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Summary:

Clay Shirky says large media entities are like ancient societies such as the Mayans and the Romans, in that they have grown so complex that they are no longer able to function in any other way. The media theorist says that could cause their eventual collapse.

Clay Shirky doesn’t write a lot — he’s averaged about one post every two months over the past year — but when he does write something, it’s usually well worth reading. His latest looks at what the media theorist calls “The Collapse of Complex Business Models.” In a nutshell, Shirky draws a comparison between the theories of anthropologist Joseph Tainter — who wrote about why ancient societies such as the Romans or the Mayans suddenly collapsed, despite having achieved high levels of sophistication — and the current state of the mainstream media. Need a hint? It’s not good.

I always thought that the collapse of the ancient Mayan civilization had something to do with inventing basketball, but it’s possible that I’m confused about that. In any case, Tainter’s theory is that most of these civilizations collapsed not in spite of their sophistication and complexity but because of it. As Shirky describes it:

When societies fail to respond to reduced circumstances through orderly downsizing, it isn’t because they don’t want to, it’s because they can’t. In such systems, there is no way to make things a little bit simpler – the whole edifice becomes a huge, interlocking system not readily amenable to change.

The comparison between these societies and modern media giants is obvious: both are large, sophisticated and complex — and incapable of behaving in any other way. So when media leaders such as Barry Diller, Steven Brill and Rupert Murdoch say that readers and viewers will have to pay them for their content, Shirky says, what they really mean is:

“Web users will have to pay for what they watch and use, or else we will have to stop making content in the costly and complex way we have grown accustomed to making it. And we don’t know how to do that.”

Some might take issue with Shirky drawing a comparison between an entire civilization and a specific industry like the media, but I think his point is well taken — regardless of whether it is sociologically proper — because it focuses on the one thing that has kept traditional media entities from adapting more quickly.

Although I’ve argued that having the desire to change is one of the most fundamental things required for successful adaptation by media entities, the reality is that the single biggest barrier to doing so is the sheer size of most media organizations, and the bureaucratic inertia that comes with that — as was eloquently expressed yesterday in this tweet from Patrick Laforge of the New York Times.

Suggesting that the New York Times or the Washington Post — or any other traditional media outlet — should suddenly transform itself into an online-focused or web-first publication is a little like telling Wal-Mart that it should transform itself into Craigslist, or telling a plesiosaur to hurry up and grow legs already. There may be no way to get there from here. The obvious implication is that the Christian Science Monitor and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer may have taken the only functional approach to the problem: namely, shut down print altogether and become web-only. As Marc Andreessen put it recently, more media entities may need to burn the boats.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user KM&G Morris

  1. Spot on. Free is not a sustainable business model. As systems become more “entropic” (chaotic) they will have to evolve or collapse.

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  2. Media communications have always adapted the new technology.
    When papyrus became available carving in stone was no longer required.
    When newspapers became available at affordable prices, the town announcer was no longer needed.
    It is just the survival of the fittest technology.

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  3. Yes, thats what I posted to my blog too http://people20.blogspot.com ; actually that just will happen not just to media , but to software and all kinds of services too.
    Also : http://people20.blogspot.com/2010/04/fedex-ups-etc-using-internet.html

    Fedex, UPS, DHL, USPS etc: Using internet communications (email, instant message, phone) to successfully deliver parcels at first delivery attempt

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  4. I do enjoy reading Shirky; always gets me thinking.

    You’re off on one detail here, Matt, and it’s an important one: the Christian Science Monitor did not stop publishing in print! It went “Web first,” ceasing daily print runs, but continues to put out a quality weekly edition.

    As a recent interview with the editor of the Christian Science Monitor explained: ” the Monitor decided to kill its century-old daily print edition in favor of a weekly magazine that focused more on features and analysis than news.”

    John Yemma’s lessons learned were instructive and relevant to Shirky’s points:

    A year ago, we ceased publishing the daily, 100-year-old Christian Science Monitor newspaper and launched a weekly magazine to complement our website, on which we doubled down by reorienting our newsroom to be web-first. Our web traffic climbed from 6 million page views last April to 13 million in February. Our print circulation rose from 43,000 to 77,000 in the same period.

    What we’re learning is that the key to building and keeping traffic is far more prosaic than multimedia and sharing buttons. It rests on overcoming a huge cultural barrier: evolving a serious, experienced, thoughtful newsroom into an audience-first organization. I use the term “evolving” because this is all about the present tense. Trying to understand our current and future audience is a work in progress that will continue for as long as we publish on the web.

