Clay Shirky
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Internet consultant and NYU professor Clay Shirky has posted yet another insightful column on the shifting landscape for media producers, this one discussing the downfall of complex business models. While his column is smart and accurate, it also falls prey to the myopia that’s so common among new media pundits–there are other successful business models that don’t require a race to the bottom.

Shirky’s message is one that any evolutionary biologist will immediately recognize.  Over time, businesses, like organisms, become more and more specialized to their environment.  When the ecosystem changes, these inflexible systems collapse. The problem is exacerbated by ever-growing complexity which makes response to stress even more difficult. Examples cited include the Roman Empire, the Mayan civilization and the situation we’re currently seeing with the rise of the internet and user-driven content.  Shirky focuses on the television industry in particular:

The most watched minute of video made in the last five years shows baby Charlie biting his brother’s finger. (Twice!) That minute has been watched by more people than the viewership of American Idol, Dancing With The Stars, and the Superbowl combined. (174 million views and counting.)

Some video still has to be complex to be valuable, but the logic of the old media ecoystem, where video had to be complex simply to be video, is broken. Expensive bits of video made in complex ways now compete with cheap bits made in simple ways. “Charlie Bit My Finger” was made by amateurs, in one take, with a lousy camera. No professionals were involved in selecting or editing or distributing it. Not one dime changed hands anywhere between creator, host, and viewers. A world where that is the kind of thing that just happens from time to time is a world where complexity is neither an absolute requirement nor an automatic advantage.

Shirky’s point is worth heeding — new technologies can either be seen as threats leading to collapse, or as opportunities to streamline, ways to force your business into more efficient production through simplification:

It’s easy to see the ways in which collapse to simplicity wrecks the glories of old. But there is one compensating advantage for the people who escape the old system: when the ecosystem stops rewarding complexity, it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future.

Part of the problem for the newspaper industry is the massive infrastructure they’ve developed that is rapidly becoming obsolete.  Things like giant printing presses and fleets of delivery trucks have gone from being economic advantages to being anchors weighing down the transition to a leaner way of producing and selling news content.  In the scholarly publishing world, there’s growing advantage in jettisoning infrastructure, in outsourcing things like printing (do you really still need to produce a print product?), warehousing, fulfillment, web-hosting, sales, and marketing.

But there’s a downside to all this simplicity as well – -as Shirky notes, some content requires complexity in order to attain value.  Systems naturally trend toward their state of lowest energy, and that’s where the current Internet revolution is leading us — to a world of cheaply produced “good enough” content. It’s essentially a race to the bottom: who can produce the cheapest version of something that satisfies the absolute minimum of a customer’s needs?  Shirky’s suggestions here are something of a re-hash of Wired magazine’s focus on “The Good Enough Revolution” from last year, which we covered here.  Shirky is right in that one way to compete with “good enough” is to lower your own costs of production to a level where you can compete on price.  But that’s not the only potential solution.

Low-end, “good enough” products are rapidly gobbling up much of the market, but we’re seeing a lot of success stories at the high end as well.  The middle of the market seems to be what’s disappearing — mediocre products at mid- to high-level prices are being replaced either by ultra-cheap products that don’t work as well but suffice, or by expensive, high-quality products where the value added justifies the higher price.  Sales for poorly performing but inexpensive netbooks are booming, as they’re “good enough” to replace the average notebook for many users (expect this trend to continue as Apple’s iPad makes gobbles up further notebook sales).  At the same time, Apple is making a killing in the $1,000-plus computer range with high-end machines made with high-quality components and software.

Cutting production costs may not be enough to save the newspaper industry if there are still free alternatives that offer similar content.  The only way to effectively compete with “free” is to offer something substantially better.  For newspapers to survive, they need to produce content that’s not immediately replaceable by everything else on the web.  Efficiency of production is still important regardless of which segment you choose, perhaps even moreso at the high end because that’s often a much smaller market segment (though this can be offset by potentially higher margins).

Goofy YouTube videos are fun to watch, but there still seems to be a strong draw to sprawling cinematic epics, and given recent box office records, the general public is clearly willing to pay higher prices than ever before for this level of production.  It’s hard to imagine something like Avatar being created without a complex system and massive production costs behind it. It’s date night, which do you want to go see, Lord of the Rings or “Charlie Bit My Finger”?

For a publisher then, the question becomes whether you want to compete by getting into the mud at the low end of the market, or by creating stellar works of high quality. As I’ve said over and over (an idea I’m doing my best to pound into everyone’s heads), successful scholarly researchers are really busy people.  Like everyone else, they’re happy to get stuff for free.  But time is often a more valuable commodity to them than the funds needed to subscribe to a journal or pay for an excellent book.   As a teacher, would you really want to use something like this as the textbook for your course?  There are lots of open courseware initiatives floating around, but how much time do you want to spend adapting and expanding them to meet your needs.  A really good textbook takes an incredible amount of work beyond just the writing.  Generating a consistent and visually compelling art program, editing to the most effective didactic style, creating a common style and voice throughout a long book written by many authors, indexing, fact-checking, all of these things add greatly to the learning experience, and are unlikely to be recreated by crowdsourcing.  Some will be content with the “good enough” material for their students, but there is, and will continue to be, enough of a market to support quality.

And that quality does not come cheaply, and yes, creating it often requires a certain level of complex infrastructures.  Expertise is something to be praised and sought after, not something to be disdained, and that’s the problem with so much of the philosophy coming our way from online ideologues who favor inexpensive quantity over quality, who promote the idea that brute force free labor approaches can somehow add up to equal genius.  Joe Clark sums things up perfectly:

At a certain point, you have to admit you aren’t good enough to do something better than an expert could do it even if the technical option exists for you to give it a shot anyway.

