Clay Shirky is the Adlai Stevenson of Team RSS. Maybe Adlai couldn't elect his way out of a paper bag, but when the chips were down he made the case with elegance, intelligence, and iron. No 16 word retractions for him, were there? As Dean of Social Software (uh, Morse Science High) Clay has lent a sense of fractal form and structure to the swirling chaos of intersecting disruptive technologies.
As a B- student with a major in extra-curricular activities, I've always admired your intellect but recoiled a bit from the analytic nature of your work as I told Clay in email recently.
But now, I continued, you're actively engaged at the heart of the conversation, and given the nature of the RSS struggle, your insights couldn't come at a better time. For me, something had changed.
The best evidence was Clay's ETcon keynote, A Group is its Own Worst Enemy. I've been interested in this sort of problem since the early 90s, and have been after it in a serious way for the last couple of years, Clay told me, but I've seen so many people talking shit about community' and the like that I wanted to do the analytic stuff first -- literature review, a better understanding of issues like scale and constitutions, and a couple of other things -- so my early writings were all analytic, as ways of working that stuff out.
Clay continued: I was really conscious, preparing that speech, that it was the first time I was going out in public with qualitative assertions. It's easy to say "The graph of weblogs by rank order of inbound links looks like this." It's a lot harder to say "Slashdot works because of this messy-but-stable isometric mix of social factors," but of course that's the sort of assertion that really matters.
I've looked through the speech, trying to find the core fractal excerpt that would encapsulate its essence. The closest I came is this:
What matters is, a group designed this and then was unable, in the context they'd set up, partly a technical and partly a social context, to save it from this attack from within.
And from Niagara Falls all Over Again by Elizabeth McCracken:
When the straight man hears a certain set of unlikely words, he gets hypnotized and violent. He repeats the phrase in a strangled voice, and then he beats the comic. Then somehow the straight man catches hold of himself and pulls away. But the comic is a comic: if there's something he shouldn't do, he can't help doing it. He says, "I ain't gonna say those words again." Straight man says, "What words?" comic: "Niagara Falls." and the beating starts again, and stops again, and starts.[Daily Epiphany]"