Feats of Clay

SINCE THE FALL of 2001, Mr. Shirky has worked as an associate teacher at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP), part of the school’s Tisch School of the Arts. Founded in the 1970s, the program has grown into a lab of digital experimentation where teams of students endlessly tinker with new combinations of art and programming and social interactivity.

Over the years, Mr. Shirky has developed a seminar called Social Facts, whose syllabus progresses from sociological dilemmas facing groups irrespective of technology (tragedy of the commons, prisoner’s dilemma, etc.) to the specific challenges facing groups online. By the end of the class, students are asked to think like designers-if you wanted to change an existing space, or create a new space, what would you do? Mr. Shirky also teaches a production class in which students develop technology projects in partnership with UNICEF. “If you could get into his class, you took it,” said Dennis Crowley, the co-founder of Foursquare, who graduated from ITP in 2004. “You sit in his class for an hour, and you feel like a superstar, like you can understand things in a much clearer way.”

Mr. Crowley described Mr. Shirky as the program’s in-house theorist-the guy who students turn to in order to get a broader perspective on what they’re doing and why it’s important. In the fall of 2003, Mr. Shirky served as the informal adviser for an independent study taken by Mr. Crowley and one of his fellow students, Alex Rainert, who two years later sold their social networking software company, Dodgeball, to Google. In a program like ITP, said Mr. Crowley, you spend a lot of time engrossed in the minutiae of projects-learning how to write code, how to solder. “He’s very good at widening the scope,” said Mr. Crowley.

“I don’t think we’re throwing off the old print culture, and now we’ll live in some kind of pure, sacred fusing with human nature as it always really was,” said Mr. Shirky. “The source of my optimism is really that young people will find things to do with the medium that will create the kinds of institutions we need around something like the Web, rather than around something like print.”

In March of 2009, Mr. Shirky wrote an essay on his personal blog about the root causes that are currently ravaging the newspaper business; it quickly became a must-read among journalists throughout the city. Unlike most pro-Internet media theorists, Mr. Shirky can talk extensively about the problems facing professional journalism without sounding like a scold. It’s also possible to listen to him without that nagging suspicion that his real motivation is to selfishly milk old-media companies with a bunch of vapid ideas that will only make things worse.

On May 26, Mr. Shirky spoke at a private event for staff members of The New York Times, hosted by the paper’s in-house R&D chief, Michael Zimbalist.

David Carr, the paper’s media columnist, was impressed with Mr. Shirky’s narrative synthesis. “He storytells in ways that people who are listening to him don’t notice that the story ends with their obsolescence,” said Mr. Carr. “They’re sort of lulled to sleep by the music of his voice and his presentation. He just sort of gently mentions at the end the part about, ‘And then you’ll all be turned to red mist.'”

Mr. Carr said that these days if he had a half-hour or so to listen to anybody talk about the media business, Mr. Shirky would be at the top of the list. “He’s an academic in the clinical sense,” said Mr. Carr. “You just can’t get to the end of what he knows or what he’s interested in.”

For the past decade, Mr. Shirky has been in a program for artists and techies, not for journalists. That may soon change. In the fall, he will delve into the journalism-business-model quandary as a visiting lecturer at Harvard University’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. “The thing that I’m interested in is the ways in which journalism can function more like an ecosystem,” said Mr. Shirky. “Which is to say that instead of having a whole bunch of institutions that are doing the full end-to-end production of news, that we end up with a bunch of shared resources, the way ProPublica works.”

And when he returns to New York in 2011, for the first time, Mr. Shirky will begin working with N.Y.U.’s journalism department (the details of the arrangement have yet to be finalized).

“My interest in the last couple of years has turned especially to the production of nonfiction media, whether it’s long-form journalism or investigative journalism,” Mr. Shirky said. “It’s no fun to just be the guy diagnosing the problem.”

fgillette@observer.com

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