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Tue, 09 Dec 2008 11:38
Clay Shirky writes, teaches, and consults on the social and economic effects of the internet, especially on places where our social and technological networks overlap. His goal is to describe the intersection of social tools and social life, helping people both to understand what’s happening around them, and how tools could be designed that better support social activity. A professor at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, he has consulted for Nokia, Procter and Gamble, News Corp., the BBC, the US Navy, and Lego. A regular keynote speaker at tech conferences, he has never believed that technology is an end unto itself; rather it is our use of technology that matters.
Mark Thwaite: What gave you the idea for Here Comes Everybody?
Clay Shirky: I've been tracking the social effects of the internet since the early 1990s, but most of those observations have been about techies and early adopters. I started working on the idea for Here Comes Everybody when it became clear that the social experience of most of society was being transformed. That made it seem an auspicious time to write a book for people who aren't techies and about people who aren't techies.
MT: How long did it take you to write Here Comes Everybody?
CS: Fifteen months or fifteen years, take your pick.
I started the first real draft in June of 2006, but the initial pass of the manuscript was really about organizing things I'd been observing and thinking about since 1993.
MT: You are very optimistic about the "power of organizing without organisations." Can you give us some examples that really show this in action?
CS: The HSBC protest is a perfect example. HSBC had been recruiting UK students and recent graduates with a promise of penalty-free checking accounts. Last summer, they decided to revoke this policy, giving the students only a few weeks notice of the impending change.
HSBC hadn’t reckoned on Facebook, the social networking service that started its life specifically targeted to college students. A Cambridge University student, Wes Streeting, set up a place on Facebook to complain about the policy, calling it "Stop the Great HSBC Graduate Rip-Off!", which quickly garnered thousands of members.
Facebook was the one place where both current students and recent graduates could all be reached together; in years past, the dispersal of the graduates made it hard to communicate with them, but now they remain part of the social fabric of a college even after dispersing physically.
Having gotten so many students to join the virtual protest, the Facebook group then announced it would stage a real-world protest at HSBC’s offices in London. That protest never happened, because HSBC caved in and reversed the policy long before the appointed date for the protest.
This reversal was a consequence of new social tools; HSBC didn't cave in because the students were unhappy, they caved because the students were unhappy and coordinated, in ways they hadn't been even a few years before.
MT: Do you really believe that the huge amplification of group communication will change society?
I teach social media at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU and a couple of years ago I had to start teaching the media landscape I'd grown up with as a history lesson for my twenty-something students. Of all the things I tell them about that bleak period, when media was only produced by professionals, the hardest thing to explain has turned out to be this: back then, if you had something to say in public, you couldn't. Period. Media wasn't for citizens, except as consumers.
And now, to a first approximation, anyone in the industrialized world, and an increasing number of people everywhere, can say whatever they like in public. Every time we lower the cost of communicating, we increase the number of participants and the diversity of the things communicated, and the current change is the greatest expansion of expressive capability in the history of the human race.
MT: Are you not crediting the internet with too much autonomy, Clay? Isn't the truth that, for many users, the Internet is just about shopping online? Entrenched societal values have reshaped the internet into a great big shopping mall, not a great big democratic forum!
CS: I'm not crediting the internet with any autonomy at all -- the change here is in human accomplishment, not in mere technology. As I note in the book, if you invented a better shovel, people wouldn't rush out to dig more ditches. What makes the current changes in social tools so profound isn't the tools themselves; it's that they amplify basic human needs and skills, like telling stories, sharing knowledge, and working together.
Though the business press pays more attention to things like e-commerce more than to social adoption, the effect of the internet and mobile phones on the average citizen is in fact primarily social. Although the internet has had obvious effects on activities like shopping, every survey of online behavior ever done finds some form of socializing at the top of user activity, whether that's emailing friends or using MySpace. There are tens of millions of people who use these tools to keep in touch with friends and family but who never shop online. There is almost no one who shops online but doesn't use the internet socially.
MT: What do think is the biggest opportunity of the new ways that we can organise ourselves?
CS: It's hard to pick just one, because there are so many, but I'd say it will be in the ability to have extremely large collaborative endeavors like Wikipedia. It's great to have social tools that help dozens or even hundreds of people co-create something, but they also have analogs in the old world -- businesses and government agencies and so forth. Wikipedia, on the other hand, has hundreds of thousands of contributors, a staggering number, a group that by rights should collapse of its own weight. Wikipedia has achieved its current scale mostly by letting individuals make a single change to a single article without requiring a lot of cooperative overhead. That pattern is new, and we've just scratched the surface of what it possible with it.
MT: And what are the biggest dangers? Surely, the amplification that very marginal groups can achieve online can be very dangerous?
CS: Absolutely. The biggest danger I see is that society has lost its ability to make it difficult for certain groups to find one another and pursue their goals together, the very pattern the social tools create. Groups from Al Qaeda to the Pro-Anorexia movement can now form without needing any social help or permission, and now that we've lost the ability to prevent such groups from forming, we'll have to spend more resources reacting to them after the fact.
MT: Do you read the critics? Have you been pleased with the responses to your book? Have you learned anything from them?
CS: I've certainly been pleased with the responses, and the ones that most delight me are where people read the book and then begin to apply it to their own situation. I've seen reviews and observations from non-profit organizers, librarians, newspaper people and even a priest saying "There a lot in here that I think we can apply to our situation this way..." That, for me, is the best response, not that they found the book interesting in an abstract way, but that they found it stimulating in a practical way.
And what I've learned from those reactions is that I'm glad I didn't write one of those "Here is a list of the seven things your organization must do" kinds of books -- these ideas are so much more powerful when they are not put across in a cookie-cutter way, so that people can apply them with some local nuance.
MT: What do you do in your spare time?
CS: Well, I've got two little kids, so a lot of what used to be spare time is now spent playing Snakes and Ladders or wandering around museums.
MT: Did you have an idea in your mind of your "ideal" reader? Did you write specifically for them?
CS: Yes. My ideal reader is smart but not geeky, skeptical, and impatient. I tried to write a book that would compress a great many ideas about social change into a set of stories, to make the point that the changes I am describing are already happening, in ways anyone can see. I knew I would have to do a lot of explaining of relatively abstract concepts, like how society forms in clusters and how those clusters relate to one another, and I figured I had to earn the reader's indulgence for those explanations by deriving them from examples drawn from the real world.
MT: What are you working on now Clay?
CS: A social network map of co-editing patterns in Wikipedia. I'm trying to figure what the common patterns of people working together on more than one article are, on the theory that these social interactions provide a set of invisible 'editorial boards' within the whole. The work is just getting started, with some tantalizing but incomplete observations, so its too early to tell what I'll eventually conclude, but I already know enough to tell that it is at least going to be interesting.
MT: Who is your favourite writer? What is/are your favourite book(s)?
CS: I mostly read non-fiction, so I don't have favorite writers so much as favorite books. A recent favorite is Steven Pinker's Words and Rules, which is about what we can learn about language from the way we handle regular and irregular verbs. (Sounds like it's not for all markets, I know, but it's a great read.) In the Golden Oldies category, I recently re-read Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions, which is even better than I remembered, and I loved it the first time.
MT: Do you have any tips for the aspiring writer!?
CS: Writing badly is better than not writing.
When you have no idea what you are doing, get to it anyway. I threw away more words than actually made it into Here Comes Everybody, from deleting a paragraph here or there to throwing away entire chapters, but all of that work helped hone the final product, not least because it helped me figure out what the book wasn't about. None of that would have happened if I'd just stopped work every time I wasn't writing well -- waiting for inspiration is generally a waste of time compared to getting on with it.
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