On Publishing & the Internet

From the Times Literary Supplement Sept 10 2010

Sitcoms or lolcats


Creativity and generosity in a connected age
242pp. Alien Lane. £20 (US $25.95). 9781846142178

Clay Shirky, who started working with the internet as a designer at the dawn of the World Wide Web in the early 1990s, is a voice in the technological wilder­ness, a fast-talking professor at New York University who guides despairing media execu­tives. The publication in 2008 of Here Comes Everybody, which crystallized his thinking and writing into a vision of a future powered by col­lective endeavour, offered an arresting account of the rise of social media and how they have transformed society in less than a decade. Now in Cognitive Surplus we get a defence of those who spend their free time in cyberspace rather than on the living-room couch, from a man who in his teenage years committed a "thousand hours a year to Gilligan and The Partridge Family and Charlie's Angels", and who no longer has a television in the house.

For Shirky, sitcoms are the twentieth-century equivalent of the gin that intoxicated London in the early eighteenth century, a "critical lubricant" which has eased the stresses of the West's transition from indus­trial to post-industrial society, and the time wasted following them a vast, untapped resource. As he demonstrated so strikingly in Here Comes Everybody, the social web offers people the ability to communicate with others all around the globe and band together with them to fit piecemeal contributions into an overarching scheme which can yield extraordinary results. In Cognitive Surplus, Shirky argues that this turns the 200 billion hours Americans spend watching television each year into a "general social asset that can be harnessed for large, communally created projects, rather than as a set of individual min­utes to be whiled away one person at a time". He sets off to explain how social media make this possible in three chapters describ­ing the means, motive and opportunity pro­vided by the Web-2.0 with a mixture of case study, personal anecdote and history. We hear how the printing pioneer Johannes Gutenberg made books plentiful and scribes redundant, how fans of the crossover singer Josh Groban raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity through a series of Web-based appeals, how Shawn Farming's Napster helped tens of millions of people exchange the music they already had on their hard drives.

Shirky moves next to the vital ingredients for turning the potential bonanza of wasted creativity these tools unlock into something useful - an open culture which both encour­ages participation and also celebrates civic endeavour - before offering some brief thoughts about how to set up projects to take advantage of this new resource, and suggest­ ing that since revolutionary change is inherently unpredictable, we should experiment with anything and everything so that the projects with civic value can be discovered.

Shirky has a problem with quality, however. Often he argues as if it were a simple matter to decide when one cultural artefact is better than another, as in his assessment of Gutenberg's revolution, where he suggests that "abundance brings a rapid fall in average quality, but over time experimentation pays off, diversity expands the range of the poss­ible, and the best work becomes better than what went before" - which seems close to asserting that the printing press allowed Shakespeare to improve on Chaucer. Elsewhere, he suggests that the public communication social media allows is intrinsically valuable "because there is no way to filter for quality in advance: the definition of quality becomes more variable, from one community to the next" - which seems unabashedly comfort­able with the notion that judgements made by groups of amateurs are no judgements at all.

Clear thinking about quality is vital not only to literature enthusiasts but also to those media companies struggling with the revolution Shirky proclaims. If publishing has only been taken seriously because it used to be costly and difficult, as he suggests, then as the act of publication goes from being hard to virtually effortless, publishers face a grim future. But if the value in publication always consisted less in managing paper and more in making value judgements about what deserves attention, then the removal of the bottleneck which the printing press provides does not necessarily condemn them to oblivion. If you can indeed identify when one book is better than another, then those who can write them, or find them, will surely be able to turn that expertise into hard cash, printing press or no - though it is "still not clear how mainstream media organizations can pull off this vital trick.

For Shirky the important step is not that of achieving excellence, but of getting off the couch at all, an attitude shaped by his discov­ery that people wanted to design their own websites, even if they didn't measure up to the sites designed by professionals. The creative input in making a lolcat - an immensely popular combination of cute picture and kooky caption - is enough to bridge the gap between "doing nothing and doing something", the vital first step on the spectrum from mediocre to good, which can be climbed bit by bit.

There is no doubt in Shirky's mind about the direction of travel. While he allows that the internet can be used for nefarious as well as inspirational purposes, his examples are almost uniformly positive. Perhaps the sur­prising fact that massive aggregations of small contributions can be turned into things of lasting value - that the software which allows me to write this piece was designed for free by strangers - demands an explana­tion, but there is no guarantee that it will. The procession of politically engaged teenagers, volunteer rubbish collectors and free soft­ware designers in Cognitive Surplus leaves unremarked the bullies, con-men and jihadis for whom the social web represents an equal and opposite opportunity. If Clay Shirky is right that new media allow people to "behave in increasingly generous, public and social ways", then surely the realization that mean, secretive and anti-social behaviour is just as viable an option should give us pause for thought when he suggests we should unleash "As Much Chaos as We Can Stand".