Selling an Idea

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.


  1. Stephen, I don't question the acuity of your observations at all!

    If you're not buying ideas, that's quite alright. I'm not selling 'em. I'm just sharing my experiences as I go through life. If you want to hang out and share, too, please do.

    What you describe with "this and this" is blogging...linking and making connections. I love it when you link because my stats go up...but there's no corresponding increase in my paycheck.

    Writing for ego-gratification, writing for self and then the audience is why I started writing. I do not write for a stifles the creative process, if you can call my process creative (grin).

    "TechLearning Blogerati" is a joke David Warlick started. Who would have thought others wouldn't get the punchline? I still remember how I was "made" (hehe).

    I was at this TechForum conference, ran into Gwen Solomon, an old editor of mine from "The Well-Connected Educator" web site that published a few of my articles.

    Wes Fryer, David Warlick and David Jakes were chatting with Gwen about the blogging venture, and I honestly think Gwen took pity on me, and invited me to participate. Wes talked me up some and that was nice.

    It was a longer commitment than I was prepared to make, but I said, "Sure, why not?" It's been a fun ride, a bit grim to keep writing through my dad's cancer and his passing but I'm still grateful for the experience. I'm glad other folks like Scott McLeod and Jeff U have started writing. He started at MY invitation.
    You know, that David Jakes fellow...sigh. We disagree on almost everything except his passion for digital storytelling. (smile)

    So, Stephen, would YOU like to be a guest blogger for T&L? I can "buy" you off and you can put a picture at the bottom of Half an Hour saying you're a "Blogerati."'re STEPHEN DOWNES. Aren't you like the primordial A-Lister?

    Not sure how he ended up on anyone's list (that's what A-List stands for (joke)),

    Miguel Guhlin
    Around the

  2. "Aren't you like the primordial A-Lister?"

    Yeah. That's why I started a blog here and told people they shouldn't read it. I neither need nor want Technorati buzz.

  3. Stephen, let me say that I respect your opinion. I consider you an A-lister in the edu-blogging world. I understand the point you were trying to make.

    The great thing about the world of blogs is that we can read about peoples opinions, think about the content, write about it, and continue the cycle (I know I'm stating the obvious). I don't always agree with your point of view as I don't always agree with the views from the other bloggers you mentioned but the great thing is that I have to think about it making me valididate my own opinions.

    I've drawn an interesting parallel to the CMP effect: Google-Yahoo effect! A lot of independent programmers, thinkers, and idea people in the "Web2.0" (uh-oh did I commit copyright infrigment with OReilly) have been swallowed up by Google or Yahoo.

    Voices like yours are some of the most important ones keeping others honest and true to the cause improving student achievement. Please keep doing what your doing.

    Michael Richards
    Mildred L. Day School
    Arundel, Maine

  4. I believe we all agree that Web 2.0 and educational reform must be larger than a group of people.

    But since, I'm not included in your list (whew!) and I'm not an A-lister (I don't think) and I don't have anything to sell (at least not yet) I will say this.

    My classroom change was sparked by one thing and one thing only -- I heard David Warlick speak at a conference.

    So, no matter whether each of them has some ill intentions or something, they've been very inclusive of me (a newcomer). They have linked to me, commented on my site, and encouraged me, a virtual nobody. They have taught me and yes, even emailed me on occasion.

    They are not paid to consult with me, they do it for free. David gives my students classblogmeister for free. It is a great safe place for them to learn. Jennifer does the Technospud project for free.

    One of the guidelines I teach my students in blogging is to "Never impune the motives of another when you do not know them."

    Yes, I agree that the voice needs to be much larger than a set group of people. Yes, I agree that others need to be included. However, as a newcomer to this foray of web 2.0 madness and as a fan of your blog, I believe that perhaps you have wrongly disparaged some great people.

    I'll continue to read your blog but I vehemently disagree with you on this topic!

  5. I have jumped on the bandwagon in the last nine monthes and it was because I came across Will Richardson's blog. Now I must admit that I did buy his book but it was well worth every cent since I've read it through twice.

    One of the things that I have appreciated the most about this group of Edubloggers is their willingness to share what they have created for free, ie, Will's presentation wiki.

    Even if I only lurk on the sidelines of the K-12 Conference, I appreciate the effort and all the new information I am being presented with. Where else am I going to hear so many different expert/learners or adventurers along this new road?

  6. Stephen, if I'm reading this right, you are more than a little peeved cause some 'experts' out there are taking the ideas and the work of others, rebranding and repackaging, and then selling them as something new.

    I can understand the frustration, but isn't that we, the human race, have always done. When you really think about it, how many of us have ever had a totally original idea. Virtually everything we do, say and create comes from what we have seen, read, and experienced based on the ideas, thoughts and work of those that have come before us.

