Clay Shirky rolled into town yesterday, giving a lunchtime lecture to a packed house down at the RSA on his new book Here Comes Everybody.
It’s about how online crowds form and act, but the title could have adequately described the packed auditorium; the gang was all there, as many techie, socialie, liberal-artsie types as you could shake a stick at. It was particularly fun to see a vast number of friendly faces from my years working on the Guardian’s tech section. “Shouts out”, as I think the youngsters like to say these days, to Vic Keegan, Sean Dodson, Jim McLellan, and Pat Kane. There were I’m sure, others.
Given the sheer heft of blogging power in the room, I’ll leave reporting what Shirky actually said to others.
But I will note how Shirky said what he said. It is a rare talent, I think, to wear your learning lightly, especially around that intersection of the social sciences and new media. Maybe it’s because this is such a new area, and we’re still evolving the language to discuss it. Maybe it’s because some of the early practitioners feel they’ve got to baffle their audiences to earn their respect (or paper over the cracks).
Either way, it’s not unusual to hear people speaking (or writing) about this area struggling to make themselves clear or, even worse, not really trying. Even some of the questions asked after Shirky’s initial talk rather lost themselves – and they were only a few sentences long.
Shirky, however, was superb, illuminating his theories with three sharp stories, a measure of wit, and an absence of conceit. His thought is, I’m sure, complex and brilliant and the result of years’ experience and mulling. It’s just he left us to work that brilliance out, rather than rubbing our noses in it, screaming “admire the elegance of my societal observations, you fools!” It made for a far more enjoyable lunchtime, and I’m sure his book will be all the better for it too.
His slick, easy way is quite a talent – but what is it born of? Practice, I’m sure, but maybe also coming from the US? Our American cousins seem, certainly, to do this better, at least in this area. Maybe it’s just that country has such a lead in this specialism. Maybe there’s something in the water. Maybe they set greater stock in expressing themselves in a clear way (or recognise the rewards of doing so).
Either way, it’s quite a talent to talk about complex stuff like that for an hour and hold the attention of a packed room. I hope it inspires others to try out his style.