Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source


One of my responsibilities as CTO of a New York new media agency is to evaluate new networking technologies - new browsers, new tools, new business models - in order to determine where my company should be focussing its energies in the distant future. (Like May.). The good part of that job is free t-shirts. The bad part is having to read the press releases in order to figure out what's being offered:

"Our company has a totally unique and unprecedentedly original proprietary product which will transform the Internet as we know it. If you don't get in on the ground floor, you will be tossed into the nether darkness of network anachronism where demons will feast on your flesh. Expected out of alpha in the mumbleth quarter of next year, our product, Net:Web-Matrix@Thing, will ..."

Faced with the growing pile of these jewels of clarity on my desk, I realized that I could spend all my time trying to evaluate new technologies and still only be making (barely) educated guesses. What I needed was a set of principles to use to sort the wheat from the chaff, principles which take more account of what users on the network actually spend their time doing instead of what new media marketers want them to be doing. So, without further ado, I present my modest little list, "Clay Shirky's Five Rules For Figuring Out When Networking Marketers Are Blowing Smoke."

RULE #1: Don't Believe the Hype.

This could also be called the "Everything New is Old Again" rule. The network we know and love is decades old, and the research which made it possible is older still. Despite the cult of newness which is surrounding the Internet, the Web, and all their cousins right now, the engines which drive the network change very slowly. Only the dashboards change quickly.

Changing the way networking works is a complex business. Events which alter everything which comes after them (a paradigm shift, to quote Thomas Kuhn) are few and far between. The invention of DARPANet was a paradigm shift. The deployment of TCP/IP was a paradigm shift. The original NCSA Mosaic may even turn out to be a paradigm shift. The launch of Netscape Navigator 4.0 for Macintosh will not be a paradigm shift, no matter how many t-shirts they give out.

Right now, the only two big ideas in networking are the use of a browser as an interface to the network, and the use of distributable object-oriented programs on virtual machines. Everything else is a detail, either some refinement of one of those two ideas (the much-hyped Active Desktop is a browser that looks at the local disk as well) or a refinement of something that has gone before (the Network Computer is Sun's "diskless workstation" ten year later). We will spend the next few years just digesting those two big ideas - everyone else, no matter what their press releases say, is just helping us color inside the lines.

RULE #2: Trust the "Would I use it?" Test.

The first question to ask yourself when looking at new technology is not "Will it run on my server?" but rather "Would I use it?"

I once saw a demo of a product whose sole function was to accompanying the user around the Web, showing them extra ads while taking up more screen space. The sales rep was taking great pains to point out that if you charged 2 cents an ad, you could collect $20 per thousand ads served. While this certainly comported with what I remember about multiplication, I was much more interested to know why he thought people would tolerate this intrusion. He never got around to explaining that part, and I considered it rude to ask.

We already know what people using networks want: they want to do what they do now, only cheaper, or faster, or both. They want to do more interesting stuff than they do now, for the same amount of money. They strongly prefer open systems to closed ones. They strongly prefer open standards to proprietary ones. They will accept ads if thats what pays for interesting stuff. They want to play games, look at people in various states of undress, read the news, follow sports scores or the weather, and most of all they want to communicate with one another.

Beware any product which claims that people would prefer information to communication, any service which claims that people will choose closed systems over open ones, and any protocol which claims that people will tolerate incompatibility to gain features. Any idea for a networking service which does not satisfy some basic desire of network users is doomed to fail.

RULE #3: Don't Confuse Their Ideas With Your Ideas

A time-honored marketing tool for sidespepping criticism is to make ridiculous assertions with enough confidence that people come to believe them. The best possible antidote for this is to simply keep a running rebuttal going in your head while someone is telling you why network users are going to flock to their particular product.

What follows is a list of things I have actually heard marketers say to me in all seriousness. Anyone saying anything like this is not to be trusted with anything more technological than a garage door opener:

"The way we figure it, why _wouldn't_ users adopt our ?" (Same reason they don't use LotusNotes.)

"We're a year ahead of the competition." (Nope.)

"The way we figure it, why _wouldn't_ users be willing to register a name and password with us?" (Because they already can't remember their other 17 8-character-mix-of-letters-and-numbers passwords.)

"We don't have any competition." (Then you don't have a market.)

"The way we figure it, why _wouldn't_ users subscribe to ?" (Because they can get better for free elsewhere.)

"If you get everyone in your organization to adopt our product all at once, then you won't need compatibility with your current tools." (That's the way Communism was supposed to work, too.)

RULE #4: Information Wants to be Cheap.

Information has been decoupled from objects. Forever. Newspaper companies are having to learn to separate news from paper; CD-ROM companies are having to choose between being multi-media producers and vendors of plastic circles. Like the rise of written text displacing the oral tradition, the separation of data from its containers will never be reversed.

With the Internet, the incremental cost of storing and distributing information is zero: once a Web server is up, serving 10,000 pages costs no more than serving 1000 pages. Network users recognize this, even if they can't articulate it directly, and behave accordingly.

Anyone who is basing their plans on the willingness of network users to pay for electronic information in the same way that they now pay for physical objects like CDs and books will fail. Many Web-based services have tried to get users to pay for pretend scarcity, as if downloading information should be treated no differently from printing, shipping, storing, displaying and selling physical objects offline. People will pay for point of view, timely information, or the imprimatur of expertise. They will not pay for simply repackaging information from other sources (they can now do that themselves) or for the inefficient business practices bred by the costs of packaging.

RULE #5: Its the Economy, Stupid.

The future of the network will be driven by the economy - not the economy of dollars and cents, but the economy of millions of users acting to maximize their preferences.

Technology is not the network, technology is just how the network works. The network itself is made up of the people who use it, and because of its ability to instantly link up people separated by distance but joined in outlook, it is the best tool for focussing group endeavors the world has ever seen.

This ability of groups to form or change in a moment creates a fluid economy of personal preference: Individual choices are featherweight when considered alone, but in cumulative effect they are an unstoppable force. Anyone trying to control people's access to information these days has learned this lesson, often painfully. Prodigy, the Serbian Government, and the Church of Scientology all have this in common - when they decided that they could unilaterally deny people certain kinds of information, they found that the networks made this kind of control impossible.

The economics of personal preference will shape the network for the forseeable future. Online services will wither unless they offer some value over what the Internet itself offers. Network phones will proliferate despite the attempts of long-distance companies to stifle them. "Groupware" programs will embrace open standards or die. The economics which will guide the network will be based on what users want to buy, not on what marketers want to sell.

These rules have been around the world 9 times. Don't break the chain! If you remember these rules, you will be able to ward off some of the unbearable hype currently surrounding the unveiling of every two-bit Java animation program and Web server add-on, all while keeping on top of the real user-driven forces shaping the network. If, on the other hand, you fail to remember these rules, demons will feast on your flesh.

I am actively seeking feedback on this essay. Please mail me at with questions or comments. Home Clay Shirky's Writings About the Internet
Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source