Let's Talk About Revolutions (in media)

Pop!Tech 2008 - Clay Shirky

I reread this morning Clay Shirky’s great SXSW piece about the media business and i wanted to share some of his thoughts here.  Let me go through the end of the article a bit.  He starts:

Elizabeth Eisenstein’s magisterial treatment of Gutenberg’s invention, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, opens with a recounting of her research into the early history of the printing press. She was able to find many descriptions of life in the early 1400s, the era before movable type. Literacy was limited, the Catholic Church was the pan-European political force, Mass was in Latin, and the average book was the Bible. She was also able to find endless descriptions of life in the late 1500s, after Gutenberg’s invention had started to spread. Literacy was on the rise, as were books written in contemporary languages, Copernicus had published his epochal work on astronomy, and Martin Luther’s use of the press to reform the Church was upending both religious and political stability.

I want to draw the obvious parallel to today’s revolution in publishing and in technology. I belive that just having email and IM has increased the literacy in America (maybe the world).  Not 15 years ago no kids were daily expressing themselves in written words, now they do all the time.  In 1996, i would frequently get emails in ALL CAPS and poorly written.  Now it’s a must-have skill.  But let’s continue with the speech….

What Eisenstein focused on, though, was how many historians ignored the transition from one era to the other. To describe the world before or after the spread of print was child’s play; those dates were safely distanced from upheaval. But what was happening in 1500? The hard question Eisenstein’s book asks is “How did we get from the world before the printing press to the world after it? What was the revolution itself like?”

Chaotic, as it turns out. The Bible was translated into local languages; was this an educational boon or the work of the devil? Erotic novels appeared, prompting the same set of questions. Copies of Aristotle and Galen circulated widely, but direct encounter with the relevant texts revealed that the two sources clashed, tarnishing faith in the Ancients. As novelty spread, old institutions seemed exhausted while new ones seemed untrustworthy; as a result, people almost literally didn’t know what to think. If you can’t trust Aristotle, who can you trust?

I find this same thing is happening with columnist and journalism.  Poor articles just get overlooked or debunked in comments.  The threshhold for well researched facts is higher as the audience is double-checking you every step of the way.  What happened with Aristotle is happenign today with every sports, politcal, and news writer in the world.

During the wrenching transition to print, experiments were only revealed in retrospect to be turning points. Aldus Manutius, the Venetian printer and publisher, invented the smaller octavo volume along with italic type. What seemed like a minor change — take a book and shrink it — was in retrospect a key innovation in the democratization of the printed word. As books became cheaper, more portable, and therefore more desirable, they expanded the market for all publishers, heightening the value of literacy still further.

Sound familiar to anyone? Can you say BLOG or TWITTER – such a simple concept.  Take publishing an article on a web page and shrink it to a blog or 140 characters.  What seems like a minor change has some profound responses.

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.

Old stuff is indeed getting broken. Newspapers are gone or going fast.  Magazines are next.  Paper is being replaced by netbooks, iPhones and Kindles.  These devices are embracing different technologies and shorter-form content.  This is the real revolution that’s happening in front our face.  That Time Magazine you have in your mailbox will be a story you tell your grandkids about, “hey kids, get this, i used to walk to the mailbox and pick up a ‘magazine’ that had stories in it written down, printed once a week and sent to me.” and they will look at you the same way i look at my grandparents when they talk about a world with radio programs only and no TV.   Our new world has more content, better content, that is more easily shared and discussed – and it’s a beautiful thing.

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Portfolio’s Failure


I’ve heard a lot of talk about the decline of print media these days. There were great speeches by Clay Shirky and Steven Johnson at SXSW.  Recently there was news of Conde Nast’s Portfolio magazine shutting down after plowing through $100 million in two years.  Some people have used this as an indication of the flawed model of print, but reading this story from an ex-employee i think it’s more an issue of mismanagement and lack of execution.


Here are some exerpts:

First, let me amplify, the magazine was a failure. It was not market conditions or the general economic meltdown that forced Si’s hand, it was a failure to create something that people wanted to read.

Yet in too many ways to enumerate here, we did not operate in what I fondly call a reality-based environment. In Lipman’s meetings, firings were never firings, stories were never bad or ill timed, mistakes were never made. The air had long been sucked out of that room, and few staffers seemed to believe anymore in the mission of the place, despite a collective desire, and I mean this, to do as good a job as they could do, given the circumstances.

Would the magazine succeeded if it was run currectly?  Who knows, but i do know from past experience at former companies that sometimes too much money is a bad thing as there is no urgency or common goal.  And when you have a leader making decisions that don’t make sense, you can’t help by become disillusioned and discouraged.  That seems to be what happened here.

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Go narrow and do 1 thing well

I did an interview last night for USC business school where i was asked a lot of questions about Qloud and its beginnings.  Questions like “What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs? What have you learned?”  Well here goes…

i often hear people talk about “doing something big.”  While I admire their desire to change the world, i find it interesting that quite often the companies that do end up changing the world started as small passion projects/startups.  And the business model they find is usually nowhere in sight at the beginning.  Some examples:

  • Facebook started as a Harvard-specific tool to get people to better interact with each other.  After it worked well for Harvard, it expanded to the Ivy’s (and Duke & Stanford), then slowly to other schools and eventually everyone.  That wasn’t it’s original goal.  They just wanted to make it easy for people to hook up – i mean, connect
  • Craigslist started as an email list to share functions, jobs and stuff in San Francisco.  They sat in an office and got emailed tips as to what was going on.  They then added some comments and emailed it out and eventually just posted it to a web site.
  • The Google guys were in grad school and staring at some big servers they had.  One idea they wanted to try was to index the entire web.  Once they did that, they then had to brainstorm as to what they could do.  They never started with the desire to dominate web advertising.  Larry Page Speech
Kathy Sierra at SXSW

This thought of doing something you believe in and are passionate about regardless of the size really hit home for me when i heard Kathy Sierra’s keynote at SXSW this year. She had 16 points on how to make breakthroughs happen.  Point #15 was Don’t mistake narrow for shallow. She pointed at hyper-focused blogs like Passive Aggressive Notes and the “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks as mastering a very tiny sliver of the internet. But you could point to the 3 i mention above (Facebook, Craigslist, and Google) as examples of companies that started narrow and gradually expanded to be game-changers.

When thinking about companies, i think it’s important people try new ideas and things they are passionate about. You’re going to be working 24 hours a day 7 days a week on one idea, so you have to love it. Or as Tim O’Reilly says Work on Stuff That Matters.  It’s clear that startups don’t have all the answers when they begin so at least you can start with something you’re willing to continuously think about.

I was again struck with this thought this morning when i read Clay Shirky’s great post about newspaper and the change they are going through.  He too talks about Craigslist saying:

Imagine, in 1996, asking some net-savvy soul to expound on the potential of craigslist, then a year old and not yet incorporated. The answer you’d almost certainly have gotten would be extrapolation: “Mailing lists can be powerful tools”, “Social effects are intertwining with digital networks”, blah blah blah. What no one would have told you, could have told you, was what actually happened: craiglist became a critical piece of infrastructure. Not the idea of craigslist, or the business model, or even the software driving it. Craigslist itself spread to cover hundreds of cities and has become a part of public consciousness about what is now possible. Experiments are only revealed in retrospect to be turning points.

So, my advice to aspiring entreprenuers is – (a) focus o  something you love; (b) don’t focus on changing the world but rather focus on doing something, one thing, extremely well.  If you execute on those 2 points, it’s easy to expand into something more powerful and profitable.

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