Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Here Comes Everybody. Hopefully to Uncharted

What I find most fascinating about Clay Shirky’s 2008 book Here Comes Everybody is how outdated it is.
He barely mentions Twitter – he says it came into being while the book was being written. Facebook is mentioned in passing, in favor of MySpace – though he does observe that Facebook is white collar, while MySpace is more blue collar.

And though I think he overemphasizes the impact social technology – the Internet, e-mail, mobile phones, et cetera – has had on removing obstacles for organizing and distributing, the book is amply filled with astute observations that make the book a good starting point for anyone trying to wrap their heads around the phenomenon of social media. As he says – this stuff isn’t a fad; it’s not going to go away. It is the new reality.

I’m anxious to apply some of the things he and others recommend in this book to Uncharted and any other web-based or social endeavors I may fall into. It’s certainly an excellent reminder of many of the things I’ve spent the past 2 ½ years learning and applying as I earned that masters degree in English with an emphasis on technical writing from Utah State.

I’ll try to pick out some of the book’s more interesting bits. From page 65:

As they surveyed the growing amount of self-published content on the internet, many media companies correctly understood that the trustworthiness of each outlet was lower than that of established outlets like the New York Times. But what they failed to understand was that the effortlessness of publishing means that there are many more outlets. The same idea, published in dozens or hundreds of places, can have an amplifying effect that outweighs the verdict from the smaller number of professional outlets. (This is not to say that mere repetition makes an idea correct; amateur publishing relies on corrective argument even more than traditional media do.) The change isn’t a shift from one kind of news institution to another, but rather in the definition of news: from news as an institutional prerogative to news as part of a communications ecosystem, occupied by a mix of formal organizations, informal collectives, and individuals.
Note here that Shirky says nothing about dumbing down of our culture, of the overtaking of hard news by soft news. He merely says that the definition of the purveyors of news is changing. Jon Stewart is now the most trusted “news anchor” among young people. Specialists in everything from climate science to nuclear energy to Michael Jackson to dachshunds now don’t have to appeal – mostly in vain – to professional outlets to get their news out. The news gets out despite traditional, professional organizations.

From page 79, a scary thought for newspaper journalists:

If everyone can do something, it is no longer rare enough to pay for, even if it is vital.
Shirky says this in the context of scribes being replaced by the printing press, but it applies in so many ways to what’s occurring in the news and music businesses today (and illustrates some of the trade off of bad for good that Shirky says these social technologies bring). The internet took music distribution out of the hands of the studios and put it in the hands of anyone technologically savvy enough (and morally bankrupt enough) to rip a CD and post the tracks online. And with everyone in the news business, the thought of paying for newspaper news is less attractive, even though that news is, generally, more professionally produced than what is offered on the net for free.

Shirky echoes that bad-for-good tradeoff on page 83:

Surveying this vast collection of personal postings, in-joke photographs, and poorly shot videos, it’s easy to conclude that, while the old world of scarcity may had (sic) some disadvantages, it spared us the worst of amateur productions. Surely it is as bad to gorge on junk as to starve?
Trouble is, we’re doing both gorging and starving. We have met the Internet enemy, and he is just as Newton Minow predicted about television: It is us – because, as he says on page 91, “On the Web interactivity has no technological limits, but it does still have strong cognitive limits: no matter who you are, you can only read so many weblogs, can trade e-mail with only so many people, and so on.”

Now on to a few of the things that are pertinent to Uncharted:

First of all, we’ve got to get away from the idea that content is king, because I agree with Shirky when he writes (page 99), quoting author Cory Doctorow, “Conversation is king. Content is just something to talk about.” Shirky adds:

The conversation that forms around shared photos, videos, weblog posts, and the like is often about how to do better next time – how to be a better photographer or a better writer or a better programmer. The goal of getting better at something is different from the goal of being good at it; there is a pleasure in improving your abilities even if that doesn’t translate into absolute perfection.
Shirky writes a lot about how collectively many amateurs are working together to become better at what they do, and, in the case of Wikipedia contributions, for example, are more willing to make an existing article better than to start one from scratch. Uncharted offers the latter – starting articles from scratch. That may explain why we have so few articles, especially in comparison to photos. Since photos are relatively easy to take – the advent of digital cameras has put taking the occasionally decent photo in the hands of even the greenest photographer – they will be more numerous. Writing, however, has no technological equivalent to the camera; what is written still has to come from the same old unreliable and untrained tool: the brain.

Then there’s the community we’re trying to build with our almost all-volunteer staff (as of now, only our occasional programmer is paid; we’re working to get a paid advertisement person on staff). Shirky writes (page 258):

What the open source movement teaches us is that the communal can be at least as durable as the commercial. For any given piece of software, the question “Do the people who like it take care of each other?” turns out to be a better predictor of success than “What’s the business model?” As the rest of the world gets access to the tools once reserved for the techies, that pattern is appearing everywhere, and it is changing society as it does.
We need more of that at Uncharted. We’ve got part of it down, but not fully yet. And we need to develop it more with our Explorers.

Here’s something we can do to accomplish that (page 264):

Like the proverbial stone soup, the promise would be achieved only if everyone participated, and like the soldiers who convince the townspeople to make the stone soup, the only way to hold the site together before it reached critical mass was through personal charisma. Caterina Fake, one of the founders of Flickr, said she’d learned from the early days that “you have to greet the first ten thousand users personally.” When the site was small, she and the other staffers would not just post their own photos, but also comment on other users’ photos, like a host circulating at a party. This let the early users feel what it would be like to have an appreciative public, even before such a public existed.
So we need injections of charisma at uncharted, in unholy amounts.

So there’s lots of work ahead for us at Uncharted. Hope we’re up to it.

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