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Small pieces loosely joined: An experiment in embarrassment

The Web is changing the rhythm of writing. We currently keep a document private until the moment of publication, whether that consists of a hardback book being shipped to stores or a 20-page report being slapped down on a conference room table. The Web is getting us to collaborate earlier and earlier, which means we have to be willing to show our work earlier. The document becomes a thing in process. Rather than serving as a stake in the ground, it becomes a fallible and changeable anchor of a collaborative process. We thus expose more of ourselves, whittling away at the hard shell of the self.

I've been saying the above for a few years. Now I'm a couple of months into writing a book titled "Small Pieces Loosely Joined." It's due out in the Spring of 2002, but I have to have it in to the publisher (Perseus, the publisher of The Cluetrain Manifesto) by the end of August 2001. With some reluctance and much excitement, I've decided to post my drafts as I write them each day, as well as provide discussion boards for comment.

The benefits are obvious. The book will be better for having been kicked around as it's being written. Bad ideas will be kicked out of it, new ideas will arise, infelicities of expression will be straightened out.

The risks are manifold. First, the way writing works (at least for me) is that you get up in the morning and you put more words on the page. Periodically you go back and re- read what you've written. But the basic movement, at least initially, has to be forward. I want to write the damn thing and not get distracted arguing about what I just wrote.

This is especially concerning since in my push to put more words at the end of the previous day's words I know I sometimes write crap. But I have the luxury of knowing that I can go back and clean it up later. I also write a lot of stuff that I throw out. By posting my drafts, I will get comments on material that I know isn't worth commenting on. This wastes the reader's time and my time, and it's also damn embarrassing exposing first drafts to the world.

Then there's the danger of trying to incorporate all the comments into the draft, ending up with an academic book that consists of one idea and thirty pragraphs that begin: "Now, you might think (as John Doe said on my discussion board) ...." The book I'm writing is already sufficiently abstract not to be able to survive being pulled into new tangents even if they're worthy tangents.

So, I open this process up with reluctance. But, well, it's the Web, so what the hell. Let's see what happens.

What the Book’s About

It seems to me that the endless discussions we have about Napster, privacy, IP, yadda yadda yadda, are endless because the Web is transforming a deeper set of concepts. So, suppose we were to treat the Web not as a technology but as an idea, like the idea of democracy. To think about democracy, we inevitably end up dealing with concepts such as equality, authority, law, freedom and community. To think about the Web I believe we encounter concepts such as space, time, self, public, morality, work and spirit. And those are, in fact, the chapters of the book.

My basic approach is to argue that the Web is a new world. Literally. What's most distinctive of this world is how it's organized: many small pieces loosely joined. Or, more precisely, many small pieces loosely joining themselves. From this comes all the interesting things about the Web, including: It's got places but no space. It's a purely social world. It's a published world where to be is to be read, so that everything in it has meaning. It's a voluntary world. It's a public world in which there are (essentially) no secrets, which is having a transforming effect on business. It is fundamentally an optimistic, hopeful world.

If you'd like to read the drafts -- gently, dear reader! -- click here.

I look forward to hearing from you. Sort of. If you know what I mean.

David Weinberger is editor of Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization.

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