Wednesday, November 3, 2010

precis: Clay Shirky, "Weblogs and the Mass Amateurization of Publishing"

I’m writing my précis on Clay Shirky’s piece “Weblogs and the Mass Amateurization of Publishing,” which is a short, casual essay about blogs and the issue of financial reward. Publishing a book requires a lot of people and money to print, distribute, and advertise it. Shirky calls publishing a filter, because only certain writers can get their work out to people. Blogging has no filter; anyone can publish anything they want, but they don’t receive any financial award for it. So far, bloggers have relied on advertisements and donations for revenue, which isn’t much. People are grappling with better ways for bloggers to make money, but no solution really seems realistic since people are already getting their information for free, and why would they want to start paying for it?

My first impression based on the title, specifically the word “amateurization,” was that Shirky was criticizing the subject matter of blogs, or criticizing the intelligence of bloggers. However, in the reading itself he actually does quite the opposite. He says that people who write blogs “do it for the love of the thing,” implicating that people who write seeking financial award are more likely to compromise their integrity.

Shirky is also writing about not just how the character of writing or books or publishing is changing, but how culture is changing as a result of blogging. Shirky encourages people to create and consume writing without monetary compensation. To him, it seems obvious that writing should be free. He compares the situation to what he calls “the paradox of oxygen and gold:” “Oxygen is more vital to human life than gold, but because air is abundant, oxygen is free. Weblogs make writing as abundant as air, with the same effect on price.”

I think this is an interesting way to look at publishing, and it opens up the door for other discussions of what should be free. It almost seems crazy that while oxygen is so important to our vitality, we still pay astronomical prices for food and shelter. Could there be a day when we won’t have to pay for food and shelter? Or perhaps the opposite, will there come a day when we have to pay for the air we breathe?

We probably won’t be able to find the solutions to these problems anytime soon, but I think the way that P2P is changing our perception of value in the world of journalism, music, movies, entertainment, etc. is going to really change the world we live in, in a very good way. People may look at these changes as “problems,” or make it seem like there should be urgency in figuring out how to get people to start paying for these things again. But really, free distribution through the internet only hurts the big record and publishing companies, and helps to put more power into the hands of individual artists.

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