In the summer of 2012, I wrote an essay connecting the concept of the flâneur to user experience design and the profession of creating software and websites. I am a big fan of Nassim Taleb, who in the years between his books The Black Swan and Antifragile, has been touting the concept incessantly in the public discourse, in interviews, lectures and essays. If you had done any more than skim business news since the 2008 financial crisis, it would have been impossible to miss.

Taleb's thesis is simple:

In other words, you can be fragile, and hope that the world plays out according to plan, or you can be antifragile, setting yourself up to benefit from the unexpected. The flâneur is the latter. The incumbent methods of the software/web industry are emphatically the former. It has been my undertaking, since the beginning of this fragility-induced financial crisis, to imagine a way to run a profitable business making software and websites that benefits from the unexpected.

I fundamentally believe that this idea is enormously important, irrespective of who advances it, because in it lies the key to profit—through doing amazing work—without killing ourselves in the process.

Enter Serendipity

While I was on a road trip the following December down the Pacific coast, it was brought to my attention, independently, by a number of different people, that the popular blog UXMag had run a post that, it was reported, made an argument uncannily similar to mine.

The post's author, Sarah Doody, had indeed prefaced her argument with a personal narrative, as well as done her own research—including the term's popularization by Charles Baudelairesomething I sure didn't do. The people looking out for me charged that it was the argument, however, that wasn't original. One person confronted the author in the comments, a few emailed the editors. One forwarded me a reply:

I've read both pieces, and while I do see at least one similarity past the application of the term "flaneur" to design—both articles suggest readying your mind so that the cosmos can bring you inspiration—this does not constitute any form of plagiarism.

Quick recap on the definition of plagiarism

They're all about the same, but let's use the one from the MLA, with which the editors of UXMag either disagree with, or disagree that it applies:

Using another person's ideas or expressions in your writing without acknowledging the source constitutes plagiarism.... [T]o plagiarize is to give the impression that you wrote or thought something that you in fact borrowed from someone, and to do so is a violation of professional ethics.... Forms of plagiarism include the failure to give appropriate acknowledgment when repeating another's wording or particularly apt phrase, paraphrasing another's argument, and presenting another's line of thinking—emphasis mine.

While there was certainly enough similarity to get my attention, I myself am not that stringent. As far as I'm concerned, such a charge hinges completely on the presence of a Newton-Liebniz moment: whether Ms. Doody had in fact come in contact with my essay before writing hers, or if the precursors to her argument—which had indeed been stewing in the zeitgeist for some time—had simply floated in on the ether. I don't have an answer for that. The only person capable of answering that question truthfully is Sarah Doody.

However, I'm going to just declare this event a pure coincidence, because to do otherwise would detract from what I'm actually trying to say, which is something I've been thinking carefully about for some time. And I do appreciate the people who took it upon themselves to look out for my interests, and I appreciate the input of those whom I have consulted since it was brought to my attention. Now for what I think:

The Medium Changed; Our Attitudes Didn't

Many will tell you that it's not the idea that matters, but its execution. Ideas have scarcely been cheaper to come by, and in proportion, execution has never been more valuable. If your profession is anything like mine, you are absolutely steeped in information every waking moment, and it isn't always easy to remember what comes from where. However:

My policy, when I learn about a work that says the same thing mine does and came before mine, is to append a nod to that work and its author to my own. Certainly if it turns out I had inadvertently osmosed some trope of theirs, but just as well if I hadn't. I do this because it's dirt cheap and doesn't hurt me one iota. It actually helps me, in fact, because it connects my readers with other authors whose ideas are sympathetic to mine. This practice is not just good citizenship, but it goes far to promulgate the idea in question, which was the entire point of writing the damn thing in the first place.

Besides, it's the web. It's not print. You can go back and edit it.

It should be clear that it is a mistake, though, to treat an idea like it sprang from your mind ex nihilo, because it almost certainly didn't. Especially in an age wherein we simmer constantly in a soup of input. It is a behaviour we should learn to leave behind, because it's simply no longer credible. And the worst thing to do is to double down: the more vociferously we claim an idea as our own exclusive progeny, the more vehemently others will attempt to prove otherwise.

I want to live in a world where the rewards come from using good ideas, not claiming them. Choosing to use our influence to connect people to work that complements ours, makes us more valuable to the community. And to add that value is as easy as saying <a href="…">.

PS: The French have amazing words for serendipitous tinkerers, as Dan Klyn seems to be discovering. The modus of flânerie and bricolage is gaining steam. Let's keep it up.

PPS: My overarching argument—and title—is loosely based on something Venessa Miemis wrote a while ago.