Clay Shirky: Here Comes Everybody at RSA

This is a paraphrase of Clay’s talk at the Royal Society of Arts.

Clay Shirky, here comes everybody: the power of organising without organisations.

It was chaired by Nico Macdonald, a principal of Spy.

You can find a biography of Clay a and wikipedia, Clay interjects. “Wikipedia has done a better job,” he said.

We have reached an age when this stuff is technologically boring enough to be socially interesting.

It’s not about gee-whiz adoption that we can do x. The book in one bullet point:

Group action just got a lot easier.

HSBC last year decided a great way to recruit new students is with interest-free overdrafts. Accountants called them back said it wasn’t such a good idea. HSBC counted on switching is hard, and however mad the individuals are, there will not be any kind of serious response.

They hadn’t counted on Facebook. To HSBC’s horror, thousands of people joined. Out of no financial information, the students began sharing information. They wrote up incredibly detailed instructions. If you want to switch to Barclay, here is how to do it.

This got the attention of the newspapers. The organisaitonal advantage that HSBC had is now ended. The students co-ordinated a real world protest.

HSBC: We didn’t know you would be upset. Obvioiusly, we’re a customer service agency.

This didn’t happen because the customers were upset. This happened that customers were upset and they were co-ordinated. They could talk to each other. They recruited the students when they were at school and changed the terms in July when they are dispersed. They knew exactly what they were doing. This would have worked in 2005.

Increasingly, publishing is for acting. Once you put people in touch with each other, you create social value on top of that media value. Now customers have ability to leverage high organisation.

Everyone remembers flashmobs. It was the pole sitting of 2003. Toronto pillow fight. New York, go to Central Park, and join together and all make pigeon noises. Bill, the creator of flashmobs, was making a critique of hipster culture.

In 2006, a developer created a page on Live Journal in Belarus. Let’s all go to central square and eat ice cream. But black clad security appeared and grabbed them. It was illegal to carry out group action in October Square. They hit on flash mob as way to co-ordinate despite the govenment-stated goal of preventing this from happening. This is media leading to collective action. They didn’t just bring ice cream. They also brought their cameras. They documented.

Nothing says dictatorship like arresting people for eating ice cream

In high-freedom environments, these things are deployed for frivollous reasons. Time-wasting. Twitter, this is mainly banal. Egyptian activisits experimented with Twitter to pass along information on who was in custody. Tools, (such as) flash-mobs as a hipster thing have a very differet flavour in Belarus.

One of most frustrating things about publishing, you deliver manuscript and it takes the company six months to hit print. There are s many stories he wanted to include. His last example was such a story. In Palermo in 2004, stuck up stickers that said (rough paraphrase) ‘an entire people who pay money to the mafia (pizzo) is a people without dignity’. People say what else can we do. The problem here isn’t just the mafia is pulling money out of the Palermo economy. Everyone knew that. The problem was the difficulty and danger in opposing the mafia.

They allowed business to stand up together. If you were a single business people standing up, it would be dangerous. When entire group stands up, then harder to target. Much better chance to stand up if they do it as a group. The people are really suffered. If you only want to patronise businesses, customers can anonymously check on businesses not doing business with mafia via a website. They took businesses and average people leverage against the mafia.

Small well organised core versus a large dispered population. The batttle before this has been very unequal. We’re at the beginning of experimenting with the imbalance of power. The ability to share with others is remaking the world. We know this. Collective action where the fate of the group affects the individuals as a whole.

This effort forms the experimental wing of political philosophy.

Is large action best taken on by the state? Communism is the extreme answer to that question. Is it best taken by individual action? Libertarianism is the extreme answer to that question. What is the best instituion? The answer is not instituion but platform. If people can co-ordinate themselves, then people can organise themselves.

Media is moving from a source of information to a site of action. In US Constitution, freedom of speech and freedom of gathering are separate freedoms.

All of these developments are not entirely good. This is not a revolution that will lead us entirely well off.

I used to be a cyber-utopian. I remember the moment I stopped thinking about that. A student of his came and talked to me. She was the community manger of YM, and she was managing the online bulletin boards. Shut down health and beauty boards. We couldn’t get pro-anorexic girls to shut up. If you find yourself feeling hungry, clean up. They shut down their boards, and the girls moved elsewhere.

This isn’t a side effect. This is the internet. This is a case where it’s not an improvement to society, it’s also a challenge. We will have new negatives as well as new positives. The internet lowers the cost of failure. We can fail more and learn more. How can we pull out the good stuff and learn to react to the bad stuff?

Nico: What are the historical parallels?

Clay: All of these examples, it is being used by people who want to stop happening as opposed to people who want new things to happen. The places where real social scale things happening are often short-term, ad hoc and single issue. Anyone who has been in a consumer society can feel this anger bubbling up when we’re given a chance to respond. This is a light-weight structure for people to decide that they want to be identified as a group.

Creative Commons dismantle the goals of copyright by using the tools of copyright. We need to do this with respect to corporations. If we allow people to come together in socially more stable ways that don’t require institutional models, then we’ll see longer term social engagement. We can get past the protest phase.

Nico: Are we trying to re-define political problems in terms of this social and IT tools?

