NEAL CONAN, host:
This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The world is littered with the carcasses of corporations that tried and failed to predict the future of the Web. Companies latched onto buzz words like wiki, social networks, crowd sourcing, tweeting, without understanding the phenomena common to them all. If only they'd listen to Clay Shirky, a writer, teacher and consultant who watches social and economic trends on the Web. As one example, 15 years ago, he forecast that classified ads would migrate from the agitype(ph) in the back pages of the newspapers to the worldwide Web. His recent book, "Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations" makes sense of the way groups use the Internet and explains why that matters. Today at the start of a new year, we ask Clay Shirky to tell us what's next, and we want you to tell us what's next for you on the Web. Are you creating something that uses the Web in a new way? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us email@example.com. You can reach us on twitter, twitter.com/totn, and you can join the conversation at our Web site, go to npr.org, just click on Talk of the Nation. Later in the hour, the latest on a police shooting in Oakland that sparked protest and last night, violence, and over a hundred arrests. But first, Clay Shirky joins us from our bureau in New Yor,k and nice to have you on Talk of the Nation today.
Mr. CLAY SHIRKY (Author, "Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations"): Thanks so much, Neal. Nice to be here.
CONAN: And it's the beginning of 2009. There's an economic crisis, a new president, a thousand social networking tools. Before we get to the next incarnation of the Internet, where are we now?
Mr. SHIRKY: Well, the where are we now question is a really interesting one because a lot of people are asking the question in a sense they - plainly a lot of parts of the old world are breaking. We're seeing the media world that we've known crumble. Obama's plainly made incredible use of these technologies in pursuit of his goals to become president. And now that he is president-elect, everyone expects him to continue using it. But to me the really interesting part of the transition now isn't the transition from A to B, from the old world to the new world. It's really a transition from one to many. We're not going to see any one use of the Internet, of social tools, Facebook, Twitter, all the things you listed. We're not going to see any one use of those things. What we're really seeing is the dynamic range of society increasing. The number of kinds of things that people can do is increasing so dramatically. I don't think we'll be able to look back at this period and say, oh yes, that was the moment where everything changed, or here's the one thing everyone started doing. In fact, people are doing all kinds of things and you know, as Andrew Rasiej sometimes says, the Internet is not another slice of the pie, the Internet is the pan. It's this containing and enabling layer that people are doing all sorts of remarkable new experiments with.
CONAN: It's interesting some people might think your book is about technology. It's really anthropology. It's about crowds.
Mr. SHIRKY: Exactly right. Exactly right. I mean, the analogy I make in the book is that if I invented the world's greatest shovel, people would not rush out to dig more ditches, right? It's - new tools don't make people adopt new behaviors. What's really happening here is that the Internet lets us be social in ways that we haven't been before, and it turns out that one of the really big changes isn't getting to use digital tools for more access to information. It's using digital tools to have more access to each other. And that's, I think, where the really big social transformations are coming from.
CONAN: And it is not unnecessarily that old farts like you and me are less versed in the technology. You say the kids you teach everybody, they don't know much about technology either. They just don't have unlearn all the stuff that we spent all those decades learning.
Mr. SHIRKY: Exactly. Now I wouldn't - I wouldn't say I hasten to add. I wouldn't say that they know nothing about technology. But the nuts and bolts of how the Internet works, the stuff I had to learn because 15 years ago you had to know how it worked to use it. It's not that they understand that. They're not understanding routers and switches and IP addresses and all the geeky details. But what they don't have to grapple with that I have to grapple with every day is a set of lessons about books come from the bookstore. You buy plane tickets from the travel agent. Those things have never been true in their world, and so they can look at the technology with fresh eyes, rather than doing what - as you say, you and I have to do which is sort of remember to forget how things were in the 20th century.
CONAN: Yeah, go to the card catalogue, exactly? (Laughing)
Mr. SHIRKY: Yes, exactly right.
CONAN: Now collaboration of the type you talk to, I mean, humans are no strangers to collaboration. As you say, primates, our entire cousins, they all collaborate too. But it's working differently on the Web.
