The Shirky Principle

Image created with Midjourney. Image prompt:
Image created with Midjourney. Image prompt: 2d illustration of An institution standing as a giant wall, casting a shadow over a small, simple solution that is trying to grow from a seed on the ground

Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.

Clay Shirky

Every organization, regardless of size or industry, exists to solve a problem. But what happens when the problem they were built to address changes, diminishes, or even disappears altogether? The Shirky Principle offers a compelling perspective. According to this principle, "Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution"1. This principle suggests that complex solutions - companies, industries, or technologies - can become so focused on the problem they are solving that they inadvertently perpetuate the problem itself.

The Shirky Principle in Action: Three Examples

To understand the Shirky Principle better, let's delve into three examples where it applies, especially in the context of digital software products.

1. Antivirus Software Industry

The antivirus software industry is a classic example. Initially, these products were created to combat the rise of malicious software. Over time, as operating systems have become more secure and sophisticated, the need for standalone antivirus solutions has lessened. However, instead of evolving their products or focusing on newer cybersecurity threats, some antivirus companies continue to focus on traditional virus threats, perpetuating the perception of a problem they were initially designed to solve.

2. Legacy Software Companies

Consider legacy software companies that have been successful in solving a particular problem with their products. As technology advances and more efficient solutions emerge, these companies often resist adopting new technologies or modern methods that could solve the problem more efficiently. They stick to their old ways, preserving the problem that their product was designed to solve, rather than innovating and adapting.

3. Social Media Platforms

Social media platforms present another intriguing case. They were initially created to bring people closer, to facilitate interaction, and bridge distances. However, with the rise of issues like fake news, online harassment, and mental health concerns linked to social media usage, the platforms themselves have become part of the problem. Yet, instead of fundamentally redesigning their platforms to address these issues, many social media companies have merely introduced superficial fixes, thus preserving the problems they are now paradoxically both creating and solving.

The Shirky Principle and Digital Software Products

The Shirky Principle carries significant implications for the design and evolution of digital software products. It highlights the importance of maintaining a clear, unbiased understanding of the problem the product is intended to solve. Companies must be willing to adapt and change their products as the nature of the problem evolves. This could involve implementing new technologies, adopting different methodologies, or even pivoting the product entirely.

The principle also emphasizes the potential pitfalls of becoming too fixated on a single solution. When a product is successful, there's a risk of becoming complacent, of assuming that this solution will always be the right one. But as the problem evolves, so too must the solution.

In conclusion, the Shirky Principle is not a rule but rather a cautionary perspective that organizations should be mindful of during the development and life cycle of their digital software products. By staying adaptable, keeping a clear focus on the evolving nature of the problem, and being willing to change the solution accordingly, companies can avoid falling into the trap of preserving the problem they were built to solve.

Related to:

  • Upton Sinclair's famous line, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"
  • Clay Christensen's The Innovator's Dilemma

See also