8.2 Experimentation Is Cheap

In digital media, the cost of trying new ideas is heading toward zero. That means lots and lots of people will be—and already are—testing the possibilities.

Clay Shirky has done some acute analysis of this phenomenon. He points to the lesson of Sourceforge, the site where open-source software developers post projects for other people to download, analyze and hopefully improve, and for non-technical people to download and use. Clay notes that the overwhelming majority of Sourceforge projects are, by any definition, failures. Among the more than 150,000 projects that run on the Windows operating system, the most successful have tens to hundreds of millions of downloads. But if you go down the list, many even in the top 25 percent have fewer than 1,000 downloads—which in a practical sense is essentially none at all. (In more than a third of all projects, no one has cared enough even to look, much less help out or download the software.) But those tens of thousands of failures are individually inexpensive, and they set a stage for the few but vitally important successes. What does this imply? As Clay wrote in the Harvard Business Review in 2007:

[T]he low cost of failure means that someone with a new idea doesn’t have to convince anyone else to let them try it—there are few institutional barriers between thought and action.

Similarly, the R&D that the news industry should have done years ago is now being done in a highly distributed way. Yes, some is being done by people inside media companies, but most is not—and increasingly it won’t be. It’ll take place in universities, in corporate labs, in garages and at kitchen tables. (I wish there was a more organized way to find and share what’s happening, and in Chapter 11 I describe a think-tank approach to doing just that.)

In other words, not only don’t you need permission to create media, but you don’t need much money, either. This is one reason I’m so optimistic about the future of media, and of journalism.

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