Mr. SHIRKY: Right and the Web - the Web does a bunch of different things all at once, and there's no one factor that matters. But taken together what the Web does to collaboration in economic speak is it lowers the transaction cost, which is to say the hassle factor. Anybody whose ever tried to get five or six people to agree on a movie to go to or to come over, you know, for a birthday party at a particular time knows it's just - it's hard to get groups of people to agree, to coordinate with one another to do things together and so on. And the Web makes it easier for people to find each other. They can do it even from being in geographically remote locations, right? People can collaborate from half the world away. It can go from having a very small group to a very large group. If you have a dinner party for six, you need a different kind of room than if you have a dinner party for 60. But if you have a mailing list or a bulletin board for six, it can scale up to 60 or 600 or 6,000 effortlessly. And all of those effects together mean that there's just a lot of new tools around for people to start experimenting with. And it's really, it's those experiments I think that are so interesting.
CONAN: Give us a for instance.
Mr. SHIRKY: So one of the really, really interesting for instances is about to come in the Obama transition where the federal government, considered as a whole, is comprised of much more of civil service than politicians, we all focus on politics and elections and so forth. But in fact, most of what we think of as the government is in all of the people doing everything from, you know, managing the roads, interior, the environment, the FDA, all of these different organizations.
CONAN: Even the IRS.
Mr. SHIRKY: Even the IRS. And we have had this history of really major database style upgrades that have been attempted and then failed. The FAA, the IRS, the FBI, all attempted to have a big injection of technology into their organizations, and it just - it didn't work. And the really interesting test case to me right now is what if we tried to change the way those organizations did business and to make it work better. Not by concentrating on knowledge as something that sits in a database but rather knowledge of something that people know, right? Anyone who has dealt with the government has had the experience of - right? there's a sort of set of bureaucratic forms and hurdles, and eventually you come across the person who just knows how the system works. We had an experience where we had filed something with an incorporate business taxes, and after working in the bowels of New York City government for a while someone said, oh you want to talk to business tax Jimmy(ph). And just - that's what people call him, business tax Jimmy is the human repository,...
Mr. SHIRKY: Not the database repository, of how this all works. So one of the really interesting test cases for the incoming administration is can we harness not the information but the mental acuity of the federal government in ways that change and improve things for all the functions the government does?
CONAN: My familiarity with the New York City government suggests that business tax Jimmy, for him, a Selectric typewriter would be an upgrade.
Mr. SHIRKY: Well, so and right. So this is certainly part of the problem is getting tools in people's hands. But a lot of it is also, it's what you said about anthropology, it's really figuring out how to align the motivations with the people who are on the front lines and dealing with the public everyday, which isn't always a pleasant experience, you know, it has to be said. How do you get those people to contribute their intuitions or their ideas to the whole? You know, Toyota has famously done this by soliciting all kinds of little improvements from its workers just continuously. But to do it you need some - you need technology, but mostly you need a cultural shift. You need people to be able to see that they can contribute and then to give them some simple set of tools where they can contribute. I mean, the history of project after project - Wikipedia, the collaboratively created encyclopedia is the most - is probably the most famous one. It launched with almost no features in a very small population of users. But it has stayed good and gotten better over seven years, not through long-range visionary planning, but by being a little bit better everyday. And that - that kind of cumulative procedure is very different than this sort of big bang approach to technology, we'll buy a giant new database. It's really about day to day, getting people to understand that if they engage with one another socially using these new tools, they can together make a good thing happen.
CONAN: Well, we rely on our listeners together to make this a better...
Mr. SHIRKY: Right.
CONAN: Program every single day. We're going to get them involved in the conversation now. What are you doing on the Web that's new and different? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us firstname.lastname@example.org. Steve(ph) is on the line from St. Louis.
