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Big Idea, Big Deal

In the October issue of The Atlantic Marshall Poe's delightful little essay "Meme Weaver" reveals the magic formula for getting a major-cash-advance book contract: a Big Idea.

... A big idea is an enthusiastically stated thesis, usually taking the form of "This changes everything and will make you rich, happy, and beautiful." A big idea must be counterintuitive: the this that changes everything must be something everyone thinks is trivial, but in fact matters a great deal. In my case, the this had to be Wikipedia, so my big idea was "Wikipedia changes everything." I had done no research to substantiate such a claim. Third, I needed a catchphrase title like The Wisdom of Crowds, The Tipping Point, or The Long Tail. The title had to be the kind of thing that becomes a cliché. Trade editors would demand this. And in fact a trade editor suggested a good title—WikiWorld.

But of course after some research Poe found that Wikipedia doesn't really change everything. His first draft "... was a convoluted story involving evolution, human nature, media technologies, and their effects on human society and thought." No cookbook full of simple slogans and gripping yarns. At his editor's request he tried a rewrite, but:

... I couldn't write a big-idea book, because, as it turned out, I didn't believe in big ideas. By my lights, they almost had to be wrong. Years of academic research taught me two things. First, reality is as complicated as it is, not as complicated as we want it to be. Some phenomena have an irreducible complexity that will defeat any big-idea effort at simplification. Detailed research has, not surprisingly, cast doubt on the reality of wise crowds, tipping points, and long tails. Second, most of the easy big questions about the way the world works have been answered. The questions that remain are really hard. Big ideas, then, can only reinvent the wheel or make magical claims.

That's honesty. Alas, it doesn't sell ...

(cf. a baker's dozen related musings: SimpleAnswers (1999-05-04), ComplexityFromSimplicity (1999-08-05), ComplexSimplicity (2000-02-12), AwesomelySimple (2001-01-26), ExaggeratedCertainty (2002-12-16), ProbabilisticTragedy (2003-03-12), ProofsAndRefutations (2004-06-24), AlGore (2004-09-14), CreepingConfidence (2004-10-13), HardCoreBelievers (2005-09-02), WeeBitMoreComplicated (2007-08-29), Unreasonable Attention (2009-02-22), False Certainty (2010-03-23), ...) - ^z - 2011-09-20