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Originally published Monday, March 17, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Author sees profit in empowering Web users

Clay Shirky's book "Here Comes Everybody" sounds like a warning — or a threat. And Shirky, visiting Seattle on a book tour last week...

Special to The Seattle Times

Clay Shirky's book "Here Comes Everybody" sounds like a warning — or a threat.

And Shirky, visiting Seattle on a book tour last week, doesn't shrink from suggesting the fundamentals of many businesses are shifting and may disappear because people can organize themselves into groups, movements or commercial forces online with little effort.

"This ability of groups to come together and do things without institutional sponsorship is a really big change," Shirky said. "This isn't an improvement on contemporary society; this is a challenge to it."

"Here Comes Everybody" (The Penguin Press, $25.95), a reference to a character in James Joyce's "Finnegans Wake," charts growth in self-organizing movements and their effect on popular culture, totalitarian societies and business.

In Belarus, for instance, Shirky notes that youths hit on using flash mobs for political change. Flash mobs started in 2003 as a kind of prank, in which people would spread word of an event via text messaging and other means, then gather to do something innocuous.

The Belarus students, defying bans on gathering, would meet in public places to show their collective power. In one case, they all showed up and ate ice cream, then they shot and uploaded video of police arresting youths.

"Nothing says dictatorship like arresting people for eating ice cream," Shirky said.

He looks at self-organization with an academic's eye, tinged by an appreciation of the commerce that underlies a fair amount of the Internet.

Shirky, an adjunct professor at New York University, consults for groups as varied as the BBC, Nokia and Library of Congress.

It seems ironic for one so focused on the power of the Internet as a way to spread new ideas, to go ahead and write a book, but Shirky noted the publishing industry — independent of the culture and baggage surrounding print books — is still the best way to disseminate long-form ideas.

"There's an advantage to taking 12 months to write something out in 80,000 words, than taking 12 weeks to write something out in 8,000 words, or 12 minutes to write 800 words," he said.

It's also a way for Shirky, well-regarded by the Internet's technical community, to reach a nontechnical audience. He said that simply to write a few essays about how his opinions have formed and changed over several years wouldn't be enough. "I changed my mind about enough stuff that it wouldn't fit in an essay form."

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Shirky also noted that reading words on screen remains an unpleasant task. "Clearly, there are a lot of people working on making it easier to read on the screen," he said, although he doesn't think Amazon.com's Kindle book reader meets the mark.

"Right now, they're taking most of the worst features of the book and fusing it with most of the worst features of digital," he said. "They're trying to use technology to make sure it isn't searchable, shareable, editable — all of the things we take for granted with digital data."

But Shirky does like how Amazon.com handles MP3s. "How come Amazon, which gets it so much about selling MP3s, has bundled up the Kindle like iTunes?" he asked. "I haven't bought a thing on iTunes since the day Amazon launched its MP3 store."

Amazon.com last year introduced MP3s that had no copy protection in direct competition with Apple's iTunes service, which still has the overwhelming majority of its songs locked down.

Observing media

Sitting for an interview in Fremont across the street from Getty Images, which sells stock photos used in print media, trade publications and even newsletters, Shirky pointed out the economics of that business.

Stock-photo services traditionally work with professional photographers with deep archives who may spend most or all their time photographing relatively generic situations and objects.

"If an amateur has taken only one good photo in his life, but you can find it, why not use it?" Shirky said in his book.

IStockPhoto charges about 1 percent of the usual stock-photo fee. "This is not a 99 percent reduction in profit; this is in revenue, per photo," Shirky said. "Businesses can ride out plus or minus 10 percent kinds of adjustments in the model. They can't ride out a 99 percent change."

Getty bought iStockPhoto in 2006, exemplifying a piece of Shirky's advice for businesses trying to adapt to consumers becoming more active and also producers.

"If you can write your abilities on a piece of paper, and it turns out your customers can do these things better than you, get out of that line of work," Shirky said.

"Figure out some way to involve or defer to your customers, whether it's partnering with them or simply giving them the tools that they need. The economics of fighting that are too adverse."

Shirky also advises firms to avoid the big online bet.

"Take your million-dollar idea for transforming your business on the Web and throw it away, and fund 10 $100,000 ideas," he said. "The likelihood that you'll get it right with one big experiment is basically nil."

Shirky used to be a "cyber utopian," expecting all change brought by online connections would be good, but the scales fell from his eyes in what he describes as literally "two minutes."

A student of his who managed discussion boards at YM, a magazine for young women, told him one day that the health and beauty boards were being shut down.

Dangerous tips

The reason: Girls participating in the discussions were supporting each other to remain or become anorexic and bulimic.

"These pro-anorexia girls were trading tips on getting or staying dangerously thin," Shirky said.

The other side of that coin, he said, is that marginalized groups, such as gay kids and former members of religious groups, can form communities of support and interest.

If you belong to a church, you find like-minded people at the church, he said. But if you're an ex-Jehovah's Witness — one of the most popular early groups on MeetUp, a site facilitating local meetings of like-minded people — you don't have a building to go to.

Shirky remains positive on balance, however. "I am still a believer that there will be more good than harm to society," but a new balancing act has to happen, he said.

Glenn Fleishman, who writes the Practical Mac column in Personal Technology, is a freelance technology writer in Seattle.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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