STEVE (Caller): Yeah, hi. I and my business and kind of personal life use a lot of Web collaboration tools, but I do some consulting. And what I've found a lot is that, although there are some great applications that out there for what I'm trying to do, a lot of times just simply having the information out there and having, you know, a lot of people out there who have knowledge isn't necessarily enough because, you know, for instance if I need a tool for a customer, and it needs to have feature X, and there are bunch of people out there who need it - or who don't need it but may know how to do that and I just don't have the time to implement that feature myself, you know, the people can tell me how to do it, but I don't have the time to bring that into, you know, into fruition, so it makes more sense for me to just go and buy something off the shelf that has it from kind of a traditional vendor than to rely on the Internet tools because frankly the vendors have a lot better project management and kind of look at things from that traditional top-down model. And that has, you know, advantages and disadvantages but a lot of times it's the kind of disorganization of the Web isn't necessarily what I need.
Mr. SHIRKY: Sure. I mean, this is - as you say, it's not a replacement of one model with another. It's not that open source software is going to come in and replace all of the managed alternatives. What is I think the case though is that when a lot of people want a feature, as you say, so if you're building a tool and you want the tool to do something new, a piece of software, and a lot of people want it, there are ways in which - there are lots of examples of people organizing to improve that tool together. And the surprise is, you know, as with things like Apache, which is far and away the - you know, most popular and widely distributed Web server out there. There's - it's not just making the collaboration tools available it's actually creating the social environment in which people care enough to contribute. And it is very time consuming, as you say. It's not something that you can just have accrue to your benefit quickly and then move on.
CONAN: Right and it...
Mr. SHIRKY: You actually need to create these environments where people care enough not just about the product but about each other. And it's really - it's that social transformation that makes the difference between a good open-source project and a failed open-source project.
CONAN: An emotional investment.
Mr. SHIRKY: Exactly right. And again, not just in the tool but in each other.
CONAN: Steve, thanks very much for the call. Good luck.
CONAN: We're talking with Clay Shirky who knows some of the ways the Web is likely headed in the future. What are you doing with the Web now? Are you creating something that uses the Web and tools in a new way? 800-989-8255, email email@example.com. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of the Nation from NPR News.
(Soundbite of music)
CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Clay Shirky points to the period after the Second World War as the birth of free time in the United States. All of a sudden people had spare time to manage, and they spent much of what he calls that cognitive surplus watching sitcoms. Now we use that facility as more of an asset. He sees new things being designed to take advantage of that surplus in more engaging ways, particularly on the Internet. Clay Shirky writes and studies about what's next for the Web. His most recent book is titled "Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations." We want you to tell us what's next for you on the Web. Are you creating something that uses the Web in a way? 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email us firstname.lastname@example.org. You can reach us on Twitter at twitter.com/totn and you can join the conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org; click on Talk of the Nation. This via Twitter from yoyo-ology(ph). I am hoping for an app to track books read and to read accessible for mobile devices. Good reads, et cetera have poor mobile interfaces.
Mr. SHIRKY: Yeah, this gets to the question from the caller just before the musical break, which is essentially what kinds of things improve when people are motivated to come together and get things done? And in the world of software, funnily enough, the underlying tools are often quite good. Library thing(ph) is a great tool for doing some of what the Twitter caller, I guess we'll have to call him, is asking about. But curiously interface design, right? The interface you work with when you're using a piece of software, is one of the things that suffers in the open-source world, in part because the interface design as Ellen Ullman has pointed out...
CONAN: Mm hmm.
Mr. SHIRKY: Involves the designer understanding all of the ways in which the user can be stupid. And so there is a real tension between doing collaborative things, sharing with one another and having a high regard for one another and then thinking, oh, the users about to do this is really stupid thing, and I'm going to prevent them from doing it by, you know, making the interface, you know, essentially keep them - keep them safe from themselves.
Mr. SHIRKY: This is complicated by the fact that in the mobile world, you know, with mobile phones we've had half a dozen years of this fight between, is the mobile phone best regarded as a kind of little sensor - all it does is send and receive little signals - or rather is it a big a sensor or is a little computer, right? Is it...
