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

Social Computing in Student Populations

Shortly after I sold my company (I was the Chief Technology Officer of a Web design firm in Manhattan's Silicon Alley), Hunter College hired me to teach classes in Web design and uses of the Internet. One of the first things I did while setting up my lab was to drag an old computer into the hall outside my office, connect it to the Internet, and give students unfettered access to it. My thought was to bring the students into the present -- little did I know that they would show me the future.

For a few years now, there has been a deathwatch for the personal computer. It is an article of faith in much of my industry that every 15 years or so sees a major shift in computing hardware, and since the PC supplanted the mainframe in the early 80s, it's time, or so the thinking goes, for the PC in turn to give way to the "Next Big Thing", as these shifts are sometimes jokingly called.

That shift is happening today -- I can see it in the way my students are using the computer outside my office door -- but unlike the previous revolution, this change is not about hardware but about patterns of use. The age of the personal computer is ending because computers are no longer personal, they're social. My students are using the Web not just as a research tool but as a way to communicate with one another and to organize their lives. Web-based email, from companies like Hotmail and Yahoo, forms the center of their computer use; they use it for everything from communicating with professors to keeping in touch with family overseas to organizing forays to the pizza parlor.

Furthermore, they're not just using computers to run their social lives; they've begun to treat computers themselves as social objects, like phones. If you need to check your voice mail, it doesn't matter to you what phone you use; any phone with an outside line is the same as any other. Even if its someone else's phone, and they've programmed the speed dialer to suit themselves, you can still use it to get to your messages. In the same way, any computer with an "outside line" to the Internet is as good as any other for checking email, even if someone else owns that computer and they've got their own programs on the hard drive. From my students' point of view, a computer is merely a way to get access to their stuff (email, web syllabi, online research, et al.) rather than being a place to store their stuff. Hotmail wins over Eudora because with web-based email, they can get their mail from any computer they happen to be at, whether they own it or not.

This seemingly minor change has major ramifications for academic uses of computers. If a computer is for access to a network and not for storage or local computation, then the definition of a "good" computer changes. Any computer connected to the Internet is as good as any other computer connected to the Internet, and any computer not connected to the Internet is no good at all. Furthermore, the impact on student use is enormous. If computers are social objects like phones are, then any computer is their computer as long as their hands are on the keyboard. This is the real demise of the "personal" computer - many of my students don't have their own computers, but that doesn't stop them from running their lives via email.

This isn't just a question of affordability - the PC is coming unglued in many academic environments. An affluent student who has more than one computer has given up on the idea of the "personal" computer just as surely as the student who decides not to buy a computer at all. A student on a wired campus, with computers in the classroom and the dorm room, sooner or later realizes that it is easier to save their work on the network or email it to themselves than to carry disks or even laptops back and forth. Even faculty, usually the people with the most computing power on their desks, are seeing Web-accessible research and email discussion lists become as much a part of their academic work as the data stored on their hard drive.

The personal has been taken out of the personal computer because the Internet has transformed computing into a social activity. With email from Hotmail, a free home page from Geocities, a personalized news page from, there is no need to own your own computer, lug a laptop from place to place, or pay $20 a month for Internet access. Computing is where you find it -- campus labs, work, an Internet cafe -- and the guts of any individual computer become unimportant. The old Macintosh vs. Windows debate is meaningless if they both run Netscape, since social computing turns the browser into the operating system and the Internet into the hard drive.

Looking at my students instinctive sense of network use, I've boiled the elements of social computing down into three basic principles:

  • Hardware is Boring.

    Who cares what kind of computer you have? The old concerns of the PC era - which operating system, what CPU speed, how much RAM - have been replaced by the concerns of connection - dial-up or ethernet, which connect speed, what browser version. If all hardware can connect, each individual piece is less important.

    Imagine that your institution plans to upgrade your computer, but that you have to choose: you can have either double the speed of your CPU, or double the speed of your Internet connection. Which would you choose?
  • Computers are for Finding, not Keeping.

