How ideas spread: getting excitable about being citable

(Can’t resist a quick post at lunchtime)

I caught the BBC’s greatthinkers programme 20 minutes in last night thanks to @bevgibbs who I’ve never met but obviously share a taste it tv with!  It was a great programme and noticeable for the threading in of women into the story. When you look at the spread of ideas, it is not about the great men theory of history. My history teacher’s love of Lord Geoffrey Elton, forced me to abandon my A Level History because of it. Great ideas are not just about lone geniuses. The adoption of great ideas (without which we wouldn’t know about them) is about social history, social contagion, resonance, appetite: ideas need to be timely and presented right, and people need to be receptive.

One story that really stood out was that Margaret Mead, the anthropologist, passed on her ideas about child rearing to her paediatrician, who just happened to be Dr Benjamin Spock. Isn’t that brilliant! She didn’t just write the ideas, she lived them, and must have communicated them compellingly. (I know both are controversial figures, in their personal lives and the legitimacy of their work, but they each have had a huge influence on our culture, and for the better, in my opinion).

I also heard a great story a few months ago on Radio 4 about the guy who invented the Lie Detector. He realised you could measure signs of stress in the body of someone responding to questions under stress. He prototyped the lie detection machine. Two other guys went on to make it famous and make money from it (respectively). Meanwhile he went on to the next thing. He later worked for Marvel Comics. In a focus group about how to increase circulation of sales he suggested they needed a woman superhero. He believed that American society was in a pre-matriarchal state, hence the crime and violence in society, and that when it evolved to having women in charge, it would be better. So he really believed it when he scoped out the character of Wonderwoman. Its true! See wikipedia on William Moulton Marston. He lived his life with his wife and mistress, with their two children each. After he died, they continued to live together. And he left his legacy, both in the lie detector and in Wonderwoman’s weapon: the golden lasso of truth.

Ideas spread in complicated ways.

For anyone who doesn’t do twitter (which means most people!), this is what a tweet looks like:

“ @psychemedia: RT @joypalmer: RT @janestevenson brill commentary on importance of first follower: turns ‘lone nut’ into leader

1)      Watch the video (3 minutes) – it’s fab. It shows how important the first followers are to an idea/person becoming accepted: the social contagion factor

2)      Notice how social the recommendation is: I follow all three people on twitter and watched the momentum build around this  video

Something else that made me think was a discussion yesterday about who created the concept of big OER and little OER. I first came across the idea in a Martin Weller @mweller blog post . When I’ve used the phrase publicly, I’ve credited him. After a while, the idea was well understood in some circules so I stopped citing him. Turns out the credit should also have gone to Michelle Hoyle @eingang who he did cite but I missed it. Me #fail. Oops.

I think attribution should be, and will be, made easier by the web. Twitter allows me to easily cite a person, even if not a particular tweet or blog post, then just the person themselves. The pleasure from giving and getting genuine #ff (Follow Fridays) is huge. A twitter name is a tiny unique ID that allows people to thread your identity into the chain of ideas being passed around the world. Obviously, the chain often breaks, but even from the visible top of the iceberg it’s gratifying. Imagine if it went further. This is something that digital scholarship pioneers are exploring, and I think there might be some seeds there of making web3.0 an inclusive environment for the digitally literate masses but full of provenance: being social about knowledge without being relativistic about it.

Something I’ve noticed about myself is that I often situate my ideas adjacent to other people’s. I cite my sources. Sometimes I even seed and credit other people with my own ideas because it feels like my own ideas would be more effective coming from someone else. I have often regretted that. Many of you will be nodding, its probably a familiar story, especially to women :-/ But maybe I should persevere. In a web of attribution, ideas are born social and reproduce socially (Memes is a useful ideas though perhaps a metaphor too far).  The key to being cited is to say things clearly and loud, and make your idea citable: blog it, give it a url.

I’m not a researcher, but following with interest the debates around digital scholarship. For my own part I’m resolving to try to do the social web better: giving credit where credit is due, and making myself citable. 🙂

p.s subtitle “getting excitable about being citable” added thanks to Helen Harrop aka @iamcreative who coined the phrase for me!

p.p.s citable or citeable??


2 thoughts on “How ideas spread: getting excitable about being citable

  1. I have mixed feelings about this one. After being castigated yesterday by Tony Hirst for citing Martin rather than Michelle for the big/little OER concept (well, nomenclature), I went back and checked again. And it’s true, Michelle first used the term (as far as I can tell), and Martin is happy to acknowledge that. But it was Martin who went on the flesh out the concept – he picked up the ball and ran with it, wrote the book chapters around it, so in my opinion, deserves most of the credit here. Ain’t no use having a good idea if you don’t do nothing with it.

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