I’ve been thinking about how ideas, projects, and ideas scale a bit in the past few weeks, and as usual, I wanted to collect a few of these thoughts. This post is generally in my series of posts of “Extrapolations from Systems Administration.” Inspirations and origins of these ideas come from, in part:
The internet is a big place, you don’t need me to tell you this, but I think that it’s really incomprehensibly big. Even the small corners of the internet that we (well, I at least,) inhabit contain vast amounts of information and it’s very difficult to keep your head above water, to feel like you’re in touch with what’s happening. Strategies for managing this information successfully are as concerned with “figuring out what to ignore,” as they are about figuring out how to absorb information successfully.
Scaling an idea or a concept (like a blog, or a piece of software or a web server) to be able to address problem sets (like an audience, or a given set of data, or both) of different sizes is just as difficult. It’s tough to get a web server to be able to host really large loads, its difficult to be able to write a blog that appeals to a huge audience: the this nexuses of related problems are quite large.
I think, however, we can begin to draw some conclusions. I do hope that you’ll be able to help me add to this list. Perhaps in a wikish page.
Be the biggest fish in the smallest possible pond.
The core strategy here is to avoid having to figure out how to scale up to “full speed,” by reframing the problem set. You don’t have to become the most popular or widely consumed blogger/novelist: you just have to become the most popular blogger about cyborg philosophy, or the political economics and philosophy of the open source world. You have to become the most popular post-colonial historiography space opera novelist.
Don’t participate in the proliferation of crap: only build/use what you need to.
I see lots of people say something along the lines of “I want to make a websites for all of the people interested in what I’m interested in, and we’ll need a wiki and some discussion forums, and some sort of blogs, maybe a lot of blogs, and...” This inevitably leads to a bunch of organization and building of things for their websites, and then everything is built and... no one is interested in using the crap.
This is a classic premature optimization problem. Don’t build things that you think you might need later. Build things that you need now. Or things that you really needed last week. Focus on the thing you do, and build the infrastructure as you need it, when you need it.
Work in a scalable and sustainable manner, and assume that other people will need to pick up on your projects.
While you shouldn’t expend the effort to scale before you need to, because that could end in failure, it’s common sense to approach your projects with the assumption that other people might have to finish them for you, if things take off and you need to delegate later you’ll be ready for them. Consider the possibility that you might need to scale a project when you’re in the initial planning stages and avoid getting backed into a corner by a decision.
Ignore everything you can possibly stand to.
There are so many things that you could be doing with your time. There are so many distractions. Email lists, RSS feeds, the work of other people in your field. Charity projects of one sort or another. All of these things are important and you should participate fully in the communities that surround your work, but be fully aware that humans as individuals don’t scale well, and succeeding at [your project] is dependent upon your ability to ignore everything that you can stand to.
Consume information on your terms, in the formats that make the most sense to you.
As a corollary to the above, the way to successfully engage and manage everything that you can’t possibly stand to ignore is to as much as possible engage on your terms. Figure out what your terms are first, and then work to consume content in these terms.
Use technology and media to build relationships rather than accumulate information.
Too often, I think, the geekier among us (and I count myself among this number) are interested in technology because it’s cool, and we’re tempted to solve technological problems and learn about the inner workings of stuff because they interest us. And that’s okay, as a hobby: in the pursuit of doing work, technology is only useful insofar as it allows you to get things done. And in most cases, the core function that technology provides is to enable relationships. So focus on that, and fiddle with the technical underpinnings, only when you must.
Onward and Upward!