    Finding new information is more important than storing old information. A computer with a CD-ROM drive only becomes more valuable when you spend the time and money to buy a new CD, while a computer with network access becomes more valuable every time someone creates a new web site, which happens several times a day, for free. Computers used for keeping information lose value over time, as the information on them goes out of date. Computers used for finding information increase in value over time, as the breadth and depth of the accessible information increases with no additional investment.

    Imagine another choice: your institution will pay to quadruple the size of your hard drive, so you can store more stuff locally, or pay for you to get access to the online archives of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Encyclopedia Brittanica. Which would you choose?
  • Information Leaks Out of its Containers.

    Information can no longer be trapped in objects. Multi-media is leaking out of CD-ROMs and into Web sites, music is leaking out of CDs and into Internet radio, text is leaking out of books and into online databases. At first, online academic materials were simply additions to existing research infrastructure, but they are starting to replace, rather than augment, traditional methods: MIT's Sloan School of Business now only accepts electronic applications, and 1998 is the last year that Encyclopedia Brittanica will publish a paper edition.

    A third choice: imagine that your next computer can have either a CD-ROM drive or a connection to the Internet, but not both. Which would you choose?
    You may not face choices as stark as the ones outlined above, but your students do. Lacking an office, living on a budget, possibly balancing work and school, they will gravitate towards social computing wherever possible. Why spend money if they don't have to? Why pay for a fast CPU if they have a slow modem, why pay for a large disk drive if TIME magazine stores all their articles online, why pay for a CD-ROM if the same material exists on the Web?

    The changes in a campus are which embraces social computing are far-reaching. Computers become less a product than a service, less an occasional and expensive purchase like office furniture, and more a steady stream of small purchases, like office supplies. PCs wither and networks bloom, and value is created by access instead of ownership. Anyone who has done the math for a 'one computer per student' policy sees millions of dollars tied up in machines that are unused most of the day, and that's when the student body is affluent enough to afford such a requirement. For a student body already straining to meet tuition, the idea of personal computing is an absurdity, but social computing is not.

    If hardware is boring, then homogeneity of computing resources becomes unimportant. With the browser as the interface and the Internet as the hard drive, the differences between a 486 running Linux and a Pentium II running Windows 98 shrink in importance, and instead of a massive overhaul of computer labs every 3-5 years, it becomes possible to replace 20% of the machines annually. This takes advantage of continually rising quality and falling cost, raises the quality of the average machine every year, eliminates the problem of wheezing equipment at the tail end of a "complete replacement" cycle, and frees up low-end machines for use as hallway terminals or print servers as a side-effect.

    If computers are for finding instead of keeping, then then the role of the librarian changes drastically. With a computer as a finding tool, every library suddenly acquires a rapidly expanding global collection. Librarians will be increasingly freed from the part of their job that turns them into literate janitors, constantly reshelving paperback copies of The Iliad, while returning to their roles as taxonomists and sleuths, guiding students to useful resources and teaching them how to separate the good from the mediocre.

    If information leaks out of objects, then every professor becomes a publisher, and the separation between the classroom lecture and the textbook begins to fade. "Handouts" handed out over the web spare faculty the trip to the copy center (and the attendant cost), online syllabi don't get out of date because the URL always points to the most recent copy, and one semester's preparation means less editing to make it ready for future classes. An entire textbook can be built up online, one lecture at a time, and tested in the real world before it is published, rather than after.

    For us as members of the faculty, staff and administration of colleges and universities, the ramifications of the rise in social computing are clear. The amount of money and effort it takes for a "One personal computer per student" program puts it out of the reach of many institutions and many student bodies even as access to the Internet is becoming increasingly critical for both academic work and social life on college campuses. The rise in socal computing suggests a way to bridge that gap, by providing the advantages of access without the overhead of ownership.

    Our students are gravitating towards the Internet, using it in ways that aren't intuitive for those of us still using personal computers. They will tend to prefer connectivity over storage and accessibility over raw processing power. If we aren't sensitive to their preference for cheaper computers out where they can use them rather than expensive computers under lock and key, we will end up misallocating precious resources in ways that aren't in our students best interests, or, ultimately, in our own.

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    Economics and Culture, Media and Community, Open Source