Ever listen to The Velvet Underground’s 9 minute live version of ‘What goes on’, from their 1969 Live album Volume 1? The first couple of minutes feature Lou Reed singing verse and chorus. The rest of the song is an extended instrumental and this is where it gets interesting. Each of the 4 instruments has a unique voice, but by collaborating and feeding off one another they produce a sum greater than the parts. There are two rhythm guitars counterpointing each other, an organ noodling – sometimes pushing melody, sometimes following – and a metronomic drumbeat holding it all together.

You can listen to each melodic line – isolate one of the guitars, hum along with the organ, nod your head to the drum beat, urge along with the other guitar. But the beauty, the real music in all this, is the combination – the collaboration – of these instruments, into a glorious harmony….a musical web.

That’s a roundabout way of introducing a topic that caught my attention today – generalism vs specialisation, particularly in the field of web technology. I’m a web generalist –  in that I don’t specialise in programming, or web design, or information architecture, or website management, etc. I do all those things and more, mainly because I get bored if I try to specialise in one thing. Or as a collegue described me today – “you get things done”. But still I like to think I have a particular talent for writing and analysis, which are specialist skills.

The truth is, being a web generalist is neither fashionable nor glamourous. Jeffrey Zeldman didn’t get where he is today without specialising in one field of web technology (design). But I take heart in a couple of articles I found on the Web today. Ross Mayfield wote a weblog entry a few months ago on the topic of generalism vs specialisation, in response to a post by Azeem Azhar, who picked up the theme from an essay by Paul Saffo written 14 years ago.

Ross puts it nicely: “Convergence of disciplines is where real innovation and discovery occurs.” …like how I experience the Velvet Underground song I mentioned above – substitute “disciplines” for “instruments” 🙂

Azeem wrote: “The specialists provide deep insight into specific issues (basically, they teach me), the generalists give a great, evolving overview of the system. They provide new ways of visualising and presenting problems. They provide the narrative. The combination works.”

There is a two-way web angle to this. Weblogs in particular have made it easy and fun for individuals to write to the Web. Now collaborative tools are beginning to come into play to enhance weblogs – for example the k-collector tool makes it easy to create and share topics. This is all bringing about convergence of writing and ideas on the Web, and new and interesting things are happening because of it.

ps I knew there was a way to mention The Velvet Underground in my weblog. Hope I haven’t broken any blogging rules 😉