The Big Sort

In his podcast, Akimbo, Seth Godin teaches us how to adopt a posture of possibility, change the culture, and choose to make a difference. Here are my takeaways from the episode.

Why do human beings divide things into categories? One use of a taxonomy system is to make it easy to find things. Our ability to know where to find things causes us to sort them. It is easier to sort things when we are putting them away than it is to constantly remember the where and why of where something might be.

Another reason why we sort things is so that we can rank them. With a limited amount of time, ranking things within categories allow us to focus on the critical elements. If we can only read a limited number of books, perhaps we should start by reading the top-ranked books on the best-seller list. This narrative feels comfortable for both the producer and consumer of the contents/goods. The ranking makes us feel better to know that we have a hit.

Taxonomy and ranking are also good for business. If we control the taxonomy and the rankings, we are also going to control how people think about whether something important. The high-ranking winners in a category also enjoy better-than-average rewards.

One other reason we might want to sort things into a taxonomy is to understand how the universe works. When we categorize the world, we can start making assumptions about how the world is going to work. The next thing is to predict behavior. If we learned something how something in a category could behave, we could use that as a short cut to predict how the next thing in that category might behave.

Categorization also can present opportunities. Once we understand the grid and how the world is laid out, we can find the holes and perhaps blend categories to find new things. When we look for something in-between categories, we can think about a business model generation the same way. Also, when we can carve up the universe into categories, we have a chance to understand how the universe works and perhaps even predict the behavior of things in a category. Stock market analysts do these things all the time.

When the search engine came along, we now have this idea of tagging by the masses, which is called the folksonomy. When the crowd is deciding what belongs in what category, we see more and more categories spring up. With an infinite number of categories created by folksonomy, it means sorting or ranking by category is no longer that useful. It is an opportunity because everyone can now be the best seller of one in its unique category. Having an infinite number of categories is OK too because the search engine can still locate anyone in an instance.

One way we get into trouble is when we try to make a taxonomy of human beings. When we are falsely categorizing someone and falsely try to predict how something in a category will act, it can lead to unfairness to confusion and lost opportunities.

Another reason someone continues with taxonomy is to divide a group. What we often end up doing is we judge others by the worst among them, and we judge others’ team by the best among us. Such a comparison is completely unfair, and we needlessly divided ourselves when we have a lot more in common.

Right now we are all individuals with choices in front of us. We can choose to see the world one way or the other in any given moment. The better we can tag things (tag the good amongst us), the better we can figure out where we want to go. That also means we will be able to contribute more easily to the culture we want to build.