27 April 2010

Saving Clay Shirky

I am not an unthinking fan of everything Clay Shirky says, but I do find much of the stuff he writes thought provoking. In particular, I found his recent essay, “The Collapse of Complex Business Models” really spot-on in analysing the central problem faced by certain industries.

But not everyone seems to agree judging by this post:

That evening I reread the essay more closely, and the closer I read it, the less I liked it. At sunrise the essay had been an entertaining set of anecdotes built around an intriguing core idea; by sunset it had wilted, revealed as an entertaining set of anecdotes pulled from all over the map in the vain hope that there might, somewhere, be a theme that would hold them together.

The point about Shirky's use of anecdote is fair enough, although he's hardly the only person to adopt this rhetorical trick. Most "big idea" books follow the same pattern of getting their message across through easily-digested stories (but then, so does the Bible).

However, I did find problematic the following section of the critique:

Aside: here is Clay Shirky writing about YouTube:

The most watched minute of video made in the last five years shows baby Charlie biting his brother’s finger. (Twice!)

which is, as of this date, no longer true. The most watched video made in the last five years shows Lady Gaga and a group of hired models dancing on an elaborate set in a video that embodies complex production methods, that is part of the Vevo channel (a joint venture between Google and major record labels) and that features product placements by Nemiroff Vodka, Parrot by Starck, Carerra sunglasses, and HP Envy [link]. Now there is a complex business model.

As a further aside, analysts Visible Measures add in all copies of a video together with spoofs and pastiches, and their list of the top fifteen videos is as follows.

1. Soulja Boy: Crank Dat (music video: Universal) - 722,438,268
2. Twilight Saga: New Moon (film: Summit Entertainment) - 639,966,996
3. Beyonce: Single Ladies (music video: Sony) - 522,039,429
4. Michael Jackson: Thriller (music video: Epic Records) - 443,535,722
5. The Gummy Bear Song (music video: Gummibear International) - 394,327,606
6. Lady Gaga: Poker Face (music video: Universal) - 374,606,128
7. Lady Gaga: Bad Romance (music video: Universal) - 360,020,327
8. TImbaland: Apologize (music video: Mosley Music Group) - 355,404,824
9. Susan Boyle: Britain’s Got Talent (TV: Freemantle/ITV) - 347,670,927
10. Twilight (film: Summit Entertainment) - 343,969,063
11. Modern Warfare 2 (video game: Activision) - 339,913,412
12. Jeff Dunham: Achmed the Dead Terrorist (TV) - 328,891,308
13. Mariah Carey: Touch My Body (music video: Universal) - 324,057,568
14. Charlie Bit My Finger Again (user generated) - 288,666,331
15. Michael Jackson: Beat It (music video: Records) - 286,279,009

It seems that complexity has its place after all.

The first point is fair enough, but the following section actually undermines it. For notice that this long, impressive list counts "copies of a video together with spoofs and pastiches" - in other words, *precisely* the kind of stuff that has nothing to do with complex production. So the figures actually include all the stuff that Shirky is suggesting as an alternative to traditional production - hardly a valid way of arguing against him.

That's not the only place where the post is incorrect. Later on, it says:

Back to his Charlie story again:

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.

But Charlie didn’t “just happen” because Charlie is not the only story here. As YouTube became a phenomenon, those 174 million-and-counting views could only be delivered by acres of these:

which then shows us a picture of serried ranks of Google hardware in Google server farms.

It's true that the YouTube video was indeed held on these systems; it is not true "those 174 million-and-counting views could only be delivered by acres" of such massive, organised server farms. Unstructured P2P systems are not only capable of delivering this kind of volume, they have been doing so for over a decade, often under the radar of the established companies, which only sit up and notice when some of their stuff starts being shared across them.

In a way, the fact that this could be overlooked is a neat summary of what's going on here: the changes Shirky describes have already happened, but not everyone has noticed.

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FleaStiff said...

>baby Charlie biting his brother’s finger.
>watched by more people than American
>Idol, DWTS and the Superbowl.
I've seen none of those. Perhaps those 174 million viewers are of interest to advertisers though I don't know why.

glyn moody said...

@FleaStiff: indeed.

guy said...

Interesting. I followed the links on that article and ended up with the related 'good enough' article (Wired --- http://www.wired.com/gadgets/miscellaneous/magazine/17-09/ff_goodenough?currentPage=all).

One distinction that doesn't appear to get made is good enough for what? From the business perspective it's 'good enough to sell'. Once you take the business side away it becomes 'good enough to use'. That's how FOSS projects live (and mostly die, replaced by the next 'good enough' effort). FOSS projects are off the bottom of the low-end in the market. Some of them climb into competition with commercial products (linux, firefox, openoffice etc.) but most live down at the bottom.

It's easy to get in down there (one part-time developer, a bit of hacked up code, and a web page). It's also *safe*. There are no commercial reasons that are going to kill that project. Your project won't get canned for being at odds with the interests of the business.

The same goes for video production, publishing, music etc. When you're below the low-end your material, your message, your pleasure in creation is safe.

glyn moody said...

@guy: excellent points - thanks.

tom s. said...

Fair points, but although P2P systems can deliver large volumes, YouTube is, of course, explicitly not P2P and is probably one of the top few reasons why P2P traffic has been dropping for the last few years.

glyn moody said...

@Tom: yes, true. But I think P2P has proved that it can handle huge volumes - and could probably handle YouTube if Google wanted to go that route.

tom s. said...

...but I think this is why I disagree with Shirky's outlook. Yes, a P2P architecture could potentially handle the YouTube video distribution challenge, but the fact is that YouTube is winning this battle. And Shirky doesn't even really mention the difference.

He draws a picture that appeals to the collaborative, alternative-to-the-market, community driven ideals of many P2P fans, but he uses it to promote monolithic, commercial, profit-driven realities.

glyn moody said...

@Tom: but surely they're two different aspects - one is about creation, the other about distribution. They're completely decoupled, no?

tom s. said...

@glyn- I'm not sure of your point.

Yes, P2P / Google server farms are both scalable distribution methods, with very different properties when it comes to some important factors such as the ability to advertise over content and the ability to limit other distribution methods. Technically Google could use a P2P distribution method, but commercially it would be silly to do so.

So the commercial Web 2.0 model is for the platform owner to own the content, or at least to limit alternative access methods to the content and to own the right to profit from the content. It's anti-P2P being promoted (by Clay Shirky among others) as being in-the-spirit-of-P2P.

I don't think creation and distribution are decoupled at all. Publishing is a combination of creation, promotion, and distribution and the complex business model embraced by Google in its YouTube division is directly addressing all three. But maybe I missed something.

glyn moody said...

@Tom: the point is we're talking about *amateur* creation, not that of a company. And for amateurs, the platform is completely irrelevant - provided it lets them reach a wide audience.

Similarly, Google doesn't care in the slightest what content is put up on YouTube, just as it doesn't care what rubbish is put up on its Blogger platform (which is why I'm there...): all it wants is eyeballs...