Clay Shirky at TED@State: Power to the People

Earlier this year, I watched Clay Shirky speak at the LSE. Last month, he spoke at TED@State on the same subject – how social media mechanisms like Twitter and platforms like My Barack Obama are changing the way governments and politics operate. The TED talk has just been put up online, and I found it compelling enough to sit through again despite the fact that I’d already heard a lot of his points. Specifically, I think he lays the foundation for his talk in these very strong words which he admits need backing up (he proceeds to do so): “The moment we’re living through, the moment our historical generation is living through, is the largest increase in expressive capability in human history.”

Given that as I write this, #iranelection is still amongst the top trending topics on Twitter, I think he is onto something here. He may not have been the first person to assert the importance of social media in our current global landscape, but people who think tools like Twitter are crap (and there is actually someone who says exactly that in the comments to the video), need to seriously learn the facts – and about the stories of change. 

‘Us Now’ Available For Free Streaming Online

In December, I mentioned watching Us Now, a documentary that looks at how the internet is changing the notion of power and government through crowdsourcing. I just heard that the one-hour film is now available to view online via free streaming, thanks to an interesting site called the Joining the Docs, an online channel that aims to make good, in-demand documentaries available to a wider audience than the film may get otherwise. It’ll be a good way of spending an hour, I guarantee. 

Clay Shirky on group action getting easier

Cross-posted at the Made By Many blog:

Clay Shirky was at the LSE a couple of days ago speaking about his book Here Comes Everybody and how change happens when people come together. I’ve read the book and wasn’t surprised when he started off mentioning a couple of examples that he’s gone into detail in in the book. But then he used the Obama campaign (which gathered momentum after the book came out) and the May 12th 2008 earthquake in Sichuan, China (which only occurred after the book released), to illustrate his central thesis that Group Action Just Got Easier. I think he had some sort of mnemonic to remember that last bit because he flicked his fingers up as he said that! Anyway, with the Sichuan earthquake issue, in case anyone is wondering, the Chinese government could control the information coming in – thanks to their strict internet controls (also called the Great Firewall of China), but not the bits that were going out. Consequently, like it or not, reports of corruption in the Chinese administration, which were said to have been the main cause for the death of so many children during the earthquake, went out into the wider world. Information, as Shirky said, no longer flows where just where it CAN flow – it flows where people want it to. 

A couple of points about the Obama campaign that were mentioned during the talk are worth noting here: during the campaigning phase, the issue of legalizing medical marijuana was top on the list of suggestions for what Obama should focus on if he became President – which, given the fact that America has slightly bigger problems like the economy and the healthcare system to deal with, was a bit of a laugh. This brings us to the question of how legitimate crowdsourced opinion is. All sorts of factions can use a forum like (now to get their agenda to the top – and sometimes, as with this case, the items that do float to the top aren’t the most sensible. On the flip side, as the Please Get FISA Right protest group managed to do on My Barack Obama, action can actually be coerced out of the government even if they’d rather not take action. Obama, as we all know by now, is not oblivious to the power of online communities and organised a response pretty quickly. As this article says, “the mere fact of his response, as well as the fact that he chose to put it on his own site, is a remarkable illustration of the power of online organizing”. 

Clay Shirky also said that the global financial crisis we are witnessing now could actually exacerbate the take-up of social media, because of the lower transaction costs that it offers. He ended by saying that he thought 2009 would be the year that a proper system of checks and balances in social media came into being – this last bit I thought was quite interesting, because as the medical marijuana issue illustrates, it is not a universal truth that the masses make the right choices. In fact, Shirky argued during the Q&A session that we need to look at restructuring participative democracy altogether. His suggestion was that for good ideas, whether in government or elsewhere, we shouldn’t look at crowds or individual geniuses but a smart group of people arguing with each other.

