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Clay Shirky is a writer, consultant and teacher on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies. He is an adjunct professor at New York University's graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program[…]

The new media consultant credits Barack Obama with the surge in social media.

Question: Why are your ideas so popular?


Clay Shirky: So, part of this is I don’t know. Part of this is just lucky. Two things happened, one, the book came out, Here Comes Everybody, the book on Social Media come out last February. And it did modestly well when it came out we’re all pleased with the numbers.

They weren’t New York Times bestseller, but they also weren’t bargain basement. And then it went into six-hardcover printings before the paperback come out. So, something happened to actually increase interest in the book after it launched. And I think that something was Obama, right? For awhile when I was going around to talking about the book, I had to make a case at the beginning of any given talk that, yeah, the social stuff wasn’t all just going to be teens on Facebook like this is going to become generally, culturally important.

And for awhile, people didn’t believe, but they thought it was all just going to be geeks and techies and young people. And when the Obama win turned out to hinge on in part with the use of the internet for fundraising, for voter drives, for communications, I think people shifted and said “All right, now, I believe it. Now, it’s not just college kids on Facebook.” And so, it’s rare in the book world to get that kind of timing, right, because publications cycles are so long, but it happened that my book was on the shelves by the time when people said, “All right, I’m going to give this thing a deeper look what’s up there.”

So, it was one bit of luck. And then the second is an essay I wrote more recently, came out March called Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable. That was about the…basically the pressure on the business model in newspapers and why I think that there’s no general purpose business model for newspapers to replace the one in the internet just broke. I think, in fact when the time of radical experimentation when most newspapers are either going to be dramatically altered or go out of business. And there again, right, I’d said I wrote that late enough.

Many people have been talking about this since including me since the 90’s, but I wrote it late enough that people would kind of internalize bits and pieces of the conversation I was able to fuse it. And unbeknownst to me, I happened to get it out the week before the Seattle Post-Intelligence had disappeared. And the Rocky Mountain News are already disappeared and so there was a kind of a shot across the ball and when the Seattle PI went out, kind of the flood gates open that people realized, “Oh, yeah, this is happening. This isn’t just one newspaper in Denver going out of business. This is a general change.” So, if partly I think that I just…I have spent a lot of time being a geek to English translator or try and get try and get things to go across those two domains and then, and partly just a lack of timing.


Question: What triggered your interest in online group dynamics?


Clay Shirky: No, not exactly. It’s funny. I actually got to see this movie once through before I started doing it as a professional concerned. When I got to the internet in the early 90’s, there was no web, there was no graphic user or anything and that created kind of two advantages. One, you had to learn something about the way the internet work just to use it. You couldn’t be a casual user, right? You had to know some Unix.

You had to know some program and languages and what so. That was just an amazing education, but the other thing was the internet was primarily social in those days. Usenet was this giant collection of global discussion boards, mailing list or a way that sort of communities of practice would form and the experience of going to the internet.

In those days, we have to explain to journalists that Usenet was not the same thing as the internet. It was social as a normal case. And I wrote a book back then for as if David Presley, it was nothing like the current crop of work. Just a kind of a a quickie-book about this is what social world of the internet is like. And I had a terrible misfortune of having that book come out in April of 1995, and that was the time in which the web was washing away everything that had gone before.

And so for about five years, the two big questions on the web were how can we have individual transactions, commercial transactions and how can we broadcast our message to millions of people, right? And the social piece, how can we get a group of people together to discuss things or do things or collaborate? It was still there, but it was just off to the side and so it was really in the beginning of this decade, the beginning of the 2000s with the rise of Wikipedia, with the spread of ICQ, with the growth of Friendster, were I said, “Oh” now the social pattern is back, but it’s attached to the new protocols.

And because I knew the enormous weight empowered that social life had had on the internet prior to the web. I was able to bet correctly as it turned out that this was not going to be a small kind of social decoration that this social piece was going to come rushing back and touch almost everything else. And so I had the great benefit of essentially being able to recognize the crack in the damn for what it was because I’d live in the world in which there was no web and I knew what a big reservoir of social interest lay behind this little trickle of water we started to see in the beginning part of this decade.


Question: How much psychology is there in what you do?


Clay Shirky: I am not also a trained sociologist, I should haze and add but…there was in the 19th century an enormous set of arguments within the academy about how to understand people, how to understand the sort of social environment. And you have these divisions of psychology, sociology, economics, and so on that all separated in the 19th century and essentially developed their own language their own methods and so forth. A lot of what I do is trying to read across those domains because the relevant the relevant ideas and research aren’t in any one domain.

But with that having been said sociology and economics are essentially the two things that touch social life that I track. And Sociology is interesting because unlike Psychology unlike the sort of Psychology class but what Sociology says is, we behave differently in groups, right? No one was ever a backstabber or a social climber. No one can be unusually generous or a self-effacing sitting at home by themselves, right? There are lots and lots of effects that can only exist in aggregate and because we’ve just come to this 30-year bottleneck of technology all being designed for personal use, right?

The personal computer, the Sony Walkman, right, that has been the normal case of technology when social effects start to attach themselves to technology it’s kind of the cultural freak out because we don’t have the language to describe that. So for me Sociology particularly has been the great stream of research and insight into the human condition. Lots and lots and lots of tech firms have psychologist on staff very few of them have sociologist on staff. Intel, Nokia are a few of them, but the bias towards Psychology I think has hidden the fact that technology become social. It’s the sociologist that are producing the insights that I think are going to be better explained the world we’re entering into than kind of individual psychology.


Recorded on: May 7, 2009