Have you ever been in a desert? A real desert.
As a child, I was obsessed with Star Wars. I have vivid memories of re-enacting scenes from the Return of the Jedi at lunchtime in St Grellans National School. I always wanted to be Han Solo – he was the cool one. I collected the tiny Star Wars figurines. My friend Conor Kenny had a replica of the Millennium Falcon – Han Solo’s spaceship. We were all very jealous. He let us play with it – he is a nice guy. (Long after he left home, he learned that his mother had given it away. I’m not sure he’ll ever recover.)
One of the random facts that I knew about Return of the Jedi was that it was filmed in the desert in Tunisia. My uncle was a deep-sea diver, and he visited Tunisia and was given a tour of where they filmed. I asked plenty of nerdy questions about the Tunisian desert even if, deep down, I wondered if all deserts looked pretty similar – a very hot beach without water.
From 2009 onwards, I started organising events. At the beginning, they were small PR training events, but they soon began to grow into much larger conferences. I loved getting speakers in from London, and New York. One of my favourite speakers that I booked, is Raju Narisetti. When I asked him to come to Dublin he was Managing Editor of the Washington Post, since then he has worked as a Senior Strategist for Rupert Murdoch, CEO of Gizmodo and is now a Professor of Journalism at Columbia University.
Raju had first come to my attention on Twitter in 2011 when I saw he was speaking at an event called Newsfoo in Phoenix Arizona. The foo in Newsfoo stands for friends of O’Reilly. O’Reilly was set up by Irish born Tim O’Reilly and is now one of the most important digital publishers in the world. Tim has a bit of a reputation as a ‘CEO whisperer’ in Silicon Valley – the ‘go to man’ for advice for powerful tech CEOs. His family is originally from Killarney in the South West of Ireland. Tim was born in what is now Cork University Hospital, but just six weeks later they moved to America.
Raju’s talk at the conference was wonderful. He spoke about the future of the media, and especially newspapers. People listened because he was good, but also because he has ink in his veins. He’s a trained newspaper man, who understands digital and strategy. The thing I love about Raju is that he never stops learning and listening. I asked him about Newsfoo. He said it was a wonderful event. Set in The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism in Phoenix Arizona – it’s an unconference. This means that those who attend decide what they want to talk about. There are no slides allowed, just meaningful discussion and sharing on big problems.
Each year they invited between 100 and 150 of the world’s top media voices and the group set the agenda. Every top media brand would be there. I wanted to get into that room and see what the future was like. I also wanted to see the desert.
I asked the right questions and got on the radar of the correct person in O’Reilly and a few months later I got an invite to Newsfoo. It was like getting asked to into Willy Wonka’s factory. I left Dublin one day in early December 2012 with a wooly hat and gloves on and arrived 15 hours later in Phoenix and changed into a T-Shirt and shorts.
And Newsfoo is where I met Clay Shirky, author of ‘Here Comes Everybody’. You knew I’d get to the book eventually. I can remember him having an aura about him. He was confident, the type of guy that was able to carry off wearing a leather jacket in the desert. And everyone knew he was the guy who wrote that book.
Why is it so good? When there is a new movement or a massive change in the world you can be sure there will be plenty of books written, but there can only be a few definitive books on the topic. This is one of those books. It spells out in vivid detail how everyone is a publisher and how the traditional model of journalism and the media is over.
Clay Shirky is a great storyteller. And for an academic, that is high praise. Here Comes Everybody begins with a story of a lost phone in a taxi, and the extraordinary turn of events that led to the owner retrieving it. From photos posted online, to NYPD who were uninterested in following up, to taking it all online. Through that online publicity, the story got covered by the New York Times and CNN, which put pressure on the police to track down the taxi. It’s a great example that illustrates the new power that the Internet can unleash.
Under this big change the power has shifted from the corporation to the individual, but what mere mortals will do with their newfound power is hard to predict. Shirky writes: “Because social effects lag behind technological ones by decades, real revolutions don’t involve an orderly transition from point A to point B.”
Gutenberg didn’t know that the printing press would aid Protestantism. Similarly, mobile phone manufacturers weren’t able to see how texting would become such an important feature of their products. The multiple social changes catalysed by the internet are just as unpredictable.
Shirky predicted in 2010 that one of the key trends would be that the professional status of journalists would be destroyed. “Anyone in the developed world can publish anything anytime, and the instant it is published, it is globally available and readily findable. If anyone can be a publisher, then anyone can be a journalist.”
Well worth a read. Oh, and the Desert wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, even if I did manage to get a suntan in December.
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