NYU’s Clay Shirky.

Clay Shirky, an intense and fast-talking adjunct professor in New York University’s graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program, explores what he likes to call “the recently possible.” He has been a partner with investment firm...

Clay Shirky, an intense and fast-talking adjunct professor in New York University’s graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program, explores what he likes to call “the recently possible.” He has been a partner with investment firm The Accelerator Group, professor of new media at Hunter College, chief technology officer with media and Web design firm Site Specific, and founder of Hard Place Theater, which staged “nonfiction” theater based on found documents. The hallway outside his office is dotted with interactive artwork and projects, including one experiment that contrasts perceptions of the familiar and the menacing by embedding RFID chips in resin bars resembling Neutrogena soaps. Here, Shirky talks about how the Internet is reshaping taste, altering the relationship between designers and consumers, and whether Saks Fifth Avenue should have a blog.

WWD: Tell us a little bit about your work.

Shirky: I think about the shape of electronic networks, and I think about the shape of social networks and how they interact. So [for example] both e-mail and IM [instant messaging] are conversation tools in an electronic medium. But the kinds of conversations you have in them are radically different. Partly they’re different because the technology is different and partly they’re different because we then layer all these social expectations on top of them, where we expect e-mail to be relatively persistent and IM to be relatively quick in part because of what we’re used to from the phone. So I look for places where those things are interacting, the relationship between what the electronic network is technically capable of and what people’s expectations and use patterns bring to it.

WWD: And your students are also doing projects along those lines?

Shirky: Yes, the production class I teach is called Social Software, and students get together in groups and they build software that supports group interaction. And ITP is fantastic for that because it’s — this place is like the center for the study of the recently possible.

WWD: The recently possible?

Shirky: Yeah, things like technical possibility that exists in the world but nobody’s quite closed the switch on yet. [Like] oh, we could put a Linux box in an old 1981-style ghetto blaster and turn that into a wi-fi [wireless] version of Napster. Well, yeah, you could do that. No one’s done that yet, let’s go.

This story first appeared in the February 15, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

WWD: Did someone do that?

Shirky: They bought a ghetto blaster on eBay, they gutted it, they put a wireless computer in there, and it became a thing that when you set it down people could upload their music and play it and then other people could vote on what music to play so it was like this emergent jukebox.

WWD: Wow.

Shirky: I was just looking at an application for a prospective student who is using social networking as a way to find shared musical interests [whatcharockin.com]. It’s the old collaborative filtering idea from Ringo [and] Firefly [only] now the social component is being made not just explicit but exposed, so you use other people’s taste to find music you like and not just that, but you use other people’s taste to find people you might like. It changed the way tastemaking is done because suddenly you don’t need an official source of novelty anymore.

WWD: I was recently at an e-commerce conference, and there was a lot of talk about social networking sites like Friendster that let users post profiles and link to each other and see how they’re connected. Overstock launched its auction site with a social networking component. Where do you think social networking is going?

Shirky: There’s a guy at MIT [professor Eric Von Hippel] who does work on user innovation networks. He said open source software [such as the Linux operating system, which can be used and improved by any programmer] is really interesting, but is it just software, can you only do that kind of thing with source code, or is this an example of a larger pattern? So he started looking for other places where users working in a literal network rather than in a hierarchical pyramid would nevertheless create value. And what he found was extreme sports. A huge number of innovations in extreme sports have come from the bottom up, from people modifying skateboards on their own and then skateboard companies picking it up. So one of the places social networking and commerce might go is your customers might also become your designers. Or they might also become your competitors.

WWD: Do customers always know what they want? Or can they articulate it?

Shirky: For a design-driven industry it’s a big conundrum because on one hand consumers don’t know what to buy until they’re shown it. Usability tends toward involving the customer in building what they want. Design tends toward showing them what they should want. What Von Hippel is saying is that involving people in the kind of design choices of their own life can move further upstream than currently anyone imagines. But only if it’s done in the context of a social network. It’s not about nominating expert designers who are avatars of the whole field, but rather taking the little intuitions from hundreds or dozens at a time among self-interested groups of users who are not experts in specific ways but who in aggregate make better choices or at least more potentially more commercially viable choices. And this is the thing, that on some level the advertising industry, the movie business, the fashion industry all have this weird characteristic of being simultaneously utterly driven at the bottom line by popularity and having to find ways to allow creative minds to continually break relatively traditional molds in order to show people new things that they might like. And it’s a tension that’s always existed.

WWD: Are there any examples of social networking combined with e-commerce that you like?

