The highlight of SXSWi so far for me has been Clay Shirky’s presentation “Monkeys with Internet Access: Sharing, Human Nature, and Digital Data on Sunday afternoon.

You can get a good rundown of his main points from Liz Gannes at Gigaom. My takeaway was a little bit different, but then again I’m coming at this from the side of people creating content and so I think about business models a little bit more.

As I see it, here is the thread of logic in Shirky’s presentation …

1. We are wired to share information. Shirky noted that from an evolutionary standpoint we are wired to hoard physical goods or products, things that are tangible and have scarcity. At the other end of the spectrum, we are inclined to enjoy sharing information. It comes at no cost to us, but it has value to both the person sharing and the person receiving.

2. We have a word for not wanting to share information that comes at no cost to us: It’s called being spiteful

3. Media has gone from being a physical commodity to being information. The newspaper in my hand or CD in my possession is hard to give away or even loan out. As the owner, I lose control of the product. Digital media, though, is easy to give away. You can give away copies, and thus it comes at no cost to the giver. Shirky notes that “abundance breaks more things than scarcity.” I loved his point that the original aim of the printing press, for example, was to print indulgences, something that should have entrenched the Catholic church. In fact it had the opposite effect; the abundance of indulgences led to backlash that was part of the seeds of the Reformation.

4. Media companies are freaking out about this change, but rather than realigning to a new reality they are trying to protect the old one. He noted that businesses create workarounds to problems, but part in parcel with that is that this builds in a desire to not solve the original problem lest the solution make itself obsolete. There is no profit motive in fixing something once and for all.

5. User behavior, which is motivation filtered through opportunity, is being rewritten as access opens up. In light of #4, Shirky aked a salient question in light of this: What kind of society will we create if the media companies win? If we are wired to share information at no cost, and the opposite of that is being spiteful, then in essence media companies are trying to encourage us to behave in ways that make us more spiteful through the act of denying ourselves the enjoyable act of sharing information? This comes at an enormous cost to society.

So where’s the value in systems that figure out how to use open information? It’s in the co-creation of civic goods. Shirky noted a couple examples that illustrate that thinking.

Patients Like Me is a site that crowdsources symptoms and medical ailments among a user base, and the aggregate is essentially a knowledge base that might help people better figure out what is going on with their health. This flies in the face of the U.S. medical system, which has privatized patient information and made a good living off of it (i.e. why switch doctors when they “know” my medical history and are an expert on it?). PLM is creating a public good using medical information, but Shirky argues it won’t be successful unless it completely changes the health care industry. I saw a lot of parallels between that example and media companies, and all of a sudden a light switched on. The intense fight being put up by healthcare companies in the latest reform debate is a lot like the RIAA suing illegal downloaders.

Pickup Pal was another example. It uses information sharing between users to arrange rides for people going to the same places, saving money and maybe even a slice of the environment. The service was so successful that a bus company in Canada successfully sued the site for breaking the law. You can read about the details if you want, but the general point is that businesses are going to protect their model when a new idea comes along that fixes an idea too well. Fortunately the public outcry was so strong that it changed the law.

Both examples highlight a basic point of Shirky’s talk: We use free information sharing to create public goods through better efficiency, but at some point it’s going to trip over business models that depend on the problem not being solved. Abundance of information, in this case, breaks a lot of business models based on scarcity.

The upshot of all this? Shirky says that we’re going from a society that emphasizes “doing big things for money and little things for love to point where we can do big things for love.” The best, the coolest stuff we are doing with interactive media happens when we create these civic goods using information.

This lecture drove home a number of things for me. I’m teaching multimedia reporting at Lehigh, but I’m reminded there are a wider array of projects I can be doing. What are we doing to create civic goods in the Lehigh Valley through data-driven projects that are built on users sharing their own stories?

In a larger sense, the talk crystalized the feeling I’m getting after four days here in Austin. Journalism has a bright future, but the traditional players are so screwed. They’re chasing the wrong solution. I just don’t see a future for them when they’re trying to protect information as a scarce commodity. The scarcity, in truth, is in media companies trying to create civic goods via user sharing.

The info-must-be-free thought process has been argued against for some time even though it lacks specific proponents. Shirky was not making that kind of claim about information either, although I think it might be plausible to conclude that he made a compelling argument for the info-free notion from a sociological point of view: we’re wired this way, and what are we doing to ourselves by trying to restrict this type of behavior?

Other things that stood out from the Q&A:

Innovation: If you’re a company wanting to innovate, take the person who has one big idea and lock them out of the building. Tell them they can’t come back until they have 10 medium-sized ideas or 100 little ideas. Try a lot of everything, and double down on what works. Brilliant.

Education: The same transformation happening to media companies is coming at education like a freight train (and in fact from sitting in on other sessions I think it’s happening now). Shirky noted that we have cognitive dissonance in how we sell education. We tell students they’re joining a community of scholars, and we’re telling the private sector we’re managing the student mind such that when we churn them out they’re going to be excellent creators and workers. There is an inherent tension (and disconnect) between these two sales pitches.

It was a fantastic presentation. Thanks, Clay Shirky, for blowing my mind (again).

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Shirky: A tension between media business models and human nature
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