Clay Shirky teaches at the Interactive Telecommunications program at New York University and is the author, most recently, of Here Comes Everybody, about how new means of communication are changing the social environment. CJR’s Russ Juskalian recently spoke with Shirky about knowledge, the Internet, and why we shouldn’t worry about information overload. The second part of the interview can be found here.
Russ Juskalian: Could you do an overview of how literary reading gave way to television, and, then, to the Web? I read your response to Nick Carr’s Atlantic article—I was wondering if you could talk about that for a little bit.
CS: One of the things that I’ve noticed with criticisms of the Internet is that very often they’re displaced criticisms of television. That there are a lot of people, Nick Carr especially is a recent addition to the canon, wringing their hands over the end of literary reading. And they’re laying that at the foot of the Internet. It seems to me, in fact, from the historical record, that the idea of literary reading as a sort of broad and normal activity was done in by television, and it was done in forty years ago.
The funny thing, though, is when television came along, it became, to a degree literally unprecedented in the history of media—not just the dominant media compared to other media, but really the dominant activity in life outside of sleeping and working—that a curious bargain was struck where television still genuflected to the idea of literary reading. The notion was that there was somehow this sacred cathedral of the great books and so forth. It was just that no one actually participated in it, and so it was sort of this kind of Potemkin village. What the Internet has actually done is not decimate literary reading; that was really a done deal by 1970. What it has done, instead, is brought back reading and writing as a normal activity for a huge group of people.
Many, many more people are reading and writing now as part of their daily experience. But, because the reading and writing has come back without bringing Tolstoy along with it, the enormity of the historical loss to the literary landscape caused by television is now becoming manifested to everybody. And I think as people are surveying the Internet, a lot of what they’re doing is just shooting the messenger.
RJ: So what do you think this has done to patterns of media consumption in recent years?
CS: Patterns of media consumption in recent years are very complicated to study, in part because we have a hard time right now separating fads from cohort effects from real deep structural shifts. So, when Friendster came along in 2002 and became this incredibly popular, fast-growing application, and everybody said “Oh, you know, Friendster’s invented this new category of the social networking service”—and then it went away. By, you know, 2005, Friendster was basically a dead letter. MySpace had become the new application, right. Everybody then says “Oh, it’s MySpace….” Then Facebook comes along and has the incredible success it’s had. And so we have a very difficult time looking at the media landscape today, sorting the deep effects from the shallow ones. Many of the effects that people are thinking about today are, in fact, shallow effects.
But, the deep effects seem to me to be that when people are given media that isn’t interactive, they invent their own interactions around it. You will see this around television shows. Lost and Heroes are probably the most famous in this mode where the enormity of fan activity around the show is vastly larger than it was around equivalently popular shows in the ’90s, much less ‘87, as its era. And so, where the creators of media aren’t adding interactive effects, users are stepping in on their own, right?
The growth and spread of fan fiction is a way for the fans to participate directly in, say, the Harry Potter universe or the Tolkien universe. You see something that wasn’t possible even ten years ago, both because the technologies are in place but also, much more importantly, because now these tools reach most of society. Right, it’s not just when a tool comes along that change happens. It’s really when it becomes ubiquitous and even boring. And what’s happened now is that the Web has gotten boring for a whole generation of teens and twenty-somethings. And so, because they can take it for granted, they’re using this platform to add interactivity around regular media consumption.