A range of good questions were asked following the talk and Clay Shirky’s response to them was in some ways even better than the talk itself. I recommend reading an interview he gave to the Columbia Journalism Review, where he speaks about how journalism has to adapt to new media and that they cannot afford to ignore it any longer, much as they may want to. I mention this because one of the questions pertained to whether bloggers can actually replace traditional media. His answer was that it is unlikely that a group of bloggers can, for example, keep a city council from corruption. A more useful solution may be to explore social models of combination, with reporters and bloggers working together, perhaps. 

The final issue that I’d like to mention here was one that was brought up by the Regional Director for the UK, Ireland and Scandinavia for the Obama campaign. She spoke about how the campaign had a new media group sitting separately from the technology and communications groups, how the Obama campaign used that to their benefit and how businesses could use that form of administration. Clay Shirky responded that most companies today are creating separate new media groups, allowing them to do their own thing and waiting till they come up with something interesting. The important thing is for the larger group to keep checking the temperature of what the new media group is doing, and remembering to re-absorb them when the time is right. Companies that have the culture to deal with this change will be much better off in the long run than those that don’t have it.

Food for thought indeed.

The Columbia Journalism Review interviews Clay Shirky

Russ Juskalian conducts an excellent interview in the Columbia Journalism Review with Clay Shirky, whose work and insights into the media industry are notable. This is Part One and here is Part Two. It’s very long, but every bit of it is worth your time, believe me. 
My favourite parts are what he says about information overload (I couldn’t pick just one sentence to quote so I’m posting his whole response to Russ’ question on the subject):
Oh, those are the stupidest people in the entire debate because they, I mean, almost all of the people arguing that this is the Dark Ages are narcissists, because they’re essentially trying to preserve a particular piece of it. But the information overload people are the most narcissistic because information overload started in Alexandria, in the library of Alexandria, right? That was the first example where we have concrete archaeological evidence that there was more information in one place than one human being could deal with in one lifetime, which is almost the definition of information overload. And the first deep attempt to categorize knowledge so that you could subset; the first take on the information filtering problem appears in the library of Alexandria.

By the time that the publishing industries spun up in Venice in the early- to mid-1500s, the ability to have access to more reading material than you could finish in a lifetime is now starting to become a general problem of the educated classes. And by the 1800s, it’s a general problem of the middle class. So there is no such thing as information overload, there’s only filter failure, right? Which is to say the normal case of modern life is information overload for all educated members of society.

If you took the contents of an average Barnes and Noble, and you dumped it into the streets and said to someone, “You know what’s in there? There’s some works of Auden in there, there’s some Plato in there. Wade on in and you’ll find what you like.” And if you wade on in, you know what you’d get? You’d get Chicken Soup for the Soul. Or, you’d get Love’s Tender Fear. You’d get all this junk. The reason we think that there’s not an information overload problem in a Barnes and Noble or a library is that we’re actually used to the cataloging system. On the Web, we’re just not used to the filters yet, and so it seems like “Oh, there’s so much more information.” But, in fact, from the 1500s on, that’s been the normal case.

So, the real question is, how do we design filters that let us find our way through this particular abundance of information? And, you know, my answer to that question has been: the only group that can catalog everything is everybody. One of the reasons you see this enormous move towards social filters, as with Digg, as with, as with Google Reader, in a way, is simply that the scale of the problem has exceeded what professional catalogers can do. But, you know, you never hear twenty-year-olds talking about information overload because they understand the filters they’re given. You only hear, you know, forty- and fifty-year-olds taking about it, sixty-year-olds talking about because we grew up in the world of card catalogs and TV Guide. And now, all the filters we’re used to are broken and we’d like to blame it on the environment instead of admitting that we’re just, you know, we just don’t understand what’s going on.

