Clay Shirky: Thoughts on the Difference Between Old and New Media

by: Nadav Manham

Clary Shirky is a new media guru. In this essay he presents his argument for the fundamental difference between old media and new media:

Scarcity means valuable things become more valuable, a conceptually easy change to integrate. Surplus, on the other hand, means previously valuable things stop being valuable, which freaks people out.

To make a historical analogy with the last major increase in the written word, you could earn a living in 1500 simply by knowing how to read and write. The spread of those abilities in the subsequent century had the curious property of making literacy both more essential and less professional; literacy became critical at the same time as the scribes lost their jobs.

The same thing is happening with publishing; in the 20th century, the mere fact of owning the apparatus to make something public, whether a printing press or a TV tower, made you a person of considerable importance. Today, though, publishing, in its sense of making things public, is becoming similarly de-professionalized; YouTube is now in the position of having to stop 8 year olds from becoming global publishers of video. The mere fact of being able to publish to a global audience is the new literacy, formerly valuable, now so widely available that you can't make any money with the basic capability any more.

If I read him right, Shirky sees the fundamantal capital-intensivity of old media as the main reason it was so profitable. Only a few people could afford a TV tower or a printing press, therefore printing presses and TV towers were relatively scarce, and valuable. I agree, but I'm not sure that's the whole story. It doesn't fully explain the Golden Age of monopoly newspapers, for instance, or the fact that there are only five major Hollywood studios. In future posts I hope to look into this further.