Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Selling an Idea

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Oct 19, 2006

Probably the hardest thing to do in the world is to sell an idea.

Some ideas just don't sell. For every global religion there are thousands of off-shoots, cults and sects. For every grand political philosophy dreamers have come up with a million more crackpot schemes, splinter groups and ultra-orthodox interpretations. There is, as with so many things, a long tail of ideas, and thus, most ideas are destined to languish in the dustbins of history.

But it is possible to have an idea that catches fire, to find yourself associated with a movement that seems to be sweeping the nation. The internet has been a rapidfire producer of such ideas. And so we've seen the emergence and wild popularity of things like open source, like Creative Commons, like podcasting, like Web 2.0. Oh, and so many more - it would take a long time to list them all.

Even so, even if the idea is hugely popular, it is still hard to sell. There are some reasons for this. For one thing, people soon realize that ideas, even your idea, are free, and that if they want, they can have it without paying you. Ideas, and especially good ideas, are the sorts of things that will attract followers, devotees who will spread them for free. And finally, ideas have a notoriously short lifespan. There's always a newer idea, a better idea, just around the corner.

What I have observed over the years, though, is that for every idea there is a cluster of people around that idea who think it can be sold - or at least, so it would appear. People have ideas, or become associated with ideas, and then the dollar signs begin to flash before their eyes, and they break away from whatever it was they were doing, to follow the dream. And there is no shortage of people who will help them do this, who will encourage them in this enterprise.

But in fact, ideas don't sell, no matter what you've heard on the radio. People may create a career chasing an idea, but that's different. The idea itself, the having of the idea, doesn't pay one red cent. Even if the idea sweeps the nation, you get nothing for it. Don't believe me? Ask Jorn Barger.

This brings me to the subject of the K-12 Online Conference, my comments about which have drawn so much ire in the last few days. Was I really just in a grumpy mood, in need of the blue pill? Well, yes, I have been grumpy lately, in a sour disposition, if you must know. But while my being grumpy has everything to do with my disposition, it has nothing to do with the acuity of my observations. What I said was accurate.

I wrote, "It's kind of like a 'Coming of Age', only presented as a conference. Oh hey wait, it's the same people!" The comparison with Coming of Age is in my view a perfectly apt one, since both are a collection of educational bloggers' opinions about educational blogging. It was also apt given the big Coming of Age logo splashed on the conference home page. And it was also apt given that it involved, as I said, the same people, which I took the time to link to.

Now some people thought I meant in my comments everyone at the conference, which is an utterly absurd reading of what I said. That's why I offered a link. And if you follow the link, though there's no list per se (there used to be one but I can't find it any more) you can see it easily enough in the 'categories': David Jakes, David Warlick, Jeff Utecht, Mechelle De Craen, Miguel Guhlin, Cheryl Oakes, Scott McLeod, Terry Freedman, Wesley Fryer.

OK, why these people? Why this association?

Well, part of it is stuff like this, from Terry Freedman's blog: "This is a great opportunity to take part, in some way, in a pioneering exercise. The idea was, I believe, first mooted by Will Richardson. It's being run by Will, in conjunction with Darren Kuropatwa, Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, and Wesley Fryer, all of whom (apart from Will) are contributing to the second edition of Coming of Age. The first keynote to kick off the conference is being given by Dave Warlick (another contributor)."

You know, and items like this catch my eye, and this and this and this and this and this ("
Sure, the blogerati--David Warlick, Wes Fryer, Terry Freedman, David Jakes and the Unknown Blogger--bring a lot of topics to the table..." - see what I mean by "according to themselves"? ) and this (" David Warlick, Wesley Fryer, Miguel Guhlin, Terry Freedman, and David Jakes are the Techlearning blogerati.") and even this, a little bit, which would be nothing by itself, but in context means a bit more. And I could keep going but I have a flight to catch tomorrow.

