big naked manWithin the social web, everyone wants to own a conversation. They want to be the person someone thinks of when they think of a certain topic, or trend.

On the other hand, everyone talks about the beauty of open-source conversation within the social web. Everyone contributes, everyone can chime in. Everyone pretends that no one really owns anything. “We’re all in this together” is the mantra of those who own branded spaces online.

For a long time, I’ve been thinking about this interesting phenomenon. Everyone wants their ideas to spread, but some people don’t like it when their followers become leaders within “their” conversation. Because they want to own the space. They want the deed to the conversation.

Here’s a newsflash:

No one can own a conversation.

You can stimulate. You can lead. You can provide the vision and the platform. You might even have started the conversation.

But that still doesn’t mean you own it.

So don’t get hurt if your followers become leaders. Don’t take it personally if someone steals your limelight or improves your idea. Don’t feel threatened if someone else profits from your ideas.

Because honestly…

We’re all thieves.

Dirty. Corrupt. Rotten Crooks.

We all borrow, we all steal. We all pretend at some point that we came up with it first. But no one did. No one really ever starts anything. We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. We’re all influenced by leaders, peers, followers, and friends. What we do is just a mashing of a million different ideas, filtered through our own unique perceptions, views, and conceptions.

So, if you think you own an idea… get over yourself.

You don’t own the conversation. You don’t own the idea. You don’t even own the words you used to formulate it.

You can’t copyright a vision. You can’t patent a movement. You can’t possess what can’t be seen.

That’s because…

An idea is bigger than you.

Something to stand for is more important than the person standing for it. A vision is more important than the person providing it. A movement is bigger than the people moving it.

The people are important. Leaders are important. But they are never more important than the principle or the idea itself.

I should probably note here that I don’t mean it’s okay to blatantly rip someone off. But it is okay to be inspired by others, to share ideas, to mix, and meld.

And if you were obviously inspired by someone else, and what you’re doing looks pretty similar to what they’re doing… give them some credit. Your work might not have happened if it weren’t for theirs.

But let’s not pretend that any of us really own anything. Because we don’t. Our lives are temporary. We don’t own our ideas, we don’t even own our bodies.

Long after us, someone else will be living for the same reasons you are. They will be working toward similar things you are. A conversation, an idea, a principle is not constrained by space and time.

So remember, it’s not about who started it. It’s about what we’re doing with it.

Why not do something beautiful, and leave it for others to decide who owns what?

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Comment & Add Your Voice

Tristan Lee October 22, 2009 at 10:59 am

I just think of it as talking in real life. The conversation lasts, but then fades away.

However, a conversation on the internet lasts and stays and stays on the internet. People can see it and it doesn’t fade away.

So people start thinking that what they say was entitled by them. But that’s false since it could have been said before by someone else. Like you say, nobody owns a conversation.

Let’s help each other out and contribute to each other’s successes.


Clayton October 22, 2009 at 11:00 am

It reminds me of a quote they used to say in architecture school:

“Good designers come up with good designs; Great designers steal good designs and make them their own.”


Miche | Serenity Hacker October 22, 2009 at 11:14 am

I really enjoyed reading this. I think the community around ideas is exciting, and the more people who join the conversation, the better. I’ve often thought that ideas are just sort of “out there” and “everywhere”… it’s very possible that nothing is really new, it’s just communicated in a novel way. I’ve worked in academia for a while, and often people get really competitive and possessive about “their” ideas. But putting them out there makes them better.

I read a great quote the other day, I forget from who, I think it was Emerson: “Every great idea I ever had was stolen by the Ancients”… made me smile!

Miche :)


Tim Brownson October 22, 2009 at 11:14 am

There are some original ideas. I agree not that many, but some deserved to be recognized as such as people sometimes spend their life time working towards a goal.

My only real bugbear is people lifting quotes and ideas and not giving and credit to their source. That’s not standing on the shoulders of giants, it’s standing on the shoulders of giants after you have draped a huge curtain round them so nobody can see.


Nathalie Lussier October 22, 2009 at 11:18 am

Sometimes the concept that “there’s nothing new” pops into my head and it causes me to pause. Then I remember that different people need to hear things differently or from different people for it to really sink in.

