Clay Shirky at SXSWi on sharing, human nature and the Internet



Photo credit: Joi Ito

Ahead of the disappointments of the big keynote interviews with Evan Williams and Daniel Ek SXSWi got off to a good start with an unusual presentation by Clay Shirky.

Shirky is an American writer, consultant and teacher on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies. With a large conference of this size there is often a lot of repetition of ideas and in some sessions a feeling of preaching to the converted, with few dissenting viewpoints. A lot of sessions end up as a “how to” or a step-by-step guide to solving a problem.

In contrast, Shirky is a big thinker, so it was welcome to have some real substance to think on, but the hard work has been left for us, to take his ideas and translate them into something meaningful. (A caveat from me that a presentation like this is infinitely better when watched live rather than read about.)

He started by giving us the example of PickupPal in Canada, a web site which allows people to organise ride-sharing as an alternative to public transport. However, the entrenched competitors did not like the threat to their position and a number of court cases clarified that in many situations PickupPal was illegal.  This did not go down well with the public and sparked a popular revolution which ended up changing the operating environment and the law was changed to support ride sharing.

Lesson: Companies that provide a service which solve a problem have an interest in that problem staying in existence and will do what they can to defend it. (e.g. traditional bus companies)

Next he explained about the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg. Before he printed the famous bible he printed papal indulgences for one four hundredth of the cost of paying scribes. The church considered this sacrilegious, up until this point they had a monopoly on the written word. “Before the printing press the church was all powerful. 200 years later it was just a religion.”

Lesson: When things become really abundant… the price goes away.

Next up, Shirky took a look at how humans share things. Using the example of Napster he argued the fact that people were sharing music illegal did not mean there was a huge rise in desire for criminality. Normally there is a cost to sharing with people which makes us less likely to do so. For example, when you had CDs you would reluctantly lend them out. Now though with digital music there’s no cost or harm to you. So this changed the motivation of sharing and brought back an old trait.

Second example of this, Wikipedia came along and while it is imperfect it is so much more accessible than its historic rival Encyclopedia Britannica. Accordingly Wikipedia changed the nature of the game.

Lesson: Abundance breaks more things than scarcity.

Finally, Shriky presented examples of web services which contribute to the public good such as Patients Like Me and Ushahidi, both using the power of crowd sourcing to provide vital information and insights to governments, policy makers and NGOs.

Lesson: What the Internet has brought is that we now have the tools to easily share information. In the past this could only be done on a small scale, now it’s as easy as setting up a Facebook group, the expense has now disappeared.

He challenged us to think, “How much value can we get out of civic sharing?”

In summing up, Shirky told us that the greatest points of leverage are when no one is paying attention. All progress stops when everyone realises how important something is, so work where no one knows how important it is.

A great example, when Linus Torvalds initially posted a message online in 1991 seeking help developing a new OS just 6 people volunteered. Linux is now a significant player in the OS market and the most prominent examples of free and open source software collaboration.

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