FORTUNE — Walter Isaacson’s biography of Apple’s (AAPL) Steve Jobs was enjoying its sixth week at No. 1 on the New York Times‘ hardcover nonfiction bestseller list in December 2011 when Fortune‘s Adam Lashinsky asked him what he was going to do next.
The author of biographies of Henry Kissinger, Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein told the audience at San Francisco’s Commonwealth Club that he felt he had earned the right to pick someone less iconic and pluck her out of obscurity.
“I believe that women in technology will be this century’s wave,” he said, “and I might as well get in on it, being a guy, and get Ada Lovelace her moment in the sun.”
It was a clever bit of misdirection. His new book may start with Lord Byron’s precocious daughter but its scope is considerably broader. It’s about the people who brought us the Information Age.
We know this because Isaacson has started posting chapter-length drafts on various social media sites, inviting readers to weigh in.
“Sending around papers for comments is a very old tradition,” he explains on one of those sites, Medium. “It’s why the Royal Society was founded in London in 1660 and why Benjamin Franklin founded the American Philosophical Society. It was also one of the motives for Franklin forging the colonial postal service. At Time Magazine, we had a practice of sending stories to all bureaus for “Comments and Corrections.” It was very useful. In the past, I have sent parts of my drafts around to people I knew. By using the Internet, I can now solicit comments and corrections from people I don’t know.”
Isaacson says this is “nothing new.” But as far as I know there’s never before been a biographical collaboration 1) on this scale (on the Internet!), 2) by an author of Isaacson’s stature and fame (millions of books — and the movie rights — sold!), about people who are still alive (Bill Gates! Steve Case! Larry Page!).
Isaacson has posted excerpts on LiveJournal, Scribd and the Harvard Gazette, but it’s on Medium that he’s had the most interesting results. Bob Frankston and Dan Bricklin (co-creators of the first electronic spreadsheet) both weighed in — Bricklin with a long rant (reposted on Bricklin.com) against the kind of personality-driven history that has become Isaacson’s bread and butter.
My favorite comments and corrections (at Time we used to call them CACs) are the ones offered by Stewart (“information wants to be free”) Brand, who took the time to correct Isaacson’s spelling (it’s Norbert WIENER, not Weiner), Tom Wolfe’s reporting in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (“Wolfe’s account is wholly invented; he wasn’t there”) and the size of an LSD dose Brand dropped (100 MICROgrams, not 100 mg. Big difference). See Stewart Brand responds.
In one excerpt, Isaacson tells the story of how Brand lobbied NASA to take the photograph of Earth from space that became the cover of his Whole Earth Catalog. In another, the story of how Brand and Larry Brilliant later created one of the most civilized outposts on the Internet — the Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link — in part by outlawing anonymity.
The marginal comments on Isaacson’s book excerpts on Medium are signed (via Twitter) and have so far stayed more or less on point. The Internet being what it is today, we’ll see how long that lasts.
- The Birth of Online
- The Culture That Gave Birth to the Personal Computer
- Insights on the writing of Steve Jobs
- The man who won Steve Jobs’ trust
Below: An excerpt from Isaacson’s Medium account.