What is common knowledge?

Korby Parnell recently wrote about an interesting spam message he received. I was surprised to read Korby’s question, “Why would a spammer cram all these strange words into an email body?”

At first, I thought to myself, “How could he not know that?” As a computer professional in software development, I thought, certainly one should be up-to-date on the latest spammer techniques. Even more so for somebody who works for a prominent company.

The more I thought about it, I realized that it is silly to assume that somebody else should know everything you know. That’s what two-year-olds think. By the age of three, most of us figure out that we can know things that others don’t, and thus begins the age of secrets. Yet, I think we all fall into this trap.

I know that our customer support team deals with this quite often. A customer will call because they are having a problem. After a while, the suport rep will realize that the customer is making an incorrect assumption about how the system works. After the support rep explains that the system doesn’t do whatever the customer thought it did, the typical response is, “I can’t believe nobody else has reported this is a problem.” I know that we like to phrase the response as, “Well, we have over 300 companies using the software, and you really are the first one to ask for this.”

Several years ago, I watched a fascinating Scientific American Frontiers episode called “It’s a Kid’s World“. I learned from this episode that young children don’t realize that their thoughts are private. They seem to operate on the principle that thoughts are public knowledge. Perhaps a little bit of that carries over into our adult lives?

If you want to explore the episode, the part about public vs. private thougts is in the last segment, “Changing Minds.” Be patient with the video. I don’t think the PBS servers are state-of-the-art.

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