Thursday, May 01, 2008

Clay Shirky on Participatory Media

Watch the video, or read the transcript. First, the depressing:
Wikipedia... represents something like the cumulation of 100 million hours of human thought...

And television watching? Two hundred billion hours, in the U.S. alone, every year. Put another way, now that we have a unit, that's 2,000 Wikipedia projects a year spent watching television. Or put still another way, in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads.

Then, the hopeful:
I was having dinner with a group of friends about a month ago, and one of them was talking about sitting with his four-year-old daughter watching a DVD. And in the middle of the movie, apropos nothing, she jumps up off the couch and runs around behind the screen. That seems like a cute moment. Maybe she's going back there to see if Dora is really back there or whatever. But that wasn't what she was doing. She started rooting around in the cables. And her dad said, "What you doing?" And she stuck her head out from behind the screen and said, "Looking for the mouse."

Here's something four-year-olds know: A screen that ships without a mouse ships broken. Here's something four-year-olds know: Media that's targeted at you but doesn't include you may not be worth sitting still for.

See also my review of Clay Shirky's book.


  1. I don't get what's depressing about Shirky's comparison; maybe it would make sense to me if I read it in context. The two don't seem comparable unless we have some predetermined notions about the value of passive media entertainment versus active media/information/education creation. The fact that people would rather, and in fact do, spend more of their time entertaining themselves by consuming passive media than actively helping others expand their knowledge seems like a good thing; I would rather live in a world where people choose to and are able to play more than work.

  2. I'm all in favour of (active, creative) play. Watching TV is nothing of the sort.

  3. Why are you only in favor of active play? What's wrong with passive play?

    Do you hate receiving blow jobs, sir? :P

    What do you make of the hypothesis that television makes us smarter?

    I continued this discussion over at Distributed Republic.

  4. Passive pleasure is fine as far as it goes, but it would be a woeful human life that realized no higher values or excellences. Cf. Nozick's experience machine.

    I'm willing to grant that today's pop culture makes us smarter than yesterday's did. That doesn't mean we couldn't do better still.

    Anyway, Clay's whole point is that TV is just a time sink that people turned to back when they lacked better opportunities. Now, with the rise of the Internet and the myriad opportunities it offers for new forms of creativity and self-expression, we can -- and increasingly will -- do better. (Just ask the 4 yr old who wants her mouse.)

    It won't all be highbrow educational stuff, of course. Another example Clay discusses is video games:

    "In this same conversation with the TV producer I was talking about World of Warcraft guilds, and as I was talking, I could sort of see what she was thinking: 'Losers. Grown men sitting in their basement pretending to be elves.'

    At least they're doing something.

    Did you ever see that episode of Gilligan's Island where they almost get off the island and then Gilligan messes up and then they don't? I saw that one. I saw that one a lot when I was growing up. And every half-hour that I watched that was a half an hour I wasn't posting at my blog or editing Wikipedia or contributing to a mailing list. Now I had an ironclad excuse for not doing those things, which is none of those things existed then. I was forced into the channel of media the way it was because it was the only option. Now it's not, and that's the big surprise. However lousy it is to sit in your basement and pretend to be an elf, I can tell you from personal experience it's worse to sit in your basement and try to figure if Ginger or Mary Ann is cuter.

    And I'm willing to raise that to a general principle. It's better to do something than to do nothing. Even lolcats, even cute pictures of kittens made even cuter with the addition of cute captions, hold out an invitation to participation. When you see a lolcat, one of the things it says to the viewer is, 'If you have some sans-serif fonts on your computer, you can play this game, too.' And that's message--I can do that, too--is a big change.


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