The Business Case for Irrelevance

irrelevance

By {grow} Community Member Paul Mayze

Algorithms are the magic of the Internet.

Cloaked in secrecy, they invisibly control big chunks of our personal and professional online lives while quietly collecting, dissecting, and electing what we do and see.  Algorithms are the most closely guarded secrets of the internet giants.

Suppose I Google “elephant.”  (Don’t ask why I’m Googling “elephant” — it was the first thing that came into my head.) My top four results are a UK car insurance company, a 2003 movie, and a multiplayer online game. Oh, and Wikipedia’s definition of an elephant, which common sense might have expected to come out at the top. Try it yourself.  Chances are that you get something quite different. (Try it and let me know!)

On Facebook, I get every status update from the friends I’m close to, and yet the platform also decides that I should hear about weddings being planned, babies being born, and sandwiches being eaten by more remote connections.

Algorithms determine all this. The argument in favor of algorithms is that without them we would drown in a sea of irrelevant information. Instead, we tread water in a sea of (supposed) relevance.

The thing is, I’m not sure that “irrelevance” should be a dirty word. In fact, I think we could do with more of it in our lives.

A call for more irrelevance 

My life as I know it has been created by “irrelevant” events.

  • When my parents bought me my first home computer, it was irrelevant to my existing hobbies.
  • When I took a job in advertising, it was irrelevant to the degree I’d actually obtained.
  • And spending a year in Paris studying French was irrelevant to everything that happened before and since, but no less influential.

If I’d stuck with what was relevant, I’d still be playing with a Fisher Price telephone.

Irrelevance powers professional performance

Professionally, some irrelevance is crucial to our performance. A breakthrough approach to, say, social marketing will not come from searching in the same places as everyone else. And yet, our focus is usually on relevance, right?  I’m personally awful at letting irrelevance in at work.  I cut off water-cooler chat with action lists for the day. I sigh noisily when people engage in small talk.  In some respects, I’m being counter-productive.

I’m missing out on what Matt Ridley brilliantly describes as ‘ideas having sex’. Surrounding ourselves with what’s “relevant” is the equivalent of asexual reproduction. We’ll end up doing the same thing over and over.  And that’s no good for our work.

Is irrelevance a waste of time?

I’m not about to argue that we should break out of our so-called “filter bubbles” and stop using Google and Facebook. But recently I’ve challenged myself to increase my exposure to things outside of my day-to-day comfort zone. Reading posts on topics I know nothing about – and which ordinarily wouldn’t interest me. Even writing on topics I would never normally write about.

Sure, I’d like to think this has made me a bit more rounded (it’s almost certainly improved my water cooler chat) and provided new angles on existing problems. However, the greatest benefit has been that most precious and enabling professional resource: more energy.  And if something is having that effect on me, well, I figure that’s got to be relevant.

How do you let irrelevance into your life? Or do you feel we have to deal with too much irrelevance already? Looking forward to a discussion about this. Oh, and feel free to go off-topic  😉

paul mayzePaul Mayze blogs irrelevantly at Howwwl.com, the new publishing and content discovery network that he co-founded. Follow Paul on Twitter @howwwl

 

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  • Paul, awesome post! This really speaks to the value of the internet’s long tail and why so many are interested in it.

  • Thanks Steve. Hadn’t thought about it from a ‘long tail’ perspective but you’re so right. If the internet had a shelf-life of 24 hours it would arguably be hyper-‘relevant’ – but it would lose all its value.

  • Brilliant post, Paul – and depressingly dead-on! I worry that collectively we’re grooming ourselves to become ignoramuses (ignorami?), much like the philistine who proudly declares, “I don’t know art, but I know what I like!” Imagine that applied more broadly and…well, I don’t want to imagine it.

    When I googled “elephant” the top four results were Wikipedia, two naturalist sites, and IMDb on the movie. By comparison, google “heffalump,” and I get Wikipedia, two movie-related sites, and Urban Dictionary. If you don’t know what “heffalump” means in urban slang (as I didn’t), now’s your chance! –
    http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Heffalump
    Thanks again, Paul, for the post! –

  • Great post, paul! I really like otters but I had no idea they sleep holding hands. My love for them just grew, haha. You make some great points. I believe that is why these workshare places popping up are so great. You never know where the next great idea will come from!

    When I googled “elephant” the top four results were Wikipedia, IMDB, a conservation group, and national geographic. As an Auburn fan I was then compelled to google tigers and got the detroit tigers, wikipedia, WWF and kid’s national geographic… Talk about irrelevance!

  • Great post Paul, one which makes you think..

    Traditionally, with search you want FIND what you looking for quickly.. and Google’s ambition is ‘to organize the worlds info or data’, so from a consumer perspective, I want to get what I came for (in your case, answers to things relevant to an ‘elephant’.) The search is ambiguous or nebulous and that may be your goal-mindset (at the time). Your point has merit, but you may not always be in ‘find info quickly mode’, it’s based on that ‘moment in time.’

    Irrelevance is the space in the SEA that gets people thinking peripherally or toward adjacent topics. I like to wander, browse, day-dream. But I better not be doing this while at work! Which gets me to your point, “However, the greatest benefit has been that most precious and enabling professional resource: more energy. ”

    I actually believe professionally, the most valuable resource to employers is ‘time’.

