Clay Shirky Keynotes NFAIS 2010

This year’s NFAIS conference was opened by Clay Shirky. He started by giving us a 5 word synopsis of his book Here Comes Everybody — Group Action Just Got Easier. He then when on to a story about the power of social networks.

HSBC (a bank in the UK) in 2007 decided they were going recruit new clients (graduate students and undergrad students). They offered these students accounts with an overdraft that had no fees associated with it. Then in the summer they took back their plan to offer the account with no penalties for overdrafts and said they were going to charge $140 per overdraft. They said you have 30 days to get your money out before we charge you. The idea was that college students are all over the world in the summer and won’t be around to throw a fit. But a college student found out about it and published it on Facebook. The bank didn’t realize that these students were still connected even though they were spread out. In the end HSBC changed their mind. This wasn’t because the students were unhappy – it was because they were unhappy and organized.

Clay then went into talking about 3 information issues.

Volume of Information

When the printing press turned into the mechanical object we know today, books were able to be printed 300x faster than a scribe could pen the book. When a new tech comes along, previously impossible things become possible.

Abundance breaks more things than scarcity does – when the web first became viable newspapers thought this was great! They could send out text and images for free and reach more than just their local customer base – they can reach people worldwide. What they didn’t think about was that their competitors can now reach their customers … The ability to handle digital data at a low cost seemed in the 90s to be a great way to build businesses – but the fact is that now it has turned their business models upside down.

Information Overload

This is not a new problem! Think about the book. In the beginning books did not have table of contents, indexes, etc – those things were added once books were popular to respond to the problem of information overload in the book.

The answer to then organizing books was the card catalog. The problem is that as we know these systems (both Dewey and LCC) are very biased. The cataloging system isn’t there to organize the world, it’s there to organize the containers of the information. The answer to this is Google (Yahoo!’s original idea of trying to organize information into categories didn’t work either). Google fights the filter failure problem – there are none.

He then moved on to Flickr. Flickr has not card catalog – so how do we find information in Flickr? Tags! He showed us an example from the Smithsonian’s collection which had 100s of tags. And asked why is it that this isn’t a mess? Why does this work? Because we’re talking about organizing the web – we don’t have to think in the same terms we think of in our physical buildings.

In the end tags are more powerful and more accurate than categories defined by ‘experts’ because the community comes together and you get the collective wisdom of multiple people. Tags allow for a coordination of the community – using tags people can not only find information on a topic they’re interested in, but they can find people who are interested in that topic because the tags are linked back to people.


The ability to take 2 resources and multiply them to create something new. One of the most famous transitions in history was the transition from alchemy to chemistry. Both of these disciplines used the same tools, the difference was that chemists decided they were not going to believe things they could not prove. The change that led to the shift from alchemy to chemistry was the printing press – chemists decided to publish their experiments so that others could learn from them and criticize them.

Last year DARPA announced the red balloon challenge. They put 10 balloons up across the country and gave them a month to find them for a prize. The group that won found them all in 9 hours because they used social networking to work together. In the FAQ for the contest, DARPA linked to Wikipedia articles on how to find the latitude and longitude of the balloons. Why? Why link to a un-authoritative site like that? Why not link to Britannica? Because Britannica only gives you 100 words of the article and a link to sign up for a free trial. If you sign up for a trial, you can’t actually find the article because you’re brought to a 404 error. In this case Wikipedia has surpassed Britannica because they took advantage of tools on the web that allowed them to create an accessible reference source that has taken advantage of combining knowledge.

What’s the future

When asked what we do to take advantage of this movement toward open access and community collaboration … Clay says he does not know what we can do. The one thing he can tell us is that throughout history no one realized what the change was going to be until it happened.

The Internet is what made Linux and Wikipedia work – they have access to a global network to add together all of the good ideas. Which brings up a good quote from Bernard Shaw that I just re-read today in an Intro to Open Source guide:

“If you have an apple and I have an apple and we exchange apples, then you and I will still each have one apple. But if you have an idea and I have an idea and we exchange these ideas, then each of us will have two ideas.”

It isn’t the one big idea that helps you figure out what you’re doing – the only way you can stomach the kind of failure that you can learn from is to have hundreds of small ideas.

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