While people will tolerate a lot of things, what we want are beautiful things that work well. There aren’t many nonexperts who can accomplish that. Expertise needs schooling, maturation, taste, and quite a lot of attitude.

The foregoing explains why open source has nothing to teach literature or indeed any artistic creation, since talent doesn’t scale as you give more and more developers check-in access to the version-control system set up for your novel.

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David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is a Senior Consultant at Clarke & Esposito, a boutique management consulting firm focused on strategic issues related to professional and academic publishing and information services. Previously, David was the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He oversaw journal policy across OUP’s journals program, drove technological innovation, and served as an information officer. David acquired and managed a suite of research society-owned journals with OUP, and before that was the Executive Editor for Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, where he created and edited new science books and journals, along with serving as a journal Editor-in-Chief. He has served on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc., as well as The AAP-PSP Executive Council. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.


11 Thoughts on "Clay Shirky’s Collapse of Complexity — Does It Also Require a Collapse of Quality?"

For all publishers to cut costs 90% as Shirky advises might be excessive but his analogy that industries (like ancient civilizations) can collapse under the weight of their complexities (ie nonessential luxuries) seems relevant to me. And quality can come cheaply, there’s a whole management science built around the idea that quality can be free, another way of saying just learn to do the job right the first time. Thanks for this very interesting post, we don’t hear enough about the cost side of the business model IMHO.

In my humble opinion, the issue is not complexity per se but complexity that emerged under a specific set of circumstances.

So I believe that complex systems will emerge to maximize the gains of a digital, interconnected world, but that emergence will take time. In the meantime, the complex systems that emerged to minimize the costs and maximize the gains of the industrial, mass-product world of print and broadcast will collapse.

Joe Clark seems to not have a clue how open source actually works. A huge part of the success of open source is that there is no (or little) pre-selection. In open source there are no dumb record executives turning down the Beatles. Genius is allowed to flourish because there are no-one saying “you cant work on that”. Open source doesn’t suffer from a lack of expertise.

I think different approaches are valid in different situations, open source works well for some things, not so well for others. But to play devil’s advocate here, can you point out examples of what you’ve said above? Open source works that showcase individual talent, that have great aesthetic design driven by singular visionaries? To continue with your example, what is open source’s “Sgt. Peppers”? (Note: “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver” are much better albums, but in keeping with the spirit of the wisdom of the crowds, I’m going with the more popular album, rather than IMO the better albums).

Hi David,

The open source world abounds with individual awesomeness – what maybe confuses people is that collaboration and handover of maintainership works so relatively well with open source and is so important for software. Also what maybe confuses is that so much software is written and useful in ways that don’t put focus on the individuals who made it, but more on the useful software itself. However, I think, a good example of individual talent and singular vision is Git

On another scale – right now I love what Graeme Rocher does with Grails. And just about anything that Fabrice Bellard touches is awesome.


No, I think I’m quite well acquainted with how open source works. The fact that nobody is telling you you can’t work on something is another way of stating the fact that nobody is telling you your work on that sucks and isn’t good enough to see the light of day.

This discussion is less about whether ‘good enough’ content is good enough than it is about whether ‘good enough’ contact is good enough.

Scholarly publishing’s core competencies lie outside technology.

What it is continuing to fail to do as an industry is to engage its readerships in such a way as to remind (or perhaps re-convince) them that its core value propositions are still relevant, comprehensible, and valid.

It’s hard to do that when you’re all but invisible within the spaces where an increasing proportion of your customer base is spending more of its time.

Hmm. Well, I think Shirky’s discussion is actually about content production and complexity, less than channels of engagement, but you are right in that there is something of a disconnect between publishers and working researchers. But I’m not sure we’re talking about the same disconnect.

Publishers are deeply involved in exploring new technologies, in trying to find ways of engaging their readers in all sorts of social media and online forums. Journal editors are increasingly writing blogs and on twitter. Some publishers have built large-scale social networks and are funding online spaces for collaboration and interpretation of research. Some publishers are experimenting with post-publication review and providing ample ways for technologically-advanced readers to interact with journal articles. Some publishers are trying to re-define the actual form of the journal article. If you don’t think that publishers are working hard to adapt, you aren’t paying attention.

I’m not sure how much they’re succeeding, and this is where the disconnect comes in. As became evident during the young scientist panel at this meeting, there is something of a lack of understanding of how scientists actually work, and what their priorities are. Science is an increasingly competitive field, with hundreds of highly qualified applicants for every single job offered. Scientists learn very early what things they can do to further their careers, and they’re very good at focusing solely on those activities (at least successful scientists are). Publishers don’t have perhaps the best understanding of those priorities. Then again, those deeply involved in using and creating social media for science are just as guilty here. Given the low uptake of these technologies by scientists, it’s clear that all of these social media efforts, by publishers and by others, are missing the mark.

As one example, ask most scientists what science blogs they read, and the answer is almost always, “there are science blogs?” After a day spent looking at fascinating technologies for displaying data, three dimensional protein structures that are manipulable in real-time, it was something of a revelation to hear an entire panel announce that they all download the pdf of papers and then print them out and read them on paper. Anyone with access to journal usage statistics can tell you how rarely anyone looks at the supplemental data, or even the movies that accompany an article.

So the answer isn’t to blindly invest in technology because a tiny percentage of vocal scientists like it. The answer is to wisely invest in technologies that are actually going to be productive tools that will get used. And that’s a tough nut to crack. Any suggestions would be appreciated. But to claim that publishers aren’t aware of these new spaces or trying to engage in them is certainly not the case. They’re just (like everyone else) not doing it right yet.

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