Posts tagged ‘Clay Shirky’

Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus That Isn’t There

It seems to me far from right that Clay Shirky should write a book about the internet without first having spent a few minutes surfing it. In Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, he lays out his case that as we turn off our televisions and log onto the internet, we are tapping into an enormous amount of brainpower that was being wasted watching Access Hollywood, Dancing With The Stars and Jersey Shore and using it to do all manner of useful things. His leading piece of evidence is Wikipedia, which he calculates to be the product of 100 million hours of human thought. Indeed, he says that if we tapped into the cognitive surplus of just the United States for one year, we could create 2,000 Wikipedia-scale projects.

Nothing wrong with his math. Plenty wrong with his example. First, if we were inclined to create 2,000 comparably “useful” projects per year, we would. This has not happened, nor will it. Second, let’s not simply accept that Wikipedia is an unalloyed gift to humanity. This the site that – I could choose from a more or less unlimited number of examples here – falsely published defamatory content (by its own admission) that implicated John Siegenthaler, publisher of the Tennessean and former administrative assistant in the Kennedy Administration in the assassination of both John and Robert Kennedy. It took more than four months for the error to be corrected, and Siegenthaler wound up writing an article about his ordeal and the pain it caused him in USA Today. Lest you think this is an isolated incident, look at the number of results Google provides for a search of the following terms:

+wikipedia +slander – 149,000

+wikipedia +lies -4,860,000

+wikipedia +mistakes – 1,860,00

Wikipedia doesn’t always get it wrong, but it gets it wrong a lot. Enough so that we should hesitate to crown it as the greatest collection of knowledge in human history. Even though it has tightened up its editorial standards a bit over the years, they remain far from rigorous. Reader beware.

Of course, Shirky is right that some other lovely things are happening online. People are coming together and raising money for charity and doing global sing-alongs of “Kumbaya” and so forth. But let’s be honest about what far more of them are doing. They’re going to icanhascheezburger.com. They’re looking at porn. They’re playing games. How much of our supposed cognitive surplus is spent on video games? In March 2009, bungle.com reported that the one billionth match of Halo 3 had been played. All together that’s 63 centuries of game play. And that’s just for one title. The numbers get out of hand pretty quickly when you start piling on Grand Theft Auto, Sims et al. Add in Facebook and Twitter and you are in danger of surpassing the power of most calculators.

Though it’s far from a perfect description, the interactive space can be divided roughly into things that save time and things that waste time. The latter predominate by far. That’s why we don’t and never will have a cognitive surplus to exploit. As we amuse ourselves to death with electronic media, our brains have been liquified. When we turn off our televisions and turn on our computers, the runoff is simply going into a different ditch.

August 9, 2010 at 7:08 pm 3 comments

Billion-dollar ad agencies versus twelve-dollar branded content

One of the warnings I give clients (as well as bright-eyed creatives) who wish to produce “branded content” for the interactive space–they typically have in mind some sort of video that they hope will catch fire and become part of the popular culture–is that they must understand they’re not simply competing with other branded content for the attention of consumers. They’re also competing with every amateur video on YouTube that shows a guy stepping on a rake and accidentally hitting himself in the nuts.

Clay Shirky’s recent post, “The Collapse of Complex Business Models,” does a nice job of explaining why big organizations struggle to react to the threat posed by cheap, low-quality competition:

In the mid-90s, I got a call from some friends at ATT, asking me to help them research the nascent web-hosting business. They thought ATT’s famous “five 9’s” reliability (services that work 99.999% of the time) would be valuable, but they couldn’t figure out how anyone could offer good web hosting for $20 a month, then the going rate. No matter how many eventual users they assumed, $20 didn’t even seem to cover the monthly costs, much less leave a profit.

I started describing the web hosting I’d used, including the process of developing web sites locally, uploading them to the server, and then checking to see if anything had broken.

“But if you don’t have a staging server, you’d be changing things on the live site!” They explained this to me in the tone you’d use to explain to a small child why you don’t want to drink bleach. “Oh yeah, it was horrible”, I said. “Sometimes the servers would crash, and we’d just have to re-boot and start from scratch.” There was a long silence on the other end, the silence peculiar to conference calls when an entire group stops to think.

The ATT guys, part of a company so committed to the sacred dial tone it ran its own power grid, had correctly understood that the income from $20-a-month customers wouldn’t pay for good web hosting. What they hadn’t understood, were in fact professionally incapable of understanding, was that the industry solution, circa 1996, was to offer hosting that wasn’t very good.

The world of content creation is facing a similar shift. YouTube sensation “Charlie Bit My Finger” is the most viewed minute of video in the last five years (175 million views and counting). It’s an amateur production–too grand a word really, for something so simple–with no budget, yet more people watched it than all the so-called “viral” videos that agencies spent millions of dollars making. How will big advertising  compete against such bottom-dollar threats? Emulating “Charlie Bit My Finger” is not the path. The video was dumb luck, and the people who captured the moment are unlikely ever to capture anything as interesting again.

Offhand, I think there are a couple of models that could work. First, agencies could set up something like a content greenhouse in which they try to grow their own low-cost solutions. Assignments could be given simultaneously to dozens of film students (for example). (Perhaps for a different product the assignment could be given to dozens of moms.) They’d be asked to come up with branded content on a budget of essentially zero. (Think of this as the logical conclusion of Adam Morgan’s argument that if you are having trouble coming up with a great creative idea, you should cut the budget in half and start over.) Sometimes you’ll get nothing of value, but that’s OK, because you haven’t bet a million-dollar production budget on the outcome. The key to the concept is low risk, high reward. For the film students in the greenhouse, their compensation would be the popularity of the work itself, and perhaps some sort of promise of future employment. That may not be a compelling proposition for a grizzled forty-something creative director, but it could be quite appealing to an ambitious, young hoodie-wearer trying to make his way in the world.

Another possibility is that something analogous to the early days of silent film could emerge in advertising. Think about what happened in the second decade of the 20th century: Using rather crude technology, a few auteurs emerged who were able to consistently capture magic on film. No complicated special effects, no $100 million budgets. Just whatever they were able to make happen in front of the camera’s aperture. It came down to the genius of one man. Could something similar happen in advertising? Perhaps some of the agency world’s creative superstars will shed their cumbersome organizations and set up shop with a $300 camera and a couple of tungsten lights. They may even offer to produce branded content for free and be paid by the view. For the people who are really good at it, it could be the smartest business deal they ever make.

April 8, 2010 at 10:26 pm Leave a comment

Clay Shirky, the death of print and the befuddlement of advertising agencies.

Here’s a thoughtful if longish post from Clay Shirky on the travails of the newspaper industry. If what he and others (including your esteemed lecturer) have been saying is true, magazines will be circling the drain soon as well. It’s not a question of whether people like reading things in print; it’s all about economics, and printing things on paper (and then distributing that paper to everyone who would like to read what’s on it) is a damned expensive proposition.

This is a moment of seismic shift in the advertising industry. Large agencies will find themselves no longer in need of their print production studios and absolutely bereft of people with the digital skills whom they will need to replace them. Astonishingly, despite the warning shots that have been crossing the bow of these agencies for years, quite a few of them will be caught flat-footed. This is because people who don’t understand the fundamental shift in the media world have been wasting their energy attempting to defend television against the onslaught of the internet. TV will be just fine. It will become more interactive every day, but it certainly isn’t going away. Print, on the other hand, awaits its iPod–the thing that will finally and utterly make paper a collector’s item. It may be the Kindle, but it will most certainly be something.

March 21, 2009 at 12:47 am Leave a comment


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