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Clay Shirky: 'Paywall is emotional response, not financial calculation'

Clay Shirky: 'Paywall is emotional response, not financial calculation'

The founding executive editor of Wired Magazine named it the Shirky Principle when Clay Shirky famously stated that "Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution." Shirky is an avante-guarde thespian, a former CTO to numerous web design shops, a consultant to major media companies like News Corporation, Time Warner and Hearst) an NYU professor and renowned technology aficionado who says describes what he does simply as "work on the theory and practice of social media." In a 5 July interview with The Guardian, Shirky comes out with his strongest arguments to-date opposing the paywall concept, suggesting, in no uncertain terms, that the paywall is immoral, nonviable and fundamentally counter to "the primal human urge for creativity and connectedness."

"Let a thousand flowers bloom to replace newspapers; don't build a paywall around a public good" (Shirky, March 2009).

Everyone's waiting to see what will happen with the paywall - it's the big question. But I think it will underperform. On a purely financial calculation, I don't think the numbers add up. Here's what worries me about the paywall. When we talk about newspapers, we talk about them being critical for informing the public; we never say they're critical for informing their customers. We assume that the value of the news ramifies outwards from the readership to society as a whole. OK, I buy that. But what Murdoch is signing up to do is to prevent that value from escaping. He wants to only inform his customers, he doesn't want his stories to be shared and circulated widely. In fact, his ability to charge for the paywall is going to come down to his ability to lock the public out of the conversation convened by the Times. (Shirky in his 5 July 2010 Interview with the Guardian)
In March 2009, at Harvard's Shorstein Centre, Shirky discussed the possible commercial solutions open to newspapers, such as pay walls or micropayments, and concluded that none of them will work. "There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the Internet just broke." Rather, he believes, "organizational forms perfected for industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data.

In his new book (currently ranked #1 in Amazon's vast Technology & Society section), Cognitive Surplus; Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, Shirky prophesies a practically inevitable digital utopia stemming from the unleashing of socially-powered technology. He points to examples such as the fact that Wikipedia was built out of approximately one percent of the man-hours that Americans spend watching TV every year.

So how does Shirky's vision of the future color his analysis of the newspaper industry? Shirky has, in the past, used a clever analogy related to the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain's early (1993) investigations of piracy of humorist Dave Barry's popular (syndicated) column. In the course of tracking down the sources of unlicensed distribution, it found many things, including the copying of his column to alt.fan.dave_barry on usenet; a 2000-person strong mailing list. Amongst its most active-users was a teenager in the Midwest who was part of the efforts to reproduce Barry's writing online, because he loved Barry's work so much he wanted everybody to be able to read it.

"When a 14 year old kid can blow up your business in his spare time, not because he hates you but because he loves you, then you got a problem."
This anecdote not only speaks to the fundamental shift in the mindset of the internet generation and the 'Pandora's box' reality of the net's basic architecture (once one copy of a file is placed on usenet, it is instantly mirrored/replicated thousands of times on computers around the world, every time); it illustrates the benevolent sense of entitlement and the thirst for knowledge that the Internet bestows on many of its users. In Shirky's opinion, the paywall concept is not compatible with the spirit and the very essence of the internet.

Sources: The Guardian, Nieman JournalismLab, MediaBistro, Shorestein Centre



Colin Heilbut


2010-07-06 18:00

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