The wealth generated from the last centuries' rail tycoons in that era's new communications system isn't endlessly available to fund Prof. Shirky's vision of non-profit media empires.
Why do people become so excited and addle-brained about the Breathless Bolshevik Clay Shirky ranting about the destruction of newspapers? It truly boggles me how this pseudo-scientist is able to keep peddling this half-true historical concoction and never face any serious academic critique (he's not serious himself' he's a demagogue). Legions of mindless Twitterers dutifully copy him, and never think a single thought to the contrary of what he says. As of this writing, 16,000 people have clicked on the professor's latest homily -- and not a single one of them is criticizing it in their blogs.
All Twitter is agog now about his "penetrating" and "seminal" piece about the death of newspapers. We're supposed to simply accept that the hard-edged hard-left critique is "just right" and "the truth" and "a report". But it isn't. Nothing is happening with anywhere near the speed which the Comrade feverently hopes (or his groupies like Fred Wilson, the Bolshevik Venture Capitalist who wants to destroy all of society's institutions because they "don't work"). To be sure, some newspapers died. Well, wait. One closed (Rocky Mountain News). A few more are on the rocks (San Francisco Chronicle). And the entire industry has lost revenue and probably there will be more deaths. But it's more complex that he lets on, and his diagnosis based on the destruction of media and culture by the collectivist freebie Internet he himself helped purvey isn't correct.
Clay harkens back, as usual to the origins of the printing press in Gutenberg's day, and his usual delightful recount of Luther and his theses and little books undermining the power of the Vatican back in the day. To hear @cshirky tell it with unconcealed anti-Catholic glee, you'd think the entire world had turned atheist and the Catholic Church had fallen into utter ruins. But it remains a powerful force in the world; 25 percent of the American population is Catholic. The Pope, whether you like hearing what he says or not, remains a powerful moral voice in the world. The Vatican hasn't lost its observation status at the UN. And so on. A challenge to power, an erosion to power -- that isn't the revolution that Shirky claims, and if that's not true of the Catholic Church, then we have to wonder about his claims about newspapers.
Shirky makes a completely false and silly claim about the disruptive power of books at the time of Gutenberg, based on his celebratory depiction of Elizabeth Eisenstein's "magisterial study" of Gutenberg, describing what the "Gutenberg revolution" was like:
"Chaotic, as it turns out. The Bible was translated into local languages; was this an educational boon or the work of the devil? Erotic novels appeared, prompting the same set of questions. Copies of Aristotle and Galen circulated widely, but direct encounter with the relevant texts revealed that the two sources clashed, tarnishing faith in the Ancients. As novelty spread, old institutions seemed exhausted while new ones seemed untrustworthy; as a result, people almost literally didn’t know what to think. If you can’t trust Aristotle, who can you trust?"
Huh? Erotic books of that era were not at all pervasive as they are today; the transformation to the acceptance of the erotic and the pornographic literally took centuries. And the Church merely studied the works challenging its ideas, put some of them on the Index, and further consolidated its belief system, convening one ecclesiastical council after enough to articulate the Faith. Trust in Aristotle was far from eroded; he acquired and maintains to this day the status of a classic. Hello?! The ancient Greeks could certainly handle competing philosophical works -- they were the first democracy, remember, and they debated ideas? Where is this "tarnishing of the faith of the Ancients" that Shirky claims? Balderdash!
Shrinking books wasn't the revolution that undermined the Church -- the church published shrunken books too (pocket Aquinas and indulgences cards, anyone?) Honestly, Shirky is so silly! And people see books cited (scary books!) and a kind of pseudo-historical over-confident assurance around such citations in the ringing tones of the television evangelist, and they suffer a brain freeze. Yet you don't have to be a specialist in the history of the printing press or the Church to ask some basic questions about Shirky's "findings".
And as I said in my previous post, his claims about AOL "breaking" as a model don't hold true. Not true for all the games and virtual worlds, for starters, although we aren't about to start getting news delivered into our games as the Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker said (sending Urizenus into a spasm at the Herald). Look, Loren Feldman of 1938media, a more politically-correct in-crowd sort of Silicon Valley dude himself, charges for content. And God bless him. Er, Seth Godin, charges for content. Clay Shirky, unlike the goofy Cory Doctorow, charges for content (his book, his lectures). So please, let's get over this idea that we can have freeness everywhere endlessly -- and without consequences.
I understand more and more these days that the decisions I see being debated in MMOX or made in Second Life about refusal to protect content and protect the paid content model (which are still possible to change and diversify so that it's not all a big hippie collectivist commune leading to the desert) were in fact the very same decisions to be made at Web 1.0. And there wasn't anything "inevitable" about them except that the same type of Bolsheviks as Shirky, Godin, Doctorow, Lessig back then decided that "information has to be free" and rammed it through. They simply made it an inevitability because they were in power. They aren't in power to the same extent now, and it will be more of a struggle -- and that's a good thing. Technocommunism is as destructive to societies, livlihoods, and culture as the old meat-world version of communism was in China and the Soviet Union. There is nothing "inevitable" about it unless it is backed up by force -- or lack of enforcement of the law.
