Christian Heilmann

The myth of Common Knowledge

Friday, September 29th, 2006 at 5:20 pm

Recently I have discovered a really sad pattern of behaviour in the webdevelopment world and its communication channels (blogs, mailing lists, forums, IM): People don’t share information as they are afraid that it may sound too trivial, not relevant or has been discussed to death already.

This is happening in companies, too: new developers hold back in asking questions or showing others what they have done and how they solved a certain problem as they fear it may make them sound inexperienced and helpless.

It is an overused expression, but there really are no stupid questions. Repeating them over and over again without taking on information you get in answers makes you appear stupid, but the question in itself stays relevant.

There is no gain in all of us being smug about knowing it all and not really caring to ask for help with small nagging issues in favour of spending days to solve them ourselves. Asking a colleague is not a weakness but simply shows that you care about the problem and you want a second opinion to test your approach (XP fans will remember the pair programming idea).

I have some blog posts here that get an amazing amount of hits that some people asked me why I ever bothered to put them up. Things like “[link:http://www.wait-till-i.com/index.php?p=204,How to remove the border around a linked image]”, “[link:http://www.wait-till-i.com/index.php?p=257,Using CSS classes to avoid loops], [link:http://www.wait-till-i.com/index.php?p=19,Printing Background Images] or [link:http://www.wait-till-i.com/index.php?p=251,Linking an Icon and a text and apply a roll-over state]. This proves to me that the demand is there, and that things we consider “Common Knowledge” might not be that common.

There is a rather cool site that got into the direction of offering information like this, called [link:http://bitesizestandards.com/,Bite Size Standards]. However, after an initial honeymoon period of posts it seems to have gone back to bed for a beauty sleep.

In my current work, [link:http://www.kid666.com/blog/,Tom Croucher,colleague friend] tries to start implementing something called “Lightning Talks”, which are 5 minute presentations of someone of the team to the team about a certain issue and how to solve it, followed by a 10 minute question and answer session.

Battling the Common Knowledge Myth

Now, as a web site like bitesize standards means work and dedication and filtering, I propose another idea:

Let’s post a lot of these small “Issue – Solution” blog posts and simply use a unified Technorati tag for them, for example “[tag]webdevtrick[/tag]”. That way other bloggers or sites can get the feed on that tag and show them, and we can advertise the idea on mailing lists every time the same question gets asked. Consider it a decentralised FAQ with Technorati as the aggregator.

I’ll publish results here, and simply will start doing that myself, so even if I am wrong with this idea, it doesn’t cost me much time.

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