In the world of the digital, many of us have been tricked into thinking that something only needs to be said once. If someone has stated something, then stating it again is noise. Provides no purpose. Does not benefit anyone. The extension of this follows: I should not write something, on the off-chance that someone else whom I don’t even know about has already written it, perhaps better. The fear of being more incomplete than an imagined other-expert. But an utter void of information is more incomplete than your works will be, and there is value in saying what has been said.
Collecting a lot of pieces of information into a cohesive source takes a lot of labor, and a lot of lived experience. What have I experienced in life? It’s different from others, and that perspective informs what I think is worth writing about. For an instructional piece, it informs details I include, because they were confusing or surprising to me, and which details I omit because they seem so obvious as to not even be worth mentioning. The time in which I write influences these things too. How many tutorials or guides have we seen in the world that link to a number of dead links as suggested sources for materials or further research? How many are subtly wrong about something, in a way the author never noticed? I will write a different guide on the same topic than someone else will, and that is valuable to the reader who now has two sources to compare and cross-reference instead of one.
Additionally, if I cannot find another author collecting the information I want to share all in one place, then that collection of information does not exist in my world. It may exist in someone else’s- someone else may have that collection, may even know of a place where that collection has been published. But if I cannot find it, there’s a good chance others in my social circle can’t either because of the way social bubbles work. And so, in collecting and reproducing that information myself, I’m sharing it with others that wouldn’t have access otherwise.
And counterintuitively, sharing incomplete information is also one of the most effective ways of getting others to share additional tidbits in addendum, as email replies, as comments on a website, and so on. Often, it is far more effective than simply asking a question. It’s an oft-repeated joke that the best way to get the right answer to a question is to provide the wrong answer. I don’t advocate for intentional misinformation, but there’s a nugget of wisdom: people notice small information gaps much more readily than they notice vast information voids, and it’s easier to fill in a small gap when the rest of the puzzle has already been written. By publishing information in a visible place, I entice others to join in, and I can update my document to cite and reflect what I learn through them.
Knowledge itself has to be actively maintained, or it decays, even in the digital world that promises that knowledge will live forever. By repeating what has been said, we perpetuate it forward. By experimenting with what has been said and re-performing research, we validate and verify and innovate to try to make what we’re perpetuating forward more valuable than what came before. By citing what came before, we leave a trail of clues and evidence for others to retread the same ground, and reinforce it.
And don’t forget to archive your sources and your works. If you don’t control and maintain your archives, they aren’t yours, and they will evaporate long before you do.