Mr. SHIRKY: Something you should really treat like a small version of your PC. And up until the iPhone none of the attempts to make mobile phones work like little computers were actually any good. And the iPhone has dramatically transformed people's sense of what's possible. And now we have the G1 Phone and the new BlackBerry touch screen phone, so people have understood, you know people who make telephones - mobile phones have understood that change. But it's unlikely that we're going to get really good mobile interfaces for a few more years. And that's because people have to spend the time making the mistakes and slowly experimenting their way into what's good. You know, the interfaces for Web sites back in '94, '95 and '96 when the Web was really gearing up, almost all of them were just terrible. They often both looked terrible - they were clunky, they were hard to understand, and it took years for a design practice to grow up to the point where most Web sites are basically usable most of the time. And I think for mobile phones it's going to be that way again. It's going to be 2010, 2011 before you can take it for granted that most applications that run in your mobile phone basically work. I wish I had a happier answer, but that's just - that seems to me to be what's going to happen.
CONAN: Now, let's go get Harry(ph). Harry is with us from Aspen, Colorado.
HARRY (Caller): Hi.
HARRY: You're talking about geographically remote places. We're Resort Video(ph) in Aspen. We're taking advantage in new technology in films with flash video, and we make videos, high-quality videos, for resort properties around the world, and put them on the Internet. You see nowadays that YouTube has feature length films on it. And I think the marketing of videos is just exploding right now...
HARRY: But what we do with our Web site - is internetvideo.com, we go - go Cancun, go Mexico, Africa...
CONAN: Mm hmm.
HARRY: And have resort properties successfully marketed with video on our Web site.
CONAN: Because the picture is far more convincing that any description.
HARRY: Yeah, maybe your guest knows more about flash video to explain how all this technology is coming to ahead right now.
Mr. SHIRKY: Well, it's - yeah, the really interesting thing about the video to me is it's following as it so often does. It's following the spread of still cameras onto the phone, right? And so, you've got phones that are now taking video clips, you've got these little flip devices where it's very easy to take some video. And I think particularly in a culture that is so saturated with 30 minutes as the television unit and 92, 120 minutes is the movie unit, almost all the forms shorter than 30 minutes, either feel like a music video or a commercial. And now all of a sudden we're getting people experimenting with everything from as you say, taking pictures of sort of resort vacations, to doing funny weird little podcasts. My friend David Carr up at the New York Times does his own little daily podcast and he says he gives himself six-minutes from sitting down and starting to do it to posting it to the Internet. And the ability to work really quickly and really small kind of snippets is a huge transformation in the media landscape because we're used to video, or used to the moving image whether television or film...
Mr. SHIRKY: As being the most serious and complicated kind of bit of cultural production we have. And all of a sudden it's going amateur too. And you know, again, amateur and professional co-existing as with the call about software but the amateur stuff is the big surprise because the ability to just make little videos as the caller's doing is something that people couldn't even really do conveniently and cheaply, you know, even three, four years ago.
CONAN: Good luck with the project, Harry.
HARRY: Thank you.
CONAN: Bye bye. Let's go now to Nick(ph), Nick with us from Gary, Indiana.
NATE(ph) (Caller): Hi, actually it's Nate, and I'm in Chicago now, but that's OK, I'm on a headset.
CONAN: (Laughing) OK, go ahead. And slow down, Nate.
(Soundbite of laughter)
NATE (Caller): Actually I'm at a toll plaza, so I'm just pulling over. You talked earlier about putting tools into people's hands and...
NAT: That's what I'm trying to do. I've seen some of the collaborative like hacker spaces that are happening in places around the country. I've worked with HackTC before and we don't quite have the inertia for that in Detroit yet. So what I'm trying to do, you know, because we can't quite afford physical space, is to connect people, you know, I have a drill press in a sauntering(ph) station and Brad has a leif(ph)...
Mr. SHIRKY: Yeah.
NAT: And you know, to get people who have different tools connected to each other, so that we can work at each other's shops without having a central work space. And the problem I'm having, and this is something else I think you touched on earlier, you mentioned Wikipedia and things like that, they started very bare and they grew from there. But how do you get over that critical mass? You know how do you...
Mr. SHIRKY: Yes.
NAT: Get moving?
