Interview with Clay Shirky

by Stewart Quealy

Clay Shirky, an expert on collaboration tools, social networks, peer-to-peer sharing, and open source development, was the keynote speaker at Search Engine Strategies San Jose 2009.

Stewart Quealy: In Here Comes Everybody, you say that communication tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring. How does that insight apply to social media utilities like Facebook and Twitter?

Clay Shirky: The last 12 months have seen a shift in both Facebook and Twitter in just this direction. For Facebook, the shift happened when the “over 35” group became the fastest-growing age group; once the basic value of the service became clear, people stopped regarding it as a kid’s toy, and starting thinking of it as part of their daily lives.

With Twitter, it was a bit more explosive, as events in Moldova, Guatemala, and Iran saw protesters adopting it as a way of coordinating their actions, because they’d learned to take its basic functions for granted.

SQ: I’ve heard you complain about the trauma of trying to unlearn a childhood spent watching Gilligan’s Island. Can you expand on that regret, along with your notion of a “cognitive surplus” that we all developed during the age of TV?

CS: The idea of a cognitive surplus is pretty simple: We all have an enormous amount of free time every week — free time which previous generations fought long and hard to win for us in the battle over the shape of working life. Yet, in the second half of the 20th century, the principal use of that free time became watching television, which is now an unpaid half-time job for everyone over 30 or so.

One big change in the current era is the rise of large collaborative projects — things like Wikipedia or alternate reality games, where free time becomes something spent in a more engaging way because it’s spent in group activity. Cognitive surplus is simply a label for being able to think of the free time of the connected world in aggregate, as a surplus that can be used in the pursuit of these social projects.

SQ: What do you mean when you say that media is actually a triathlon — it’s three different events?

CS: The media landscape many of us grew up in was given over to almost pure consumption, but it turns out that people also like to produce, and we like to share. Many of the surprises in the current media landscape, from mailing lists to BitTorrent, come about because tools that help us with producing or sharing are adopted with rabid enthusiasm — a result that still seems to surprise traditional media outlets, even though these effects have been constant for nearly 20 years now.

SQ: You seem to reference the open source movement frequently in your book. Why does open source reduce the cost of failure but not the likelihood of failure?

CS: The effect of failure is likelihood times cost, but most organizations spend a disproportionate amount of time trying to reduce the likelihood of failure. Open source methods involve lots and lots of public explorations of various options, because its practitioners recognize that working digitally can lower the cost of failure, allowing them to be more experimental because the risks are lower.

SQ: It’s been said that a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention. In this age of information overload, is civilization really revving itself into a pathologically short attention span like Stewart Brand contends?

CS: Yes, but that always happens. People had the same complaint about printed books versus hand-copied ones, then about the spread of newspapers, then the telegraph, then paperback books, and so on. Every new abundance breaks the old filters, and since people seem almost categorically unable to view their own circumstances as accidental, we get ourselves in a lather about “the end of civilization” and so on.

Then someone invents new forms of filtering, and we forget that the information overload problem seemed like a dire threat. Right now, we’re in the interregnum where the old forms of filtering are truly broken, but our tools for restoring some sense of order — and shielding ourselves from too much chaos — aren’t yet in place.

Anyone who has a real, working tool for helping people sort the good from the mediocre in this landscape has a better-than-even shot at building a successful company, since the need for that kind of filtering is so great.

SQ: Regarding the controversy surrounding the recent Iranian presidential election, you said that this is the first revolution that has been catapulted onto a global stage and transformed by social media. Were you surprised when photos from Iranian citizen journalists made the front page of The New York Times through the photo community Demotix?

CS: I wasn’t surprised, no. In fact, photos have long been crowdsourced — the best and earliest documentation of the 7/7 London transport bombings were from mobile phones. I think the real surprise of the Iranian revolution was the fact that people outside Iran weren’t just watching but helping, by forwarding messages and setting up ways to route around Iranian censorship. It was the fact not just of global observation, but global participation, that I found so striking.

SQ: The mass amateurization of publishing and a switch from “Why publish this?” to “Why not?” is a paradigm shift that traditional media has trouble accepting. Do you feel that the death of The New York Times is just around the corner, as Michael Hirschorn infamously argued in The Atlantic?

CS: No — the Times is too essential to do anything as dramatic as die. I do think, however, that its position in the media landscape is eroding, because its influence on setting a public agenda is increasingly a result of the public itself helping set that agenda.

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in the August issue of SES Magazine.

Clay Shirky is a writer, educator, and consultant on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies. He is an adjunct professor at New York University in the graduate interactive telecommunications program. An acknowledged expert on collaboration tools, social networks, peer-to-peer sharing, and open source development, Clay has spoken and written extensively on the Internet since 1996. In his new book, Here Comes Everybody, he explores how organizations and industries are being upended by open networks, collaboration, and user appropriation of content production and dissemination.

Stewart Quealy is the Search Engine Strategies Advisory Board Co-Chair and VP of Content Development at Incisive Media. He has been part of the Search Engine Strategies (SES) content team since 2001 and plays a key role in programming Incisive Media’s interactive marketing events.

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