You’ve probably heard the advice to “learn in public.” Share what you learn as you learn it! Connect with a community of likeminded people! Expand your network and increase your future career opportunities! Unlock your inner creativity!
Sounds amazing, right?
While it sounds awesome on the surface, the way “learning in public” has manifested online in recent years has turned supportive communities into opportunities to extract insights for personal and financial gain. “Learning in public” relies explicitly on others providing free feedback and leveraging this free feedback to market products to people with less experience.
As if that wasn’t enough, creators who “learn in public” flood timelines with mediocre or misinformed content, leaving people confused and leaning on others to clean up the mess.
In this post, I’ll share more about the origins behind “learning in public,” why I hate what’s become of it, and what we can do instead.
What I Mean By “Learning In Public”
People have been “learning in public” for centuries. Research papers and research talks, for example, are formalized forms of sharing knowledge. And people have been sharing their thoughts and ideas over campfires for millennia. In this post, I’m specifically referring to the idea of “learning in public” that has become popular in the past four years.
The most popular blog post on this topic is Learn In Public: The fastest way to learn from June, 2018 written by Shawn “swyx” Wang.1 In the beginning of the post, swyx tells readers to start “a habit of creating learning exhaust”, making content that they wished they had found when they were learning. He encourages readers not to judge their results based on engagement, but instead focus on talking to their past self from 3 months prior. So far this sounds great.
As the post continues, swyx reveals what he calls the “subheading” for this post: “Try your best to be right, but don’t worry when you’re wrong.” If people tell you you are wrong, “Ask them to explain, in detail, why you suck.” Then, as you build an audience, people will start coming to you for advice. You won’t be an expert yet, but you should act like you are, and answer as best you can, and ask for help if things get over your head. At the end there’s a short postscript: “p.s. Eventually, they’ll want to pay you for your help too. A lot more than you think.”
swyx’s definition of “learning in public” is similar to the other early resource on the topic, a Youtube video from Doug Neill. In the video, Doug emphasizes that the whole point of learning in public is to “build your skills while you build your audience.” You can therefore create an archive that helps facilitate connections to collaborators, potential employers, customers, and likeminded spirits. Doug also emphasizes that you should share as you go, because otherwise you might never share due to perfectionism.
While these two resources might be the foundation of the concept, discussions around “learning in public” are usually more focused on the creative process and aren’t always as explicitly about self-promotion as swyx and Doug Neill’s content is. For example, a lot of resources emphasize the importance of quantity over quality, failing faster, and working with the garage door up. These things are genuinely good advice in situations that are sufficiently low stakes. When I critique “learning in public,” I’m specifically talking about 1) an emphasis on personal gain over learning and sharing, and 2) reliance on “quantity over quality” and “failing faster” in scenarios where they are at best a nuisance and at worse outright dangerous.
Using Your Free Labor For Clicks
“Learning in public” leverages the language of personal growth and development and turns it into a bizarre Ponzi scheme. Established creators market “you can do it too” materials to new and aspiring creators, the lion’s share of whom then go on to produce content for new and aspiring creators themselves. The whole thing becomes very circular and devoid of any serious context of use. It’s not a coincidence that people encouraging you to “learn in public” have something to sell you. If you’re not in on the Ponzi scheme, your free labor may be exploited by someone who is, discouraging you from helping others.
With some people learning for personal development, joy, or non-creator based career opportunities, learning in community with people who ultimately want to turn their learnings into paid content changes the dynamics dramatically. It is one thing to take a class with other likeminded creators, share tips, and help each other along on your creator journey. It’s another to share your “learnings” on public platforms like Twitter and YouTube, where the goal is essentially to either get other people to teach you how to improve for free out of the kindness of their own hearts, or help you because they themselves can mine the interaction for content (think free coaching that gets turned into a video).
It makes me really sad that I have to think twice about sharing and helping people because I know I’d feel resentful if someone took what they learned from me and used it to market a product to others. I have helped people on Slacks or Discords and had those people go on to create videos about what they’ve learned, curiously leaving out any attribution to who helped them. It’s happened enough that I avoid certain spaces because of it. Even with attribution, if I’m not also actively looking to “build a brand” for myself, someone else is still profiting off of information that I intentionally gave away for free in order to maximize who can benefit.2
Learning In Public, But For Whom?
The “learning in public” model relies on the ability for you to be able publicly fail, have people correct you, and then build up a reputation as an expert. This only works for those who are already given the benefit of the doubt (primarily white straight-passing dudes). I’m skeptical that such a transformation is accessible to people on the internet who hold any form of marginalized identity. My personal experience with asking for help has involved a lot of sexism and mansplaining. It’s really annoying to get treated completely differently when people understand how much expertise I have in a relevant area and when they just see my name or appearance. I have had people condescend to me when I ask an insightful question of a group, misunderstanding me and assuming I was asking a more basic question, and then confidently give me an incorrect in their response. After I or someone politely corrects them, maybe I’ll get an answer, or maybe I’ll just have to squabble with this person about what I’m really asking for five minutes. Then, a week later, I might get an email to ask for free advice for their startup. We discuss a potential paid consulting agreement that somehow never materializes. So when someone says “the internet delivers,” I sincerely wonder who it delivers for.3
A Timeline Flooded With Everyone’s “Quantity” Content
My other issue with “learning in public” is that it forces people to wade through other people’s (often crappy) “quantity” content, creating noise and misinformation that crowds out other interesting and helpful content. This stifles the ability of communities to grow their knowledge.
When the vast majority of content creators are on the “quantity” part of their content creation journey, communities get flooded with basic, boring, and maybe even wrong or confusing tweet threads and videos. For whatever reason, everyone wants to start their creator journey with a video about Zettelkasten or Atomic Habits. Many of these videos even have amazing production quality! But it’s the same ideas over and over again, just with different branding.
