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Mitch Joel is New Media’s Alton Brown

I’ve been reading Six Pixels of Separation, the book by friend Mitch Joel. It’s a terrific read, well worth the $14 or so I spent on the Kindle version, but I’m amused by many of the comments and criticisms of the book, especially that it’s not a how-to book.

If you have any familiarity with the food world, you know of Alton Brown. Part Mr. Wizard, part Monty Python troupe member, Alton Brown spends an enormous amount of time in his show Good Eats on the why of food, rather than just the how.

How is the individual recipes. How to make pancakes. How to deglaze a pan. How to fry a turkey.

Why is the rationale behind the choices you make as a cook. Why is the muffin method used for certain recipes when the end product doesn’t look like a muffin? Why is water’s molecular structure so important to cooking?

Here’s the difference between how and why: how is for beginners. How is for the line cooks who just need to crank out predictable results over and over again. How can be accomplished by relatively untalented people or even by machines. How is good and useful, but how is not the way you become better at what you do once you’re no longer a beginner.

Ask any proficient chef how large their recipe card index is and they’ll give you a blank stare at best, because they’ve transcended the need for individual recipes. Professional chefs understand concepts and the why of cooking. Professional chefs understand that the flavors of tomato and basil go together at a subconscious level, so they don’t need the individual recipe cards that specify mixing X amount of tomatoes with Y amount of shredded basil leaves plus a pinch of salt. Professional chefs understand at a subconscious level that you always, always, always salt tomatoes as early in the cooking process as possible. Why? Because tomatoes contain a natural form of glutamic acid and salt bonds to it to create a natural form of MSG which really makes a tomato’s flavor sing.

Six Pixels of Separation is not a cookbook of how. You won’t find a recipe in it for exactly how to structure a tweet or exactly how to write a good blog post. You’re not supposed to find those recipes in it, because it’s largely a book of why, not how. If you’re looking for a recipe book, there’s an entire industry of For Dummies / For Morons / For Complete Idiots / For The Stupidest People That Are Still Capable of Reading This Book books out there. (does it bother anyone else that you’re automatically a Dummy if you’re a beginner, at least according to those series titles? Labeling someone a Dummy as a beginner is a great way to ensure people don’t want to try something new.)

Once you’ve transcended the need to march in lockstep with exact recipe cards, once you understand the basic application of all the tools and you’re ready to step up to understanding why you should or should not be doing things, you’re ready for a book like Six Pixels of Separation.

Don’t misunderstand – there is still a tremendous need for very beginner focused materials out there. The constant 80% new folks rate of attendance at PodCamps testifies to the continuing opportunity for people to get involved in new media. I’m just saying that you need to set your expectations appropriately for a book like Six Pixels of Separation and be prepared to work very, very hard to execute on the strategies in it.

Full Disclosure: Mitch is a friend and I’m probably biased in my review of his book. Expect links in this post to go to one or more affiliate programs and know that I get paid a nominal fee for referring you to those resources if you make a purchase or purchase inquiry. Thanks in advance for buying everything in triplicate.

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