NYU’s Clay Shirky: “Publishing is Going Away”

Expert publishing blog opinions are solely those of the blogger and not necessarily endorsed by DBW.

Clay Shirky, a professor at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU and author of two books about the interrelationship of social and technological networks, was interviewed by Findings.com on the subject of social reading, the act of sharing books with other individuals and groups. Shirky’s views coruscate with insights and epigrams. But like a thriller movie that grips you while you watch it but does not hold up subsequently, some of Shirky’s glittering observations don’t quite withstand analysis.

But first the epigrams:

“Publishing is not evolving,” he says. “Publishing is going away.” As for the act of publishing itself, the complex and costly enterprise that brings books to readers, “That’s not a job anymore. That’s a button.” That act “doesn’t take any skills. It takes a WordPress install.” Given that digital technology enables us to print out the PDF of a book in our home or office, the only raison d’etre for the publishing industry today is to save its own jobs. “Publishers are in the business not of overcoming scarcity but of manufacturing demand.”

Shirky is at his most interesting in addressing social reading, which stems directly from the universal need for readers to talk to somebody after reading a book. Until now, if you noted a thought-provoking passage in a book, your underline or highlight or marginal exclamation held no interest to anyone else – because it was unlikely it would ever be seen by anyone else. But now digital technology empowers us to communicate our response to scores, hundreds, thousands of people by simply enabling the social default on your e-book reader so that others reading the same e-book can see what captured your attention.”By switching to default public,” he says,”the aggregate value of that information is so much larger than anybody believed it would be in the 1990s.”

It’s on this point, however, that the thrust of Shirky’s bon mot engine starts to sputter. For, in order for a publicly shared comment to mean anything it’s vital to know the source of the comment. Take “Miles to go before I sleep”, an iconic line that is undoubtedly on every poetry lover’s bucket list. If it was highlighted by undergraduate Joe Shmoe does that tell me anything about Frost’s poem? About Joe? Does it make me think differently about Robert Frost?

But if I were to learn that line was highlighted by, say, Dick Cheney or Angelina Jolie or Mike Tyson, I would certainly pause to wonder about the association. “Cowards die many times before their death” is a Shakespearean cliche, yet when we learn that while imprisoned in South Africa Nelson Mandela wrote his name beside it we utter a thoughtful “Hmmm.” In March 2011 a symposium on “association copies” of books owned or annotated by famous authors provoked many such utterances when we learned what Abraham Lincoln said about Alexander Pope, or Walt Whitman about Henry David Thoreau. (See Book Lovers Fear Dim Future for Notes in Margins.) It’s only because it’s Lincoln or Whitman that the marginalia makes us sit up and take notice

But all in all Shirky is right: by making your own responses to a passage visible to all readers, you are “extending the radius and the half-life of its value.” Another gem of an epigram to take away from a thought-provoking interview.

How We Will Read: Clay Shirky

Richard Curtis

One thought on “NYU’s Clay Shirky: “Publishing is Going Away”

  1. Scott McLeod

    I’m struggling with the assertion that a highlight or comment or other annotation carries little meaning unless we know who made it. Sure, it often would be interesting – and possibly powerful – to know who made an annotation. But don’t we also have a number of online review/rating platforms (e.g., Amazon, TripAdvisor, Rotten Tomatoes, and the like) that allow us to get extremely meaningful feedback (particularly in the aggregate) on all sorts of things – including books – without ever knowing the people behind the ratings/reviews?

    Are you only privileging certain voices as being able to offer meaning? Isn’t one of the primary lessons of this new, open Web that previously-unknown voices can emerge and offer us great value?



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