The Mass Amateurization of Social Communication

In Clay Shirky’s book, Here Comes Everybody, he examines the dynamics of group organization in social, cultural, and political fields, as described in the previous post “Cooperative Frameworks.” Shirky goes beyond this notion in the proceeding chapters and explores the capabilities that new media have given to the user and the ways in which individuals have appropriated new media tools and applied it to collective action.  “Cooperative Frameworks” provides a contextual platform on which Shirky builds his next points regarding self-publishing and collective action via the Web.

As it has become glaringly clear, the effect that the Internet has had upon modern media cannot be quantized.  It has transformed society’s ability to produce, distribute, exhibit, and store information.  It has expanded vehicles of communication and has revolutionized to the point of replacing traditional institutions, such as newspapers, magazines, and even telephones.  Shirky reminds us, however, that these cannot all be categorized as triumphs—there are indeed consequences.  Take for example the publishing industry.  The detrimental affects of the Internet have quite literally led to the collapse of journalism and the print industry.  Shirky writes, “The principal threat to all newspapers small and large was not competition from other newspapers but radical changes in the overall ecosystem of information.”[1] As the use of scribes became obsolete with the onset of the printing press, the Internet has led to the decay and irrelevance of the printed word.  Traditionally, publishing was limited to an elite group of professionals—men and women who were educated in their particular field of expertise.  Journalists would seek out publishers in order to print and distribute their work.  Customarily, this breakdown of labor according to one’s specialized skill set was how the industry functioned.  The nature of professionalism depends on its scarcity and specialization in a specific field; otherwise it would be a hobby or an activity of interest.  The Internet, however, has turned this entire idea on its head.  What was once limited to a set of professionals has now been opened up to anyone who has an interest.  Shirky refers to this idea as the “mass amateurization of publishing.”[2] This suggests that anyone can produce and distribute their ideas as long as they have a computer (and sometimes this is even unnecessary— i.e., iPhone, Blackberry, etc.) and a connection to the Internet.  This technological innovation has empowered the voice of the average user, however, it has diminished the primacy of the professional.  It also begs the question of where do journalist privileges begin and end when professional specialization is eradicated?


Shirky is not simply a pessimist, however.  He does indeed highlight the advantages that this information-age has provided modern communication.  With the accessibility and flexibility of the Internet, the formulaic approach that traditional media outlets follow can be avoided.  In other words, a news station will only pick up a story if it finds that it is relevant, urgent, and/or being covered by other stations.  This greatly reduces the type and the amount of information that would attract the attention of the mainstream media.  In contrast, the Internet and weblogs cover a wider range of stories—stories that would not otherwise be covered by those traditional outlets.  Shirky calls upon the example of a comment by Trent Lott, a senator from Mississippi and figure who attracted a lot of controversy regarding a racist comment he made in reference to Strom Thurmond’s presidential campaign.  Because the mainstream media did not find Lott’s comment to be particularly pertinent, they did not cover the story, however, Lott was torn apart in Internet forums.  Because of the huge amount of attention this attracted from the weblogs, Lott ultimately apologized for his words, an apology which finally did attract the attention of mainstream outlets.  This progression of non-interest to interest is due to various factors brought about due to the Internet age and the ways in which the Internet facilitates group discussion and action:

  • The Internet made this story accessible to millions of people
  • Anyone who felt compelled to comment on the situation is able to on the site, thus becoming a producer of content (becoming both the journalist and publisher)
  • Anyone can copy and forward the story to anyone else
  • You do not have to be especially skilled in order to produce and distribute the information– “the cost of finding like-minded people has been lowered and, more important, deprofessionalized.”[3]

This example highlights the notion that it is not necessary for traditional media institutions to become involved for the story to gain notoriety or for the information to reach the population.  This would not have been possible ten years ago—today, the Internet empowers the user.  It also provides the impetus for group communication to evolve as in the case with the Lott example.  The pressure that was put on mainstream culture due to the huge volume of comments on the Internet eventually led to the traditional outlets covering the story.