That’s why I keep the conversation going, day in day out. :)


Richard Kyle October 22, 2009 at 11:48 am

Well said !!!


Jonathan Frei October 22, 2009 at 11:59 am

“The people are important. Leaders are important. But they are never more important than the principle or the idea itself.”

I disagree with this point. The souce of an idea is many times more important than the idea. There is weight behind a statement by Seth Godin that I don’t possess. Even if he borrows an idea from me, him saying it would make it more powerful.

Leaders and people are more important than their ideas. But, the reason thought leader are leaders is because of the consistent quality of their ideas.


ChristiaanH October 22, 2009 at 12:03 pm

A great post again jonathan. Indeed we don’t own words and I’m almost sure that just about every single idea has been talked about (or bloged about) before. Being original seems almost impossible, I’d rather be authentic and share my ideas -that developed through reading what others had to say- with yet more readers out there so the ideas can grow, develop and evolve.

It’s just something that rolles on by and you can add a bit, somewhat like a snowball. When it’s huge it breaks up, leading to new snowballs that can grow again.

And what’s more fulfilling that seeing the impact of an idea to which you contributed. Even if it does absolutely nothing else…

Everything is temporary…


Nate October 22, 2009 at 12:18 pm

Awesome Jonathan. I actually think this is a beautiful way to think about it.

We are all in this together. I personally think each and every one of us is linked into a greater consciousness bigger than just ‘you’ or ‘I.’

That’s the beauty of the internet. I used to always think I was unique. That my thought patterns and perspective on life was different than those around me. On the internet I’ve found link-minded individuals. People I share a connection with.

In doing this it is opening up the conversation. It is awakening other people’s hopes and dreams (and mine as well). Now, instead of thinking ‘am I just different,’ or ‘am I the only one who has these thoughts,’ I think ‘hey, there are other people out there like me.’ It opens up my consciousness further. It has allowed me to more easily express my ideas and share my thoughts on blogs such as yours. It’s not that this couldn’t be done before w/o the internet, it’s more that the internet has been a catalyst for creating this exponential growth in the sharing of knowledge and ideas.

And you’re right, it is the idea that’s important. It’s about adding value to the idea and helping people. Whether it’s self development, improving marketing skills, learning a new technical skill, learning a new sport, etc.

Once we join the conversation and contribute we should focus on welcoming all others into the conversation and help with their growth.


Jeffrey Tang October 22, 2009 at 12:32 pm

Ideas are impossible to own; they’re meant to spread and be shared and explode. The only thing you can (sometimes) own is the implementation of an idea.

I think the people who become conversation leaders remain leaders only as long as they remember where they came from, and why they’re in a leadership position in the first place – i.e., because they keep contributing. They don’t stop and say, “This is my turf, go find your own conversation.” They just keep giving. Keep talking. And the result is that people take notice.

It’s the same in business, actually. Instead of keeping people “off your turf” through rules and regulations and paperwork, isn’t it better just to out-compete them in terms of effort and quality?


Laura Lee Bloor of Tenacious Me October 22, 2009 at 1:04 pm

Very inspiring post. “Something to stand for is more important than the person standing for it.” Thanks for a boost to keep going after my big visions and goals.


Cody McKibben October 22, 2009 at 1:06 pm

This is a beautiful post man! You know I’ve been incredibly influenced by you, Chris Guillebeau, Tim Ferriss and others, and I’ve also fought this very war with others. Glad to hear you say “You can’t copyright a vision. You can’t patent a movement. An idea is bigger than you.”

I’ve heard people talking along these lines when it comes to the earth, even money. We don’t own it, we’re stewards of it while we’re here, and then it will belong to someone else. It’s important to be good caretakers. Well, I love applying this same approach to ideas.

Thanks for this Jonathan!


James NomadRip October 22, 2009 at 1:56 pm

Well said. Art, original thought, it all comes from somewhere. We just put our personality into it or combine ideas.


Jonathan October 22, 2009 at 2:04 pm

@ Tim: That’s a hilarious image you’ve constructed. And I agree, when people do that, it does bother me.