Mr. SHIRKY. Yes, yes, you almost always do it with social capital, right? Both - I'm in a sad position now down at NYU where I teach of teaching my own youth as ancient history. And for my students, right, the Web has always been large scale. It's been built up since they got there. And I've got a slide I put up that shows Linus Torvalds' first message for what became Lennox(ph) and Larry Sanger's first message to Emileus(ph) for what became Wikipedia. And in both cases the call to the participants isn't out of self-interest, right? If we all do this then it will work for all us. It's much more I find this interesting and if you find it interesting let's get together because it may, you know, it may scratch a kind of personal itch we've got or you know, in like in the Wikipedia case, Larry literally just said, look just do this for me, just go try this, spend five or 10 minutes on it. And so what you need to find I think is not just the leif(ph) and the drill press. You need to find the person who knows the people who have the leif(ph) and the drill press and the 3D printer and whatever else. Because it's going to come down to one or two individuals who extend themselves and say, look it, we don't know if this going to work or not but we want to try it. Let's just spend a weekend, we'll all agree we're going to get one project done, we'll all agree we're going to each other's tools, and we'll just see how it goes. And then if that works, people can invite others in. But in the beginning you can't make the argument that we're doing this because this will be valuable to all of us. You have to make the argument, we're doing this essentially because it's a social experiment and we want to see how it works.
CONAN: It's Mickey and Judy. I've got a barn. My mom can sew costumes. Let's put on a show.
Mr. SHIRKY: That's exactly right and the thing that proceeded putting on the show was the fact that those people all knew each other and were happy to be putting on a show even if the show turned out badly, which fortunately it never did in the movies...
CONAN: Remember, Busby Berkeley was directing and it helped.
Mr. SHIRKY: But the fun - the fun of the work has to be part of the early - any of these early efforts. People who take a purely utilitarian view, I have a problem I want other people to solve, so I will crowd source it? Those things very often fail because why do other people want to do your work for you. If...
NATE: Pretty much. You have to find a project and find a goal rather than focus on the process itself.
Mr. SHIRKY: I'm not sure that - I'm not sure - I think focusing on the process may not be terrible but I think focusing on the fact that you're all trying something together, that it's an experiment, that you want to just to do it and see how it goes and you already like each other or you know, may be invite one or two new people into the mix. But if there isn't some social benefit, right these things have to be not just effective but also satisfying. And if there isn't some social benefit to collaboration, you know, why would anybody do it voluntarily?
CONAN: Nick, good luck.
NICK: Thank you very much.
CONAN: Bye bye. Here's an email from Brennan in Boston. My company is a social marketing agency in Boston. We've just designed a great tool to help people, companies and brands attract what people are saying about them online, how people feel and what makes those people interested, and what makes these people interested in the first place. What are Clay's thoughts on these types of tools? PS. It's free for most users.
Mr. SHIRKY: You know it's interesting. I think about this a lot with Twitter which is the short messaging service, it syndicates short messages whether from your phone or from the Web. And one of the things I've noticed about Twitter, and I partly noticed it because I do it myself, is that people are much more willing to talk about things they like and don't like. I just got this new tool, I like this laptop, my God I hate this piece of software I got, a lot of positive and negative comments. It wouldn't - it wouldn't - no one would post a blog post about it, you wouldn't write hundreds of words about this. But if you are getting bad customer service from someone and you're stuck on hold, there are a lot of people now just sort of throwing that out to Twitter saying, you know, just so you know, Apple's got me on hold for hours, a friend of mine was tweeting the other day. And I think that harnessing that kind of information is potentially really valuable for companies. There's a - now I'm blanking on his name unfortunately, but there is a researcher who argues that all of market research can be boiled down to one single question, which is would the users of a given product or service recommend it to their friends? If the answer is yes, you can build on that, and if the answer is no, you've got a problem and nothing else matters. I think the frustration, however, from these marketing systems come when companies understand that the kind of measurement you can do when you're looking at what people are saying about your product or service, they're giving you, you know that when you get that information, what you're getting is a dashboard but not a steering wheel, right? The next step after seeing what people are saying is that companies often want to either silence the critics or rebroadcast the, you know, the people who are fans. And in fact, the real lesson is if people are complaining about your product from the Internet, you don't have a marketing problem, you have a product problem. And you have to go make your product or your service better. And that kind of discipline, right? It's rare that quote, "Social Marketing," end quote, actually gets out of the marketing department and into the product department, which is generally where it belongs.
