February 23, 2009

How Can You Teach Intellectual Curiosity?

For me, a significant amount of time I spend using the Web is not so much about finding friends and peers, but instead about finding information. I want the newest news now. I want to have my finger on the pulse, and will use whatever mechanisms available to me to get the data faster. Whether it be through RSS, e-mail news alerts, pre-defined search strings, or relying on selections by others on news aggregation sites, I have built an array of tools that makes sure I miss very little about those things I am interested in.

Whether it's a desire to act as a knowledgeable information filter, or simply because I am a data sponge, I've made the absorption of news and trivia a big part of my daily activity, and it turns out, if I think about it, that I've been wired this way for a very long time.

For whatever reason, just shortly after I learned to read, I can remember thumbing through the children's dictionary, fascinated by the origins of the letters of the alphabet, as they evolved from the Phoenician to Greek, Egyptian and so on. Later, I was buying the Guinness Book of World Records every year, and stalking the bookstores for the next edition of the World Almanac. My favorite section? The population rankings of the top 200 cities in the United States, as ranked by the census in 1980 and 1990. To this day, I can tell you Worcester, Mass. was #200 overall, and that Baltimore had 939,000 people reported in population in 1980. When the 1990 census rolled out, seeing new cities like San Diego and Dallas, Texas enter the hallowed ranks of million-plus citizen populations, I was excited. Seriously.

And before you cry out, "NERD!", I'll nod my head, quickly agree, and move on. I loved this stuff. Luckily, it branched out to sports as well. My favorite present of all time had to be the massive 2,000+ page encyclopedia, Total Baseball, which, when released in 1989, when I was 12, had hundreds of pages of baseball stories and even more, containing all statistics of all players, ever, in the major leagues. I promise I pored over every single page - and it's made me very popular when it comes to sports trivia conversations (or unpopular if you want to go head to head).

But I have learned you can't force the issue and kindle the same passion in others. Even if I explain to you why I am excited about something, I can't get you the same way half the time. And what boggles my mind at times is when it seems the curiosity is missing altogether - especially when it's about something that could effect your making a more educated decision.

For example, a few years ago, in speaking with a friend in the industry about how the changing world of media was making blogs an increasingly-important venue, they were asked by someone else, "What blogs do you read?" And their answer: "The ones Louis sends me." It seemed they were content getting their news the way they always had, and they weren't even curious enough to want to get the data when it was available. They were comfortable knowing they could be missing out on a source of news on their industry, and turning a blind eye to what I thought was a major development in the way news was being created and disseminated.

To me, it would have been a lot more acceptable if the individual had, acknowledging they hadn't gotten into blogs yet, asked which I thought were the best ones, or if they had remembered some of the recent forwards and posts that caught their eye. But the nonchalant answer defied my expectations of intellectual curiosity, and I was frustrated about it for a long time - wondering why they weren't seeing the missed opportunity. It's the same type of frustrations I am sure parents feel when their kids don't get interested in school, or in studying to improve when you know they have the potential.

There's no question that my consumption level for news, blog posts, RSS feeds, and friends' updates on many networks is above the average. I crave the data, and am always eager to find new ways to get there faster. But I wonder if there are ways to get people to share the same enthusiasm. Is it possible to force intellectual curiosity when others just aren't wired the same way?