The great thing about the title of Clay Shirky’s new book — “Here Comes Everybody” — is that it can sound totally different, depending on who’s reading it.
For Brand Managers, Big Media Publishers, and folks who have for decades controlled the flow of information and ideas… it reads: Uh Oh… Here Comes EVERYBODY!
While people formerly known as “consumers,” and the creative class of writers, musicians, artists, and makers can read it as… Oh, cool… Here Comes EVERYBODY!
Either way you read it, Shirky’s clearly got something to say. The world was formerly broken up into passive consumers and powerful distributors, but now it’s being blown apart by the web.
“I’m a hybrid,” says the writer, thinker, and NYU professor. Sitting in a chaotic classroom at NYU’s ITP program, he explains it this way: “From nine to five I can be like I’m 22. After five o’clock, I have to go back to being middle aged.”
The ITP program – which describes itself as “the centre for the Recently Possible,” is a graduate program the attracts students interested in creating the future. For Shirky, that’s a secret weapon.
“The secret is that I’m around people everyday who don’t have to unlearn anything because they never learned it in the first place. They didn’t learn that newspapers come from newspaper stands and plane tickets come from travel agents and books come from bookstores.”
For Shirky, the future is surely bright if you’re beginning your career. But, if you’re middleware — middle age, middle management — you may be in for a bumpy ride.
“The really important fight is between the 60-year-olds, whose bias is, ‘If I can just hold this together 5 more years, I get to cash out’,” explains Shirky. “The 30-year-olds who are looking around thinking; ‘there’s no way this is lasting 35 years.’ And if those guys push off the changes another five, I’m done for.”
There’s a whole group of overwhelmed news junkies who are mainlining information 24/7 and grumbling about information overload. But Shirky doesn’t buy it.
“I think the key thing about information overload is… It’s actually been the normal case for literate culture since the 1700s.” Before information was digital and 24/7, “the news used to be over. Right, you turn on the news, and then there would be some news and you’d watch it for an hour and then the news was over, and that was it for news and then there would be more news tomorrow.”
Shirky describes himself as a “news junkie,” but makes it sound like its more of a mainstream behaviour than an outlier. “You realise when there’s a 24/7 stream of news you can put right in your vein and never unplug, that you actually, you have to choose when the news is over, the news doesn’t tell you when it’s over.”
Part of the reason for the overwhelming volume of news is the shear volume of content ‘makers’ — Shirky says today “everyone is a media outlet.”
“We can all put things out in the public view now. And when I talk to a room full of smart 25-year olds living in a media-saturated environment, one of the hardest things to get across is what it was like to grow up in an environment when, at 6:30 in the evening, your entire range of choices of video was which White man was to read you the news in English. You couldn’t not watch the news. You couldn’t not watch White men reading it to you. You couldn’t hear it in any language other than English. That was it. That was what I grew up with. And in that world, if you were a civilian and you had something to say in public, you couldn’t, period.”
So, what to do? News is never-ending, volume is increasing, sources are growing exponentially. Shirky say find filters – or else.
“People see the web as chaotic and bookstores at not chaotic. What filters give us is the ability to ignore the 99% of the environment we don’t care about. Its those filters that broke because they were operating in a world in which the volume of available content was limited by the economics of content production. It takes a lot of money to put out a book or a magazine or it takes a lot of money to creative a minute of video. It does not take a lot of money to do a blog post or a podcast.”
Certainly, smarter machines will make for better algorithms – solving what Shirky calls today “filter failure.”
“The algorithms are going to get better. A lot of stuff we used to rely on humans to do is going to start to be done by machines. What that means is the job of the humans are stuff that only humans can do. So the machine does not yet exist that can do what editors of Tiger Beatdown or Boing Boing do.”
So, new filters are emerging — and that means more than better technology around search. When people say “I am frustrated with search,” Shirky says folks go searching for human curation. “Curation comes up when search stops doing everything people want it to do, when people realise that it isn’t just about information seeking, it’s also about synchronizing a community.”
Example: “Like a book club, that’s a place where again, humans do that better than machines. And I think the job of curation is to synchronise a community so that when they’re all talking about the same thing at the same time, they can have a richer conversation than if everybody reads everything they like in a completely unsynchronized or uncoordinated way.”
“What started to happen is people are starting to adopt around a dozen sites that they use to kind of mediate all of that craziness and chaos to their view of the world.”
Finding filters that work, voices that help separate signal from noise, is something that Clay Shirky says will be essential as ‘Everybody’ becomes a content creator and ‘Everybody’ starts adding voices, facts, reviews, opinion, and data into the sharing ecosystem.
People “have to either confront the fact that they’re gonna be curating their own lives, or they have to find some new proxy to say, instead of ABC News telling me when the news is over, I’m gonna rely on some other source to, to limit what I’m exposed to or care about.”
Every day, Clay Shirky stands in front of the kids who are building the future of media, technology, communication, and computing. He’s smart enough to be able to point the way toward the future, and agile enough to adjust his thesis as he is able to see around the bend. But he’s also honest enough to admit that what he knows about the past obscures his vision of the future. He counts on the students to help him do that.
“If I eat my Wheaties for any reason it’s just that I want to see how this turns out however long it takes, the constructive part of the changes are still mainly in the future. We still gotta see a lot of edifices crash and burn before, before we see what the new world really looks.”
Watch all the video of Clay Shirky at CurationNation.org.
Steve Rosenbaum is founder and CEO of Magnify.net, a NYC-based Web video startup. He has been building and growing consumer-content businesses since 1992. He was the creator and Executive Producer of MTV UNfiltered, a series that was the first commercial application of user-generated video in commercial TV.
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