Thomas Francklin, in a sermon given in 1787: “Falsehood will fly, as it were, on the wings of the wind, and carry its tales to every corner of the earth; whilst truth lags behind; her steps, though sure, are slow and solemn, and she has neither vigour nor activity enough to pursue and overtake her enemy.” It is tempting to think of the problems humanity faces managing information ecosystems as being unique to the internet. The age of this quote suggests otherwise.
Brandolini’s law states that “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude larger than to produce it.” That suggests that an ounce of prevention may really be worth a pound of cure. I have a few specific suggestions.
After a post of mine leaked well after the context around its authorship had collapsed I wrote an internal post encouraging my colleagues not to write less, but rather to write more. If you think something is important enough to contribute as a comment or a post or a slide deck you have to really commit to it. Include all the context necessary to survive the passage of time. As the old adage goes, don’t write anything you would be ashamed to see on the front page of the NYT. I think we can all agree that has never been more relevant.
If you are skeptical that writing more can work, I will note that I put it to the greatest test available. I decided to rewrite that shameful post that made me the main character on the internet for a day. I posted it internally and then publicly on my blog. In the three years it has been public it has not generated any meaningful concern because it is a more complete thought. It is what I wish I had written the first time: https://boz.com/articles/growth.
If this seems like a tremendous effort I can assure you it becomes natural much faster than you might expect. I also think my writing stands as evidence that it can be done even for those who are busy and without coming off as overly corporate. Few would accuse me of being watered down! It is just about adding more context to the writing rather than relying on the reader.
Read and Comment with Humility
At a large enough scale, even people who are working full time on something can’t likely see the full picture. I know I often can’t. Large organizations have not only their own weather but their own microclimates and sometimes they form on opposite sides of the same problem. Leadership uses the various points of view to triangulate on the entirety of a problem and understand it. But for any individual who is working one side of a problem they can understandably feel like they are more informed than they are.
Instead of making comments, focus instead on asking questions. Misinformed comments aren’t just liable to be taken out of context they may also lead others to follow. We have learned on the internet that it takes relatively few people to mistakenly believe they know the answer to assume a conspiracy, when the much greater likelihood is that they just don’t know enough.
I admit this is a hard trap to avoid for me personally. I think of myself as a smart person who can do my own research and understand something. But I suspect the savvy reader can re-read the last sentence and spot the error. I can be smart and do my own research but I must also maintain humility about the veracity of my own conclusions.
Manage your audience
Another way to avoid context collapse is to ensure it is going to an audience who has context. Sure you can slap “draft” on your findings and send it wide but that has turned out to be a meaningful risk nonetheless. In addition to being a meaningful risk, it has also turned out to be of marginal value.
At any meaningful scale, even well intentioned people internally rarely share full context. The time it would take to get to fully shared context at scale would leave no time to build things. So we need to find ways to divide the work up and focus our communication on those whose experience and expertise allows them to understand it.
By ensuring not only that your message includes all necessary context but also that it is targeted at an audience capable of understanding it in perspective is critical.