Clay Shirky on information overload, etc.

by bledsoe on January 13, 2009

The Columbia Journalism Review recently conducted an interview with Clay Shirky, a professor at New York University's Interactive Telecommunications program and author of the book Here Comes Everybody.  The interview is "part of the online supplement to the November/December print issue of the Columbia Journalism Review," whose cover story is entitled Overload!: Journalism’s battle for relevance in an age of too much information.

I'm a big fan of Shirky and think he has fascinating insights into the impact of the internet on society in general and on our social networks in particular, so I recommend the interview in its entirety, but for those who don't want to wade through all 7500 or so words of it, here are a few highlights:

Regarding information overload (which Shirky prefers to call filter failure):

...you know, you never hear twenty-year-olds talking about information overload because they understand the filters they’re given. You only hear, you know, forty- and fifty-year-olds taking about it, sixty-year-olds talking about because we grew up in the world of card catalogs and TV Guide. And now, all the filters we’re used to are broken and we’d like to blame it on the environment instead of admitting that... we just don’t understand what’s going on...

...The advantage [young people] have over me is that they don’t have to unlearn anything. They don’t have to unlearn the idea that a card catalog is a helpful thing to have. That you need a librarian to find things. That you have to figure out where you’re looking before you [can find] what you’re looking for. None of those things are true anymore. And so one of the problems that old people like me suffer from is just we know too many solutions for problems that no longer exist. And it kind of freaks us out to realize that all the things we mastered don’t really add up to much value anymore.

It’s not so much that young people are smart and old people are scared. It’s that young people don’t have to unlearn all the stuff that old people do have to unlearn if we want to understand this world. And unlearning is just about the least fun activity in the world. So, you know, it’s easy to understand why people don’t want to sign up for it. But it’s also kind of pathetic that the people going around talking about information overload don’t stop to factor in the idea that if the twenty-year-olds aren’t complaining about information overload, it probably isn’t the problem we think it is.

Regarding old people who complain about how confusing the internet is:

I mean, really, I’m just so impatient with the argument that the world should be slowed down to help people who aren’t smart enough to understand what’s going on. It’s in part because I grew up in a generation that benefited enormously from not doing that. Right? The baby boomers, when we were young, we had zero, zero patience for the idea that people who [were] in their fifties in the ’70s and ’80s should somehow be shielded from cultural changes because somehow the stuff that we were doing was upsetting them. So, now it’s our turn and we ought to just suck it up.

Shirky's dire prediction for the future:

My nightmare is that every city with less than a quarter of a million people in it sees its only daily newspaper vanish. And that a good portion of those cities turn to 1950s-style, you know, 1950s New Orleans-style corruption. Which is to say because there’s no one watching, no one will be held accountable. So L.A. will be fine. Chicago will be fine, New York will be fine. You know, you can imagine Wichita just getting hijacked by its own city council. And it will take some time, as it took some time during the print journalism days to move from yellow journalism into some idea of serious reporting that isn’t beholden enough to the powers that be to be swayed. I don’t think that this is an easy transition at all.

Regarding the traditional (ad-supported) business model of print journalism:

...The idea of advertisements as separate from the journalists, was successful enough and widespread enough and essentially honored in speech, if not always in action.  That was a serious enough barrier that it actually kept the journalists themselves from thinking through their own business model. A lot of working journalists, and especially print journalists, are in the position of being sort of kept women. They don’t really understand where the money comes from but, you know, their particular sugar daddy seems pretty flush, so they just never gave it much thought. And then one day the market crashes and they suddenly discover, “Wait a minute, we were a business? And our revenues had to exceed our expenses every year? Why wasn’t I informed?”

...What’s going to happen is, basically, the number of people who commit acts of journalism will rise enormously and the number of people who derive most, or all, of their income from acts of journalism is going to shrink. It’s just what happened to photographers with the spread of cameras. There’s just many, many, many, many more photos than there used to be. But it’s harder to make your living just by owning a nice camera and setting up in town and taking pictures of people’s kids. So, you know, I think that changed. And I think journalism is essentially next in line to see that change, to go through that change.

Regarding the decrease in the quality of journalism due to the increase in non-traditional media outlets (e.g., blogs):

It’s always a problem in the short term. It’s almost like when Web sites came out. I don’t know if you were around in the middle of the ‘90s, but, oh my God, it was just like a giant step backwards for graphic design. Or look what happened right when Mac came out. Remember when the Mac came out in ’84, and then in ’87 they announced this sort of “desktop publishing” thing, right, and all the Linotype operators laughed until milk came out their noses. Twenty years later, the Linotype operators’ union votes itself out of business. Because when the Mac shipped with desktop publishing, it certainly wasn’t very good, right? Quality took a hit, everybody’s getting these birthday invites with nine fonts on them and so forth. But over the course of twenty years, quality got sorted out, because in a more competitive landscape, there were more positive returns to high quality.

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