The Ecology of New Ideas

A curious feature of the Shangri-La diet is how much its spread has been helped by things that did not exist a few years ago.

First, open access. My article with the data and ideas behind the diet was published in an “open-access” journal and stored in an “electronic repository.” Thus anyone with Internet access could read the article. The repository now has about 12,000 articles; mine was Number 117.

Second, blogs. Interest in this article was greatly amplified by blogs. My friend Andrew Gelman blogged about it. His post was read by Alex Tabarrok, who wrote about it at Marginal Revolution. His post was read by Stephen Dubner and led to a Freakonomics column in the New York Times — a great way to get book publishers’ attention. After the column (sadly eclipsed by Hurricane Katrina), a few blogs focussed on the diet and helped me weave a fuller view of its effects into the book I soon got a contract to write. When the book was published, quite a few bloggers had already heard about its main idea, which rendered its very strange concept slightly less strange, i.e., more acceptable. Now it is being discussed and tried in several blogs (see Blogroll)

Third, forums — the Shangri-La diet forums at sethroberts.net. At a talk about user interfaces a few years ago, I heard a famous designer say that new devices went through three stages of use: (a) hobbyist; (b) expert; and (c) mass market. Departments of electrical engineering, he said, were good at providing products for the first two stages, but were poor at making mass-market products. As far as the Shangri-La diet is concerned, this is what the sethroberts.net forums have done so well: made the diet acceptable to almost anyone. They have made the oil easier to drink, answered all sorts of common questions, and provided reassurance (it may sound crazy but it works), expert advice, and support.

Recently I heard Yochai Benkler, a professor at Yale Law School, speak on “The wealth of networks: How social production transforms markets and freedom” at an MIT symposium. This example supports his general point that new network-related products (such as open access) are empowering the little guy — the little guy here being me, who never got a large grant to support this research.

Why did these three new things (open access, blogs, and forums) all start at roughly the same time? Of course all of them were made possible by the growth of the Internet but so were a billion other things that haven’t yet come to pass. I have been working on a theory of human evolution that says language evolved because single words helped people trade. I think the growth of the Internet has been caused by the modern version of just that — better connection of buyer and seller. But open access, blogs, and forums have nothing to do with commerce. I think all three arose from another basic human tendency: a desire to share our enthusiasms. During the early days of electronic discussion groups (called bulletin boards), I was greatly disappointed that not one was devoted to Spy magazine. Why did we evolve this basic tendency? Because it led to the beginning of science — the intertwined growth of knowledge. So it makes quite a bit of sense that these three new things together acted in a kind of scientific way, bringing an effective weight-loss method out of darkness.

Berkeley Public Library Watch:The Shangri-La Diet, 4 holds on 5 copies. The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan, 116 holds on 7 copies. Website Watch: Distinct hosts served at sethroberts.net, latest 24-hour period: 1494. One week ago: 888. Distinct hosts served is close to the number of different visitors.

One Reply to “The Ecology of New Ideas”

  1. Apparently internet advertising can work effectively too. That’s how I found out about the book (specifically from an ad on http://www.thesuperficial.com) and I hardly ever respond to ads.

    What caught my attention was the quote from Steven Dunbar, which I surprised to see on a diet book since he known for Freakonomics.

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