In order for a community to expand their knowledge, people need a solid foundation of the concepts and challenges in their area. It’s really hard to explore and do cool shit without it. “Learning in public” is emphasizing creating basic content that’s holding people back from syncing up and pushing the frontiers. The strange game of telephone that has developed with new “generations” of creators means that new creators, themselves often relative novices, tend to perpetuate common misunderstandings that leave new community members more confused than when they started. Any polite re-framings or rebuttals to misinformation get totally lost in the noise.4
With more and more new creators entering a scene and focused on the basics, there isn’t room for people to level up their game. Conflicting information leads to confusion. Many new community members feel like they have to spend money to learn because they can’t make sense of it all.5 This turns what could be learning and exploring into paying for enlightenment. Everyone’s stuck clearing up confusion and there’s little space for new insights.
Failing Faster At Someone Else’s Expense
My final issue I have with “learning in public” is that it’s irresponsible and lacks accountability. It explicitly encourages people to misrepresent their expertise and to rely on others to teach them and help them fix their mistakes for free. From the original swyx post: “At some point people will start asking you for help because of all the stuff you put out. … You must be an expert, right? Don’t tell them you aren’t. Answer best as you can, and when you’re stuck or wrong pass it up to your mentors. … Don’t assume you know everything, but try your best anyway, and let the internet correct you when you are inevitably wrong.”
swyx knows that building an audience means people will think you’re an expert, and is explicitly encouraging a “fake it till you make it” attitude. I think this is bad advice in general, but it’s especially bad advice when there are real stakes associated with hubris. As technology plays a larger and larger part of our everyday lives, software developers (who are swyx’s target audience), have greater capabilities to influence it. “Fake it till you make it,” “move fast, break things,” “quantity over quality”, and “fail faster” attitudes are fine when the worst consequences of your actions are that you need to compile your code again. But software runs in medical devices and self-driving cars, and it’s being used to aid or even replace human decision making. When you focus more on shipping instead of testing, you’re not only relying on “the internet” to call you out on your shit, you are displacing your “unintended consequences” primarily onto the same sets of people over and over and over.
The stakes also matter in productivity spaces. We’re living in a time where confidence in institutions is at an all time low. People are spending more and more time on the internet and developing para-social relationships with creators. If you’re gaining a following on the internet, you have a responsibility to manage that audience with care. There are a lot of creators out there who build an audience only to shift their content to more hateful messaging, or perpetuate toxic attitudes unintentionally by not educating themselves or challenging them on their channels. If you want to act in good faith, it will behoove you to get feedback from people you trust rather than fixing/apologizing for mistakes that could have reasonably been caught beforehand.
What To Do Instead
I don’t want the takeaway message from this post to be that you should never share online. What I want is for people who care about building positive learning communities to think about how their own actions might be contributing to these patterns. Sharing your art on your small twitter account isn’t hurting anyone, and you should share to your heart’s content. Maybe use a hashtag so people who aren’t interested can mute it. This post is more for people who have been prioritizing themselves over community, or who haven’t thought through the stakes of their actions.
If this struck a chord with you and you want to consider how you can engage and support learning in community, here are some of my suggestions:
- If you’ve got “quantity” work up:
- Review it and see if it’s misleading or helpful
- Update old posts with links to more recent process, insights, and reflections
- If that’s too much work, consider deleting out of date content or making it private/unlisted
- Search out groups of people who explicitly want to develop together, and post more there
- Always ask others if and how they’d like to be credited in your work
- When engaging / creating content:
- Share what works for you
- Be clear about your background and level of experience
- Get feedback from friends (or join likeminded communities if you don’t have a network yet)
- Invite connections
- If someone takes the time to give you feedback, thank them, credit them, and pay it forward
- When asking for help:
- See if a question has already been answered
- Ask the question in a public place so others can benefit (no DMs)
- Support/tip creators whose work you’ve benefited from (if they want that)
- Build and support others:
- Join Slacks and Discords (yes, even though they are private)
- Support spaces with clear community values and norms
- Support and encourage content creators who are more signal than noise
- Resist the temptation to watch and amplify redundant content
- Correct misconceptions when you see them (but not to the point of burnout)
If you value learning in community, search for the campfires, not the soap boxes.
Thank you to the amazing folks on the Obsidian Discord for sharing some of the links included in this post. Bob Doto provided insights on how posting content is not neutral, Chase Littlepaws shared several links related to creativity and learning in public, and ladle shared a link about campfires and made points about when learning in public is appropriate and when it isn’t. And thank you to Kendra Albert for providing feedback on multiple drafts of this post.
I should note that I’m pretty harsh on the concept of “learning in public” in this blog post, but I don’t know swyx personally or harbor any ill will toward him or other people who might feel like this post is directed at them. ↩
Here I should be fair and note that it is a privilege for me to be able to do this. I have a job that I love that affords me plenty of autonomy to spend my free time doing things I am passionate about. I don’t need to leverage my participation in communities for money. Nor do I necessarily begrudge others for doing so. I understand why it is compelling to want to create an independent living for oneself, and many content creators do add legitimate value and deserve to be compensated as such. I just think that the incentives have been warped so much that the whole industry is eating itself. ↩
I would love to hear from any marginalized/underrepresented folks about your experiences learning/sharing on the internet. Maybe I’m unlucky or jaded. But once you see the subtle (or not so subtle) differences in the way certain peoples’ questions get answered, it’s really hard to unsee. ↩
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with spending money on courses (I have and I don’t regret it), but it really bothers me that there’s so much conflicting information and people telling you you’re Doing It Wrong out there that it causes so much stress for new folks. ↩