As you might know if you follow my work even remotely, my projects almost always come from a place of philosophical supposition. That is, I first create a model that I think matches the current and emerging state of the world, and then I create a product, project, format or other that works inside, encourages or commercializes that model.
Many of my colleagues at JS-Kit do the same thing. Khris Loux and I, for example, spend hours and hours discussing our shared world views and how this translates to features, business direction and general life goals.
This methodology allows us to couch our decisions in well thought out mental models to make them more consistent, predictable and, we hope, more effective.
Over the years, and with my friends, I've proposed a number of these philosophical models including APML, DataPortability and most recently (this time working with Khris) SynapticWeb.
One of the hardest aspects of creating a philosophical model, however, is truly letting it guide you. To trust it. To take it's premise to the logical conclusion. Another challenge is explaining this methodology (and the value of the resulting outcomes) to others who a) don't think this way and b) have not taken the time to examine and live the model more fully.
Many times, the choices and decisions that I/we make from these models are nuanced, but the sum of their parts, we believe, are significant.
Let me make some concrete examples.
There is this ongoing tension between the value of social/user generated media and the media produced by 'Journalists'. Sure social media is amazing, some say, but bloggers will never replace the role of Journalists.
The fact of the matter is, if your philosophical world view is that Social Media is important, that it is a return to one-to-one personal story telling and that it allows those in the know - involved in the action - to report their first hand accounts, then you must necessarily expand your imagination and have the conviction to follow that line of logic all the way to the end.
If you do, you must necessarily discover that the distinction between Journalists and 'Us' as social media participants (all of us) is authority, perspective, distribution and an attempt at impartiality.
In the end, however, we are each human beings (yes, even the journalists). Journalists are imbued with authority because a trusted news brand vets and pays them, they are given the gift of perspective because they sit above the news and are not part of it, they have distribution because their media outlet prints millions of pieces of paper or reaches into the cable set top boxes of millions of homes and their impartiality is a lie.
Can't these traits be replicated in social media? Of course they can.
Reputation can be algorithmically determined or revealed through light research/aggregation, perspective can be factored in by intelligent human beings or machines that find both sides of a story, distribution is clearly a solved problem through platforms like Twitter, Digg and others and impartiality is still a lie. At least in social media bias is revealed and transparency is the new impartiality.
I don't mean to provide an exhaustive reasoning on why Social Media as a philosophical framework holds up as new paradigm for news gathering and reporting here - only to give an example of how we must allow ourselves to imagine outside the box and have the conviction to fully believe in our own assumptions.
The same type of artificial mental barriers have appeared at every step of the way with each of the philosophical frameworks in which I have participated. Streams, is the most recent.
When we launched Echo we proposed that any conversation anywhere, irrespective of the mode or channel in which it was taking place, had the potential to be a first class part of the canonical and re-assembled lifestream of a piece of content.
Many pushed back. "Oh a Tweet can't possibly be as valuable as a comment" they lamented. They're wrong.
A Tweet, an @ Reply, a Digg, a Digg Comment, a Facebook Status Update, a Facebook Comment, an 'on page' comment and any other form of reaction each have just as much potential for value as the other.
Some have created artificial distinctions between them. They separate the stream into 'Comments' and 'Social Reactions'. I have news for everyone. A comment is a social reaction. Thinking of it as anything less is a failure of imagination and conviction. The trick is not a brute force separation of the two, but rather a nuanced set of rules that help diminish the noise and highlight the signal - where ever it might be - from any mode or channel. We've started that process in Echo with a feature we call 'Whirlpools'.
Another interesting failure of imagination that I come up against a lot lately is the notion of community building.
With Echo, we have taken the philosophical position that users already have a social network - many have too many of them in fact. There is no reason for them to join yet another network just to comment. Not ours, not our publisher's.
No, instead they should be able to bring their social network with them, participate with the content on a publisher's website, share with their existing friends on existing social networks, and leave just as easily.
By using Echo, you are not joining 'our community'. You already have a community. If anything you are participating in the Publishers community - not ours.
We don't welcome new customers to 'Our community'. Instead we help their users bring their community to a piece of content, interact, share and leave.
Publishers invest large quantities of capital in producing high quality content only to have the engagement and monetization opportunities occur on Social Networks. In these tough economic times, publishers can not afford to bleed their audience and SEO to yet another social network just to facilitate commenting. That is the opposite of the effect they are trying to achieve by adding rich commenting in the first place.
If we use our imagination, and have the conviction to see our ideas through, we realize that publishers need tools that encourage on-site engagement and re-assemble offsite reactions as well - not bolster the branded 3rd party communities of the products they use.
In summation - be brave. Observe the world, define a philosophical framework, imagine the possibilities and have the conviction to follow through on your ideas. Stop being lazy. Stop stopping short of taking your impulses to their logical conclusions because I've found, when you consistently execute on your vision it might be a little harder to sell your point of differentiation - but your contributions will ultimately be better, more consistent and more long lasting for your company, the web and the rest of the world.