Taking a (little) brick out of the paywall

The past few days brought not one but two collisions with the paywall at The Times (for the first of these see post immediately below). On Saturday, the paper printed a short review they’d commissioned of Clay Shirky’s new book Cognitive Surplus in the Weekend Review section.

Shirky is the subject of occasional mentions and links in this blog and I’d have liked to link to my review. I can provide it here but of course you have to subscribe to The Times to read it. As an experiment, I’ve pasted the text I filed to The Times at the foot of this post. You can read it for free as long as The Times doesn’t object.

Let’s be clear why I doing this test. I’m not against charging for editorial content, just as I’m not against paying cash for a printed paper. Copyright belongs to the paper since the review was commissioned and submitted normally.

I’m trying to underline two connected points about paywalls. The Times (disclosure: I worked for the paper until last year) now operates what I call an “extreme paywall”: the charge applies to everything except the front page. Behind the barrier sit millions of fragments of information, ranging from the important to the specialist to the insignificant. A newspaper website is simultaneously a rolling news site  and a huge data mountain, an encyclopaedia of current affairs, frequently updated.

While a newspaper has a legal right to restrict access to all of that material as one whole bundle, this can’t be the best way to go in the future. If charging is going to be part of the survival of quality journalism, something more flexible and agile is required. Digital technology allows journalism which was packaged together in print to be “unbundled”. Once unbundled, it can be copied, distributed, swopped, commented on and its message can multiply. (This may not mean the end of the bundle or at least of labelling, for we will always want to know the source of a piece of journalism in order to judge whether or not it can be relied on.)

But a crude paywall stops dead this process of linking and exchange. We don’t yet know if charging is going to part of the long-term business model for journalism, but the odds are that it will be (BeehiveCity’s commentary on unsourced figures for Times subscriptions here and here).

A system that locks in so many items of such different value (and my review is not, to put it mildly, a valuable item) without being able to distinguish between them can’t work in the long run. I keep thinking back to that piece by James Fallows which found that everyone at the top of Google believes that content will be paid for – they just haven’t yet quite figured out the right trick to make it work easily.

The review is here:

Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age

Clay Shirky

Allen Lane  £20

If there is one thing that the American digital guru Clay Shirky has always been good at, it is the accessible and entertaining spread of ideas. Only in the title of his latest book has this talent malfunctioned. Cognitive Surplus must rate as one of the most discouraging book titles of 2010.

The surplus, Shirky says, is the free time which most people in developed societies acquired thanks to labour-saving devices, laws limiting hours of work and increasing affluence. For most of the second half of the twentieth century, we spent our surplus watching television. The inert mass of television viewers now morphs into more active communities connected “peer-to-peer” by the internet. In that shift, Shirky sees great possibilities for the improvement of communities and societies. We should, he says, ask ourselves: “If we carve out a little bit of the cognitive surplus and deploy it here, could we make a good thing happen?”

Who wouldn’t share that hope? But you would need a more highly-tuned sense of cause and effect in social change than is on show here to make the argument truly convincing. Shirky rightly assumes that the interesting questions are located in the social effects of technology rather than in the software itself. Personal digital communications are society’s new connective tissue and he lays out the internet’s ability to spring surprises and alter the public space.

Here lies Shirky’s strength as a writer: capturing the unpredictable relationship between technology and social change with clear narrative and phrase-making skill. He calls the internet an “opportunity machine” (and that surely would have been a better title for his book). His work as a consultant has made him a connoisseur of the law of unintended consequences; internet innovations rarely come to be used as their designers or founders think they will be.

Yet as Shirky leads us through his argument, unanswered questions pile up. With a fixed belief that the many will always know better than the few, Shirky sets up a false opposition between old and new media. Any and all participation by someone on the internet has a higher value than any passive viewer watching television. I love watching people exploiting the opportunity machine and I watch little television, but this is a stretch. Surfing the net by captioning cute cat pictures on ICanHasCheezburgers.com or selecting a piece of favourite porn – that ranks above watching the best of the BBC or other public service broadcasters?

Shirky relies heavily on the example of the web-led protest in South Korea against the lifting in 2008 of the country’s ban on American beef imports, imposed during the BSE crisis five years before. The digital meeting point for the youngsters who inflicted that humiliating defeat on the Korean government was a boy band website with no previous known interest in meat import laws.

The episode pointed once again to the internet’s capacity to empower unimagined coalitions by providing new means of communication and mobilisation. But in stressing these Shirky overdoes the transformative and fails to balance the mixture of old and new. What was it that woke up this protest in the first place? Where did the youngsters get the material that they swopped so eagerly? Opinions usually involve facts somewhere along the line, however misunderstood or misused. Ten to one those facts were provided by the Korean mass media and journalists attached to the notion that they might be discovering useful material on behalf of other people and then broadcasting it to them. Without that cue from established media to its “passive” audience, would anything else have happened? Societies progress by spreading information more democratically. But they also advance by specialising, creating elites and inequalities.

Similar doubts arise in the example Shirky makes of Kenya-based website Ushahidi.com. Neatly marrying web and mobile phone technology, people text messages to Ushahidi and have their information or location automatically collated on a map. The site came into existence as an early warning system for Kenyans to report on and to see happening  online – and to be able to avoid – ethnic fighting of the kind that erupted in early 2008.

Ushahidi started impressively: lateral thinking with a measurable gain. But excitement on its own will not proof the site against the threats which may undermine its sustainability. No law says that new platforms will always be used for good. Those Kenyan mobs were incited and organised by text messaging (just as good for organising ethnic cleansing as for fixing a cleaning rota) and by recently deregulated local radio stations. Men and women are a sociable and cooperative species, but groups, tribes and nations have dark sides too.

The closest Shirky comes to acknowledging the existence of these risks is to allow that new opportunity itself is not enough for change to be benign; the culture of a group will determined what its members can achieve together. “We need governance to create a space we can create in,” he says, “…the more a group wants to take on hard public or civic problems, the greater the internal threats of distraction or dissipation are and the stronger the norms of governance need to be.” That sounds suspiciously like the beginnings of those dread things from the over-organised, hierarchical past, institutions. The founders of political parties used just such arguments.

Shirky is not wrong that something prodigiously important is happening to human communication. Even if this book fails to capture the cause and effect of societies rewiring themselves, he is right to stress that the only solid prediction you can make about changes this big is that they will be long, slow and surprising.


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  1. > “Copywright belongs to the paper since the review was commissioned and submitted normally.”

    That would be copyRight 🙂

    > “While a newspaper has a legal right to restrict access to all of that material as one whole bundle, this can’t be the best way to go in the future … But a crude paywall stops dead this process of linking and exchange.”

    Yes, but that’s what The Times *wants* to do. It sees more economic potential in replicating the *bundle* of atoms in the world of bits than it does in continuing the struggle to profit from disaggregation.

    Who can argue? Not everyone reads news, even online, in a disaggregated fashion. There’s still value in purposeful brand – why else do people make a point of visiting the BBC News site, for example?

    Interesting to see the edits – http://www.quickdiff.com

    • Ouch! Thanks for the correction.
      I agree with you about the value of “purposeful brands” but don’t think they will operate in an exact imitation of the print paper. To work to the best possible advantage in new media as well as in print, sites like The Times will need to both have an editorial personality and identity while enriching themselves and their readers/users with interaction. My disagreement is the one-wall-fits-all approach to their intellectual property. Against their own interests in the long run.
      But this has provoked such an interesting discussion, I’ll return to it in another post soon.