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Overview: Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky (Part 2)

May 5, 2009

herecomeseverybody Part 2.

In part 1 I focused mainly on some of the changes to how things can get done with the new tools at our disposal.  To follow up to that I want to talk about some of the fundamental paradigm shifts that are happening because of those tools.

Cost to Publish

Previously I mentioned how it was pointed out that anybody can now  be a publisher.  This basically means that there are an infinite number of potential media outlets in the world, many dormant, waiting for the right circumstances to activate.  Traditionally we have only had a few large media outlets that are well known and we expect them to pump out valuable information on a daily basis.  We can hardly expect the same thing from every tiny media outlet that might spring up.  In fact, many new media outlets will spring up around specific events, and then once the event is over, they will disappear. 

That behavior of spinning up a media outlet around a single specific event, and then shutting it down afterwards is really quite a remarkable change in the information delivery paradigm.  Previously if an event did not get covered by one of the large institutionalized media outlets, it would likely never be known outside of it’s small community.  Now, any event can be known worldwide, because a media outlet with worldwide distribution can be created with the click of a few buttons, and articles distributed with the stroke of a few keys. 

The desire to be able to do this has never changed, but it was traditionally to expensive to start a media outlet.  You would need access to a printing press, and a way to distribute your work etc, people rarely have the means to do this.  However, with the advent of the internet, blogs, and services like twitter, anybody can now write and distribute anything they want with a cost that approaches 0.  So the desire has never changed, but by reducing the cost to almost nothing, now anybody has the means to become a media outlet.

Filter Late

So as a consumer of information, there has also been a large paradigm shift.  In the days of mass media, newspapers, tv news networks, I could always trust that the information I was receiving had been properly researched and scrutinized (ok ok, we’d like to believe that was true anyway…).  This allowed me to take anything I read in the news as factual.  The reason for that is because there are editors that work at all those media outlets, and their primary job is to make sure that any information being distributed by their outlet is of high quality to meet a certain standard.  This would be what we call filtering early.

With the ability for anybody to become a media outlet though, we run in to a dilemma.  For most of us, our entire lives were spent receiving information from sources that were presumably trustworthy, so we could take anything they said as the truth.  Today, that is not the case, because anything can be published anywhere, and distributed to anybody.  The net result is that we must now filter information late.  Going forward in society and our culture it will be impossible to control the flow of information.  Information will always be available that has not been checked or verified, and it will be up to us to decide how valid it is.  So instead of having an editor filter information so we only see high quality information, we are now responsible for filtering the information we receive to determine it’s quality.

Cheap Failure

Another side effect of media outlets (distribution networks) being so cheap to create is that it creates an environment where failing is also extremely cheap.  What does that mean?  Well if you want to try starting up a regular news hub, you can do it for almost no cost, and if it doesn’t work out, you can just stop working on it.  You will have lost very little besides time.  You don’t need to buy any fancy equipment, or do a bunch of expensive advertising, or hire an expensive editor. 

The importance of this is that the desire to attempt things doesn’t change for people based on the tools available.  What does change is the cost of attempting things.  Whenever something is not attempted it’s because the cost was perceived as being high enough to deter the idea from being tried.  If you can lower the cost enough, any idea is worth trying.  One of the largest factors in that cost is the actual amount of effort necessary to try it out.  Technology is rapidly reducing this cost for us in many areas.  The other perceived cost is the cost of failure.  If the attempt fails, what will the outcome be?  If you have a culture where failure is accepted or even celebrated (sounds strange doesn’t it, but word it differently, celebrate the courage to try something new, or what you learned by trying it), then you will reduce that cost by another order of magnitude, and you might be surprised by some of the ideas that get tried out.  The more ideas that actually result in some type of action, the more great ideas you will find.

Summary

So overall I really liked Here Comes Everybody.  I would recommend it to people who are interested in how the internet is affecting peoples behaviors and business models.  It is very well written and an interesting read.  You don’t really need much technical knowledge in order to enjoy the material.  Knowing a bit about a few larger websites like wikipedia would help you relate to some of the book better than others, but i wouldn’t say it’s required.

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