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eNice and nasty does it: Shirky the 'net guru' on what the future holds

Decca Aitkenhead (SMH) | July 5, 2010
The internet guru on the death of newspapers, why paywall will fail and how the internet has brought out our creativity - and generosity

Shirky now teaches new media at New York University, and in 2008 published his first book, Here Comes Everybody: How Change Happens When People Come Together, which celebrated individuals' new power to communicate, organise and change the world via the web.

His predictions for the fate of print media organisations have proved unnervingly accurate; 2009 would be a bloodbath for newspapers, he warned - and so it came to pass.

Dozens of American newspapers closed last year, while several others, such as the Christian Science Monitor, moved their entire operation online.

The business model of the traditional print newspaper, says Shirky, is doomed; the monopoly on news it has enjoyed ever since the invention of the printing press has become an industrial dodo.

Rupert Murdoch has just begun charging for online access to The Times - and Shirky is confident the experiment will fail.

"Everyone's waiting to see what will happen with the paywall - it's the big question. But I think it will underperform. On a purely financial calculation, I don't think the numbers add up."

But then, interestingly, he goes on, "Here's what worries me about the paywall. When we talk about newspapers, we talk about them being critical for informing the public; we never say they're critical for informing their customers.

"We assume that the value of the news ramifies outwards from the readership to society as a whole.

"OK, I buy that. But what Murdoch is signing up to do is to prevent that value from escaping.

"He wants to only inform his customers, he doesn't want his stories to be shared and circulated widely.

"In fact, his ability to charge for the paywall is going to come down to his ability to lock the public out of the conversation convened by the Times."

This criticism echoes the sentiment of Shirky's new book, Cognitive Surplus; Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.

The book argues that the popularity of online social media trumps all our old assumptions about the superiority of professional content, and the primacy of financial motivation.

It proves, Shirky argues, that people are more creative and generous than we had ever imagined, and would rather use their free time participating in amateur online activities such as Wikipedia - for no financial reward - because they satisfy the primal human urge for creativity and connectedness.

Just as the invention of the printing press transformed society, the internet's capacity for "an unlimited amount of zero-cost reproduction of any digital item by anyone who owns a computer" has removed the barrier to universal participation, and revealed that human beings would rather be creating and sharing than passively consuming what a privileged elite think they should watch.

 

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