CONAN: We're talking with Clay Shirky. He is the author of most recently out, "Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations." You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And our Twitter feed is nuts for Clay Shirky. From Twitter user, Ophiesay(ph), my son's immersion pre-school post weekly video podcast that support the classroom and curriculum up on YouTube. From Twitter user Leslie Barker, Harpie(ph) Collins has a new online slush pile...
Mr. SHIRKY: Yeah.
CONAN: Autonomy.com where authors can post, read, rate, and critique while competing for a publisher, and we have to ask from Pelcadot(ph), please define Web 2.0 and clear up misconceptions about what it all means.
Mr. SHIRKY: (Laughing) I'm going to get you Jennifer.
(Soundbite of Laughter)
The - So Web 2.0 is a - it came from John Battelle and Tim O'Reilly's attempt to say essentially, look, something visibly new is going on in the technology world, and this is sort of circa 2002, 2003. I don't actually use that phrase much because in a way it was more I think a marker of historical time than a description of a particular kind of technology or use. Tim has a great - Tim O'Reilly has a great article, "What is Web 2.0?" in which he argues that essentially taking advantage of collective information sometimes passively as Google does by looking at the link structure of the Web, sometimes quite actively as Wikipedia does or HowardForums, which is the cell phone forum or any of these, you know, sort of Web bulletin board collaborative efforts do, that what they all have in common is treating human intelligence, not as a collection of individual minds, but as a kind of aggregate value. But that having been said, that's such - in a way, that's now such a generic capability that the interesting stuff to me is all in the particulars. And so I think of Web 2.0 as the moment in time when a bunch of people recognized that roughly the same time, this isn't just a kind of linear continuation of what was happening on the Web in the '90s with companies going online and more and more commerce. This is really about harnessing the users and - both partnering with them and letting them partner with each other to create a kind of value you can only get from people, you can't get from databases as what the earlier conversation about business tax Jimmy. So that's my use of Web 2.0, but that having been said because it's a historical marker, I concentrate on that phrase less than on the really interesting examples going on now.
CONAN: Let's get a caller in. Alex(ph), Alex from Boulder, Colorado.
ALEX (Caller): I wanted to ask you a little bit about the efficiency of the Web.
Mr. SHIRKY: Yeah.
ALEX: It's seems to me that one of the basic precepts of why we do this is to make our communications more efficient. But I'm reminded of an interesting paradox that was applied to energy back in the late 1800s, which suggested that the more we use the more we need. And I'm just wondering if the Internet is likely to follow that same sort of paradigm. This paradox, I forget who coined the idea, but it was back when the steam engine was improved by using coal...
Mr. SHIRKY: Right.
ALEX: And the general viewpoint was that if we used a more efficient steam engine, we're not going to use as much coal and guess what, England ended up with a coal shortage.
Mr. SHIRKY: I want to say it's something like the Alaska(ph) paradox, but I don't remember the last name for sure. I'm sure someone will Google it and then put it on the - put it on the Twitter feed. I think that that's absolutely happening on the Internet. I think - in fact, I don't think that the principal function of social tools is to make our communications more efficient. And there are a handful of cases we can point to where distributing something by cc email maybe works better or having everybody work on a Google doc works better than forwarding around individual copies and so forth. But if you go into any mailing list, if you go into, if you go to Twitter, if you go to Facebook, if you go onto MySpace, much of a communications are what sociologists call phatic, P-H-A-T-I-C, which is to say, communication that's about establishing kind of social connections with almost zero information content. Hey, how are you doing? I'm doing fine, is an example of phatic communication. So, the - I think one of the big surprises, I mean Neal said this earlier, right this isn't really about technology. This is about anthropology. It just happens to have a sort of a technological substrate. One of the big surprises is that whenever people interview - whenever we interview users about what they will do with the Internet, they always says, oh I'm going to use this to get information. But in fact, they always dive in to the social piece. And …
CONAN: And we're going to have to leave it there. Alex, thanks very much for call. If you want to read some of Clay Shirky's book, you can go to our website at npr.org, click on Talk of the Nation. Clay Shirky, thanks very much. This is NPR News.