure. But thinking it's all right there and you'll easily get to it via a search engine misunderstands the norms around and trivializes the actual value of actual expertise.

Reminder: I'm running a workshop on point of view next month. It's online, limited to 20 people, meets weekly at 10am Mountain time March 6 - April 24, is introvert-friendly, gives you lots of support in exploring and formalizing your points of view, and costs $700. If this is of interest, you can sign up here: /pmc-csw-point-of-view