More Clay

clay by Joi

[Update: after thinking about it overnight, the main take away I got from Shirky’s talk was examining media in a different fashion. It is too easy to just look at Web 2.0 as just normal media taken online. But the Web is not TV and will have its own way of connecting  people.  In the end, it will be the people in a community that determine the network’s utility/importance, not the media and not corporations. So listen to what the community wants, not what the hype says.]

Just got back from Shirky’s talk. He is a very engaging speaker. No slides. Just very different points of view that require you to alter your perspective. There has been some discussion of Shirky’s new book ‘Here Comes Everybody’ at Bench Marks that invites some thought.

Interestingly, he directly answered the ‘people with too much time’ meme. His point was that one of the huge aspects of the last 50 years is that almost everyone has too much time. It has been spent watching TV and consuming.

He stated that 100 million hours of human thought produced Wikipedia. We spend 100 million hours every weekend just watching ads on TV. Which one wastes the most time?

According to Shirky, those who say Web 2.0 approaches as being used by people with too much time ignore the fact that virtually everyone has too much time today. That is, there is a culture-wide cognitive surplus that, until recently, was filled by TV and consumerism. What happens if some of this is harnessed?

Shirky mentioned the inability of modern media to accurately describe what is happening. It sees anyone who is not watching mass media or consuming as a waste. But TV is really the waste.

New technologies now allow people to also produce and to share. He stated that even if a very small fraction of the total amount of time spent watching TV, say 10%, was utilized, it could result in 10,000 wikipedia sized projects a year. His point here was that even if people are playing World of Warcraft that it is a better use of their time than watching TV.

Now, according to Sturgeon’s law, 90% of the stuff produced and shared will be crud, because 90% of everything is crud. But to throw out that 10% because the rest is hype or echo chamber is a mistake. That is still about 1,000 wikipedia-sized projects a year.

Just as we had to get through My Mother the Car to finally see Battlestar Galactica, we may have to deal with some online crud. But, a social network will not gain much unless it serves the needs of the community. So echo chamber blogs will not really have much impact as they seal themselves away from anything that breaks the echo. Blogs as cults will not be very sustainable nor have much impact.

On re-reading the article by Brabazon, I think she is concentrating on something that was not at all the focus of Shirky’s book. If so, that is somewhat unfair. Or perhaps she found a blind spot in his discussions. But that may not invalidate what he has to say. What her article and Shirky’s talk have accomplished is that I may have to read the book to figure it out for myself. Score another victory for consumerism.

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8 thoughts on “More Clay”

  1. Thanks for the summary of Shirky’s talk Richard. I can’t really say how much I agree with Brabazon’s comments on Shirky’s book until I finish reading it myself (I had bought a copy before coming across her review). I can say that I do think she hits the nail on the head as far as trying to address the overwhelming hype surrounding Web 2.0, and for the circular, self-reinforcing nature of the communities using these tools.

    As for Shirky’s comments, is he really suggesting that we take our leisure time and apply it to doing more work? If I’m watching tv, it’s because I need a break and want to relax. It’s a passive activity, done in my down time. I work enough hours in the day without having to spend all my free time developing professional relationships and tools online.

  2. David,

    I agree that hype is something to ignore, particularly since so much is used simply to finance startups. There are very basic, useful aspects of creating conversations online and helping social networks to filter information. However, the valuations given to social media companies right now is just ludicrous.

    But most scientists have trained themselves not to go with what is ‘believed.’ We know how easy it is to fool ourselves and so usually apply a series of filters to cut through hype.

    Web 2.0 is not going to save the world, or change things in a macro way. It is simply a new tool, but one with real possibilities. So, I focus on the proper implementation of these tools, particularly to meet the needs of researchers.

    We don’t need Facebook per se. We need to be able to understand extremely complex biological systems that continue to generate terabytes of data. Human social networks have been very good at this in the past and these tools simply leverage that aspect for solving these complex problems.

    Remember, the Web was invented for scientists, by scientists long before the hype began.

    I fully expect that a lot of this content we see will be useless. The web allows people to fail early and often. But some will be useful, especially by how it can help actual researchers do actual work. Again, it is the community, in this case, the scientific community, that will value the tools, not venture capitalists.

    No, Shirky is not saying that everyone needs to use their leisure time to do work. But he was saying that people who chose to play WOW rather than watch TV do not have too much time on their hands. He was attacking the ‘loser’ label applied to people who spend their leisure time on blogs or social media site.

    You still get to chose. I watch much less TV than I used to. Battlestar Galactica and How I Met You Mother are my only 2 must watch each week. Time I used to spend watching TV I now spend online, doing something that I really enjoy. To me, it is leisure.

    Shirky felt that even if a small percentage of the time that some people have spent watching TV is now spent using new technologies to create communities or developing relationships online could have a powerful effect.

    I know how easy it is for your work to take over everything. His point was more that what is defined as leisure time will encompass more than just watching TV. For some, it will be WOW, which is really a huge social network. For others it will be writing a blog. For others it might be playing a widget on Facebook.

    But it is your choice. Choice is good.

  3. Well said. I do think scientists are very good at filtering through the hype–that’s why so few of them are using any of the online Web 2.0 tools. The reasons I keep trying to temper the hype are 1) I often give talks to scientists on the subject, what tools are worth using (aka “don’t believe the hype”), and 2) as an editor at a relatively small, not-for-profit institute we can’t afford the sorts of failure that mark these enterprises. The Natures and Elseviers of the world have the funds to throw into something even if they expect it to fail. We can’t do that, and have to carefully pick and choose what technologies to invest our time and funds in. It’s probably the main reason the big corporations are dominating this nascent space–they’re the only ones who can afford to do so.

