What If You Could Write Just One Thing a Year?


In 1906, Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto observed that 20 percent of the peas in his back garden produced 80 percent of the peas he later consumed. The Pareto principle is now a common business idiom, the so-called “80/20 rule” that predicts 80 percent of sales will come from 20 percent of one’s clients. Dan Shapiro, a tech entrepreneur in Seattle, says the Pareto principle is at play in the news media, too, with a handful of each day’s stories containing valuable information and context, but hard to fish out from a river of noise. Taking a page from the 140-character Twitter playbook and the artificial constraints imposed by sites like Path, which lets you add only 50 friends to your network, Shapiro reasoned that rationing breeds good decision making. “Arbitrary limits can be powerful creative forces. I thought, ‘What if you could just say one thing, but you got to shout it from the rooftops for everyone to hear?'”

The idea behind Shapiro’s new side project—he’s a product manager at Google and former CEO of Ontela—plays with creative constraints: anyone who signs up at his site, The Best Thing This Year, gets to post one item every 364 days to an email distribution list. Anyone can sign up, and only members can post to the list. You can’t post again for a whole year, so you’d better make it count. 

Shapiro expects that a lot of list members will be hawking their own projects and companies, and he’s fine with that. If you can only post once a year, he figures, you’ll probably write about your absolute very best work and put your best foot forward, making for some fascinating reads. Shapiro plans to post to the list himself, but has no clue what topic to take. “I’m terrified of the pressure to figure it out!” he says. “But that’s part of the fun. As someone said on Twitter, “Now I have to stress for 364 days figuring out what to write.”

TBTTY’s first post went out last night, a nice writeup from the founder of a digital entertainment studio about his new “alternate reality gaming” site Rides.tv, where you watch web sitcoms in which the characters call your cell phone (you supply your number when you sign up for the site) and send emails to your inbox. Sign up for TBTTY here, but if you want to contribute sometime this decade, you’ll need to move fast: 1,200 have tossed their names into the hat so far, and the waiting list to contribute is equally long. Shapiro says he’s not looking to make money off of the site, though. “This is just a tiny experiment,” he says. “Someone told me it was just a mailing list with a gimmick, and I don’t dispute that for a minute. I like gimmicks, and I’m excited to see what comes of this one.”

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  • Tasneem Raja is a former editor at Mother Jones. She specializes in web app production, interactive graphics, and user interface design.