Darwin: blogging and twittering in the 19th century?

26 01 2009

The Evolution RevolutionYou will be hearing about Darwin a lot this year, as 2009 marks 200 years of his birth and 150 years of “The Origin of Species”. Regardless of what you think about Darwin the scientist, there are lots to learn from Darwin the man.

Last summer, I visited “Darwin: The Evolution Revolution” at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. It was the first time I saw him not as a naturalist, but as a person. You still can catch the exhibition till April 19 in the Natural History Museum in London, renamed “Darwin – Big Idea” (see the slideshow for a taste of what you’ll find there).

The handwritten notes and letters caught my attention immediately, as they ranged from the deeply scientific (the famous “I think” sketch with the evolutionary tree) to the trivial and mundane (Fanny Owen, Darwin’s first girlfriend, asking “Why did you not come home this Christmas? I suppose some dear little Beetles kept you away!”).

Almost 3 years ago, I wrote a blog post wondering what it would be like if folks like Darwin, Shakespeare and Martin Luther King had blogs. I didn’t imagine back then that Darwin actually had the next best thing available to him: a notebook, a pen, and the discipline to write almost daily about whatever crossed his mind.

Darwin left a huge written record in books, articles, notebooks and more than 14,000 letters. Looking at them, I can’t help but see the similarities with the Social Media tools we use today. See for example one of his notes aboard the Beagle:

Darwin Manuscripts

I can almost see a “Powered by WordPress.com” at the bottom of his entries 🙂 .

If you keep digging, you’ll find also his journal:

Darwin Manuscripts

If only he had Twitter and GPS, eh? I would follow him for sure.

Bad jokes aside, I find fascinating that you can know so much about a person who was born 200 years ago. It’s been said that “thanks to MySpace and Facebook, autobiography can happen in real time”. Darwin was doing that back in 1822 at age 12!

So, if you think you know Charles, take a look at the “10 Fun Facts About Darwin” at Neatorama.com. You’ll find that not only he described plenty of new species, he ate several of them too, including armadillos, iguanas and tortoises. And that he once wrote that a wife was “better than a dog” for companion. Not exactly the most romantic thing to say about your significant other, but geeks will always be geeks, I guess.

If you want to learn more about the man, I highly recommend BBC’s “In Our Time” Darwin series, and also Darwin’s Legacy, a lecture series from Stanford University at iTunes U. You won’t be disappointed.

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Enterprise Blogging Inhibitors: writer’s block, making a fool of oneself and lack of feedback

26 01 2009

This is an updated version of a blog post I wrote for my internal IBM blog back in April 2006. It shows its age, but it may still be relevant for folks starting to blog inside the corporation.

When I ask colleagues at IBM why they don’t blog, or why they don’t blog more often, the most common answers are “I don’t have  time”, “I don’t know what to blog about” and “no one cares about my thoughts”. In a survey I ran 3 years ago, not even a single respondent mentioned writer’s block or fear of making a fool of oneself as blogging inhibitors.

Many of my fellow IBMers are quick-witted, bright and have plenty of good ideas. They are typically well-read, inquisitive and very open to hear other people’s opinions. Most of them are good writers too, and they would probably be good bloggers. However, many of them don’t blog. There’s this somehow unfounded idea that blogging is going to take a lot of time and effort. Some of them even started a blog, but stopped after a while. They got discouraged by the number of daily hits in their blogs or by the low number of comments their early posts generated or by the time they spent just to write a few paragraphs. Or they just don’t know what to write about on a frequent basis.

If any of the readers of this blog is wondering whether or not to start blogging or resume blogging inside the enterprise, here’s my take on it. Don’t forget that we are all learning, so take it with a grain of salt (as you should do with anything you read). Also, you’ll find lots of – sometimes conflicting – advice out there on how to blog effectively. Be confident that you’ll eventually find what works better for you.

  • Don’t liken enterprise blogging to writing an article for a magazine. In blogs, you can afford to disclose unpolished thoughts out there. Writing them actually may help you to structure your ideas, and sharing with others may enrich a reflection you had only as a raw piece of clay inside your brain, as others may have a common interest on the topic. So, while your post may not be getting you a Pulitzer Award any time soon, it may actually trigger a good discussion with others in your company. I see blogging more like chatting in a bar after hours (minus the drinks and the hangover) than giving a lecture to a demanding audience.
  • Approach blogging like reading and writing e-mails, with the advantage that there’s no serious harm if you skip reading some posts from time to time, and that nobody ever expects you to reply to blog entries. It’s something you do at a best effort basis. Time-box the time you spent reading and writing blogs to, say, 15 minutes a day, or 30 minutes a week. Or just harness your interstitial time, blogging whenever you have a few minutes to spare. As you get used to doing it, you’ll become more efficient. Remember, don’t approach it as one more task to squeeze into your already busy schedule. It’s a learning and networking venue where you get a lot accomplished just by dedicating 15 minutes a day to it.
  • Be aware that many in your company will consume your internal blog via an RSS reader. This means that even though people are reading your blog, the hit counter may not show that. Also, as it’s the case with most blogs, expect a very low comment-to-post ratio at least at the beginning. Some of your interesting posts will not necessarily generate any comment, even though people are paying attention. I found over the years that some of my “comment-less” posts were actually “dogeared” by some colleagues, proving that the number of comments is not necessarily an indication of whether or not readers found it relevant. Most days, like many others blog addicts, I skim through all posts in my feed reader. Whatever you write about, you’ll have the attention of a fair number of readers for at least a few moments. Therefore, make sure the title of your blog entry and its first few lines give a good idea about what you are writing about.
  • Blogging is a 2-way street. If you blog but you don’t read other people’s blogs, you may not “get” it. Reading internal and external blogs actually is crucial for you to REALLY understand why blogs are not the same as newsgroups, instant messaging or social networking web sites. As you start commenting on other people’s blogs and observing how some topics generate more interest or discussions, you’ll probably have a better understanding of the dynamics of this media. You’ll also establish your own network of bloggers who are more attuned to your own interests and area of expertise. Make sure that you reply to comments when appropriate, showing your appreciation for other people’s time and effort. It’s pretty much like going from high-school to University: it takes time to adapt to this new environment.
  • At first, you may not want to limit yourself to a single theme. Some of my favourite blogs talk about a wide variety of subjects: technology, working environment experiences, “fluffy” stuff, latest news, photography, parenthood, jokes. The proverbial writer’s block only happens if you see yourself as a writer with a theme or a deadline to meet. If the whole world is “in scope” for your blog, and you are just “chatting”, not “authoring”, you’ll probably start having a backlog of things you may want to blog about. I’m not suggesting that you blog about things that are too personal all the time, but variety is a good thing. Keep in mind the “virtual watercooler” analogy: in real offices, you do talk about things that are not strictly work-related sometimes, and that helps building rapport with your colleagues.

In my first Social Media presentation ever, back in 2006, I mentioned that Charles Darwin wondered many times if it was worth it to publish his ideas (note that some scholars dispute this as a myth):

Darwin feared putting the theory out in an incomplete form, as his ideas about evolution would be highly controversial if any attention was paid to them at all.

I keep imagining how many good ideas are left private just because people feel afraid of making a fool of themselves. As I said before, everybody has something to say, and nobody says brilliant things all the time. What if Shakespeare, Einstein, Martin Luther King, Gandhi all had blogs where they could share their reflections with others? It takes ideas to generate ideas, so just let you ideas out: many of them will probably be soon forgotten, but a few good ones may florish and persist (if you are not familiar with the concept, you may want to read about memes). Innovation is most often just a way of aggregating independent ideas into a new cohesive structure.