@ Tristan: That’s a really good point… I hadn’t thought about that before. The permanency of “conversation footprints” on the internet does change things a bit. Maybe that makes people feel more entitled, I’m not sure.

@ Jonathan Frei: You have a point. However, I would add that the reason people became leaders is by having the courage to stand behind an idea they believe in. Most leaders I know get the source of their strength and energy by working toward a goal. For myself, it’s the idea and principle that gives my energy, especially when it’s about something much bigger than me.

@ Cody: I know you’ve been a huge proponent and defender of this “uncopyright” or “non-ownership” idea for a while. I really appreciate what you’ve done to further that sentiment.


Kahnrad October 22, 2009 at 2:52 pm

Nice post Jonathan!

The concept of someone ‘owning’ a conversation wreaks havoc on my mind because, as you say, no one really can ‘own’ one. – Contributing, guiding, and such, is just about all we can do, and all we should want to do. Personally, I’m a contributor and enjoy adding value. – Additionally, as I think about this, a conversation doesn’t exist without at least one other person, so how could it be owned by only one? (rhetorical)

I hope someone does rip off my ideas and stuff… That will give me leverage myself against their ideas and improve more. For me it’s about knowledge, innovation, and sharing anyway – that’s the fun part.

Thanks for sharing this post!


emily-sarah October 22, 2009 at 5:23 pm

Absolutely, always give proper credit. That’s just good manners (and good karma). And so true, nothing new: “That which has been is that which will be, And that which has been done is that which will be done. So there is nothing new under the sun.” (Eccl. 1:9) For some reason Mother Teresa popped to mind — When she was alive, can you imagine her being upset if someone else jumped on her “platform” or tried to “steal” her limelight?! While not every “conversation” is a perfect analogy to that, I believe if we have the utmost motivation to help others, we’ll WANT to expand the “cause” and conversation.


Andrew October 22, 2009 at 6:24 pm

You should be flattered to some extent that a follower has become a leader, ‘your’ conversation can keep rolling on long after you’ve said your bit!

Your message/conversation must have been a half good one to firstly; build a following and then have the followers take the message on board.

Great Post Jonathan, any raw food updates from your previous post?


Nathan Hangen October 22, 2009 at 6:27 pm

I think this is an important point, because the true test of an idea’s merit is whether or not it spreads beyond your reach. I’m happy to let others take my ideas and run with them.


Evan October 22, 2009 at 6:52 pm

Hmm. I don’t think we can own an idea.

I wonder though about movements. Sometimes ‘followers’ don’t understand the idea fully and go off on a tangent. I think there is some function to do with keeping a movement true to a vision or idea – and that has something to do with ownership. I guess this is about the process used to stay true to a vision (and modifying it if necessary).


Avil Beckford October 22, 2009 at 7:49 pm

Great post and I agree with you. I believe that there is nothing new under the sun. Yes we have innovations, but most times they were built using existing information and technologies. I have read extensively on generating ideas and great thinkers and one of the characteristics of great thinkers and innovators (people who changed the world) is that they built on the work of others. Another important characteristic is that they keep notes of what they have done. Having a record of research allows others to scrutinize them, as well as build on them. The Wright Brothers who are credited with inventing the airplane built on the work of Otto Lilienthal. Avil Beckford


Corinne Rodrigues October 22, 2009 at 9:47 pm

Great post, Jonathan. Imitation is the best form of flattery. See there I go using someone else’s words.
I would love to see people running off with my ‘ideas’! I would love to be an inspiration – isn’t that ‘inspiration’ another word for an ‘idea’?
I’m a soft skills trainer – and I laugh when trainers try to hold on to their handouts and presentations – worried that someone else will ‘steal’ them. I tell them ‘Don’t insult yourself – is that the only handout/presentation you can make? If so, go find another profession!”
Your post is all about abundance of ideas/ thoughts/ inspiration – and I love it – so much that I might put it on my blog ;)



Stress Mark October 23, 2009 at 7:15 am

LOVED this – crystallised a lot of thoughts.

But how to deal with older mentors who definitely do not think this way- have had some pain aroudn this.