Shirky: Tribe is interesting. It’s a social networking service but it’s the first one to explicitly introduce the idea of group organization. There’s a lot of gear recommendations, but it’s not set up for that, that just kind of happens along the way. One of the really interesting kind of proto versions of this is people just recommending Amazon books on their weblogs and making Amazon referral money. Because in a way if the social premium of human interaction is the bigger deal, and I think it is, and the shopping is a piece of the socializing instead of the other way around, then the upper hand goes to people who are integrating commerce into social networking rather than the other way round. Which is to say you could potentially view the social network as a storefront and then just pick among the stores you want to point to rather than…

WWD: You mean start with Friendster and have Friendster link to Amazon so people can see your profile in Friendster and what you wrote in Amazon?

Shirky: Yeah.

WWD: That would be cool.

Shirky: You could do a book group that way. Here’s our book group and every month we’re going to pick a book and we’re going to vote on the book and it’s just, by the way, if you happen to go to Amazon or Barnes & Noble or whatever to get the book, but the picking and getting of the thing is not the big deal. The book group is the big deal. The purchase of the book is relatively ancillary.

WWD: Around 1996 or so, we were always hearing about community attached to e-commerce and it was going to be a big thing. Is that just completely dead now?

Shirky: It’s come and gone several times because people recognize that no matter what visions we sell of [the computer], anytime we ask users what they actually do with it, some version of talking to other people is the number-one use. And everyone has hated that. And the history of that mistake is 20 or 25 years old. Prodigy famously in the Eighties was set up as a shopping site. Everybody used IM. Nobody went to the online Sears store to shop — because it was cofounded by Sears — and so what did they do? They shut down IM. So then people switched to e-mail, which was a quick enough delivery that it was a relatively synchronous conversation. So what did they do? They intentionally slowed down the delivery of e-mail. They [had] priced the thing in such a way that they assumed people were going to shop, and then when people weren’t shopping, they tried to force them. And it ended up destroying their service and sending most of their users to AOL.

WWD: That’s a great story.

Shirky: It’s the shopping mistake that people make all the time, but the idea that people are going to build a community around your products is basically wrong, except in the case of truly deeply cult brands like Harley Davidson.

WWD: There’s also a lot of talk now about blogs on corporate Web sites. But the whole idea of blogs originally was sort of unmediated authenticity. So is there a contradiction between having a blog and being a corporation running an e-commerce site?

Shirky: No, no, no.

WWD: Do you want to be Saks Fifth Avenue and have a blog?

Shirky: The commercialization of the media has only to do with the commercial intent of the people running it. Nick Denton [publisher of Gawker] is making serious bank running a group of weblogs. So the idea that there’s got to be any kind of voluntary purity is insane and self-deluding. That having been said, the medium does something well. One of the things it does do well is timeliness and informality. It’s not clear that Saks benefits from an informal conversation. Formality is part of going to Saks.

WWD: Do you see a connection between social networking and fashion?

Shirky: Sure. The crazy thing about all this technology is that technologists are coming at stuff that’s utterly core to human experience, so in a way it’s this crazy mix of new and completely ancient, and you know at any level of that stack you can look at that and find those points where the way people arrange their home page is very much like getting dressed for a date. They’re constantly fussing and this and that and is the profile working and I’m adding and I’m taking away. You know, that old “always take one accessory off before you leave the house” thing? Oh, I’m going to take that down, I don’t want people to know that I like Cyndi Lauper or whatever. So there’s that kind of — it’s public presentation, but in this other way. It’s getting dressed online. But then there’s also a big part of fashion that is “what are people doing now?” It’s the trend side. Fashion is built on shared awareness. Anything that changes shared awareness changes fashion.

WWD: What recent technological developments do you think are important?

Shirky: One really profound thing we haven’t talked about that is so profound is the camera, the digital camera, particularly the digital camera phone. Because the students at ITP are documenting each other all the time. There’s this constant stream of photos of people: We’re at the bar, we just got out of class, there’s a whole series of people taking naps on the red couch [outside Shirky’s office]. And cameras have just gotten good enough and easy enough and there are enough third-party services that actually do photo sharing well enough for people watching fashion trends — you know that thing they do in the Style section where everybody’s wearing black boots this week? You could do that now on Flickr with no photo editor. You could just go on Flickr until you found enough of those photos and you could put together your own version of that. Inasmuch as people are interested in what one another are wearing — in the non-hitting-on-you-in-IM way —  the ubiquity of cameras and the presence of cameras as a bottom-up phenomenon is going to also be fairly profound. So.