November 29, 2008
The description of Outliers reads:
Malcolm Gladwell takes us on an intellectual journey through the world of "outliers" - the best and the brightest, the most famous and the most successful. He asks the question: what makes high-achievers different? His answer is that we pay too much attention to what successful people are like, and too little attention to where they are from: that is, their culture, their family, their generation, and the idiosyncratic experiences of their upbringing. Along the way he explains the secrets of software billionaires, what it takes to be a great soccer player, why Asians are good at math, and what made the Beatles the greatest rock band.One question that Gladwell doesn't address, but is highly relevant given his thesis, is: how did all-star bloggers get to where they are today?
Gladwell argues that success is a function of intelligence, hard-work, and, more or less, being in the right place at the right time. In Chapter two of Outliers he highlights the 75 wealthiest individuals in world human history. 14 of them (nearly 20% of the total), share something interesting in common. These men and woman, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Frederick Weyerhaeuser, Jay Gould, Marshall Field, George F. Baker, Hetty Green, James G. Fair, Henry Rogers, J.P. Morgan, Oliver H. Payne, George Pullman, Peter Arrell Brown Widener, and Philip Danforth Armour, were all born in the United States between 1830 and 1840. The rationale, according to Gladwell, is that these businesspeople were the perfect age to capitalize on newly built railroads, the creation of Wall Street, and the beginning of industrial manufacturing when the rules by which the economy had functioned were broken and remade. Had they been born after 1940, they would have been too young to take advantage of the moment; had they been born before 1830, they might have had to pass up entrepreneurial ambitions for family and other responsibilities.
The same can be argued during the computer era. When the first personal computer hit the market in 1975, someone who was between 20 and 25 years old would have been at the perfect moment in life to capitalize on the technological revolution. Perhaps it isn't surprising that Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer, Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt, Bill Joy, Scott McNealy, Vinod Khosla, and Andy Bechtolsheim were all born between 1953 and 1956. Had they been born too early, they would have missed out on the opportunity to learn primitive computer programming while still in high school and college; had they been born too late, others would have already beaten them to the punch. This isn't meant to underscore the intelligence or determination of these individuals, but is meant to point out that they also were incredibly lucky to be born when they were.
So back to the blogosphere. A recent piece in the Economist identifies a rising group of public intellectuals blogging their way to the top. Among these elite are Ezra Klein, Megan McArdle, Will Wilkinson, and Matthew Yglesias. The age thesis doesn't fit quite so nicely here, as McArdle and Wilkinson were born in 1973, eleven years before Klein came into the world in 1984. They do share a very specific trait, however, and Yglesias has it partially figured out:
I think it would be strange if the main qualification for becoming a high-profile public intellectual in the future is that you had to start a personal blog in 2002 or 2003.Starting a blog in 2002 or 2003 might not be a requirement for becoming a high-profile intellectual, but it would help explain why the bloggers mentioned above are acknowledged by the Economist and others aren't. Think about it, Blogger.com launched in 2000, but really took off in 2003 when it was acquired by Google. Early adopters had to be people who were willing to give a primitive technology a shot, but they also had to be mature writers with something worthwhile to say. Had they been too young, they wouldn't have had the skill or intelligence to write about anything interesting (take me, for instance. I was only 15 years old in 2002; when Extraordinary Observations launched in 2004, I still lacked solid writing skills and a perspective on the world beyond my high school's walls). On the other hand, had they been older, they might have been skeptical of the new online medium, or perhaps unwilling to be among the first to switch from dead-tree journalism to blogging.
2002 and 2003 are key years because they represent the very beginnings of the blogosphere. The best bloggers during that time period adopted a small but loyal following that encouraged them to continue blogging. As they blogged, they got better, they gained respect, and they picked up even more followers along the way. This isn't to suggest that these bloggers aren't incredibly intelligent or don't deserve the respect they get; but the fact that they all started blogging in 2002 and 2003 may turn out to be more than a coincidence, and it may not be as strange as Yglesias originally thought.