Will Efficient Social Software Take Your Job Away?

Social software sites like Flickr and Digg aren't just distracting you from your job — they could actually make your job disappear in the next high tech economic revolution. Get ready to retrain yourself right now. A new book by NYU interactive telecommunications professor Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations, is a good place to start. Although Shirky predicts the demise or extreme downscaling of a lot of familiar jobs right now — everything from design to procedural legal work — he's also got a lot of telling observations about the future of work, social relationships, and even politics, based on years of researching how people communicate online. We cornered Shirky on IM and asked him about the future of our jobs in a world where everyone can publish and collaborate online for free.



io9: So you're talking about these social tools, and how communities can use them, but of course you're also talking about "user generated content," which is one way of saying "get people to work for you for free."

CS: Depends on your frame of reference.

io9: Are we looking at a future where getting a job means working for free for many years before you get to be a developer or producer for cash?

CS: If we think of Flickr as being like a newspaper, then yes, the content that was previously paid for is now free. But if you think of flickr as being like a bar, then what you get instead is that the user conversation now creates value for people out of earshott. No one complains that the bar marks up its booze prices because it's a place for people to get together.

io9: So the bar gets paid for your conversations?

CS: I think the whole 'you work, we collect the money' model has been over-emphasized by the fact that professional media covering these new tools will of course be biased to take the current media model as the 'correct' one. Merchants, a bar in Manhattan, charges $17 for a martini. Know what goes into a $17 martini?

io9: What?

CS: $3 of gin and $14 of "I'm in a bar where people pay $17 for a martini!"

io9: But that makes Flickr sound like an elite place where you pay to be around beautiful rich people.

CS: So the change in the price of drinking gin at home alone, or in a bar with others, is mainly a metric of social value, and we're quite used to paying the platform operator, which in this case would be the bar owner, for making a site where that value can accrue. Of course the whole 'is it a newspaper or a bar' thing is even one level too shallow. The thing Flickr is most like is Flickr. It has all kinds of novel characteristics which are exactly the things that get obscured by metaphor. So when media people look at Flickr (or Digg or YouTube) as new competitors in an existing media ecosystem, instead of a new ecosystem, they create bias towards old metrics.

Oh, and to your earlier comment, I don't mean to suggest that Flickr always equals merchants, just that we are more than used to business models where almost all of the value in the establishment comes from value the patrons create for themselves. It's just that the press doest see (or sees and doesn't like) that comparison, because its hard to argue that some injustice is being doen when viewed in the light of social life rather than media production.

io9: The problem I guess with the bar analogy is that the most "valuable" bars to be in are often valuable because they are full of elite people — which is sort of the opposite of what I think you're hoping for in this book.

CS: Well, even a $2 well drinks dive has the same economics. Consider happy hour. There is a discount on the nominal product precisely to create the necessary bit of social value.

io9: So to get back to the question of getting paid. Sounds like you're saying that we're tending toward a model where the people who make content (or art or writing) don't get paid,
but the people who make the tools that let them express themselves do.

CS: That is one part of the effect. Another part is that, on average people won't get paid, because the pool of creators has gotten too large. But significant talent will still be rewarded. Wedding photographers and stock photo people are going to get creamed. But Herb Ritts' fees may go up. When the bottleneck is not longer worth paying for (because it mostly doesn't exist) talent becomes the only differentiating metric.

io9: So the elite content producers may get more?

CS: I think so.

io9: Obviously a lot of people are decrying this idea, particularly in the media — "oh no we're losing taste makers!"

CS: We're not losing taste makers! I hate that argument — we're gaining taste makers, at an unbelivable rate. We're losing scarcity.

io9: So do you think in the end we'll get a world where more people will be compensated to do creative work? Or that creative work will become more lilke cooking, where everybody does it?

CS: More people overall, maybe, but many fewer on average. And most of the ones who do get compensated don't have it as their main source of income.

io9: Which other industries do you see this change affecting?

CS: Anything where there is a production bottleneck. So the obvious ones are non-litigation lawyering, librarians, anyone in the media distribution business, but also the info managing pieces of things like industrial design, medical decision making, etc.

io9: Are you worried at all that people might use your book to exploit users?

CS: Most of the uses of this sort of group-forming are hard to fake over any length of time (imagine a fake open source project — the coders would bail in a matter of weeks), but the uses of social tools for groups from Al Qaeda to the pro-anorexia kids seems to me to be the biggest social threat that will come from the medium.

Check out the book — although Shirky isn't a futurist, Here Comes Everybody is the best work of futurism I've read in quite a while.

Here Comes Everybody [ISBN.nu]