Clay Shirky tells AOP conference: 'don't believe in the myth of quality'

Online publishers mistakenly believe their users will only engage in high quality content and are misjudging their young audiences, according to academic and writer Clay Shirky.

Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, was the closing speaker at yesterday’s Association of Online Publishers’ Digital Publishing Summit and told the assembled executives and online experts that they were underestimating the power and creativity of their audience. He said:

“How did it come to be the case that watching TV became a half-time job for everyone? We watch 20 hours a week. The three most common activities are work, sleep and watch TV.

“And for the first time we have a young generation who are watching less TV
then their elders. Other media are offering the design principle that all this free time isn’t just something to be a burden. People don’t just like to consume, they like to produce and to share.

“If we move towards media that lets people create and share we can attract lots and lots of people. And that’s what happening.”

Websites of all kinds will attract the most users if they accept that creativity, whether it’s creating a conversation or sharing knowledge, goes side-by-side with consuming information.

He used the example of a picture posted to Flickr using a particular photography technique. Before long, fellow Flickr users has replied to the picture with questions and advice. He said:

“The comments turn into a technical conversation. The users create value for each other, no managerial encouragement or monetary motive. The lesson is that broadcast media and online media are now no longer separate.

“It demonstrates that every URL is a latent community. If you grabbed everyone looking at Google they wouldn’t have much to say. But if you take everyone who is looking at that picture, yes they would.”

Shirky picked up on a popular conundrum of integrating social networking into mainstream media – “why do these people publish this stuff?”. His answer: “They’re having a conversation, but they’re not talking to you”.

He said that mainstream media, simply due to the huge cost and importance of old-media publishing, assume “that they must want to reach a mass audience”:

“The ‘why not’ publishing sector is growing faster than the ‘why publish’ sector.”

Shirky’s advice for the would-be gate-keepers or shepherds of user generated content: “Don’t believe in the myth of quality”. People will watch, listen or read something that’s interesting to them regardless of its quality – what matters is how relevant it is to them. The music industry assumed that mp3 would not take off as a format because it was too low quality, he said. But those executives didn’t factor in mp3’s other qualities such as how easy it is to share.

Collaboration

Many news publishers from magazines to the BBC to national newspapers are keen on involving their audience in what they create, but Shirky argued that many make the mistake of catering for an “average user”, whereas in reality some users collaborate once and others every day, obsessively.

He pointed to the Dr Who page on Wikipedia, which has been edited nearly 9,000 times by over 3,000 people.

“It’s easy to say these people came together and did their bit and it was built up from nothing…but that’s not what happens. The most active user contributed 10 per cent of the edits… there is no such thing as the average user.”

Shirky said it is hard for businesses to be “brave enough” to believe that an audience will create its own content – for free – consistently enough to keep a project going.

You can watch a video of the speech here, via Daily Motion.

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