    So, professionally, I like to get things done and get on with it. Personally, however, I like to ‘browse’ think and day dream.. Both hold great value for me and allow me to enjoy your post on irrelevance.. I’m privately working on a real-time search and social program for happiness, would love to chat more about the topic sometime.. enjoyed your piece! At the end of the day, it “takes a village” to grow who are and Google and FB is neither ‘community’ for me..I plan on enjoying another community (somewhere in between.) Thanks again!

    nice piece to separate the relevant vs. non-relevant (professionally vs. privately vs. publicly) all have moments with different gradients of relevance. Thanks again, J

  • Scott Cutcher

    Interesting view point relating irrelevance to the expansion of what is relevant to you. The buzz “relevant” has watered down the fact that relevancy is the lens in which we see each other, things and concepts. That lens can morph at any time according to the experiences you allow yourself to have. Your parents expanded your lens of relevancy the minute they gave you that computer.

    What’s relevant is determined by the individuals experiences. Just goes to show being relevant to each other begins with habit #5 . . Seek to understand before asking to be understood. Truth is, most people don’t want to expand their lens of relevancy. So the big question for me is how do we engage each other through our current lens of relevancy while challenging each other to expand that lens? Or is it just an individual choice?

  • perilouspauline

    I follow the “way of the hermit” (i.e. I work from home) so I don’t have water cooler chat outside of social media, but was engaged by the idea of going sideways on research building more energy. As an author, I worry about recycling myself (the same old ideas/words?) too much. I sometimes wonder what the algorithms make of me, because I have, on occasion, been the first to search a string. Can almost feel Google wince and then puke up not much for me. LOL! But I’ve also found some interesting shun pikes in my searches.

    (I will say that I’m not happy with the FB algorithm redo. I feel like I’m missing updates from the people I come to FB to interact with. Or they aren’t online because they are Christmas shopping. I know my news feed has been a bit thin…)

    Here’s to more irrelevance!

  • Ohhhh dear. I’ve been calling my wife ‘heffalump’ for years… and now I find it means ‘an extroadinarily fat/large/obeese and sometimes unattractive/homely person’. Gulp. Maybe ignorance is bliss after all 🙂

  • The otter thing was Mark’s great addition – I had no idea about that either!
    You’re right about workshare – and I guess on a broader scale it’s one reason Silicon Valley is so successful: the sharing of ideas that aren’t immediately in your business focus brings new ways of thinking. (i.e. the whole ideas having sex thing).

    Re elephants – National Geographic is *exactly* what I want to see when I google ‘elephant’, and that’s not even on my first page of results – so Google’s algorithms aren’t quite working for me… 🙂

  • where are the habits your speaking of? I’d like to see the list..

    Your lens metaphor really gets to my point of ‘moment in time’ in a “person’s mind’s eye.” Experiences change you and context is important to relevance.

    To your question, you have to want(individual choice) to BE curious..

  • Thanks Jason! Point taken on Google – though I guess it’s only a matter of time before Google also knows how to gauge the ‘mode’ you’re in when you search. That’ll be great – and slightly terrifying.

    I think a lot of (most?) employers treat time as their most precious resource, but I would argue a combination of innovation and getting the job done well are more precious – and both of these things are well-served by having a broad perspective and greater energy. I’m not sure if they are still doing it, but during their fastest phase of growth Google were *forcing* employees to work on totally unrelated stuff once a week. I know a number of video game companies who do the same.

    Interesting point also about Google and FB not really being ‘communities’ in the ‘it takes a village’ sense. That made me question my own feelings about them and I think I agree. I just don’t think they foster that level of engagement.

  • I like the use of energy it makes me think of http://www.answers.com/topic/e-mc2 or

    e = mc(2) mass * acceleration with ‘matter’ or unit of work. And depending on how creative vs. redundant the job/career path is your skills must improve..become more efficient, accelerate with time, etc -agreed.

    BTW, your right on, about Google. They require each of their employees to spend 20% a week on work unrelated to ‘work.’

    I agree, too centralized and bohemoth to really care about community development (as Mark does!) That’s why I think there systemically flawed as ‘communities’ and even as a direct market channel/program as they can’t get down to the ‘peoples’ level.

  • I agree; some people refer to it as cross-pollination. Cheers.

  • Yes, you’re right – irrelevancy is actually just expanding your lens or sphere of relevance. How on earth you encourage others to do that I’ve no idea! I struggle enough making myself do it… 🙂

  • The FB algorithm is certainly a work in progress – for some reason my news feed gets every photo posted by an Australian friend I haven’t seen in 18 years, and yet I miss interesting status updates from people I see every month. Hey, you never know, maybe they’re more into the irrelevance thing than I thought…

    I think ‘recycling’ is a good analogy for staying in your relevance zone, because it’s essential to a point, but over time you get diminishing returns.

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  • Really enjoyed this, Paul.
    I am a big believer in the magic of irrelevance.
    I find that in actuality everything is relevant in some way.
    Everything is connected – some threads may be thin or wind a lot or get tangled in complex, knots, but – ultimately – it’s all connected in some way.

    When I’m working on a piece of writing or a client’s branding framework or anything really – I’m often (pleasantly) surprised at the epiphanies that pop into my head when I let my mind wander off to “irrelevant” topics or conversations.

    Again and again, my brain connects the dots between the problem I’m struggling to solve and whatever happens to be in front of me at the moment of my diversion.

    Now, I definitely use this as a justification for WAY too much time on Twitter and Facebook, but – joking aside – I believe that consuming all that irrelevant content actually does stir things up in my brain, give me some ideas, expand my perspective … all good stuff.

    It’s a more “Renaissance” way to approach things.
    And it’s a hell of a lot more fun than the nose-to-grindstone approach.
    😉

  • I never thought of irrelevance the way you wrote but hey, I think you’re spot on! While being relevant does have its perks, it also keeps you the way you are and you miss out a whole new world of possibilities.
    Looking at it now, irrelevance may be closely associated to the saying ‘thinking outside of the box’.

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