Have tweeted.

All the best from Brighton,


Oleg Mokhov October 23, 2009 at 7:47 am

Hey Jonathan,

It’s not about the idea, but the execution.

Ideas really are a dime a dozen. But those that execute them best–even if they didn’t originally come up with it–is who makes the impact, creates the value, gets remembered.

And I agree that you can’t own an idea or conversation. It’s all a free-flowing system of information, and it’s just what people do with it that matters. And even then, people build upon previous stuff. Why reinvent the wheel?

Instead, come up with the next generation of a transportation tool :)

Just look at all the businesses and art that’s been built upon previous ideas and creations (especially sampling in music… when done right, it’s ridiculously fresh and inventive).

I love how Leo of Zen Habits uncopyrighted all his work. He inspired me to do the same with my website. Why try to, in a futile way, claim ownership over something people will take anyway? Instead, embrace that and encourage the creation of better stuff, which benefits all (including you).

Great article,


Miche Cococcia | The Journal of Cultural Conversation October 24, 2009 at 12:26 pm

I think not owning the conversation is a huge exercise in humility for all of us. My writing partner and I have created an excellent balance for our blog – which is ironically about conversation – but the only way we could get there is by recognizing each of our strengths – we weren’t looking to compete for attention or both claim clear ownership. It’s been wonderful. It’s hard work. But once one can learn to detach from feeling the need to control, it all flows much better. Thanks for this!


Dr. Jennifer Howard October 24, 2009 at 3:03 pm

Yes, we can be leaders in a certain field and support others by giving our attained knowledge and understanding. But really there is nothing new under the sun. We all live, study and absorb from all sorts of places sometimes not remembering exactly where you heard each concept. This is especially true when you have been deeply involved in something for years. When I write and give talks, I try my best to give credit but sometimes it’s coming from deep inside of me which was integrated long ago.

Dr. Jennifer Howard


Justin- October 25, 2009 at 5:45 am

Submission to an idea no matter who it puts in charge seems to be a mark for great leaders!


Tom Holowka October 27, 2009 at 9:03 am

How much better would the world be if we didn’t pretend to own everything? Property is the big one. People who claim to own nature might be the biggest crooks of all.


Robert October 29, 2009 at 9:30 am

Your thoughts here are perfectly fit for the platform…their illuminated. They are bright and right on the money. I’ve noticed a few people in this lifestyle design space that are trying to take ownership…badges and certain words like “professional” come to mind…stop trying to own things, instead improve them. I love the collective work power. Great post.


Lalitha Brahma November 1, 2009 at 5:32 pm

I love this post, especially the following sentence-
“So remember, it’s not about who started it. It’s about what we’re doing with it.”


Leon Terra November 1, 2009 at 11:36 pm

I also agree with the the non-ownership of conversation or just ideas in general. If we copyrighted our quotes how annoying would that be? We’d all be fined a hefty fee for any cliche that somehow makes it out of our mouths.

Ideas are worth more than a conversation of course, and the spreading of those ideas are what make them valuable. Hence, the authority figures who voice that idea become detrimental in mass messaging.

To build upon a concept is truly more worthwhile than trying to squeeze an original thought out of millenniums of exchanges.



jon November 3, 2009 at 3:45 pm

Beautifully put Jonathan

” We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us ” and ” They all stood on the shoulders of those who came before them ”

Umm I wonder who was the original shoulder :)


David Molina November 28, 2009 at 2:30 pm

Incredible Jonathan!

Beautifully written. In its entirety. I completely agree.. it’s not about who started it. It’s about what we’re doing with it, I think is right on. Often, we get hung up on who gets the credit, rather than just pushing those ideas out there to see what will improve humanity. With the advent of technology, we are constantly on the prowl for better ideas, better design and better methods for ROI. In the end, I’ve seen it up close and personal, we don’t take anything with us. Only our ideas, our passion and our interests stay behind. Our job is to move those forward. Move that torch forward. Thanks for a beautiful post!

My best from Portland, Oregon
-David Molina @davidcmolina


Roland December 8, 2009 at 1:41 pm

As John Lennon once said “It’s about how you rip them off”


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