For NYU’s 30th anniversary celebration of their Interactive Telecommunications Program, professor and author Clay Shirky gave a brief lecture this morning. I’m a big proselytizer for Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody, and he’s one of the few people I would get up early and schlep to Manhattan for on a weekend. ITP will likely post the lecture here, but for now here are a few of my thoughts.
The meat of Shirky’s lecture revolved around how ITP fosters both playful/personal and pragmatic/professional projects, and how they inform each other. As a metaphor that stands as its own fascinating case study, he cites Alisara Chirapongse’s Gnarly Kitty, a Bangkok fashion student’s blog expressly made for her circle of friends. However, during the Sept. 2006 coup in Thailand, Chirapongse circumnavigated the old-media blackout and posted cameraphone pics of tanks rolling through the streets. “She’s not a journalist,” Shirky notes, “she’s committing an act of journalism.” Soon after, her next post about her new Hello Kitty cell phone drew irate comments from readers who wanted more about the coup d’état. Didn’t she owe us that? Shirky says not at all. She’s an amateur, using democratized communication tools (blog, cameraphone) to broadcast whatever she feels like. Had she been a “professional,” she never would have been able to post such explosive pictures to begin with.
In a related note Shirky said, “It’s not the first order value that matters, but the nth level value.” I.e., the first change in these new communication processes isn’t what one should focus on. The higher level changes down the line will reveal the true worth of the endeavor. The creators of Chirapongse’s blogging platform couldn’t have guessed she would use it to go around the Thai government’s ban on reportage any more than the Thai government thought some fashion student would alert the world to their actions.
I can’t help but see the parallels to the publishing industry’s fretting over current changes in the ebook sector. Yes, it’s important to consider pricing and author compensation for this nascent format (nascent in terms of real market growth). But what will define ebooks two years from now will be the nth level changes, such as: What new tools will we use now that author/book discoverability is on par with the crowded field of blogs and the rest of the internet? Which literary forms will pop up with such a low barrier to entry for writers to find their micro-communities? With an increase in noise, will the value of editors increase as the value of authorship decrease? Etc.
As always, Shirky leaves me with plenty of food for thought. And seeing some of the ITP’s thesis projects today, I hope publishing will tackle 2010 with the same enthusiasm for experimentation. As long as it retains the same level of playful and pragmatic.