F2C: Clay Shirky

Research from the book Here Comes Everybody, and one of the stories was about a bus company that sued some cleaning women who car pooled, by saying that they were stealing their business. They petitioned the French gov’t to take way the women’s cars. Same mentality that’s going on in the music industry. Can lead to two mindsets: let’s take advantage of new opportunity; or let’s try to maintain the status quo.

French court threw the case out, but took two years during which these women had to defend themselves.

In Canada, a car pool scheme was shut down by a bus company because they said it was an illegal bus service.

Book tagline: group action just got a lot easier. Only four other media revolutions of this magnitude: the printing press; telegraph and telephone; rise of recordable media; rise of broadcast. Ones that creative large groups didn’t create two-3way communications and the ones that created two-way communications didn’t create large groups.

Now the internet does both. Going to end up in a world where the triple play goes away because there’s no triple. First new communication pattern of the internet is the many-to-many pattern. What we’ve done with this is LOLcats. But freedom is freedom, freedom to be banal as much as to be important.

Three stories that demonstrate the way that the tools don’t set the conditions for use, once you open up group communications you open up the possibility for them to be used for both silly things and important things.

Summer 2006, HSBC recruited a bunch of college students and recent grads, offering free overdraft. That summer HSBC rescinded that offer, giving students 30 days to switch accounts. HSBC knew they had the power, because the students weren’t on campus so couldn’t co-ordinate, and the switching cost is high.

But an annoyed student puts a page up on Facebook, and people started posting detailed explanations of how to change banks and discussing deals. When one person had done the work, everyone could benefit.

Then the students started the online protests, media picked it up. Then a real world protest in front of HSBC, which never happened because HSBC totally caved. PR guys says that they don’t want to make people unhappy, but HSBC didn’t back down because their customers were unhappy, but because they were unhappy and co-ordinated. Up until a few years ago HSBC enjoyed the informational and organisational advantages.

People now can assemble in a system that gives us an ability to bring some organisational solvency against the institutions that previously had an advantage over us.

There was nothing complex in the tech. Most of the effort behind Facebook is scaling, but being able to put a web page up goes back to ’94. It wasn’t the tool, it was a question of social density. If 10% of the students had been online, you wouldn’t have got the leverage that 100% of the students had. This stuff doesn’t get socially interesting until it gets technologically boring.

Question at last talk [at the RSA, as blogged by Kevin], asked what is the most important tool that’s coming up, expecting an answer like Twitter. But the answer is email, because that’s what people are comfortable with. If your mum is going to get involved in something, it’s going to be by using email, it’s the backloaded weight of society using these tools that’s important.

Second story. Flash mobs. Gathering to engage in a moderately surprising behaviour. Flash mobs organised by Bill from New York, as a critique of the braindeadness of hipster culture. That they would set aside a sense of judgement to do something that they thought would be mildly insulting to the bourgeoisie. Flash zombies, etc.

Then happens in Minsk, a Flash mob to go to October Square eating ice cream. But in the photos documenting it there are ones of secret police dragging the people out of the square. Illegal to act in concert in October Square. Lushenko, president of Belarus, stole election in March 06, and banned group activity to forestall protest.

In order to protest that they needed a countervailing action. So decided on flash mobs. Can’t penetrate group because it’s all online. And can’t prevent the group gathering because they don’t gather as a group until last moment.

It’s not just the tool, it’s the environment. In freer environments tools are used to distraction; in oppressed environments they are used for political statements.

Twitter was launched and people said that it was the stupidest thing ever and a sign of the end times. Pro-democracy activists in Cairo using Twitter to keep an eye on people who have been arrested, keeping track of who’s in custody. If people know you are in custody, you might end up there longer, but are less likely to be tortured. Twitter makes it possible to have the group aware. Tools in high-freedom environments are trivial, in low-freedom environments can be profoundly important.

Third story, wished it was in the book. Group in Palermo, 2004, ran around stickering the town saying that if you pay the mafia you lack dignity. Got a lot of media attention.

Then realised that media wasn’t enough. Can only create awareness. Created website to allow businesses to stand up together to defy the mafia. If people did that alone then their businesses were destroyed and people sometimes killed. So far, as they are doing it as a group. and no one has been killed.

The relationship between the mafia and business is the same as Lushenko and the protesters, and HSBC and the students. Power differential. Co-ordination problem solved for customers, students, protesters.

So in Palermo they did a site that allows you to only trade with companies that don’t pay the mafia. Provided a co-ordinating layer for a population that shared a problem.

Thinking is for doing. Similar thing is happening to media. Publishing is for acting. It doesn’t just create shared awareness it creates the possibility of a platform for co-ordination, not just say something but do something. In Belarus, the Live Journal page lead to collective action, but that led to more media, as the protesters weren’t just out there to force the state to react, they were there to document. They brought their cameras, they wanted those photos online, they wanted to use the collective action to create more media to spread the message. Create a complete circle. Nothing says dictator like arresting someone for eating ice-cream.

They’ve done it several time. They went round October Square smiling at each other. There’s a problem for the cops.

