I wrote the Long Tail in public here on this blog. Not every word, of course, but most of the main ideas emerged here first. I was thinking out loud, beta testing my theory with my readers. In exchange for sharing my research in progress, people helped make it better. It worked great.
Now I'm pretty much finished with Free (it will published on July 6th; the wheels of the book industry move slowly) and I'm reflecting on why this one took a different path. Although I blogged a lot about Free (and will continue to do so), very little of the book proper can be found on these pages.
Part of that is that it's a much more narrative-driven book, with lots of history (as befits an economic phenomenon that predates money), and that kind of writing is best done in isolation. It also reflects the fact that I've been thinking about this as a book from the start, so by the time I started writing it was all pretty well worked out in my head.
But I'm no less wedded to transparency and sharing work in process than I was. It's just that I've shifted that method to one of my other projects, the open source hardware company that I'm running on the side. At DIY Drones, we've been blogging daily on the progress of our airplane autopilot and autonomous blimp projects. Just as with the Long Tail, the community there is helping making the better and otherwise collectively beta testing them. We give away our ideas and work and people return the gift with their own ideas, feedback and encouragement.
I wonder if there is some sort of conservation law at work here. Perhaps most people can only be truly transparent about one thing at a time. After all, it takes a lot of energy to loop the whole world into every twist and turn of your progress. Transparency is hard work. Constantly updating the world on your status can become a job all by itself.
For example, our experiments with transparency at Wired have mostly been one-offs. The behind-the-scenes politics of a Microsoft story. The creation and editing process of a Charlie Kaufman profile. Collective editing of Wired.com story.
Why don't we do this with every story? Because it's a huge amount of work, easily doubling the time required for any project. We can only do a few a year, and that's why it's been relegated to proof of concept rather than standard practice. Nobody's figured out how to introduce true transparency into company practice without making it somebody's full-time job.
That's why we see so little true transparency in practice (Fred Wilson's superhuman efforts aside) and even those like me who are drawn to it have to relegate it to just a single aspect of their life. For all that Twitter and other microblogging makes lifecasting and other status updating easier, for most people it still feels like another obligation, taking time to do well and causing guilt when neglected.
You can't be transparent about everything all the time. Indeed, you're lucky if you can be transparent about just one thing well. Maybe someday we'll figure out parallel transparency, but for now serial will have to do.