I just finished reading Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From (I know, I’m a little late to the party) and among the many ideas now rattling around in my head is that of the “commonplace book“: a 17th Century habit of maintaing a written personal idea log. As Johnson describes in a related blog post:
“In its most customary form, ‘commonplacing,’ as it was called, involved transcribing interesting or inspirational passages from one’s reading, assembling a personalized encyclopedia of quotations. It was a kind of solitary version of the original web logs: an archive of interesting tidbits that one encountered during one’s textual browsing.”
Johnson uses the example of the commonplace book to support his argument that that deliberately mixing ideas and patterns across diverse domains of knowledge is a powerful catalyst for breakthrough innovation. (A similar thesis is advanced – in much denser and more academic style – by Richard Ogle in his Smart World: Breakthrough Creativity and the New Science of Ideas).
This got me thinking: In a world of high-velocity digital content consumption across multiple devices and formats – Kindle, iPad, smartphone, feed reader, PDFs, blogs, etc – what is the modern-day equivalent of the Commonplace Book? Could smart software enable a digital commonplace book that not only serves as a cross-platform idea log, but also helps the user to discover patterns that could spark creative leaps?
The most obvious examples among existing products are things like Evernote, Tumblr and Posterous – fast-access digital catchbasins for the content and ideas we want to hold on to and (in some cases) share. Mass adoption of Apple’s iPad has sparked considerable innovation around the digital “read” experience – services like Flipboard, Zite, OnSwipe and Instapaper help readers filter, manage and time-shift the overwhelming velocity of content coming at them. But none of these offer a really compelling “Commonplace” experience, embracing the complex urge to highlight + annotate + store + share + remix the most compelling snippets from that flow.
I’ve been spending time with two TechStars Seattle 2010 alumni – Highlighter and The Shared Web – that are each working on different elements of this problem. I shared some early details on Highlighter’s plans last week, and The Shared Web guys will be taking the wraps off their “social curation” platform shortly. Neither company is explicitly tackling the “Commonplace Book” use case, and there are many more really smart teams out there working on related themes – all of which should add up to fast-paced and highly competitive period of innovation on this topic.
If you’re following this theme and see interesting stuff out there please send it my way (chris at founderscoop dot com / Twitter: @crashdev) – I promise to be a dedicated tester and eager evangelist for anything that brings real software magic to the problem.
NB: The image of a 17th-century commonplace book at the top of this post was sourced from the Wikimedia Commons.