There is talk on Twitter about Craigslist destroying the newspaper. That seems a simplification of a more complex process, but I'll hardly take the blame away from the copyleftist Craig Newmark on this score - he's touting the Shirky article as well. Yes, Craigslist ate away the classifieds section of the newspaper industry, but of course newspaper revenue also came from subscriptions and page ads.
Craigslist was all classifieds and no media, unless you perceive as "media consumption" the very act of browsing ads themselves and reading the goofy stuff people write on them (which of course, was part of the genius, making the ads of idiots be the media, too). The enchantment with Craigslist goofy-ad-reading wore off for me years ago; I suppose it still has its following.
Craigslist can be a great thing when you need to find a furniture mover or even a real job. I found one of my most favourite real jobs on Craigslist, which of course suckered me into checking back ever after in quest for that to repeat. It didn't. And it won't. It's like trying to sell that rare book on ebay. Do it once. But not twice. And have you ever tried to advertise a job on Craiglist? I have, for work. I get deluged -- deluged! -- with unqualified idiots by the boatloads from all over the world. It's the Internet. One web designer job can -- I'm not kidding -- produce literally thousands and thousands of replies that keep coming endlessly, 90 percent of which are not actually reading the qualifications, which say "must live and work in NYC" or "must have 10 years of experience in non-profit field" or whatever.
That's just it. Craigslist is part of the impersonal Internet machine that has the thin veil of villagey social-media sitting on top of it that covers up just how useless it can be in both flooding you with too much information, and also never getting you that thing you want *again*. Of course, for a substantial amount of people, Craigslist, with its geeky over-simplified interface shrieking "We're from San Francisco and ride bikes!" is the bomb. It works, they love it, they come back. The sex ads probably keep them stuck lol. Unlike all those stupid dating services that make you endlessly fill out forms and take your credit card information and spam you for ever, Craigslist can hook you up for a blow job in midtown within minutes -- that is, if you don't suffer from stranger-danger lol. It's the raunchy side of Craigslist that has prompted some states attorney generals to crack down on the prostitution seeded into the ads, although how they can tell it apart from the personals I'll never know.
Says Comrade Shirky, "That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen."
Erm, well, I still see online newspapers in front of me. They didn't collapse *yet*. They adapt. Some charge. Some changed. Some added a lot of readers' comments and podcasts. Some will die. But I don't see a revolution.
"Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing. (Luther and the Church both insisted, for years, that whatever else happened, no one was talking about a schism."
Here we go again with Luther. You would think that his split from the Catholic Church broke the Catholic Church instead of merely created another religion -- one with still less influence, fractured into many sects and folds, and therefore not, at the end, the serious challenge that Luther might have imagined it to be lol. As if YouTube posted 99 theses on the New York Times door and the New Your Times is desperately trying to bargain with YouTube lol. Please. Most YouTubes -- even the very popular ones -- still don't have as many readers as the Times, and in fact, when you factor in that every single editor in the entire world gets up in the morning and reads what the New York Times editorial is saying and is influenced by it in some way, has nowhere anything like the reach. Nor will that change in some drastic way any time soon, given that at some point, Youtube and Google will have to pay for the bandwidth -- somehow. If they won't pay, they'll make ISPs pay, and the ISPs will make us pay -- or we will pay directly, just like we do now for cable TV. Like Loren Feldman says, you're gonna hafta pay for content.
Reading on down through Shirky's manifesto, I find he is also falsifying the record about local newspapers. Has Shirky ever lived anywhere besides New York City or Cambridge lol? Has he lived in any other countries besides America?
Sure, little towns in, say, New Jersey or New York State can't sustain two identically big newspapers. But it's not like the Gannett paper drives the little one out of business. Typically communities will have the big newspaper, but the little one, often reduced to little more than a shopper, still survives. "Reduce to a shopper," I say -- but shoppers are very important. Our shopper in my neighbourhood, for example, is the only investigation of Con Ed and its shenanigans, and the investigation of what the big landlords in the big complexes are up to. They also tell us what happens with little drycleaners and carpet stores when big business and chains and big construction engulf the neighborhood -- interspliced with all the pizza and hardware store ads. The paper is still something you pick up in the deli or the lobby, and read on the park bench as you chat with neighbours -- not EVERYTHING is online.
