Clay Shirky on information overload versus filter failure

This Clay Shirky talk from Web 2.0 Expo NY ("It's Not Information Overload. It's Filter Failure") challenges the idea that we've got information overload problems (we've had more books than any human could read for hundreds of years), what we have is a series of filter failures, as our systems for managing information abundance are swamped by the growth of information.

Web 2.0 Expo NY: Clay Shirky ( It's Not Information Overload. It's Filter Failure. (via Joho the Blog)


  1. The reason we have filter failure (so true!) is actually quite clear: as a society made up of people, we had abdicated our filtering rights and responsibilities to the corporations now desperately trying to retain them. (aka MPAA, RIAA, NBC, ABC, CBS, NYT, etc)

    Only with the ubiquity of the web were we able to see a new frontier of fine-tuned self-filtering. We love it, but it’s more work than we’re used to.

    So we whine, lazy that we are, and want to automate it all. One day, TIVO with its season pass and recommendations. The next day, the same thing for TV downloads on the internet, since the cableco’s are out to screw us over.

    Clearly, the future of ‘push’ entertainment media is the constant tease — movie trailers and ‘sample’ TV episodes. Heck, TV as we know it may simply die.

    As for systems for managing information overload, we don’t have any! Really, this is a new problem. Our systems were always designed to maximise information distribution, as one of the scarcest of goods.


  2. I really enjoyed this lecture, but Mr. Sharky made me rewind after about 7 minutes and start counting. Clay has the craziest oratory tic that I’ve ever noticed. He says “right” between a lot of sentences, whether mumbled or intended. All in all, I counted 104 uses of the word “RIGHT”, 3 of which were just mouthed without actually saying the word. 1 use of the word was totally mumbled, and 4 uses of the word were used in sentence while trying to convince the listener that he was in fact “right”.

    Was he trying to convince himself of what he was saying because he did a great job of convincing me, despite the tic.

    1. Chris Dodd has an even stranger tic: he says “here” (wherever Shirky would say “right”). It’s maddening and makes no sense.

      Some people say “on it”.

  3. Is the McDonalds advert a well-placed illustration of filter failure, and we should have installed a decent ad-blocker? ;o)

  4. We sure enjoy hating religion, but when it comes to applying some of it’s time-proven principals to the new salvation vehicle of technology and human smarts, somehow it’s just O-tay!

  5. Shirky has a few tics, and a tendency to rely on the same examples in his lectures, but that doens’t change the fact that he’s one of the most interesting thinkers out there when it comes to what the internet is and means. I’ve watched and read so much of his stuff now that the tics are endearing.

  6. I really liked it when stuff got filtered by what the broadcast networks could show on TV. Because most of the stuff was really horrible, a lot of us went outside and led satisfying lives.

  7. I’m a big fan of Clay Shirky’s, I’ve watched a few of his videos, and I never noticed the “Right…” tick. Maybe it’s because I have so many ticks of my own, I’m pretty much oblivious to them. In any case, I sure hope that I forget the thought of looking for his tick sometime before the next time I see/hear him talk.

    And it was very reaffirming to see that Shirky has developed a model of privacy (what it is, how it’s changing, what it means when we think it was violated) that is very similar to my own model. In fact, I’ve used some of the same phrases he uses when trying to explain to my friends why they shouldn’t blame Facebook for privacy “fail”s. I might download this video, shorten it to just the Facebook story, and show it to my friends. (Then again, they might remain unconvinced. So what some Bald Tom Hanks agrees with you? Who’s he? ;])

  8. Clay Shirky has the “right” tic in personal conversation, too; or at least he did on the two or three occasions when I’ve chatted with him. I find it likeable; it feels to me as if he’s earnestly trying to make sure his audience is with him so far–like an invitation to interrupt if we’re not completely understanding the argument, so that he can do whatever’s necessary to get everybody back on track.

  9. As Avenir’s story shows, rules and laws show a filtering failure– it can be very hard to tell whether what you’re doing is legal.

  10. An excellent keynote, but I differ with the conclusion that “It isn’t Information Overload”; the IO problem is very real for knowledge workers worldwide, and it isn’t about the amount of available information; it’s about the expectation that we read more of this information (especially, work related email) than we possibly can. I explain the distinction, and show where Clay’s position diverges from the IO problem I find relevant in today’s workplace, at

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