Capability for media to be not just a source of information but a site for action is starting to be manifested in ordinary society. That’s a really big change, and it’s something to be optimistic about.

But the big asterisk. The danger to this new freedom to act is principally a regulatory one. If you lived in a society that wanted freedom of speech and freedom of the press, but there were some actions you couldn’t take part in, like libel, and they wanted no chilling effects and no prior restraint. Seems like a list you can only pick two from.

Yet we all live in a world like that, or have until recently, but law isn’t internal to itself. The law grows around the society it’s in. And recently there was one very salient fact about media – it was done by professionals. Power comes form the neck of a bottle. The expense of owning a printing press, having access to spectrum, creates not just an engineering bottle neck, but also created a class of professionals committed to the long term viability of that bottle.

So end up in a game of prisoners’ dilemma. People running TV or news, are involved in a tit for tat relationship with government. They think twice about publishing some things because they are concerned about ability to still publish. Government can identify list of places content can come from.

Teaches at NYU, average age of students has remained the same whilst his age increases at a steady rate of one year per year. Has had to start teaching 80s/90s as ancient history. Have to explain what the media landscape was like. But the sticking point, the thing that they don’t really grok is that prior to the mid-90s, if you have something to say in public you couldn’t. You had to get permission from someone else to say something in public.

The regulatory structures look for a new class of professionals to interact with. Find new people that they want to watch what’s going on, whom they want to rope into the same system they used to have the publishers/broadcasters in.

The domain name system is the thing that looks to the regulators most like the old publishing industry. Can remove domain names to remove access to sites.

So we have to get the engineering right, and have to realise that a degree of centralisation is also where the threat of the reintroduction of this class of regulation is.

Used to be that freedom of speech and freedom of the press were different, and different to freedom of assembly. Now have a medium that provides all three freedoms together. Not just a net win but a huge new win. There are downsides, though. But biggest threat is to prevent the TSE-style ‘we’ll sue you til you behave like the bus commuters you used to be’. Have to watch out for that.

Q: What about future shock. People can’t deal with lots of change happening very quickly. Danger is backlash.

The really interesting example is from about two years ago this month, where 40,000 high school students organised a walk out to protest anti-immigration. Organised in 2 days, using MySpace and SMS. None of the school admin saw it coming. The reaction to that was to lock the doors in school the next day, even locking the classroom doors.

When you move from iterated relationship to one-off transaction is that the punishments become a lot more draconian. Have to raise the threat level so high it puts people off trying. The thing that worries my most is that these one off political event is that the threat of punishment is going to become very extreme. That’s the bit that worries me most.

Q: Ask more about gatekeepers and the media. My understanding is that there were a lot of pamphlets early on in our history. When did that change? It wasn’t how the system was designed.

What we know of as a corporation didn’t exist then as it does now. There were committees of correspondence, discussions, letters going from group to group and they’d discuss them informally. What happened is economies of scale, as long as there are unit costs for individual copies, or there are economies of scales for geographic reach they are going to privilege the largest actors. The link of economies of scale with economy of tension, you can publish your own newspaper but it’s hard to support a vibrant newspaper culture.

Reversion of lots of engagement at lots of levels.

Q: Sophistication of revolt. Any insight into Tibet?

Looking at protests in Leipzig in 91, people banging pots and pans walking round the square. Gov’t didn’t crack down because it didn’t seem worth it, but every week a few more people joined. By the time it got to the thousands, by that Sept, the gov’t said that they were going in, and the next week 10,000 people showed.

Gov’ts learned from that, don’t let any protests happen. the mistake by that gov’t was not to round up the initial 50 and throw them in jail.

In Tibet, that information cascade has accelerated. So new cat/mouse protest game is how quickly can you get big enough to cross a threshold that the whole world is watching. In Burma, everyone’s watching. Getting media out stiffens people’s spines. the acid test will be if there is a significant protest on the opening day of the Olympics in China. There’s more willingness to imagine that because of the visible protest coming out of Tibet. There’s evidence that the protest is happening and people are aware of that.

Shared awareness is the precursor of action. The protest moved from ‘everybody knows’ to ‘everybody knows that everybody knows’.

Q: Domain name issue. Saw that bottleneck coming. It’s more than the gov’t seeking to enforce laws, it’s the IP owners seeking to enforce more than their existing rights. what do you recommend?

The thing that made me saddest was when the idea of just having hundreds of TLDs. There’s no insuperable constraint to having hundreds. Abundance is the natural state of the internet. Any scarcity is at the least a failure of the model in one layer of the stack. The problem right now is that because it’s a name space problem and not an engineering problem, it seems to me that there is, given the way the system is now, there is no good alternative. Plan B ought to be having a bunch of non-US LTDs pointing at your domain that don’t rely on the largesse of the US gov’t. Can’t see that there’s a way, short of a fork of the root name server which is a worse solution than a problem. When a domain name goes away i can’t see a good way or reaching the audience that relied on that domain name.

Regulatory solution is the only solution. Need to keep on to ICANN. If you could go back in time, mid-84 is a good way to go back and say these root name servers are going to be a problem. But it was v. different then.

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