Here Comes Everybody: Journalism and Ease of Publication [en]

I’m reading “Here Comes Everybody“. I’m taking notes.

In the chapter “Everyone is a media outlet”, Clay explains very well what is the matter with the journalism industry. (He has since then co-authored a report on the future of the news industry, which I need to read.)

In a world where everyone is a publisher, journalism is becoming an activity rather than a profession — activity which can be carried out both by those employed by the news industry and the “amateurs” (oh heck). A profession serves to solve a hard problem, that requires specialisation. Reproduction, distribution, and categorisation are now orders of magnitude easier and cheaper than before: professionals are no longer required for these activities.

Look at iStockPhoto and professional photography: the price of professional photography not so much due to the incredible quality of the professional’s work, in many cases, but comes from the difficulty of finding the right photo. iStockPhoto helps solve that problem, so the photo now costs 1$ instead of 500$, can very well have been shot by an amateur, and be no lesser in quality than a more expensive, specially-commissioned professional one.

As it has become easier to publish, public speech and action have become more valuable and less scarce, just like the ability to read and write became more commonplace with the invention of movable type, and scribes lost their raison-d’être.

Journalism is a profession that seems to exist because of accidental scarcity of published material due to the expense of publishing in the physical world. Scarcity (and therefore cost) is not an indication of importance: water is more important to life than diamonds, but that doesn’t make it expensive (The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith).

When everybody had learned to read and write, and scribes weren’t needed anymore, we didn’t call everybody a scribe, we just stopped using the word; reading and writing is ubiquitous and so not rare enough to pay for, even if it’s a really important skill. Scribes as a profession died out.

As for music and movie industry: the service they performed was distributing music and movies, but now anybody can move music and video easily and cheaply. The problem they were solving does not exist anymore, and so they are trying to maintain it by turning on their customers and trying to make moving movies and music harder artificially.

Because it’s so easy to publish, making something public is less the momentous decision that it used to be. The general criticism of the low quality of online content has to do with the fact we are judging “communications” content (conversation, often) by “broadcast” content standards of interest and quality. We look at Facebook statuses and think “was that really worth broadcasting?” — not realising that it was never intended for broadcast in the first place. It was not meant for us. If you eavesdrop on a dining hall conversation at the table next to you, doubtless you’ll find it uninteresting, but you won’t think “why are they speaking so loud I can hear what they’re saying?”

There used to be a distinction between communications and broadcast media, which has now broken down. Broadcast is one-to-many, a one-way megaphone which attempts to reach as many people as possible of a target audience. Communications, on the other hand, are two-way conversations for specific recipients, one-to-one. Now we also have many-to-many, communications tools which enable group conversation. There is a continuum between broadcast and communications rather than a sharp break neatly following the lines of the technology used (TV/radio vs. phone/fax). Communications and broadcast are mixed in the same medium, and we make the mistake of judging communications by the standards of broadcast.

Similar Posts:

Vindication and Unintentional Plagiarism [en]

[fr] Je retrouve dans Here Comes Everybody plein d'idées "à moi". Sont-ce vraiment les miennes? D'où viennent-elles? Peu importe, au final. Un livre dont je recommande chaudement la lecture.

I’m reading Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky. I should have read it a long time ago, like most unread books on my bookshelf. It’s about the behavioural and social change brought about by social tools. Each chapter is making me go “yes, wow!” and I get a sense of vindication, because so much of what Shirky so clearly explains is stuff that I’ve been saying for years. It feels like “he agrees with me”.

The truth is certainly more complex. These “theories” that I’ve come up with over the years to explain the online connected world to outsiders, and which feel like mine, well, I didn’t conjure them out of thin air. We all know about unintentional plagiarism, don’t we? Maybe I even read them on Shirky’s blog, once upon a time. Or heard them from somebody who read the book, or knows him.

Though Clay Shirky and I have never met, we have many friends and acquaintances in common. The Acknowledgements section at the end of his book is so full of people I’ve met and spoken with (when they’re not simply friends) that it’s a little surreal. I’m offline, or I’d check on Facebook and see how many contacts we have in common. Fair to say that we’re part of a tightly connected area of the network. (One notable difference, amongst others, though: Shirky took the trouble to write a book :-))

Another possibility is that these are “ambient ideas”. I’ve forgotten the reference for this (but Scott Berkun‘s book The Myths of Innovation almost certainly talks about it), but innovation is generally not an isolated event. The climate is ripe, and it is not rare that more than one person comes up with a new idea around the same time. These are possibly the “collective theories” in certain circles we are part of. It’s at the same time fascinating and frustrating that it is not possible to trace precisely how ideas travel through the network.

It doesn’t really matter, though. It feels good to see in print what I’ve been thinking and saying for years, even if I don’t remember how I came to these conclusions. Allow me to risk basking in the warm fuzzy glow of confirmation bias for a while.

Similar Posts:

On Tags and Ontologies [en]

Quote from Clay Shirky on the suckiness of ontologies, and how tags-labels are better for classifying ideas.

[fr] Le problème avec les ontologies ou les systèmes de classement hiérarchiques est qu'ils doivent être conçus de façon à  accommoder tout élément à  classer pouvant surgir dans le futur. Les tags-étiquettes créent une structure multi-dimentionelle élastique, qui s'adapte à  mesure à  ce qu'on y classe.

This last point is key — the number one fucked up thing about ontology (don’t get me started, the suckiness of ontology is going to be my ETech talk this year…), but, as I say, the number one thing, out of a rich list of such things, is the need to declare today what contains what as a prediction about the future. Let’s say I have a bunch of books on art and creativity, and no other books on creativity. Books about creativity are, for the moment, a subset of art books, which are a subset of all books.

Then I get a book about creativity in engineering. Ruh roh. I either break my ontology, or I have to separate the books on creativity, because when I did the earlier nesting, I didn’t know there would be books on creativity in engineering. A system that requires you to predict the future up front is guaranteed to get worse over time.

And the reason ontology has been even a moderately good idea for the last few hundred years is that the physical fact of books forces you to predict the future. You have to put a book somewhere when you get it, and as you get more books, you can neither reshelve constantly, nor buy enough copies of any given book to file it on all dimensions you might want to search for it on later.

Ontology is a good way to organize objects, in other words, but it is a terrible way to organize ideas, and in the period between the invention of the printing press and the invention of the symlink, we were forced to optimize for the storage and retrieval of objects, not ideas. Now, though, we can scrap of the stupid hack of modeling our worldview on the dictates of shelf space. One day the concept of creativity can be a subset of a larger category, and the next day it can become a slice that cuts across several categories. In hierarchy land, this is a crisis; in tag land, it’s an operation so simple it hardly merits comment.

Clay Shirky, Many-to-Many


Similar Posts: