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Shirky at NFAIS: How Abundance Breaks Everything

Clay Shirky

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Clay Shirky was the opening keynote at the NFAIS Annual Conference this weekend.  According to Shirky, the fact that our customers are connected matters, but the fact that they’re networked matters even more.

As an illustration of his point he told us a story about HSBC, a UK bank that instituted a no-penalty account targeted at UK college students and recent graduates. After attracting customers to these accounts, the bank decided to institute a £140 fee for overdrafts.  As we all would have imagined, in the age of Facebook and social networking, account holders didn’t take this lightly.  In fact, they organized online and were in the process of organizing an in-person demonstration when HSBC gave in.

As Shirky pointed out, unhappy customers may get some attention, but unhappy networked customers can quickly impact your business. The proliferation of technology that helps us connect to each other, publish, and share information may be wreaking havoc on our traditional publishing ecosystem, but these aren’t new problems.

The printing press enabled books to be reproduced 300 times faster than they could with a scribe.  Aside from the obvious impact this had on the availability of information, it also had a less obvious effect on the Catholic church.  Contrary to popular belief, the first items printed on the press in great number were not just Bibles, they were indulgences and, as a result of the speed at which they could be reproduced, indulgences proliferated.  This lead to the excess that prompted Martin Luther to write the Ninety–Five Thesis, ultimately sparking the Protestant Reformation.  What initially looked like it was going to strengthen the existing environment (by increasing access to the Bible and indulgences) ultimately up-ended it.

Abundance breaks more things than scarcity does.  Society knows how to react to scarcity.

Think about that statement for a minute. “Society knows how to react to scarcity.”  We know how to ration, save, and preserve when we need to do so.  It’s much harder to set priorities and find our path when information abounds.  We may drown.  We may get side-tracked.  We may shut down.  But, in any case, abundance confuses and distracts us more than scarcity does.

While there were many more insights offered throughout this keynote, the other statement that caused me to pause was this:

It’s easy to say “preserve the best of the old and combine it with the best of the new,” but in revolution, the best of the new is incompatible with the best of the old. It’s about doing things a whole new way.

Perhaps there are ways in some cases to incrementally adjust what we’re doing.  But when true revolution is required, can the old be preserved as anything more than a memory?  Can it do anything more than inform?

Does this statement apply more to process and models and less to mission and vision?  Or, in some cases, are our missions defined too narrowly, specifying how they must be accomplished, rather than broadly framing the impact we want to have on the world?

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About Ann Michael

Ann Michael is President of Delta Think, publishing consultants focused on innovation in product strategy, development, and content management. Delta Think has worked with many major commercial and non-profit scholarly publishers as they clarified their business objectives, defined new content products and business models, re-architected their content processes, introduced new tools and technologies, and developed the skills and expertise needed to be successful in an ever changing publishing environment.


13 thoughts on “Shirky at NFAIS: How Abundance Breaks Everything

  1. Ann, Thanks for posting from NFAIS.

    Shirky’s comments remind me of a Feb 1 piece from Fortune, “Why doing good is good for business” (

    A couple of outtakes:

    “The world has changed, Seidman argues, and winner-take-all strategies are obsolete. He contends that the rise of information technology has made good behavior more important because it has become increasingly hard to hide bad behavior.”

    The article also cites Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded:

    “Today people can see into your life farther, faster, and cheaper than ever before. Dov really helped me understand the behavioral implications of that: You are on Candid Camera, so be good.”

    It is very interesting to note the latent, harnessable power of individuals in the Web community to observe, react to, and profoundly impact major businesses. Managers trainied in traditional ‘red ocean’ business are quickly losing ground. The new potency lies with those who have the vision to connect the dots and mobilize the teeming masses–individual collaborators.

    Posted by Alix Vance | Mar 3, 2010, 5:37 pm
  2. I think there are fundamental problems with the logic here, because it confuses technological change abundance with ceteris paribus (all else remaining the same) abundance.

    So the printing press had unforeseen consequences, which is a common experience with technological change.

    An example of ceteris paribus abundance would be an exceptionally good crop, or growing season. The consequences of this are well known, because the topic has been studied at depth, because it happens cyclically.

    In a free market, abundance creates a roller-coaster pricing scenario. In times of abundance, prices fall. In times of scarcity, prices rise.

    The market response to this has been corporate farming. McDonald’s want stable beef prices, so they avoid the market and intensively farm their own beef.

    So technology may be implemented in an organized manner to stabilize prices and innovate money-saving practices, in which case, its effects are to destroy the competition and effect social change that way.

    But abundance? Not coping with? Nah.

    Posted by Richardhg | Mar 12, 2010, 6:32 pm
    • This comment fails to see the point – while scarcity as attitude may be the best approach when in times of real scarcity, eventually it will lead to an abundance in which attitude change is required. Quite often, the society fails to see the change and remains in scarcity mode, creating overabundance (and all sorts of secondary excesses you could call overproduction).

      The comment is written from an overall scarcity/one area abundance perspective, which is not the topic of the article it comments (but it sure sounds smart).

      The whole ‘free market which acts from the perspective of scarcity’ argument is an oxymoron – a market cannot be free while in scarcity mode for scarcity invokes survival of the fittest approach, which is diametrically opposed to free anything.

      I’d throw in a saying in Latin for good measure, let’s see – omnia dicta fortiora si dicta Latina, isn’t that just the case?

      Posted by Petar | Jul 20, 2012, 4:10 am


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The mission of the Society for Scholarly Publishing (SSP) is "[t]o advance scholarly publishing and communication, and the professional development of its members through education, collaboration, and networking." SSP established The Scholarly Kitchen blog in February 2008 to keep SSP members and interested parties aware of new developments in publishing.
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