A Look at Abundance at SXSW 2010

When Napster ruled the music sharing world nearly a decade ago, it wasn't about sharing music. It was instead about sharing information. And not just a little information, but a great abundance of information. At its peak, Napster had 70 million users at a time when the Internet was 20 percent of its current size.

That's the problem with abundance, according to Clay Shirky, who spoke here at South by Southwest Interactive. Mr. Shirky is a well-known Internet consultant and adjunct professor in NYU's graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program.

"Abundance breaks more things than than scarcity does," said Mr. Shirky.

In his engaging and thoughtful hour-long talk, Mr. Shirky walked the audience through multiple examples throughout history where abundance changed the societal landscape. He also emphasized how much value we can all get through greater "civic sharing."

In the case of Napster, Mr. Shirky noted how easily the service allowed people to share information -- what songs they had that others could copy.

But why would we want to share this information with others? Shirky argues that, in comparison to the sharing of goods or services, primates -- including humans -- have evolved to want to share information. "Sharing information is something we're biased to do and to like doing."

When put into Napster context, the results were predictable. Prior to Napster, the opportunity to share one's music amongst one's friends and family simply wasn't as easily or readily available. "You could make a mix tape, but it would take an enormous amount of time," noted Mr. Shirky. Napster changed behavior to encourage sharing, because it became easy to do so.

"Behavior is just motivation filtered through opportunity," he said.

Shirky discussed additional examples of his mantra that abundance breaks more things than scarcity does, and how civic sharing helps us all.

Johannes Gutenberg is most famously known for his work on the Gutenberg Bible. But the printing press wasn't invented, according to Shirky, for printing bibles. Instead it had been invented as a way to increase the production of "indulgences," tickets handed out by the Roman Catholic church at the time to reduce parishioners' time in purgatory -- for a price. You could pay to get "indulgences" and therefore shorten the amount of time it would take to get to Heaven.

Shirky noted how the only bottleneck in the production of indulgences at the time were the scribes responsible for writing them. Hence the creation of the Gutenberg printing press, which took care of that issue, and increased the Roman Catholic church's coffers significantly. On the side, Gutenberg worked on his Bible. (As an ironic aside, Shirky also noted a pamphlet that was printed at the time to praise the work of scribes was printed on a printing press.)

The excesses of the Church, as exemplified by the indulgences, eventually led to Martin Luther and the great Protestant Reformation.

At one time, Mr. Shirky noted, you could make a decent living off of the fact that you could read and write. Once reading and writing were considered so important that they were taken over by the government, these skills are no longer as valuable as they once were. The abundance of education changed the very value of it.

Another example given by Mr. Shirky was a ride-share system in Canada that helped carpoolers find and connect with one another called Pickup Pal. It was successful in helping address commuting problems where it was used, but was technically illegal because it was too efficient a process. It helped hook up people who needed a car pool with those who had a car pool too well. Luckily, Canadians changed the law to allow the service, when a competing bus company that felt the competition from the successful service forced the issue.

Mr. Shirky went on to discuss why Wikipedia also works so well ("Because people care about the entries they write and edit") and why Health 2.0 websites like PatientsLikeMe.com could change the very landscape of the U.S. health care system -- if they are successful. PatientsLikeMe is an online health community that encourages patients to share all of their health data with one another and with the researchers who run the site. The purpose is to help speed up research into new treatments for chronic and rare diseases.

"PatientsLikeMe.com has a privacy policy, but they also have an Openness Philosophy that describes the benefits that come from sharing your health data," said Mr. Shirky. But Mr. Shirky warned that unless the website received a critical mass and could change the U.S. health care culture, they would fail.

Mr. Shirky didn't have any specific predictions as to which of these services or ideas would catch on or succeed, and which ones would fail. The key to the future, he said, is they can all try. "We now have a great many tools to help us share information with one another."

"Used to be, you could do little things for love, big things for money. Now you can do big things for love, too," he concluded.