On Ezra Klein and Project X: Sometimes it’s okay to not know exactly what you are doing

There’s been a lot of discussion in recent days about former Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein and the new thing he is trying to build at Vox Media, an experiment in blending news stories and Wikipedia-style background called Project X. Among the responses to this experiment are a few that seem irritated by the lack of detail or specifics provided by Klein or Vox, including one from old-media curmudgeon George Packer in the New Yorker.

These criticisms miss a fairly important point about innovation, however, which is that some of the most innovative and disruptive things — in media or elsewhere — come from those who have little to no idea what they are doing, only that they are pursuing something worthwhile.

That’s not to say Klein doesn’t have any clue what he’s doing. It’s pretty clear from the job listing that Project X posted, and other comments that Klein and Vox CEO Jim Bankoff have made (if Packer and others had bothered to look), that he has a vision of a news entity that combines breaking news, analysis and background information in a similar way to Vox’s StoryStreams. Is this a good idea? Who knows. But it’s worth a shot.

Experimentation is good

newspaper boxes

Project X doesn’t fit into the neat model of media or journalism that George Packer feels familiar with, however, which is why he goes on at length about how he doesn’t understand what Klein is doing or how it is supposed to help journalism. The New Yorker writer was similarly sceptical about blogging and its value in 2004, as Jay Rosen and others have pointed out — as sceptical as many journalists and media outlets were about Twitter in its early days.

In fact, Twitter is an excellent example of how valuable it can be to not know exactly what you are doing when you start building something, as I tried to point out in a post last year. As Nick Bilton describes in his book about Twitter’s birth, most of the key players in the early days of the service — including Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams and Noah Glass — had very different (and fairly vague) ideas about what exactly they were building and what it would be useful for.

That openness and lack of structure is a big part of what gave Twitter the ability to be flexible and adapt to what users wanted to do with it — and even though that lack of structure caused business-model difficulties and other challenges along the way, I firmly believe that without it, Twitter would not have become what it is today.

Some of the best things start out as unknowns

Clay Shirky said some time ago that we actually need the media environment to be chaotic, because we literally don’t know what is going to work. In a recent post about the limits of knowledge, Benedict Evans of Andreessen Horowitz said something very perceptive about companies that start out without really knowing what they are doing:

“This ignorance and misunderstanding is often how we get true disruption — people are so ignorant that they don’t know something can’t be done and won’t work, so they go and do it, and it works.”

We all know how newspapers and magazines and other things work, and we know a lot about how digital-first entities like BuzzFeed and Gawker work (although we are still learning). But that doesn’t mean anyone has a grasp of what the media giants of the future, or even the valuable news utilities of the future, are going to look like. So perhaps we can forgive Ezra and others if they are a little vague about what exactly they are trying to build or how it is going to work.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Dunechaser and George Kelly