Internet is a leveller - Shirky

2010-08-12 22:30
Clay Shirky, internet strategist, says the web is a leveller. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

Clay Shirky, internet strategist, says the web is a leveller. (Duncan Alfreds, News24)

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Information wars begin - expert
Information wars begin - expert

The expansion of the internet in developing countries and the resistance by governments signals the start of the information wars, an expert says.

Johannesburg – Internet strategist and thinker Clay Shirky says that the internet is a leveller, but it is not always levelling.

“The web is a leveller without saying it's levelling. Because of near universal access in the US, it’s not levelling because people who are the most comfortable adopting the technology tend to come from more educated homes. That doesn’t make it equal,” Shirky told News24 on the sidelines of the Tech4Africa conference.

Shirky said that the key to internet penetration was literacy.

“Literacy is the great input to all these tools and the technology by itself is no magic bullet, because there is no magic bullet. Literacy is a threshold to internet penetration,” Shirky said.

He said that social networks entered the world stage after the Iranian election in 2009.

First hand account

“The traditional media had dismissed Twitter, but the amazing thing in the chaos was when the Iranian government shut down news media, CNN read Twitter feeds on the air, and suddenly they realised how important these first-hand accounts were,” said Shirky.

He added that the value of the micro-blogging site is recognised as it provides a first hand account of news, and also provides a link to people in the environment who consume and produce news. But he warned that not all newsrooms were embracing this style of news gathering.

“There’s a cultural struggle inside newspapers, and different organisations will deal with it differently. I think news gatherers should be enthusiastic Twitter – it’s new information in the environment with the people who are consumers of news,” he said.

Shirky said that the case with WikiLeaks releasing sensitive information about the US government’s troop activity in Afghanistan is a test case for the value of information.

“Publishing used to be specialised. Now, making something public is generic among the world’s literate population. It’s how one interprets the information that matters. Without putting words into Julian’s (Assange, WikiLeaks founder) mouth, I think that WikiLeaks wants to be a data source, rather than a news publication,” said Shirky.

In terms of where print publications find themselves in relation to the expansion of the internet, Shirky would not be drawn of specific predictions, but said that the “variable nature” of newspapers means that some will do well, even in a declining market.

Pay walls

“In India, print circulation is going up because of literacy rates, and slow broadband access. It’s a perfect environment for newspapers, but in the US print is on the way out.

“Ultimately though, the trouble for print is the relationship between the advertiser and customer. It’s the degree to which advertisers need or don’t need publications. They call the shots,” said Shirky.

“Readership is up on the web, but print will die when the advertisers say it dies,” he added.

Recently some news organisations have erected pay walls to force consumers to pay for the news they want, but Shirky said that he has always been sceptical of pay walls.

“There are a handful of cases where charging for content makes some sense. Financial news is high value and transactional, so you can get people to pay for that content. Sport sites might do well if they have something truly appealing to fans, not just scoreboards. And some users will pay review sites not to advertise so they can trust that the reviews aren’t influenced by who’s paying the bills,” said Shirky.

He warned though, that the newspaper model of pay walls might not work because the content was not as unique as the newspapers claimed.

“Any story you write, you have a natural monopoly, but if everyone can write a story, then everyone has a natural monopoly. And if everyone can do it, it’s not that valuable. Unique doesn’t always matter and so, it’s not always worth paying for,” Shirky said.

Public interests

He said that before News Corporation CEO Rupert Murdoch started talking about customers, no-one had thought of a newspaper as serving customer, not public interests.

“We talk about newspapers serving the public, not customers. Murdoch was the first to say, ‘I’m going to serve the interests of my shareholders,’ even if that meant cutting out the public,” said Shirky.

“It makes the organisation less civically valuable.”

Shirky is the keynote speaker at the Tech4Africa conference which ends on Friday.

- Follow Duncan on Twitter

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