Clay Shirky
Nov 10, 2015 · 3 min read

Here’s the whole total thing — content always looks easy to outsiders. If you are a content consumer fantasizing about being a content producer, then all you ever see is the stuff that gets greenlighted, never the waste of early failure or trying to figure out what a good idea even looks like.

And the stuff you do see is so obvious — its easy to recognize that this show is good whereas that show is bad, if all you have to refer to is personal taste.

And then (and I lived this with ATTs disastrous Hometown Network in 1995–96, and saw it happen with a friend with MSN in its late 1990s incarnation) it comes time to actually produce the content you imagine making (and making money from), and you partner with somebody, and then the people making the content do something you don’t like and it turns out if you tell them what to do, they will quit or intentionally fuck it up or unintentionally fuck it up, anything but behave like employees.

I remember when ATT partnered with a Sacramento-based indy weekly (and here you thought “the Village Voice of Sacramento” was the null set…) and was showing investors how ATT was going to start sucking up the local ad market (far larger than the national market, but harder to get to) when the Sacramento paper ran a cover story, which we replicated online, about how to beat urinalysis.

And the ATT guys regarded this as a simple mistake, obvious and easily fixable, and dispatched my firm (the designers of the Hometown Network web presence) to tell the Sacramento paper to run a different story online, because investors might not like this one, and ATT brass didn’t want to see the Death Star logo next to advice about how to game the system.

And I remember my staff, 20somethings to a person (in my early 30s, I was the old man in the room) staring blankly at the 50something ATT guys, who were staring blankly back. And what the people on my side of the table understood was that if we even tried to tell the Sacramento writers and editors that ATT wanted their edgy content off the site right then, we might as well close up shop, and the ATT guys looked at us like ‘You dumb kids, don’t you understand that we are trying to make money here, and if people put up upsetting content while investors are looking that will clog the money valve?”

And since I was the project lead, I figured it was my job to say something, so I pointed out that ATT made hella money on phone sex services on 1–900 lines (you are too young to remember 1–900, but it was a toll road for your ears) and no one ever blamed ATT or even really thought of them as having anything to do with the content of the phone lines, and they coughed a bit and shifted in their seats and one of them pointed out that the Web was different, in a way we all knew but no one could really describe, and that “ATT Brings You: Beat The Drug Test” was not anything the people in Holmdel could ever really tolerate and we all kinda nodded because, yeah, that was right, and there was this sense that crept into the meeting that we could move on to the next agenda item, but that the project had just died, because really, ATT had no stomach for controversy.

They cancelled the entire thing a month later.

So yeah, Twitter wants to have news from no point of view (Jay Rosen to the white courtesy telephone), so that they can get the traffic, but not be on the hook for editorial judgment. I suppose it could succeed if they get it juuust riiight, but in all likelihood, they will err on the side of ‘too bland’ rather than ‘too interesting’, and it will die because really, Twitter is driven by points of view, sometimes awful ones, and Twitter Inc. can no more afford to be seen directly sponsoring anything that kicks off a fight than ATT could.

    Clay Shirky

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    Bald. Unreliable. Easily distracte