My description of what I have observed is not wrong - it is something I have been seeing over and over. The K12 Online Conference is just the latest instantiation of it. And if you're wondering why I picked this event, well, I didn't pick this event at all, I simply got tired of seeing these guys once again telling everyone how great they are. As though they are the voice of educational blogging. So I made a few remarks to that effect and tossed them into a post (it wasn't that much effort, really).

So what's going on?

Well - it all comes back to this thing, that it is hard to sell an idea. First you have to lay claim to it, to own it. But even then, you find, pretty quickly, that the idea, by itself, doesn't sell. So then you have to hunt around for things to sell. Books, maybe? Conference appearances, perhaps? Or even whole conferences? Perhaps some marketing and advertising, if you can get a big enough name and nuture a relationship with some of the relevant tech companies. Product, if you actually have a product or the skill to make one.

It's a hard life. The books don't sell, really, and unless you're Malcolm Gladwell or Thomas Friedman or Chris Anderon you're not going to make a lot of money that way. Unless you already have a deal with a publisher (who will do the marketing you need to get this kind of sales - because that's the only way to do it) you may as well give the book away for free, hope to get a little income from library orders, and focus on other things.

Like what? Well there's this company that can address these problems for you. They combine product marketing with information services such as conference hosting. This would be a good company to be associated with, especially if the idea you have chosen to sell has something to do with Web 2.0 in education. This company does Web 2.0. In fact, this company claims it owns Web 2.0.

This company is also behind TechLearning
- which happens to be where I linked the first time when I said it's the the same people. They publish a magazine - oh hey, there's a Dave Warlick feature article. They sponsor events - oh, hey, there's David Jakes giving a talk - and here he is as a keynote.

See, the thing is, when you decide you want to sell an idea, you eventually have to turn to selling something else, and when you turn to selling something else, then in some cases, it becomes a matter of selling yourself, and when this becomes the brand, then you begin, bit by bit, to sell out - to be available to the highest bidder, to fluff up your presentation of knowledge and awareness, to seek alliances with like-minded people who will help promote the brand - the usual.

Because that's the way it's done when a discipline - any discipline - becomes show business. And if there's anything show business can sell, it's an idea - even if they have to grab it from the commons, gussie it up, give it a little spin and a little flash, get the corporate sponsors on board, disnify it to make sure it's clean and squeaky, and then market it as the brand new thing that nobody ever thought of.

Now the people at the K12 Online Conference can believe whatever they want. If some of these things are new to them, then I guess they are new, because in this world perception is everything. And if the TechLearning crowd tells you they are the edublogging digerati enough times, then I guess they are the digerati, because what the media says is always true, even if they write the media. And if it's all about volunteers and having a voice and coming together - well, no harm, no foul, right?

Except - these will now be the voices of our discipline. These voices, who are already fluffing it up, emptying it of substance, adding flash and positioning themselves for the Big Sale. These, who are already in deep with a marketing company that has demonstrated that it doesn't care one whit for the community, doesn't respect one whit the real origins and bases for the ideas it sells.

The only thing that would the the capper would be were Warlick or Freedman or the bunch of them became spokespeople for Blackboard, if Cmp had Blackboard sponsor the e-learning 2.0 conferences, and where they could all get together and celebrate the market and the idea. As though they had invented it.

As it is, I will return to the original line I had when I first posted about this: I aggregate more than 300 edubloggers and try to represent their contributions as fairly as I can in these pages. And that is to me the core of edublogging, not self-styled A-listers.

As for some of the others who are involved in the conference, some of whom actually are among the leading edubloggers, allow me to say what I said to one of you last week: "You should also be sensitive to the fact that other people will use you and your standing as a means to attempt to advance their own. It has certainly happened to me. What happens is they start pumping you up, and then you start reciprocating." Because you feel you have to.

And you know, come to think of it, that's why I have been in a sour mood for the last while. Because nobody likes to think that they are just a means to some end. As Kant knew so well.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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