CLAY Shirky — the charismatic, articulate N.Y.U. Internet guru who explores the current communications revolution the way Margaret Mead explored Samoa, or Thorsten Veblen explored the leisure class — knows how to get your attention. “The Gutenberg revolution is over,” he likes to say. “It’s going from a world of ‘filter, then publish’ … to ‘publish, then filter.’ “ The Internet, he declares, “isn’t a decoration on contemporary society, it’s a challenge to it.”
In the last decade, the old paradigm of publishing — in which editors cautiously selected content, anxiously assessed its potential appeal and profitability, then painstakingly edited and proofed before printing their costly pages — has been overtaken by what Shirky calls “mass amateurization,” or, in lay speak: blogging. “People are finding their way to the good stuff after the fact,” he says. That said, the “good stuff” still printed on paper must still faithfully complete its time-honored, obstacle course before making it into the clear … and hope that Web-based gate-crashers don’t sneak ahead to the finish.
This weekend, Shirky speaks at the SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin, on the panel, “New Think for Old Publishers.” His theme: “How participatory culture and the online world interact with good olde book publishing.” One useful demonstration of this theme is that Shirky’s panel coincides with the paperback release of his wide-ranging, provocative, cheerfully doomy (for paper publishing) book “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations.” Talk about synergy.
If you missed “Here Comes Everybody” in hardcover, this is a good time to snap up Shirky’s eloquent and accessible explanations of the changing nature of publishing and the social and economic repercussions of this shift. Now that “anyone in the developed world can publish anything anytime, and the instant it is published, it is globally available and readily findable,” he writes, how can you distinguish “journalists” from “bloggers?” Answering his own question, he continues: “If anyone can be a publisher, then anyone can be a journalist. And if anyone can be a journalist, then journalistic privilege suddenly becomes a loophole too large to be borne by society.”
If you’ re in Austin this weekend, and find the weight of these considerations too large to be borne, you can console yourself after the panel at a cocktail party at the Firehouse Lounge, and sop up some offline face-to-face interaction while you’re at it. If you’re not in Austin, you can take advantage of the “largest increase in human expressive capability in history” and call up Shirky’s insights on the Web. Then again, you might dare an act of Gutenbergian anachronism, and buy a copy of the paperback — vetted, edited, proofed, indexed. Publishing forms may change, but the act of reading remains the same.