I’ve spent quite a bit of time lately wandering around through various blogs and maintaining my own, but during the last two weeks I’ve had more time to think about what I’ve been doing rather than just continuing to do it. Something that really struck me was how many popular bloggers made new years resolutions to not blog so much during 2004. It seemed like the practice of blogging was maybe dying out, having been realized to be a fad by some of the pioneers and picked up as a trade by others. The very nature of writing and reading weblogs seemed to be transforming, and no one really seemed to be sure where it was going. I have no idea what blogging as a whole is going to look like 6 months from now, but I do have some pretty strong opinions on the value that’s been added to web content through the addition of weblog style content.
The one I want to talk about right now is divergent thinking. Divergent thinking is the ability to “think outside of the box”. It’s the ability to generate a completely novel idea when faced with a problem, whether the problem is new or one that has been addressed dozens of times before. The opposite end of this is convergent thinking, which is the ability to work within the constraints of a given set of predetermined boundaries in order to adapt a solution to a problem. Both are important in general, especially when considering a company placed within a market economy. Both convergent and divergent aspects must be present for the company to survive long term. Convergent thinking is pretty common within the engineering community, it’s the standard mode of operation for someone working to fulfill an existing design or specification. Divergent thinking is something that seems to be a bit harder to integrate into the business process. Some organizations, such as Xerox PARC and Lucent Technologies, sought in large part to attempt to encourage divergent thinking. I have no idea how successful these attempts were. Depending who I talk to I get radically different views on the benefit of these organizations to their respective parent companies. That’s not really important for this discussion however. What I want to stress is that some companies went so far as to setup large labs of highly funded scientists in order to try to tap into some degree of divergent thinking.
I think the associations between blogs can serve as the same kind of divergent thinking pool. Taking a look back over the topics I’ve read about, and the new associations I’ve formed and ideologies I’ve run into, I don’t think I’ve ever hit quite so much new material since the first year I spent at college. It’s not like I didn’t read online articles and crawl web pages before, it’s just that the format of weblogs and their use make it much easier to thread together new thoughts and find different points of view. When I’m reading about a topic in someones weblog and I find that they have a really interesting take on a technology, I can trawl through the rest of their entries and usually find out how they apply that idea to other areas. Maybe it’s just because weblogs tend to be very highly editorial and concentrate much less on establishing “only the facts”, but I’ve rarely been able to do the same thing with other forms of online publications. As a result I feel like I’ve benefited from reading weblog entries much more often than I have from reading articles in standard publications. Even in the cases where I haven’t ever corresponded with the author of the weblog directly, I feel I’ve benefited from their unique perspective.
I think this is what the “thinktanks” like PARC and Lucent were aiming for. The goal was to get lots of smart people together and let them exchange ideas in the hopes that something new would arise. The conventions that most people use in writing their blogs have allowed this to happen in a much broader sense however. And the personal weblog is what changed it. Most of the interactions from weblogs could be done using usenet, or forum sites, or email lists. The part that’s really different is that when I see someone say something I like, I can easily find out what they’re saying about other issues. With usenet or mailing lists, unless I know what other lists and groups this person is part of, it’s not nearly as easy to find all the output by a single person. People also seem to be much more outspoken on their personal blog. There are people who would spend most of their time in a discussion list or forum group mostly responding to existing threads without generating new topics, but who will spout off in their blog about just about anything that pops to mind. Maybe it’s cause they’re shy and they don’t feel comfortable introducing new topics to a group, I’m not quite sure. But when the space they’re writing in is their own blog, they’re much more free with their topics. When we’re talking about divergent thinking, that’s exactly the behavior that’s most valuable.