And then this bit about the future of print journalism:

The average quality of something written is going to fall to the floor because of the volume of written material. But the competition will mean that the premium for having something especially interesting is going to rise. And then, over the course of the next ten years, we’ll sort ourselves out into some sort of new equilibrium. Five years ago, I think I would have bet on the newspapers as they exist today being a big part of that new equilibrium—but, you know, they’ve done very, very little and been really unimaginative. So now, I think, if I had to make the same bet, I’d say most newspapers aren’t going to survive. Every bit of concern around the Web is, “How can we raise revenues to our existing cost structure?” rather than “How can we lower our cost structure to meet our existing revenues?”

And on the careers of journalists:

…..what’s going to happen is, basically, the number of people who commit acts of journalism will rise enormously and the number of people who derive most, or all, of their income from acts of journalism is going to shrink. It’s just what happened to photographers with the spread of cameras. There’s just many, many, many, many more photos than there used to be. But it’s harder to make your living just by owning a nice camera and setting up in town and taking pictures of people’s kids.

Go read.

Why you should read Clay Shirky’s latest book

I wanted to mention a few of the things I learnt while reading Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody: the Power of Organizing Without Organizations, before I forget. I got a copy from the lovely people from BookRabbit who were giving out free copies at Social Media Café London last week – more about them in another post.
I’ve been noticing from quite a few blogs that many people have read it, but they haven’t said much apart from the fact that it is an excellent book – which it absolutely is. My curiosity was aroused from the little that I’ve heard, but with all respect, nothing I’ve heard so far does justice to the book. It is a well-researched, engaging piece of work, that will make sense for laymen as much as it will for media professionals, and it is a very relevant discussion of the ongoing revolution in the communications industry today – and by that I mean social networks, e-mail, blogs, and everything in between (and more). Most importantly, it is quick and easy reading. So a few things that you’ll like reading about (I’m just touching upon these topics):


1. The Birthday Paradox: With three people, you’d think that the odds of two of you sharing a birthday is two in 365 (days of the year) – you, let’s say X, either share it with Y or Z. But the error that most people make is that in a group, you have to count the links between people and not just the number. So in addition to the chance that you may share a birthday with Y and Z, they may share a birthday among themselves. And this number increases exponentially as the number of people grows. The other day I was wondering how two completely unconnected people in my friends list in Facebook knew each other. I still don’t know, but chances are, within the set of common friends the three of us have, there will be some connection, however vague. It’s isn’t just about how I know A or B, it is how A and B know each other. That is something I often overlook.


2. I heard of this briefly when the event happened: the stolen Sidekick phone issue in New York. Evan Guttman, a friend of a woman called Ivanna who lost an expensive phone in a New York City cab, created a social media campaign that was so strong it led to the thief, who knew that she had been identified, being arrested. Think of the odds of that if you forget your phone in a city. Evan made use of social media in a way that forced NYPD to reclassify the phone as ‘stolen’ from just ‘lost’. This is something that would have been inconceivable even a decade ago.


3. This one I didn’t know about: the HSBC-Facebook standoff. Yes, we have the power to change rules when companies try to use them to their benefit – at our cost.


4. The fact that Sourceforge is the largest online warehouse of open source projects. I know a few developers who hope that they will be the next Page or Brin. Building on common knowledge, they absolutely can be, who knows. Also, on a somewhat related note, see this very interesting piece by Malcolm Gladwell in the New Yorker, and then this article on multiple independent discovery.


5. Why Microsoft’s Encarta failed versus Wikipedia: apparently the managers, seeing Wikipedia’s success, tried to involve users but with the not-so-subtle caveat that Microsoft had permission to “use, reproduce, edit, modify, translate and reformat your Submission” for a product that they would make money out of. Duh – not happening. Today, I go straight to Wikipedia for descriptions and histories of people, places and events. Encarta doesn’t even enter the frame, forget the picture. In fact, I don’t know a single person who has ever mentioned using Encarta.


Anyway, these are just a few thoughts that came to me from the book. Yup, this post is sort of like a teaser. Go read the book and see what you think – and come back and tell me. (If you already have, then you have no reason not to comment – NOW!).