I started doing research. This was revealing, as research should be. It forced me to scotch the idea that “Wikipedia changes everything,” because it obviously didn’t. The truth about Wikipedia was messy. I couldn’t boil it down to catchphrases and anecdotes. So I did my best to reduce the inherent complexity of the subject, and submitted the manuscript. Was it good? Well, the book did the job as I understood it. Was it done? Yes, and that was important. But I was worried. I had strayed from the big-idea template. My book was a convoluted story involving evolution, human nature, media technologies, and their effects on human society and thought. Surprisingly, my editor liked it a lot. He compared me to Jared Diamond. I didn’t know whether that was a compliment or not. I had some serious questions about Diamond’s work, as did many other historians. My agent, however, assured me that this was the best possible news: Diamond’s books sold like hotcakes.
Then my editor fell ominously silent. E-mails went unanswered, phone calls unreturned. What had happened? My agent explained that my big idea—which in fact was no longer my big idea—had a short shelf life. That’s why my editor had wanted the book in six months. Other Wikipedia books were in the pipeline. Some of their authors had higher platforms, bigger ideas, and pithier titles than mine. The clock was ticking. After six months, my editor finally wrote me. Not surprisingly, he no longer liked my book. Too complicated for the average trade reader. He advised me to speculate. “Unleash your inner Marshall McLuhan,” he said, and rewrite the book.
This was excellent advice from a smart man with decades of experience in trade publishing. But I realized that I had no inner Marshall McLuhan. Even more important was my realization that I had no inner James Surowiecki, Malcolm Gladwell, or Chris Anderson. From my editor’s perspective, these were models, and rightly so. They made trade publishers a fortune. From my perspective, however, they were good writers who had spun big ideas into gold. 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.
So I forgot about big ideas and did what I was trained to do. I conducted research. I let the facts be my guide. My book contained no down-from-the-mountain revelations. Its conclusions would not make anyone rich, happy, and beautiful. Its rewards were unashamedly intellectual, and moreover not that easily achieved. It was a difficult book. I submitted it to my editor, hoping that he would accept it.
Of course he couldn’t. Wikipedia’s moment had passed, and my big idea had vanished. He killed the book, and the big number disappeared. I don’t blame him. He was just doing his job. I was the one, after all, who had not followed through on a promise. I said I would write a big-idea book, but I had instead written a book of ideas.