    As Yemme’s comments reveal, it’s not just a matter of technology, bureaucracy or legacy structure that news orgs have to evolve beyond: it’s culture. Many editors and journalists do “get it.” It remains to be seen whether the complexity of these systems allows those voices to shape the organization towards a simplicity and revenue model that allow them to survive.

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    1. Thanks, digiphile — you are quite right that the Christian Science Monitor continues to publish a print edition, although I don’t think that changes the terms of my argument (if anything it solidifies it). And you are also right that John Yemma’s comments about the lessons learned there are well worth reading.

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  5. Great post! Though I felt Shirky’s post was, needlessly complex. Rather than comparing media to ancient (complex) civilizations, I think the dinosaur metaphor is far more apt (and what I use on my site).
    There are 2 clear issues. One is that the entire ecosystem than enabled [newspapers] to grow and thrive is itself dying (and new shrew-like creatures, such as the gigaom.com’s of the world, are devouring their eggs, hurrying their extinction).

    Another issue you hit dead on: the desire. If you are a big powerful feared/respected dinosaur, it’s simply not in your DNA to give that up and evolve into something completely different.

    And it’s why the iPad, which I love, will not save these media dinosaurs.

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    1. Totally agree — thanks for the comment, Brian.

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  6. Matthew

    Lovely little piece here. Thanks for making it so I don’t have to read all of Shirky’s latest. Though I probably will anyway. I think you could have just blown this piece up a bit though and talked about even larger institutions in our society, namely government. Our state, local and federal governments have also reached a point of complexity and bureaucratic Orwellian-ness that prohibits them from operating efficiently, from changing when they need to in order to match wider cultural trends in the people they represent.

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    1. Thanks, Zachary. I think you are right that the complexity problem Tainter wrote about and Shirky referenced could also be applied to many other things, including government.

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  7. All complex systems are finite

    Chaotic (complex) systems contrary to popular believe are quite stable. Otherwise one would not be able to read this, ones brain is really a electro chemical mess(compared to the nice behavior of a computer for example). The problem is, humans are not that smart. Instead to create complex systems in complex systems, and take it if some subsystem fails. We tent to create one system and try to apply one set of rules to all, my guess is our love for hierarchical structures gets in the way. So our complex systems tent to collapse earlier then they have to.

    Also contrary to the medias believe the larger system(society) will go on if they fail, since that system is thankfully decoupled from the media. We now have the communication means to hopefully not fall for the next hierarchical organizer of society (I hope), which would have not been possible in the early days of media. Seems like companies are not there yet.

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  8. Artruro Jayson Saturday, April 3, 2010

    Except that the Mayans didn’t collapse, unlike the Romans. They turned into a military spy superpower and use the word America; publicly adopted the English and Spanish languages, but never truly make it official, because they come from strategic island and inland empires that did fall to them; and are all around us right, left and center, from George Washington to J. Edgar Hoover, and the legions who follow. Even their census, factbooks and history are kept as private as a blank Google map.

    America is the complete reversed inside-out antithesis of China and their ownership stake on the Eurasian land mass, and they won the last cold war and are winning this one, which to them are the same constant state of politik and dynamic adoption of standards of measurement and communication. Winning conflicts cold first was how they always fought them.

    They are also not a democracy, but publicly a form of a republic. What happens publicly and in the media eye does not reflect what actually happens and what actually is the case.

    His interpretation of America is more of a Hollywood disaster movie made by those media barons. If the media barons work against America, or they redirect their interests, then America has other ways to fill that space. But America only does it so it profits from it in the sense that it gets ahead.

    Americas nature is to be constantly unconstant. If the other side of the planet, us, do not try to keep up then they win again.

    How communication is changing and will change, and how it serves them and how they own it, is only their latest dynamic. It is not so much a change as a way things get done.

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  9. I’ve been reading and writing a little about this topic for a few months. It’s not far off from the disruption that startups make possible by forcibly adapting our markets. Our society will shift towards a more dynamic format, through none other than the concept of cheap disposable resilience. The complexity self balance will emerge from a massive series of interconnecting nodes, weaving a more resilient system.

    The current financial, social, and political models need the help of a more adaptive underlying network.

    Hey that’s my 2 cents, but what do I know ;)

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  10. Whoops runaway a HREF in there, sorry.

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