Give It Away And See What Comes Back To You

by | Jan 17, 2005

Clay Shirky makes some interesting points about web publishing…

Mass amateurization is the web’s normal pattern. Travelocity doesn’t make everyone a travel agent. It undermines the value of being travel agent at all, by fixing the inefficiencies travel agents are paid to overcome one booking at a time. Weblogs fix the inefficiencies traditional publishers are paid to overcome one book at a time, and in a world where publishing is that efficient, it is no longer an activity worth paying for.

Traditional publishing creates value in two ways. The first is intrinsic: it takes real work to publish anything in print, and more work to store, ship, and sell it. Because the up-front costs are large, and because each additional copy generates some additional cost, the number of potential publishers is limited to organizations prepared to support these costs. (These are barriers to entry.) And since it’s most efficient to distribute those costs over the widest possible audience, big publishers will outperform little ones. (These are economies of scale.) The cost of print insures that there will be a small number of publishers, and of those, the big ones will have a disproportionately large market share.

Weblogs destroy this intrinsic value, because they are a platform for the unlimited reproduction and distribution of the written word, for a low and fixed cost. No barriers to entry, no economies of scale, no limits on supply.

But the vast majority of weblogs are amateur and will stay amateur, because a medium where someone can publish globally for no cost is ideal for those who do it for the love of the thing. Rather than spawning a million micro-publishing empires, weblogs are becoming a vast and diffuse cocktail party, where most address not “the masses” but a small circle of readers, usually friends and colleagues. This is mass amateurization, and it points to a world where participating in the conversation is its own reward.