    Maybe those that do the rebranding just have a little more of the entreprenurial spirit than the rest of us. Good on 'em. And good on you....a little pot stirring is always a healthy thing.

  7. Stephen, thanks for clarifying your thoughts here. I for one, am a bit regretful about the comment I posted over at on your OLDaily post because it probably symbolises my involvement in the K12 Online Conference - just jumping in without thinking. I hadn't even considered that other agendas would be coming into play - it's even crossed my mind that maybe my application was accepted to boost the international quota - you know, one of the token Aussies. I can't pretend to know others' intentions and I never would have seen the links that you have detailed here so thanks for helping me value my own contributions (whatever the dubious quality) a little bit more and for starting others talking a bit as well. I hadn't even considered that this was a re-invention of a regular conference before listening to Dave - in my eagerness to try something new, I did not stop to think that there may be other more-controlled-by-me situations to further my own thinking and to influence others. I think I have to take some of my own advice - learning from each other is very different to setting up a presentation and dispensing that "learning" out to others. I will still be a part of K-12 Online Conference and if you're right and I get burned by having some of my own work re-purposed for the gain of others, then like my 3 year old son last weekend when he burnt his fingers on the stove hotplate, I will be much warier and require much more from myself in terms of Why?

  8. Hmmm, this thread is interesting and like all other voices, worth reading and listening to-- but I think there are some misconceptions here. If anyone is making money from K-12 Online, I am not aware of it, and I am one of the conveners. (Actually the 4th one asked to help because they needed someone for the 4th thread! I joined late.)

    I don't see a conspiracy here. True, a lot of the people blogging and speaking at conferences are the same people. As far as TechLearning goes, none of us are paid or compensated to blog there as far as I know. (I am not.) TechLearning has and I think continues to pay for first-publication rights to some articles, but except for a couple exceptions everything I've written for them has been for free. Even though I have been paid for a few articles in the past, however, I don't think that implicates me in some dark conspiracy to take credit for and commercialize web 2.0.

    One of the greatest things about K-12 Online is that it is entirely free and entirely non-commercial. I think what is happening here is really amazing. I'm happy to have people question what has taken place and is taking place, but I challenge anyone to find impropriety in what has been done. CMP and Techlearning are not even remotely involved. Yes, I blog on Fridays for Techlearning and I'm a convener for K-12 Online, but that connection (and the connection of other presenters like David Warlick, David Jakes, and others) is incidental rather than indicative of a conspiracy. I think they are presenting for K-12 Online for the same reason Techlearning asked them to blog for them-- They all have great ideas, and are willing to share them with a larger audience.

    Thanks as always for sharing your perspectives Stephen, which continue to be fresh and challenging. In this case, however, I think you may be misperceiving the motivations and the actual actions of some people and organizations. Clearly there have been and always will be people who attempt to make a profit off the work of others. I definitely don't think that is happening in the case of K-12 Online.

    I am not presenting at the K-12 Online conference, btw. My proposal for the "Personal/Professional Development" thread was not accepted by the review panel that Will put together. So, maybe I shouldn't have made that "A lister" group after all?! :-)

  9. Stephen,

    This is the second post I have read of yours, the first being your initial rant about the K12 conference.

    I am doing the gut check digestion on your comments and thoughts and what I am sensing is something short of jealousy. Maybe more along the lines of being insulted by the edu-bloggers you feel who are profitting from their experiences and thoughts.

    My response is something along the lines of being as long as you produce timely, relevent content that inspires people to react and respond in ways that further the discussion, then who cares what the other blogger does? Is it because you feel they are tagged with the "expert" stamp? Why care if there is a buck to be made? People pay good money for higher education in this world. The nice thing about the Internet is the freedom to get these ideas free through the blogs which is the bread and butter of these profiteers.

    My biggest complaint at NECC this past summer was seeing the same song and dance from 7 years ago when I started teaching. I couldn't believe the rehash jobs some of the "keynote" and "spotlight" speakers did. Of course, they will have their fans. I am one prone to get up and leave if it is the same song and dance.

    Look, Andy Williams still attracts a crowd in Branson, Missouri. Axl Rose still pulls the same no-show stunt he did back in the 80s and people still buy tickets. But these guys will never play to the same large crowds. They are not growing their audience. They are not inspiring future performers. They are not growing as a performer.

    Don't be insulted by those you see as braggarts or charlatans. You build your audience through quality thoughts and reflections. Readers will follow. Innovation always breeds divergent thoughts and the world is a big place. Do not be so easily insulted from those who see a niche that can be filled.


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