Clay Shirky


Clay Shirky (b. 1964) is an American writer, consultant, and teacher on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies. He has a joint appointment at NYU as a Distinguished Writer in Residence at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute and Assistant Arts Professor in the New Media focused graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP). His courses address, among other things, the interrelated effects of the topology of social networks and technological networks, how our networks shape culture and vice-versa.

Shirky divides his time between consulting, teaching, and writing on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies. His consulting practice is focused on the rise of decentralized technologies such as peer-to-peer, web services, and wireless networks that provide alternatives to the wired client–server infrastructure that characterizes the World Wide Web. He is a member of the Wikimedia Foundation’s Advisory Board. In 2010, Kevin Kelly (founding executive editor of ‘Wired’ magazine) cited the phrase ‘Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution,’ and called it the ‘Shirky Principle,’ as the phrasing reminded him of the clarity of the Peter Principle.

After graduating from Yale with a degree in fine art in 1986, he moved to New York. In the 1990s he founded the Hard Place Theater, a theater company that produced non-fiction theater using only found materials such as government documents, transcripts, and cultural records. During this time, Shirky was vice-president of the New York chapter of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and wrote technology guides for Ziff Davis. He appeared as an expert witness on cyberculture in ‘Shea v. Reno,’ a case cited in the U. S. Supreme Court’s decision to strike down the Communications Decency Act in 1996.

In his book ‘Here Comes Everybody,’ Shirky explains how he has long spoken in favor of crowdsourcing and collaborative efforts online. He uses the phrase ‘the Internet runs on love’ to describe the nature of such collaborations. In the book, he discusses the ways in which the action of a group adds up to something more than just aggregated individual action. He points to four key steps. The first is sharing, a sort of ‘me-first collaboration’ in which the social effects are aggregated after the fact; people share links, URLs, tags, and eventually come together around a type. This type of sharing is a reverse of the so-called old order of sharing, where participants congregate first and then share. The second is conversation, that is, the synchronization of people with each other and the coming together to learn more about something and to get better at it. The third is collaboration, in which a group forms under the purpose of some common effort. It requires a division of labor, and teamwork. It can often be characterized by people wanting to fix a market failure, and is motivated by increasing accessibility.

The fourth and final step is collective action, which Shirky says is ‘mainly still in the future.’ The key point about collective action is that the fate of the group as a whole becomes important. In a presentation called ‘Gin, Television, and Social Surplus,’ Shirky popularized the concept of cognitive surplus, the time freed from watching television which can be enormously productive when applied to other social endeavors. He also notes that we are experiencing an era where people like to produce and share just as much, if not more than they like to consume. Since technology has made the producing and sharing possible, he argues that we will see a new era of participation that will lead to big change. In 2010 Shirky published ‘Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.’

Shirky has also written about ‘algorithmic authority,’ which describes the process through which unverified information is vetted for its trustworthiness through multiple sources.

In 2011, Shirky responded to questions raised by Evgeny Morozov about consulting he had done for the Libyan government. Shirky explained that he had been invited in 2007 to speak in Boston to Libya’s IT Minister. Shirky stated that the talk was ‘about using social software to improve citizen engagement in coastal towns. The idea was that those cities would be more economically successful if local policies related to the tourist trade were designed by the locals themselves.’ Shirky added that nothing came of the project beyond his initial talk. He defended his underlying desire to expand representative government in Libya and concluded that ‘the best reason to believe that social media can aid citizens in their struggle to make government more responsive is that both citizens and governments believe that.’

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