Interpreting Media: Clay Shirky Speaks

If you don’t know his name already, jot it down: it’s Clay Shirky, and he’s the next big name in media theory.

Earlier in October, for the first time in my life, I was encouraged to tweet while sitting in an audience. It was at the International Festival of Authors (IFOA) an annual event that brings together the best minds in the literary world. The organizers of the festival wanted to make noise beyond the walls of the Harborfront Centre in Toronto, so they encouraged attendees to tweet using the hashtag #IFOA.

If I were there to see any other speaker, I would consider tweeting to be rude, but given this particular speaker’s background—a professor of new media, an author on Internet technologies and a social media consultant—I decided tweeting was more than appropriate.

If you don’t know his name already, jot it down: it’s Clay Shirky, and he’s the next big name in media theory. Shirky is already a well-known name online and amongst social media junkies such as myself, but I’d wager that in ten years, he’ll become a household name, or at least a cornerstone in media conversations, not unlike Marshall McLuhan.

Shirky is the author of  a string of books focused on the social impact of new media, his two most recent works being Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations (2008) and Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators (2010). Not only is Shirky a refined scholar and accomplished author, he’s also an accredited speaker: type this name into the search bar on TED or YouTube, and you’ll quickly see what I mean.

Shirky’s talk at the IFOA was a part of the McLuhan lecture series, a series of discussions centered around ideas presented by Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan. Shirky talked about his experience of writing about media, and made the salient point that “as a media theorist today, you’re somehow always working in the legacy of McLuhan.”

In a media landscape that’s increasingly disparate and noisy, Shirky is one of the few coherent voices that seems to be able to make sense of it all. Like McLuhan before him, Shirky is sharply aware of the technological shifts surrounding him—shifts in the way we communicate with one another, the way we organize ourselves, and the way we think of the media/audience relationship.

Shirky says that oftentimes, we develop new communication technologies before we intelligently maximize their potential. To illustrate this point, he looks to the printing press, one of the milestones in communication technology:  Shirky says that immediately after the invention of the printing press, the so-called “trash” novel flourished, but it took 100 years before someone thought to print the first medical journal.

Shirky reminds us that new media is just that—new; we’re still culturally negotiating how to use platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Linkedin & more. And while Shirky admits that the internet has opened the floodgates to a wave of amateur media, he believes that we’re in a stage of widespread experimentation. Writes Shirky:

“The low-quality material that comes with the increased freedom accompanies the experimentation that creates the stuff we will end up prizing.”

To learn more, pick up your copy of Cognitive Surplus, and be sure to check out the video below on how Cognitive Surplus will change the world: