Clay Shirky on Crowdsourcing Brooklyn

I caught up with author, NYU professor and Brooklynite Clay Shirky after a talk he gave at the M Project Gallery in Tribeca this week. He was plugging his book, Here Comes Everybody, and Industrial Color Software was celebrating the launch of FileSociety, a new high-speed collaborative file transfer service. Shirky spoke on the opportunities and challenges presented by the revolution in online communication and social media tools. Afterwards, we talked about how that revolution has influenced Brooklyn’s shifting demographics and the proliferation of the borough’s internet presence.

Brooklyn The Borough: Do you think technology has had an influence on the demographic shifting in Brooklyn?

Clay Shirky: Oh absolutely, absolutely. You can see it on the L train, the push past Williamsburg into Bushwick was – it’s a normal New York pattern, but it was accelerated by the fact that everybody was able to talk to everybody else and find those resources.

I mean, when I was in Williamsburg the moment was, the first time someone opened a coffee shop with an espresso machine, it was as if it were a match on dry tinder. By the time it got around to settling Bushwick, people would say ‘We’ve taken over this building and turned it into artist’s lofts’ and the ability to discover that, and for those people to find each other, I think enormously accelerated the push along the L.

A similar thing happened in Fort Greene – the awareness of, you know, house prices, neighborhood types among the parent set, the tying of the reputation of public schools to different neighborhoods. All of that stuff is both more accessible when the information is there but also much more of the tacit information is produced by people who are living there.

In my neighborhood in Cobble Hill and Boerum Hill there were two places that sold children’s clothes and one of them was famously terrible, and the moms in the neighborhood were all like ‘Don’t go there, go to this other place’ and low and behold, the place that everybody hated suddenly put up this big sign, “Under New Management.” I don’t know if they actually were or not, but they were able to pick up that they had a brand problem because they could suddenly see it online. Park Slope parents – another example.

I think absolutely the young people move to town fresh out of college, figuring out where to live – the stuff I went through with none of these tools – all of that stuff is enormously accelerated so that centers of density around painters, around sculptors, around filmmakers, all of that stuff moves along information corridors that didn’t exist even, really even ten years ago.

BTB: Has technology brought back a sense of social and communal capital, mourned in books like Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone? For example, there’s a Hawthorne Street blog for residents of that street, which runs through Prospect Lefferts Garden.

CS: The thing that changed my mind about that – I was one of those people who thought we were going to be big floaty video heads in a 3D world, like the end of this stuff is going to be pure virtual life – and my friend Scott Heiferman was the one who convinced me that that point of view was complete bullshit. He founded a company called Meet Up that was designed to get people away from their computers and meeting in real world spaces. I talk about it in the book a little bit – when Meet Up launched Scott thought it was going to be all classic American interest groups like car enthusiasts and dog owners and all the rest of it. And the top groups were either religious affiliations that didn’t have traditional cultural support – Wiccans, Ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses – or they were online groups that didn’t have any place to meet in the real world.

In my generation we grew up with this notion of cyberspace. What I see among my graduate students, who are fifteen to twenty years younger than me, is they’ve never heard of cyberspace. The internet is not a separate place from real life, instead of it being an alternative to real life, it’s an augmentation of it. One of my former students just launched foursquare, that is producing quite a lot of social capital by helping people coordinate in the real world in a kind of silly way. It’s sort of your social life as a video game, bar hopping and so forth, but has the affect of actually coordinating more real world meetings than would happen just by chance.

BTB: Do you read any blogs specific to your neighborhood?

CS: You know, I use I’ve known Steven Johnson, for gosh, fifteen years – a long time. I use, because in a way the aggregation and re-broadcast makes a lot of sense and shows me stuff outside of just one particular area.

BTB: Now that Rupert Murdoch has a near-monopoly on Brooklyn’s print news, having recently purchased The Brooklyn Paper, and with a new Times blog set up in Fort Greene, what do you think their relationship with citizen journalists will look like?

CS: I just wrote something about this called Newspapers and Thinking The Unthinkable, there’s no general purpose model for the newspaper anymore, we’re moving to a world of special cases. We’re also plainly moving to a world of increasing hybridization and the trick will be to figure out which of the Brooklyn bloggers, and Tumblrs, and Twitterers and Facebookers become input for the existing papers, because the idea that there is a mainstream media and an alternative media on the internet – you know, that was looking like a fantasy even a couple of years ago – that’s done now.

There is a media ecosystem that goes from one person occasionally remarking on something for a blog read by twelve people, up to the Courier, and all of those places are going to start to hybridize. A couple of business models will be destroyed along the way – it’s not a completely smooth road. The idea of buying up all the available media in an area is now just a fantasy and so when the moguls are coming in and buying these outlets, they’re going to have to find ways to be valuable to the citizens without being a monopoly.

BTB: Do you think crowdsourcing is the future of journalism on the internet?

CS: It’s certainly a future, absolutely. I think the future of journalism on the internet is really every possible thing that will work. So some of it’s going to be one person looking out their window and saying ‘Oh, I saw a car crash today’ and some of it’s going to be people doing nothing but looking at city databases and everything in between. I don’t think we’re moving from model A, what we’ve got today, to some new model B like ‘Oh, this is how internet journalism is now.’ I think we’re moving B through Z, we’re actually expanding the expressive range of journalism, not just transferring it to some alternative vision.

Nicole Brydson Written by:

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