Archive for the 'Clay Shirky' Category



Obstreperous Minnesota

Every once in a while—and maybe more often than I’d like to admit—I re-read Clay Shirky. Today, I re-read “Ontology Is Overrated.”

And today, I’m ready to disagree with it around the margins.

On fortune telling. Yes, Shirky’s correct that we will sometimes mis-predict the future, as when we infer that some text about Dresden is also about East Germany and will be forever. But, no, that doesn’t have to be a very strong reason for us not to have some lightweight ontology that then inferred something about a city and its country. We can just change the ontology when the Berlin Wall falls. It’s much easier than re-shelving books, after all; it’s just rewriting a little OWL.

On mind reading. Yes, Shirky’s correct that we will lose some signal—or increase entropy—when we mistake the degree to which users agree and mistakenly collapse categories. And, yes, it might be generally true about the world that we tend to “underestimate the loss from erasing difference of expression” and “overestimate loss from the lack of a thesaurus.” But it doesn’t have to be that way, and for two reasons.

First, why can’t we just get our estimations tuned? I’d think that the presumption would be that we could at least give a go and, otherwise, that the burden of demonstrating that we just cannot for some really deep reason falls on Shirky.

Second, we don’t actually need to collapse categories; we just need to build web services that recognize synonymy—and don’t shove them down our users’ throats. I take it to be a fact about the world that there are a non-trivial number of people in the world for whom ‘film’ and ‘movies’ and ‘cinema’ are just about perfect synonyms. At the risk of revealing some pretty embarrassing philistinism, I offer that I’m one of them, and I want my web service to let me know that I might care about this thing called ‘cinema’ when I show an interest in ‘film’ or ‘movies.’ I agree with Shirky that we can do this based solely on the fact that “tag overlap is in the system” while “the tag semantics are in the users” only. But why not also make put the semantics in the machine? Ultimately, both are amenable to probabilistic logic.

Google showed it is the very best at serving us information when we know we care about something fuzzy and obscure—like “obstreperous minnesota.” I don’t think Shirky would dispute this, but it’s important to bear in mind that we also want our web services to serve us really well when we don’t know we care about something (see especially Daniel Tunkelang on HCIR (@dtunkelang)). That something might be fuzzy or specific, obscure or popular, subject to disagreement or perfectly unambiguous.

People and organizations tend to be unambiguous. No one says this fine fellow Clay Shirky (@cshirky) is actually Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu). That would be such a strange statement that many people wouldn’t even understand it in order to declare it false. No one says the National Basketball Association means the National Football League them. Or if someone were to say that J.P. Morgan is the same company as Morgan Stanley, we could correct him and explain how they’re similar but not identical.

Some facts about people and organization can be unambiguous some of the time, too. Someone could argue that President Obama’s profession is sports, but we could correct her and explain how it’s actually politics, which maybe sometimes works metaphorically like sports. That doesn’t mean that Obama doesn’t like basketball or that no one will ever talk about him in the context of basketball. There may be more than a few contexts in which many people think it makes little sense to think of him as a politician, like when he’s playing a game of pick-up ball. But I think we can infer pretty well ex ante that it makes lots of sense to think of Obama as a politician when he’s giving a big televised speech, signing legislation, or meeting with foreign leaders. After all, what’s the likelihood that Silvio Berlusconi or Hu Jintao would let himself get schooled on the court? Context isn’t always that dependent.

Whoops! CJR lost (ignored?) my comment on “Music Lessons”

So I’ll post it here, pointing to the piece by Alissa Quart, who asks, “Could one ailing media industry—music—teach another ailing media industry—journalism—a thing or two about survival?” Check it out.

My comment?

Readers now care deeply about the biographies of the people who produce their news, writing or talking or what-have-you. But why? And how to convice journalists who want so badly to get it?

I think the answer lies in trust. I think trust is the general concept and can explain why the “Unbiased Media ideal” worked in the departing era and why the “premodern storytelling mode” will work the arriving one.

It is largely the story of Too Much Information, which is itself a chapter of the digital democratization of the printing press and a chapter of essentially free access to the internet. It is now orders of magnitude easier to produce and to consume the news, in other words. Interaction is cheap, even nearly free, between perfect strangers continents apart, and fast. More and more, trust just happens differently.

This explanation is nothing new. Prominent writers have been talking about these inside-out, upside-down profound shifts in media since many students at the j-school were in the fifth grade.

So what does “cheap interaction” promise? Instead of rewriting what others have already said (because links are free and clicks are convenient), let me point the way to Umair Haque on the erosion of brands.

Extra credit to the brave journalist who groks the flipping of attention from relatively abundant to relatively scarce (see the ppt).

This isn’t a tweak to the old system. This doesn’t call for a Friday meeting to develop a new strategy. This isn’t a call for a pretty new website or flashy widget. This simply a new business, a new industry, a new world; this is a return to first principles of old.

So what is the news? It’s producers, who write or share the news, and consumers, who read the news. They are be largely the same people; they must trust one another. The news requires sources. The news is stories about people and organizations, about topics or beats, and about events. The news is opinion, and the news is fact. The news is new—sometimes so new nowadays that it can happen in real- or near-real time and can thus morph into a conversation.

So, yes, write about journalists ripping a page from musicians’ script, if you like. But mightn’t it be more worthwhile to write our own, pieced together from basic facts and laws like these?

I bet it would be fun.


Josh Young's Facebook profile

What I'm saving.

RSS What I’m reading.

  • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.