Some Thoughts on Shirky

Though Clay Shirky is known for his biting criticism and precise analysis of the media landscape, I find that the most interesting things in Shirky’s articles tend not to have anything to do with newspapers at all.

The mechanics of social change and upheaval, the arc of intellectual history, the functioning of public space and community identity, the dynamics of networks and the interplay of power. The core of his articles tend to strike a chord much deeper that mere commentary about the crisis in journalism. While the lessons he draws from these musings are often useful and illuminating for the case of newspapers – they apply more broadly to fundamental issues regarding how we communicate, relate, and engage with others.

Here are some of the nuggets that I have been mulling over recently. If these quotes pique your curiosity, go read the whole posts for each.

From his blog post: “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable

“Revolutions create a curious inversion of perception. In ordinary times, people who do no more than describe the world around them are seen as pragmatists, while those who imagine fabulous alternative futures are viewed as radicals. The last couple of decades haven’t been ordinary, however. […] When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry. Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en masse. This shunting aside of the realists in favor of the fabulists has different effects on different industries at different times. […]
That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing. […] Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify.

From “From ‘why?’ to ‘why not?’

“The problem the web has introduced into intellectual life is also one of abundance, but an abundance of producers, not merely production. The speed and scale of this increase, occasioned by the internet and mobile phones and moving from under a million participants to more than a billion in less than a generation, make the change unprecedented, even considered against the background of previous revolutions, and the resulting amateurisation of media creation is still accelerating.

The internet is, in a way, the first thing to deserve the label “media”. It is a general-purpose mediating layer, one that can hold multiple types of content, created and distributed for a variety of reasons and in a variety of ways. Prior to the internet, the costs of reproduction and distribution created an asymmetry of access: every time someone bought a radio or a television, the number of media consumers increased by one, but the number of producers didn’t budge. The internet, on the other hand, moves the basic mechanism of reproduction and distribution into a lattice of shared infrastructure, paid for by all and accessible to all.

The computers connected to the edges of this network are not imbalanced as in the old model, where it cost a great deal to own a TV station but little to own a TV. Instead, they are balanced like the telephone – if you can listen, you can talk; if you can read, you can publish; if you can watch, you can record. This does not mean the average user can write a compelling novel or create a good film, but being able to produce anything at all is a huge change, relative to the consumer’s previous silence.”

From “Not an Upgrade — an Upheaval

“As Paul Starr, the great sociologist of media, has often noted, journalism isn’t just about uncovering facts and framing stories; it’s also about assembling a public to read and react to those stories. A public is not merely an audience. For a TV show with an audience of a million, no one cares whether it’s the same million every week — head count rules. A public, by contrast, is a group of people who not only know things, but know other members of the public know those things as well. Both persistence and synchrony matter, because journalism is about more than dissemination of news; it’s about the creation of shared awareness.

Consider, as an illustration, the difference between assembling a public for a newspaper, and for stories on that paper’s website. The publisher assembled the public for the paper, maintaining subscribers lists and distribution chains, and got to decide what front-page news was for those readers. This was a bottleneck of value that used to be enforced by the limitations of print and distribution, and by lack of competition for sources of written news.

On the website, however, the stories are the same, but assembling various publics is different. The home page doesn’t serve the function the front page used to; for many papers, less than half the traffic even sees the home page. Instead, people who care about gay marriage, say, will pass around the relevant articles in email, IM, or twitter, whether those stories are on page A1 or B17, whether the paper is published in Anchorage or Miami. Online, it is the relevant networked publics, not the editorial board, who determine much of what gets read.

The logic of the Internet, a medium that is natively good at helping groups communicate at vanishingly low cost, is that the act of forming a public has become something the public is increasingly doing for itself, rather than needing to wait for a publication (note the root) to do it for them. More publics will form, they will be smaller, shorter-lived, and less geographically contiguous, and they will overlap more than the previous era’s larger, more rooted, more stable publics.”


  1. mary says:

    What do you think he means by “bottleneck of value”?



    1. Josh says:

      Hi Mary – essentially when we rely on editors to tell us what is important and organize the narrative of our news we allow them to be a bottleneck – or in other words gatekeepers – who get to decide the value and importance of different stories. Shirky likes the way that the web allows this process of valuation and organization be be more diffuse and democratic – empowering everyone to decide what is important.

      I believe that there are strengths and weaknesses to both approaches.

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