Notes from Clay Shirky on social media

by on March 6, 2008 · 2 comments

shirky-book.jpgI’ve started to force myself to use Twitter to see if I can discover why people find it so compelling. Well, yesterday, after UPS delivered Clay Shirky’s new book, “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations,” I decided to subscribe to Shirky’s tweets. Lo and behold, a few hours later I get this tweet from Shirky: “Getting ready for a talk tomorrow at New America Foundation in DC.” I had no idea he would be in town. Twitter is actually useful.

So, I attended the talk at the New America Foundation. It was based on his book, which looks at the how new online tools of conversation and collaboration (like Twitter) are affecting society. I took notes and thought I’d share them here. Be warned they’re more or less chicken scratch, but they should give you a flavor for his ideas. They’re after the jump.

Bullet point of the book: Group action just got a lot easier. Internet lowers the cost of information, but this often only amplifies existing patterns. Internet, however, is the first medium that allows of coordination.

Four patterns: sharing, conversation, collaboration, and collective action. Sharing is like Napster and first observed — no group ID necessary. Conversation — mailing lists started trend. Collaboration — Wikipedia and Linux. Today we’ll focus on collective action: come together not just to create a product, but to create a change in the world.

Story of plane that was stuck from 2 to 9 pm and no one could get out. [Story here.] Terrible conditions. NWA settled out of court. Call for some regulation, but story fizzled. Second time this happened, NY passed a fliers’ bill of rights after 8 months. What was different between 1999 and 2007? Kate Hanni, passenger on the stranded plane, began to google for every article and would add comments saying she was on the flight and rant. She would then say, if anyone else was on the flight, contact me. She then set up a webpage with a petition and a one-click to sign on to it. She got thousands of signatures and the attention of legislators. We had websites in 1999, what we didn’t have was everybody on the internet. The social density, not the technology, changed the result.

Publishing is for acting. Every URL is a latent community. Everyone looking at a page has a something in common (except some generic pages like Google home page).

Flashmobs, flagpole sitting of 2003 – seemingly spontaneous pillow fight. Bill Wasik of Harpers Magazine originated the practice as a critique of hipsters. Show that hipsters will do anything you tell them in an email if its mildly shocking to the bourgeoisie. Spreads around the world. Lands in Belarus — everyone show up in October Square and eat ice cream. Police took out the students. The problem is that it’s illegal to have concerted action in October Square.

Gov couldn’t stop the blogs and couldn’t stop them from going to the square because they weren’t a group until they got there. Kids new to bring their cameras and uploaded the pictures of police harrasment. Goal wasn’t just to make the government overreact, but to document that overreaction. Nothing says dictatorship like arresting people for eating ice cream. Or for smiling (another flashmob — show up and smile).

The most interesting thing about tools for collaboration is that every time a new one is announced it is criticized as brain dead and useless. This is what people said about Twitter. [Ed. note: I plead guilty.] Egyptian pro-democracy demonstrators are using Twitter to coordinate. In high freedom environments collaboration tools are used for entertainment, in low-freedom environments its used for social change coordination.

Third story not in book; group went around Palermo, Italy, stickering the city saying people who pay off the mafia are without dignity. The group decided that a rhetorical swipe at the mob wasn’t enough. Media alone couldn’t take on the mafia. So, they put up a website. They told businesses to stand up together and refuse to pay protection money.

Single people had opted out before, but their businesses were destroyed and some killings. But when the businesses act collectively to resist, the mafia can’t do much. When many have acted, there have not been any reprisals.

They put up a search engine that lets you find businesses that don’t pay protection money so you can patronize only those businesses. The technology under the hood is pretty ordinary, what matters is that enough of the Italian population is online.

Media is moving from a source of information to a site of action.

Oprah said about James Fry: all media is glossed up, Fry just went a little overboard. Audience didn’t like that. Oprah was called out in public and had to apologize on her show. She knew the web was a great tool to talk to her audience and for them to talk to her, but she didn’t realize that they were talking to each other.

Same thing could happen with the Democratic superdelegates. Conversation seems to be forming about the unfairness of the system. Shirky predicts rank and file Dems getting so upset about the unfairness of the process that they will coordinate with each other to take action.

Freedom of speech is freedom of press is freedom of assembly. Enumerated separately but the new medium is showing they are the same thing.

Q & A

How does the new medium affect traditional journalism? started a project called Off the Bus. Their principle advantage is not having one professional, but hundreds of people who do a little work. Campaigns steer reporters in Iowa to the most popular rallies. Off the Bus sent one person to every caucus in Iowa. They accomplish something one reporter can’t. They are now trying to interview (not argue with) every superdelegate.

So it’s not bloggers vs. the MSM, it’s different. It is not an either or proposition. There are opportunities for hybridization. But the traditional business model doesn’t do well with that. The NPR non-profit model fits well.

Are there mechanisms for nuanced situations where there a re facts in dispute, etc.?

That’s the book I was avoiding and should be writing. Filtering is complicated. The most viewed articles on a news site is the about the economy and war, the most emailed is about puppies and kittens. Different kinds of lists. It’s going to be difficult to filter the important from the banal and take into account what really matters to people at the same time.

Has porn been the driver for these technologies?

Pornography isn’t pushed, it’s pulled. Porn has been the most demanded form of high-bandwidth multimedia, so Cisco and the rest have had to optimize the network to meet demand. That doesn’t mean they’re pornographers. Porn used to be located at the media bottleneck (the XXX video store?) and now it’s just not.

Do you have advice for people in the business of advocacy? How do you measure success especially when there’s no clear outcome (bill passed)?

Protesters like the plane woman didn’t have an organization she had to fundraise for. She also didn’t have a demand number 2. So, maybe we’re deinstitutionalizing? Are “advocacy groups” no longer the locus of action? Will they nevertheless act in darkness? I don’t have an answer to the question so I didn’t put it in the book.

Re measuring: Obama has done the best job ever of stimulating and taking advantage of social media/action. What he did differently than dean was that he doesn’t require supporters to replace their ideology with his.

Quiet car on the Acela is vigorously enforced by the passengers. What that model says is you guys can police amongst yourselves but we (the train conductor) can step in if you need it. But the conductor never has to step in.

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