Shooting Shirky

Posted on March 16, 2009 
Filed Under Internet, Journalism

After reading Shirky today, I can see editors lining up with their shotguns and shouting in unison — “Pull!”.

Again Clay, in his usual cerebral way, has taken the complex and reduced it to simple cold, hard facts, weaving in his wikipedian understanding of the Internet and making news owners seem like grumpy old men stuck in the mud and missing targets.

Sometimes he loses me — perhaps this simple mind can’t seem to grasp at the core of his message — but thank god for the webbiness of random access and infinite repetition and Google and YouTube. I can read and watch him again and again to finally Get It.

To appreciate the genius of Shirky, you need to step back to his 2005 TED talk on Institutions vs Collaboration.

Then listen to his entertaining “cognitive heatsink” theory at the Web 2.0 Expo: Part 1 | Part 2


This is something that people in the media world don’t understand. Media in the 20th century was run as a single race–consumption. How much can we produce? How much can you consume? Can we produce more and you’ll consume more? And the answer to that question has generally been yes. But media is actually a triathlon, it ‘s three different events. People like to consume, but they also like to produce, and they like to share.

And what’s astonished people who were committed to the structure of the previous society, prior to trying to take this surplus and do something interesting, is that they’re discovering that when you offer people the opportunity to produce and to share, they’ll take you up on that offer. It doesn’t mean that we’ll never sit around mindlessly watching Scrubs on the couch. It just means we’ll do it less.

And this is the other thing about the size of the cognitive surplus we’re talking about. It’s so large that even a small change could have huge ramifications. Let’s say that everything stays 99 percent the same, that people watch 99 percent as much television as they used to, but 1 percent of that is carved out for producing and for sharing. The Internet-connected population watches roughly a trillion hours of TV a year. That’s about five times the size of the annual U.S. consumption. One per cent of that is 100 Wikipedia projects per year worth of participation.

I think that’s going to be a big deal. Don’t you?

Then go back and re-read Shirky firing away at the clay pigeons falling from the sky:

When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry. Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en masse. This shunting aside of the realists in favor of the fabulists has different effects on different industries at different times. One of the effects on the newspapers is that many of their most passionate defenders are unable, even now, to plan for a world in which the industry they knew is visibly going away.

The curious thing about the various plans hatched in the ’90s is that they were, at base, all the same plan: “Here’s how we’re going to preserve the old forms of organization in a world of cheap perfect copies!” The details differed, but the core assumption behind all imagined outcomes (save the unthinkable one) was that the organizational form of the newspaper, as a general-purpose vehicle for publishing a variety of news and opinion, was basically sound, and only needed a digital facelift. As a result, the conversation has degenerated into the enthusiastic grasping at straws, pursued by skeptical responses.

“The Wall Street Journal has a paywall, so we can too!”(Financial information is one of the few kinds of information whose recipients don’t want to share.)
“Micropayments work for iTunes, so they will work for us!” (Micropayments only work where the provider can avoid competitive business models.)
“The New York Times should charge for content!” (They’ve tried, with QPass and later TimesSelect.)
“Cook’s Illustrated and Consumer Reports are doing fine on subscriptions!” (Those publications forgo ad revenues; users are paying not just for content but for unimpeachability.)
“We’ll form a cartel!” (…and hand a competitive advantage to every ad-supported media firm in the world.)

Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.

With the old economics destroyed, organizational forms perfected for industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data. It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem…

…When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

There are fewer and fewer people who can convincingly tell such a lie.



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