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    This is the personal blog of Simon Kendrick and covers my interests in media, technology and popular culture. All opinions expressed are my own and may not be representative of past or present employers
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Clay Shirky’s POLIS lecture at LSE

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Clay Shirky give a lecture entitled Here Comes Everybody: How Change Happens When People Come Together at a POLIS event hosted at LSE. The lecture was part of the promotional tour for the paperback launch of his bestselling, critically acclaimed book of the same name.

This was the first time I had seen him speak in person, and his charisma and enthusiasm really radiate through. His lucidity and insight make even complex associations sound common sensical, and he has a great ear for a memorable quote. I came away having learned a lot. Some of the outakes and quotes I came away with are as follows:

The five word précis of his book would be “Group action just got easier”

“Lowered transaction costs have reduced the hassle factor of collective action”.

The lecture took us through three examples of participatory media making a difference.

The first example was the Facebook group protesting against HSBC’s withdrawal of interest free student overdrafts. In the past, HSBC would have had an information advantage and a cooperation advantage. But by documenting and sharing information, and coordinating action, these barriers were removed.

“Using information not just as a delivery service but as a site of coordination has changed the dynamic”

He then moved on to look at the Sichuan earthquake on May 12th last. Whereas in the 1970s, China took three months to declare an earthquake took place, now they had no option because pictures and messages were being uploaded to QQ, Twitter, Flickr et al. Social media also mobilised – and to an extent radicalised – the mourning mothers who lost their only child. 7,000 schools collapsed in the earthquake in part due to a corrupt administration overlooking sub-standard safety precautions. It resulted in a local official getting down on his knees to beg forgiveness. The Great Firewall only works in one direction – information can still freely leave the country. Sadly, a teacher who allegedly cited the schools was later detained, showing that there is still not a fully free flow of information in China.

“There are data cables and there are social cables. Information goes where people want it to go”

The final example concerned a certain election that we heard about recently. Shirky asserts that Obama was the first “platform candidate”. While McCain sought to control the message, Obama encouraged people to share and remix their own messages. Sometimes this worked; sometimes it didn’t. However, the net was beneficial.

“Just because your name is on it, it doesn’t mean you are responsible”

Shirky then illustrated the lack of control that Obama had over his new media campaign. On his social networking site – apparently set up to avoid satisfying people and thus sating them – 22,000 members joined a group protesting at Obama backtracking on an issue. While he didn’t change his stance, he was forced to address the issue. He was called to account by his own supporters.

When Change.gov was set up, it sought to crowdsource campaign initiatives. The most popular? Nothing to do with the economy, military action nor medicare. It was the legalisation of medical marijuana. Shirky admitted that he has changed his opinion on the benefits and capabilities of crowdsourcing. As James Madison said in Federalist Paper No. 10 “Everyone complains about factionalism but there is nothing you can do about it”. In other words, factions will always emerge and hijack initiatives. Shirky calls government a playing field and rules for factions to contend – participatory media doesn’t yet have the checks and balances set up to offer a functioning alternative or complement.

“It isn’t a problem of capability. It is a problem of legitimacy”

Even if something is wrong, it needs to be legitimate. With the Al Franken senate seat, the margin of victory was smaller than the margin of error in the counting of votes. Tossing a coin to declare a winner would have been cheaper and easier and just as wrong, but the victor wouldn’t have the legitimacy needed to do his job.

The lecture finished after around 40 minutes and moved onto questions. Below are some of the fragments I took out of it

One of those first questions was obviously by a marketing man, as he kept referring to “brand truth” and Obama. Shirky agreed that the role of president is too charismatic and as a result clarity takes a hit.

Another question was about newspapers. Shirky said with a smile that newspapers have had 20 years to react to supporters destroying their business model but they didn’t.

“Newspapers’ problems are so much of their own making that it is hard to have an ounce of pity”

He doesn’t think bloggers will necessary replace the newsroom as they lack the social coordination to pay enough attention to everything that is going on, and to hold the government truly accountable. Instead, he thinks newspapers may need to move to the non-profit world (arguably they are already there with the Scott trust, and Murdoch being a benevolent dictator).

With regards to a business model for social media, Shirky quoted Tim O’Reilly by saying that one should look to create more value than is captured. There are many business models, rather than a linear option, and money isn’t a sole motivator. He says that in some situations that money can lessen a transaction and uses the example of someone sending money rather than flowers after a date.

Another question related to relative abilities of public and private companies. Shirky said that in general public companies make small steps with big press releases, while private companies procrastinate, panic and then make a big leap. However, the speed of change is a difficult thing to manage. There is a balance between a culture clash and slow movement causing good people to leave.

Going back to the legitimacy question, Shirky said that he sees new models of participation having a legitimacy gap as nothing seems to scale as well or be as accepted as voting. The Google algorithm may have saved the web, and Wikipedia’s “last edit” function is popular, but whether these can transfer is a big question.

Shirky also had a great quote in relation to a great question about social media mobilisation only working in opposition. Wilfred Bion, who ran group therapy for neurotics, once said that nothing solidifies a group faster than an external threat. If there is no external threat, people gravitate to neurotics as they’ll be able to find one

Overall, 90 minutes extremely well spent


Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/oreilly/

EDIT: James Devon has uploaded the audio from the lecture here