Original Content, Standard Format

I refer again to my first Everybody Letter, My Locus Communis. In that letter I wrote that the “main purpose of The Everybody Letter is not just to share ideas, it’s to create a source of ideas – and to apply those ideas in a continuous cycle of learning.”

Let me explain what I mean by creating a “source of ideas.” I’ll get to the “continuous cycle of learning” part in future posts.

The Everybody Letter is both a source of original content (like this paragraph), and it’s a repository of original content (like the document referenced below). By extension, then, the Everybody Letter is also an original source of content (its own) and a secondary source of content (others’ original content).

This distinction between content and sources is fundamental to the process of building The Everybody Letter.

In our digital age, there are many, many sources of content; the number is infinite for all practical purposes. The sources of written content alone include newspapers, books, magazines, websites, industry blogs, personal blogs, press releases, emails, and the exponential multiplication of sources as they all refer to each other.

The Everybody Letter is based on the idea that an original source is not always a true reference. A true reference can be retrieved at any future time, whereas the location of original sources may change, or be lost forever.

For example, last week Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella wrote an email to all Microsoft employees with the subject “Bold Ambition & Our Core.” Microsoft created a page on its website, posted the content of the email, and presented it with an elegant design. Many news sites and blogs commented on the email and linked to its source (the Microsoft page).

The Microsoft page is a source of the email content, but it’s not a true reference. One day Microsoft will delete that page from its website and the source will be gone forever.

The links above demonstrate the difference between a reference and a source. My link to the email points to a document I created from the source. The Everybody Letter, not Microsoft, stores that derived document. The Everybody Letter doesn’t own the content, of course, but it captured it for future reference. By contrast to my link to the email content, the other link points to the page displaying that content.

The Everybody Letter produces and stores content, not sources. It will often link to sources, of course, but it will also seek to capture content whenever possible, in order to act as a true reference to the content.

The Everybody Letter also converts original content into a standard format for future reference. This is important for a few reasons: first, the act of converting content into a standard format often reveals the structure of the arguments (this doesn’t help the reader, but at least the reader has access to content that’s easy to manipulate); second, many sources display content with extraneous material, and standardizing the format strips away distractions; and third, as the standard format becomes familiar, it becomes easier to read it and focus on the ideas, not the format.

All that said, in many cases it’s necessary to refer to the original source, not just to the original content. For example, a researcher may want to study the type of ink used in the original Declaration of Independence – and converting it into a standard format would remove value, not create it. Most historians, though, are satisfied with a copy of the document, or even just a copy of its content…so it makes sense in most cases to convert the content into a standard format.

After all, the purpose of the Everybody Letter is “to be a source of ideas,” not a source of original sources…

Finally, for each piece of content, the Everybody Letter assigns a category (or categories) to major themes and applies a tag (or tags) to key concepts or words. This can apply to whole documents or individual thoughts. The most basic form of this process is to create the equivalent of a table:

Thought Theme Thinker Source
Avoid trivia. Focus George Marshall Advice to
Secretary of State
Dean Acheson

The goal is not just to locate one piece of content; it’s to search an entire body of content by theme and keyword. And the only reliable way to do that is to choose and assign themes, and to tag key concepts. Tools may help, but creating a rich source of ideas is, in essence, a manual process.