Shirky shifts his attention once again to the dynamics of collaborative and collective action.  The ease of sharing of information due to technological innovations has allowed for group organization to develop much easier.  Shirky writes, “Easier and wider dissemination of information changes group awareness.”[4] Because the transaction costs of exhibiting and distributing information are near zero with the Internet and its forums, and because of the permanence of information on the Internet, groups are able to form communication on a group level much easier.  Websites and online forums are social tools that enable development of organizations—an idea that was not possible years ago.  Technology also breaks down barriers that once impeded groups being able to expand into all areas they wanted to (i.e., it breaks geographical boundaries that once limited group access).  Ultimately, Shirky suggests that these technological innovations are not the cause of groups organizing, but rather they break down the obstacles that used to hinder their development.  People can either utilize these social tools of the Internet to organize socially or politically, but whatever their goal, they are able to extend their message due to the ease of communication and group organization due to the Web.

Shirky’s video lecture, “How Social Media Can Make History,” brings all of these ideas home.  He discusses how the Internet has changed the landscape of media institutions.  Social sites such as Twitter and Facebook have provided a forum for people to display and distribute their ideas.  Specifically, he looks to parts of the world with repressive regimes—places that highly censor the information that is projected to the rest of the world—and how the Internet has provided forums in which those citizens can freely express themselves while also providing the freedom to form groups with a level of anonymity.  He calls upon the example of the earthquake in the Sichuan province of China.  Through the use of camera phones, texting and emailing, information about the quake was broadcast around the world before any official journalists had the chance to either photograph or report on the disaster.  The ease with which Chinese citizens were able to post the information along with the near nothing costs allowed for the people to move from being mere consumers to being producers of the news.  The situation between the government and the people became rather tense due to the mass amount of information that was being publicized about the mistakes of the government as well as the collective action of the people against the government who gathered in protests, however, my point in highlighting this example emphasizes the ability of the average technology consumer to take the wheel on producing, thus reversing and even replacing the roles of traditional institutions.  It also stresses the Internet’s effortless ability to provide a forum for group communication and a basis for group action.  Ultimately, technological innovations have had a tremendous impact on the media landscape.  Not only has it revolutionized traditional institutions, it has empowered the user to become both producer of content and organizer of movements, all of which would not have been possible just ten years ago.

[1] Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations, (New York: Penguin, 2008), 56.


[2] Shirky, 60.

[3] Shirky, 63.

[4] Shirky, 151.

5 responses to “The Mass Amateurization of Social Communication

  1. I didn’t include this in my post because it is sort of a side note. I work for a music publication…I have been here for two years and have loved every minute of it. It is crazy, however, to witness the rapid decline of the entire music industry – music publications included – in such a short period of time. This is clear with the collapse of the iconic Blender magazine a few months ago and the declining ad sales happening all around. As someone who has immersed myself in the entire industry for the past two years, and as someone who has had direct contact with all facets of the industry as well, it is terrifying to see these old traditional institutions being replaced by their digital counterparts. What is also interesting to note is that – in the case of music magazines – the decline of the industry is happening at a rate that even exceeds online’s ability to attract more users. In other words, even though people are choosing to find their information on the Internet versus in print, online versions of magazines aren’t attracting the attention one would think. It’s as if people are finding their information in an even more advanced way. Weblogs are beginning to make official online publications obsolete. This begs the question of how long will it be before official ONLINE publications are replaced?? It shows the modernization of communication, but it also highlights a very scary reality. Personally, it makes me really sad. I hope this does not result in the end of traditional institutions. I am okay with modernizing them, but not completely eradicating them.

  2. I have to make up media packets for my work in the morning and I came across this yesterday and thought it was relevant to this discussion regarding the limitations of mainstream media outlets and the need for greater transparency in those traditional institutions.

  3. Pingback: The Group Work That’s Wikipedia « Introduction to Digital Media

  4. Pingback: Media 180 Summer 02 | Societal Production, Mass Amateurization

  5. Pingback: Weekly Reading Insights-Week 5 | thevoiceofbarry

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