    I do get Shirky’s point about moving spare time online. It doesn’t really address the idea of social networks and such for professional, work-related matters. Sure, maybe you’ll play on Myspace or WOW in your leisure time instead of watching tv. But how does that translate to participation in scientific communication, blogs, etc? Most scientists I know are overbooked already in their work hours. If they’re expected to invest time in social networking, then that either means a reduction in research or cutting into their down time.

  4. David,

    Great conversation. What is very obvious now is that, as usually happens, the thought of untold riches from a set of new tools has clouded the minds of many, many people. It is as though all anyone talked about were the Formula 1 racing cars, without realizing that pickup trucks was where the really disruptive effects would be see. The Innovator’s Dilemma discusses this in detail.

    Facebook is a poor example of how these technologies are helpful for scientists. I look at it as similar to gossip. Lots of people do it and it can be fun but ultimately it is mostly noise. Same with most of what Shirky mentioned. It is really just play, just grooming other primates.

    But get two researchers together and their form of discourse may look gossipy but often has a tremendous amount of information transfer and problem solving aspects to it. We are trying to find out the latest information, what happened at a conference, what was published in Blood the last week, why the experiment failed, how it succeeded, etc.

    These are the sorts of conversations that I see these tools really enhancing. But these tools probably won’t look anything like Facebook. These tools will help us manipulate data in new and novel ways, harnessing the power of social networks to solve real problems. This is a much different emphasis then playing the latest widget on Facebook.

    I don’t see that everyone will embrace these tools. Just as some people take notes with a pen and some with a computer, some will use a wiki and others will continue to use informal avenues. But I do believe that if properly implemented, these tools can save time for many scientists. Just as a first approximation, a fair amount of time spent emailing internal collaborators, having ad-hoc meetings, tracking down references in order to write a grant can be decreased by the collaborative nature of a wiki.

    The key here is that the tools HAVE to be of almost immediate usefulness to the individual. It has to make our time more efficient and to have direct positive effects. Spending time on Facebook, or most of the media sites on the web, is no different than apes grooming each other. It has no other direct purpose. (Well, maybe to make millions for widget developers)

    But a well implemented wiki or blog, particularly within an already established community such as a research organization, can have direct, time-saving effects on the individual. It is simply the emergent effects of the local social network that can leverage this into something very useful to the organization.

    To my mind, the key here is that social media tools used WITHIN an organization will have very different uses and methodologies than those used OUTSIDE, in the wild. Most of the current discussions are with the outside aspects but I believe that the greatest long term impact of these tools, particularly for scientists, will be the inside aspects.

  5. A transcript of Shirky’s talk is now online here:
    And there’s a spirited discussion going on over at BoingBoing:

    Now that I’ve read it, it’s a weaker argument than I imagined. It basically comes off like a cliched “kill your television” rant that could have been written any time in the last 50 years. Hey kids, tv is a waste, go outside and fly a kite! Television is not the issue here. Before there was television, people still liked to relax in their spare time. They listened to the radio, went to movies, read books, sang songs, etc. They didn’t spend their time working. He uses the example of playing WOW. The key word there is “playing”, not “working”. Editing a wikipedia article is work. Writing a blog is work. I don’t see Joe Average coming home from the steel mill, cracking open a beer and then fixing typos in wiki articles to relax. Some people do find such things fun. As Jimbo Wales often points out, the majority of the work on Wikipedia is done by around 500 people total. Those people seem to get off on the process, on the rules of Wikipedia (to me that’s one of Wikipedia’s great problems, to those who do the most work, the process is more important than the content or the accuracy of what’s produced).

    The one part of his argument I do buy is the sheer numbers. Although it’s a tiny, tiny minority, there are probably more than 500 people who would get off on enforcing the rules of Wikipedia or some such activity. So over time, I do expect to see more participation. But no, I don’t expect to see television disappear, and no, I don’t expect to see leisure time suddenly become community effort time. And that does not bode well for professional social networking projects. If you’re asking people to participate because it’s a fun way to spend their spare time, they’re probably not going to work on projects that are what they do all day at work.

    Oh, and the irony of it all is that if you took away the television programs he decries, you’d lose the subject matter of 90% of the online projects he’s promoting. No TV means no Picard versus Kirk arguments, after all.

  6. One of the very interesting aspects of the Web 2.0 discussion in the VC world (i.e. Bubbleland) is that almost all the money is being invested in these sorts of leisure social media sites because the money from advertising, etc. is geared that way. Huge amounts of money are being thrown around for things that are faddish in nature.

    But this is not a feature of the technology. Just how it is being used right now.

    Facebook, Flickr etc. all are really for play (although there are some interesting experiments for corporations) and the money that follows them is not much different than that which funds Superbowls or TV.

    So, not surprisingly, most of the conversation deals with things that I find ephemeral, even if they account for a large part of our consumer society. It is as though everyone want to be the digital equivalent of Tickle Me Elmo or a Cabbage Patch Kid – the latest fad.

    That is not where these tools will have their biggest impact. It is their ability to leverage human filtering processes, permitting much larger amounts of data to be examined, more information to be distributed and more knowledge to be created.

    I have seen first-hand how these tools can help researchers solve difficult problems. They have permitted me to overcome barriers that would have taken months to solve if at all.

    Properly used, human social networks and these digital tools can disperse information widely, putting it in the hands of people who can use it. In research, they are simply a means to an end. Out in Bubbleland, they are the end.

  7. That’s the point I’ve been trying to make when I give talks to publishers–scientists want tools that make them more efficient, not tools that demand more time. There’s incredible potential here, in things like mashups, to take complex, enormous amounts of data and visualize them in a quickly understood manner. That’s what we need from Web 2.0, not just another site set up so you can chat online and “find collaborators”.

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