Shirky’s ‘Shock of Inclusion’

In 2010, Clay Shirky (then at Harvard, now at NYU) wrote about the changing nature of the news business, in a concise, insightful essay entitled, The Shock of Inclusion and New Roles for News in the Fabric of Society.  It’s well-regarded and so has been oft-cited.  

These four calendar years later, it’s still the best essay on the startling influence of new media on news.  Shirky’s principal points are, by now, nearly axiomatic: they’re accepted as accurate almost everywhere. (Those points also explain, equally well by implication, the influence of new media on politics.)  

The whole essay is well worth reading, and citing a part of it is challenging because each paragraph is so solid.  Still, I’ll highlight a few main points.

How news once was, no matter how well written or spoken:

If you were in the news business in the 20th century, you worked in a kind of pipeline, where reporters and editors would gather facts and observations and turn them into stories, which were then committed to ink on paper or waves in the air, and finally consumed, at the far end of those various modes of transport, by the audience.

A pipeline is the simplest metaphor for that process, whether distribution of news was organized around the printing press or the broadcast tower….

Professional journalists still see the world as a pipeline between producers and consumers:

That pipeline model still shapes the self-conception of working professionals in the news business (at least working professionals of a certain age), but the gap between that model and the real world has grown large and is growing larger, because the formerly separate worlds of the professionals and the amateurs are intersecting more dramatically, and more unpredictably, by the day….

The news business (and implicitly politics, too) is changing irreversibly:

What’s going away, from the pipeline model, isn’t the importance of news, or the importance of dedicated professionals. What’s going away is the linearity of the process, and the passivity of the audience. What’s going away is a world where the news was only made by professionals, and consumed by amateurs who couldn’t do much to produce news on their own, or to distribute it, or to act on it en masse….

It’s hard for representatives of now-disintegrating pipeline model to accept what’s happening – it’s a shock to them:

We are living through a shock of inclusion, where the former audience is becoming increasingly intertwined with all aspects of news, as sources who can go public on their own, as groups that can both create and comb through data in ways the professionals can’t, as disseminators and syndicators and users of the news.

This shock of inclusion is coming from the outside in, driven not by the professionals formerly in charge, but by the former audience….

I’d encourage anyone who’s not familiar with Shirky to read his full essay (linked above), and when one’s interest is piqued (as it will be, I think) to consider Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators.  

Tomorrow:  What the shock of inclusion means, locally.

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