Clay: I do agree with premise. When you find anything that works well, you want to apply it to everything. That is what our way of trying out things.

Sourceforge. 75% of these projects are failures. Zero downloads. Success for most of the rest modest. Then far end, millions of downloads. This is the open source model.

You sprinkle failure on everything and see what works.

Wikitorial and LATimes. Editorial product of individual voice. You need to make sure that failure is public. Open source is very easy to see what doesn’t work. The paper doesn’t cover failure well.

Failure can be a benefit as long as we can all learn from them.

Anytime you lower the cost of doing something, you lower the cost of trying something and lowers the cost of the number of meetings you need to have. In a world where you don’t have to get permission of anyone to try new stuff.

Nico: Campaign is now Zucker-mail where in my day stood on a corner with CND badge and argued with people.

Question from audience: Facebook and HSBC, there are a lot of different tools. What are the next big tools?

Clay: Email. Boring-est answer. The thing to bet on. It’s not a revolution not when behaviour adopts new tools but new behaviors. It’s not about novelty but ubiquity. If you are looking for social scale change, it’s adoption.

What is going on in Flickr is crazy because now your mom is using it.

Dan McQuillan : Wael Abbas shut down account. Commercial inerest of current platforms. (Notes from me: The human rights activism community responded to this quite strongly, and YouTube restored his account. But he had to re-upload the videos.)

Clay: Certainly, worst collision, Yahoo betraying Chinese dissidents. French sued for selling Nazi memorabilia. Yahoo said it was a US company, but when Chinese gov’t came, they said we’re a Chinese company.

Berkman (Center for Internet and Society at Harvard) has done work on how to go to non-commercial platforms.

Roland from NESTA: Is pain in change and opportunity greatest in public or private space?

Clay: That’s such an interesting quesiton. You can see advantages of each. Public is already operating on subsidy model. Gov’ts and NGOs have historically defended themselves from public and constituents.

One of advantages of customer. Inaction. If stop going to store, the store cares. But if you stop voting, then the state doesn’t mind so much.

Native advantage is how public sector has taken to defend itself from the public.

Pat Kane: How is different from socialist philosophy? Leisure time facilitate this??

Clay: It’s about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Lots of these things are at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The social goal is to increase the amount of time people have to give over to things they care about.

Digital divide has focused on wires. But biggest part of digital divide is permission for participation. Give people a sense of permission to participate (actually a reason to participate).

Another question from a person at RSA: As users become more sophisticated, what does it take for critical mass on virtual platform?

Clay: Back when I was a cyber-utopian and thought we’d all be float-y video heads in a video world in the 1990s, all friends were virtual friends because there were so few people on internet. Now, I realise the big reward of online relationships is real world meet ups.

Travel and communication are complements. If you want to support a virtual institution, have a real world meetup. IT guys asked what social tools they could deploy to get people talking: Plane tickets and beer. Start by catalysing groups. It will fertilise virtual collaboration.

Another question from a guy working on reputation mgmt system (Clay says growth industry). He set up a blog to complain about his botched kitchen install and got thousands of pounds in a refund, he says to the cheers in the audience. Are we in a world where everyone is single issue driven?

Clay: Single issue leverage. People are fantastically good at committing identity to groups. At high school, it became a group when you gave a name. It’s like with a girlfriend when you talk about relationship as if third person. Some structural need to support that kind of density and social leverage. Don’t think get out of special interest an single-issue motivation. Bring as many groups into conversation as possible and you will see larger and longer lived groups. interesting to see if see consumer group rising out of the HSBC student Facebook group.

Some of this is time and new institutional frameworks that reward long-term commitment.

Question from audience: Social exclusion. To the few much has been given. (Basically, it was a question on whether and how these tools can be used to counter social exclusion.)

JP who works for BT and writes the blog Confused of Calcutta : I was thinking about a mash up between what you are saying and what Kevin Kelly said in his answer to the Edge question: What have you changed your mind about? If you kept cost of repair as low as cost of dev then you avoid tragedy of commons. Wikipedia. Cost of repair to damage low. Before cost to repair high, Cost to damage low.

Clay: Tragedy of commons, sheep on commons. Everyone motivated to feed their sheep as much grass as possible and it destroyed the commons.

Openness creates value. Value creates incentive. Incentive has nothing to do with value. That encourages spammers.

Social software is the stuff that get spammed.

Bottom up is never enough in the long haul. Eventually, you run into the governance problem. You immediately run into the problem, who gets to guard the guardians. The tools are good enough that we’re not running into problems of technology but age old problems. Such as: Who guards the guardians?

You have to deal with constitutional crises. Almost no one is good at designing for groups.

Social exclusion question. That is the most depressing thread of social research. Duncan Watts and Robert Putnam are finding that social density gives access to social capital. It has so much to do with like-to-like cluster. Only a handful of individuals who bridge those gaps. If I address social exclusion, I wouldn’t address the bulk of groups. I would find people who are bridging. I would find people who know people who ive in council housing but also know someone who lives in Belgravia.

Every social system has imbalance in use of tools. Find natural bridges and strengthen them rather than building new bridges.

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