Shirky: Problem is filter failure, not info overload

NYU new-media professor Clay Shirky accurately describes the problem of information overload in Internet economics by focusing on the real problem: filter failure.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
2 min read

I didn't attend the Web 2.0 Expo in New York last year, and so the exceptional keynote speech of Clay Shirky, a New York University new-media professor, writer, and consultant on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies.

The keynote, "It's not information overload. It's filter failure," is an insightful exploration of Internet economics and an intelligent response to Nick Carr's "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" argument.

If you haven't watched it, you must. It does more to explain the dearth of effective information filters that we wade through today. It has application to open source (180,000-plus projects on SourceForge, but which are useful?), but far broader implications.

You can watch it here:

But here is where he lays out the crux of the problem, which I've transcribed:

The other problem that Gutenberg introduced into intellectual life was the problem of risk. If you owned a printing press, you could make money, if people bought your books, but you could lose money if people (didn't) buy your books. And since you had to print the books in advance, you were taking on all the risk of whether or not those books would sell....This is the problem of publishing.

The economic solution was pretty simple: make the publisher responsible for filtering for quality. There's no obvious reason that someone (who) is good at running a printing press also ought to be good at figuring out (which) books to print.

But the economic logic of print in advance, then sell it--high up-front cost and then recoup when you reach the people--that economic logic has come to mean that the word "publisher" has come to mean two things: people who decide what to publish and people who do the publishing.

(All of the media revolutions since Gutenberg have the same characteristic:) It cost me a lot of money to get started. And so (publishers) had to filter for quality.

Here's what the Internet did: it introduced, for the first time, post-Gutenberg economics. The cost of producing anything by anyone has fallen through the floor. And so there's no economic logic that says that you have to filter for quality before you publish...The filter for quality is now way downstream of the site of production.

What we're dealing with now is not the problem of information overload, because we're always dealing (and always have been dealing) with information overload...Thinking about information overload isn't accurately describing the problem; thinking about filter failure is.

I think there's a billion-dollar business resident in Shirky's thoughts, business that Google is missing with its focus on "search." The best emphasis should be on "finding," not searching. The need is for filters of a more refined, catered kind.