, 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
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
"The way we figure it, why _wouldn't_ users adopt our
?" (Same reason they don't use
"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
"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
"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,
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
with questions or comments.