And Craiglist, as I've pointed out, isn't some 'vital infrastructure". The only advantage it brought at first was speed and delivery, really, but it's not a solution for EVERYTHING. The Times simply didn't make it as easy to place and ad -- you had to talk to someone. Or as a job seeker, you couldn't place an ad for free -- that was the huge advantage that Craigslist brought. Then it brought a dollop of hip counterculture and microcontent in the form of the goofy ads - and that helped put the Village Voice on the rocks, more's the pity, meaning it had less revenue to support its serious investigative journalism. The real victim of Craig is the Voice, not the Times. Craigslist is fine as far as it goes -- but one of the very things that will kill it off is its insistence on freeness and "net neutrality" (read "net CONSUMPTION") for free -- with no model for how EVERYBODY in the content food chain can get paid.
So what would work? As I already indicated, all the things that Clay has brushed aside -- continuation of traditional advertising (I don't see that Lord & Taylor stopped their ads in the Times), paid premium content and subscriptions online, other kinds of products, AOL-type of content clubs -- these are all part of the mix and will remain so, along with other things that will be tried, but with none of that extremism that Bolshevik professors love to impose on others, always happy to see Social Darwinism applied against someone *else* not themselves.
Hey, Clay. What if universities are the next thing to collapse? Like newspapers? Like banks? Did you think you were immune?
I asked @craignewmark on Twitter if he could imagine a Craigslist of requests for investigative reporting. He didn't understand me (Twitter isn't always so great for conversations, just like his list isn't always so great for job searches).
Let's say I need someone to report live from the Gaza strip about how parents who lost their children to the bombing by Israelis are feeling now about Hamas (something the New York Times actually did, and did credibly, to the howling of the hard left -- a mother condemned Hamas and blamed Hamas, not Israel, for the death of her daughter). Let's say I need this report for my blog, for my non-profit website, for my community newspaper. I advertise for the kind of story I need for free -- but I'm willing to pay. I pay somebody in an ad, and they report. Talk about Personal Learning Networks! (the mantra of the collectivist connectivists like Stephen Downes). PLNs -- "all the news that fits, we print" -- rejecting anything "we don't like". Sounds weird, eh? A Craigslist for on-demand news reporting which would lead to utter destruction of the notion of unbiased news coverage, but would micromonetarize the media stream.
Various blogs, including some even subsidized by syndicates, have tried this idea of getting people to pay into a tip jar for investigative reporters. Good Lord, they risk their lives, and we're going to give them money for coffee?! Insane. But I think part of the problem is that the people doing this experiment are of the Indymedia hard left change.org type -- the activist-journalist (they call themselves "citizen journalist" but they do not pursue civic virtues of balance and accountability). As these operations become more mainstream, with less goofy extremist politics, of the kind you find on newassignments.net (where there is someone screeching about Israeli soldiers allegedly raping women in Gaza --a charge not a single credible human rights organization has made) -- perhaps they *will* attract dollars.
Here's the linky-graph that all the cattle are citing:
"When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry. Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en masse. This shunting aside of the realists in favor of the fabulists has different effects on different industries at different times. One of the effects on the newspapers is that many of their most passionate defenders are unable, even now, to plan for a world in which the industry they knew is visibly going away"
But...what's faith-based here is the incredibly, unsubstantiated belief in Web 2.0 and its ability to be "monetarized" or Clay Shirky's incredibly preposterous notion that "we need journalists, not newspapers" -- as if journalists can exist outside of the substrate of a news operation with editors and revenue generation, as if they can perform as civic scribes without bias, or live by putting out a tip jar. Sheesh.
Oh, I know, says Shirky! Let's get a grant! Worked for me!
"For the next few decades, journalism will be made up of overlapping special cases. Many of these models will rely on amateurs as researchers and writers. Many of these models will rely on sponsorship or grants or endowments instead of revenues. Many of these models will rely on excitable 14 year olds distributing the results. Many of these models will fail. No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need."
Well, um, no. See Andrew Keen's Cult of the Amateur if you want a good critique of the idea of having amateurs do all the knowledge seeking and posting (I'm reading it now). But more to the point, the wealth of the previous centuries made in the extractive industries and communications of the past like railroads is not endlessly available for the future in the form of Ford Foundation grants. It's not just the recession we have to blame for that; it's that these foundations often spend a lot of time promoting social justice ideologies that themselves were not recipes for generating wealth or prosperity, and led merely to the creation of a giant chattering class living off grants in the non-profit sector perpetuating itself and growing larger and more unsustainable -- like Shirky himself in the university and talk-shop settings. Sponsorship? But if Pepsi or Coca Cola still have money for *sponsorship* then...how is that different than an ad?
Excitable 14 year olds? Where are the parents, who should be teaching them that content costs money? After all, they hit those self-same parents up for $15.95 a month for the World of Warcraft game, or $40 a month for the Cable TV to watch Nick at Night. Why such a stretch of the imagination to expect that music and newspapers need that kind of payout too?!
Yes, the university has suffered terribly. There are no longer any philosophical debates, different schools of thought, sustaining different intellectual inquiries. Soon, we won't even hear the one point of view being ranted, as Clay is forced to bag groceries at the Safeway.