BIF and Steven Johnson

Steven Johnson

Author "The Ghost Map" and founder

Johnson is the best-selling author of five books. His most recent work The Ghost Map tells the story of the worst cholera outbreak in Victorian London. Johnson is a contributing editor to Wired magazine and is a Distinguished Writer In Residence at the New York University Department of Journalism. Johnson’s latest project, is a website that collectively builds online conversation about geographic locations neighborhood by neighborhood.

  • In 1995, I started an online mag called Feed.  had established writers etc.  We had 2 people doing all of it.  went on for a year or so, building an audience.  A year later, Walt Mossberg was writing about web mags, we did an interview.  We had a new design and tried to get it up for when the column was going live.  As I was trying to get it up, we had about 150 people subscribe..they had read it online.  I was then racing against 1000s of trucks around the country bringing the newspapers to all.   New and old media combined.
  • After this, I wrote a book, Interface Culture.  I was reading about brains and cities, trying to decide what to write about
  • on my 30th birthday I got a book of 19th century of maps.   Looking at a map of Hamburg, it looked like a brain, and I started to think this may be one book.  I followed the hunch for 8 months, turned into the second book Immergence.  that hunch took a long time to evolve.
  • the idea for Ghost Map came to me in the middle of Seabiscuit…I got up and called my agent there and then.  It came to be suddenly, a different way of getting hunches
  • London in 1854 was the largest city the world had seen, a city as an organism, having waste problems,  Led to large breakouts of disease,
  • the existing health institution were in the grips of a bad idea, the miasma theory, that all smell was disease.  London was very, very smelly.
  • For innovation you also have to understand why bad ideas stay around.  For this one, we evolved avoidance of smells, there were bureaucracy reasons, people were stubborn
  • People in Flickr trace the map landmarks – There is a John Snow pub there now
  • Snow did a number of studies.  He saw an opportunity in this outbreak, to prove his theory.  Slowly he managed to convince people.  Whitehead was also key – a connector.  Knew all.  He had a social intelligence that was couples with Snow’s science intelligence.  They were inside the community, the experts on the ground
  • As I was writing the book, I wasted time by reading people who were blogging their communities, who wrote about what was happening.  I started to see connections, when we look at the scales of our lives,, our local place is somewhere we care about.   the placebloggers are amplifying their knowledge, most was stuck in direct WOM face to face.  I started to think there were some opportunities.  I chatted with a friend who then funded the building of  Allows people to see things on maps, see queries on different scales. 
  • Idea is to amplify the voices.  All the debates about bloggers fade away at the local community level, the community is the best source, the local bloggers are the experts.
  • the connection and key thing, the moment of insight the quick hunch is not always the way.  Most ideas need time to develop, take time, the source for some of the best ideas.  
  • we need to build hunch supporting environments, to incubate ideas, to build things
  • organisations not normally structured for these things, this way of thinking.

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