December 02, 2008

Clay Shirky in London: Group action just got easier

Clay Shirky and Belarus Flashmobbers

People sometimes ask why one might 'waste' one's time sitting on Advisory Boards, especially those of conferences. One reason I like it is that you can suggest that you'd like to hear someone like, say, Clay Shirky and, six months later, you've got him. Clay speaks today at Online Information Conference in London.

As well as formal groups around certain types of photography on Flickr (like this HDR group for beginners) there are the more impromptu adhoc communities that form around just one photo. It means that whereas destination sites' half-lives were relatively short, the half-life of a "insta-community" photograph like this becomes very much longer. Flickr, in this case, is an organisation that has created more by doing less - less intervention, less 'management' of community, less structure around debate.

How much does the individual have to give up to get to the action. Sharing is easiest, collaboration is harder and collective action hardest.


Bronze Beta is the bulletin board for Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It's an old skool site/forum based around Buffy. It has one page, and a form in which you put your latest views on Buffy. When the TV co wanted to disband it, or rebrand it the community cried out. "No! Don't give us features. Don't make it different. Above all, don't close it down." The conversations there continue today, well beyond the last episode of Buffy was made.

10 years ago, as Clay helped newspapers move out of Wapping into the new glitz of Canary Wharf, he was concerned with which content management system to get them. Had he told them (had he known) that weblogs being written by geeks in the Valley were going to be harbouring more content than any newspaper could manage, no-one would have believed him.

What makes Bronze Beta work is that it's got a featureless front end, but a very highly developed and complex set of rules of engagement. Fewer features make it easier for the users to share.

The Wikipedia page on Doctor Who has been edited almost 9000 times by over 3000 people. It would be logical (but wrong) to assume that the average is 2.67 edits per person. However, 2200 people only made one edit once, and then moved on. They are not "part of" a community. User Khaosworks, on the other hand, has edited that page nearly 1000 times all on his own. In fact, every article that this user has touched has been on Doctor Who.

This blows up the assumption of an 'average user'. Trying to plan this kind of interaction and collaboration in advance is near impossible to sell to a boss: there's going to be this tiny, unscalable group of users who'll just come to it, unpaid, who you don't know yet, who'll create the product. It really is a case of "in collaboration we trust". We trust it because the long tail type graph of collaboration that Clay refers to is more or less a signature of online collaboration.

Collective action
Getting people to do something is the most difficult thing to do. People tend to do it themselves, of their own accord, when the motivation to do so is more tangible. Cue the HSBC fiasco of last year, when a bank changed its mind on giving students free overdraft and thought instead of charging them £140 for the priviledge. HSBC were banking on the fact that it is tricky to move money from one account to another. They were also banking on the fact that it's hard for students, during a summer holiday, to coordinate action.

Cue Facebook.

When one student set up his Facebook group to campaign against this change, when one student made that effort, it became much easier for people to become activists, just by clicking "Join Group". 4500 members later, with a threat of the whole bunch marching onto the Canary Wharf headquarters, the bank relented.

Thinking is for Doing
Brains are not there to think in abstracts, but to help us do something. Publishing is for acting. Publishing is for doing. It's not just a source of information or a destination site. It's a place where action begins. It's not the Daily Telegraph telling people that HSBC changed the deal. It's Facebook offering a platform to provide that information and then do something about it.

Flashmobs, whose means of collective action I discussed in my recent Cisco paper, are yet another example of technology acting as an enabler to bring people together to act - against dictatorship, for example.

KnarlyKitty Broadcasters' challenge is technological and economical
The technology that allows us to broadcast has been limited in allowing us to create groups and community. Networks have been limited at doing what broadcasters have done, which is separate out the producer and viewer and participant of content. The internet has given birth to this many-to-many communication, but broadcasters have perhaps been stuck in the mentality of Guttenburg economics: we have to lay out some cash up front before we know if something is going to be successful, therefore the publisher only picks the things that (s)he thinks will make back that upfront. The costs are high and upfront so the risk is mitigated by the filter being placed on the side of the publisher.

When you're not a publisher relying on cash to sell your product or your news, then you can afford to report on what you want, and the readership can simply "put up or shut up". So when a young blogger in Thailand reports on the military coup, before going back to the trivia that she enjoys normally writing about, she receives, as if she were a broadcaster, complaints that her coverage is not in depth enough. She retorts; she's not a pubisher, she doesn't need to please the audience, the audience can come or go and get what they're given. This is a liberation from the shackles of Guttenburg economics that new technologies afford us. It's why blogging is not journalism; a journalist is professionally obliged to stick with the story.

Pro-active protest
Social media has now allowed people to take the initiative in saving their favourite TV shows before the TV show even airs. They have, in fact, created their own crowdsourced marketing department, emailing and advising the TV show on what they have to do to get more people to watch it and make the show such a success it can't be dropped.

The old separations are dead
I got this one quite quickly when I started working for Channel 4 and had to engage with taxi drivers who picked me up on account:

Taxi Driver: So you work for Channel 4?

Me: Yes

TD: What programmes do you make then?

Me: We don't actually make programmes. Other people do that. We just pay them to. But actually, I don't make TV anyway.

TD: What do you do then?

Me: I make websites and cool stuff for mobile phones and games consoles.

TD: Like the ones I see advertised on the TV shows?

Me: No, they're just going to be out there. You'll find them if they're meant for you.

TD: Oh... What's Channel 4 doing that for?

Me: Well, the boundaries matter less nowadays... (at this point, I gain 20 minutes of peace in the taxi.)

All the walls have fallen around the world of information. There are horizons but no barriers. What's the next good thing to do? The answer is likely to be: explore. Try several things at once. If someone has a million pound idea for exploiting the social web, then send them out for a long walk and lock the door behind them. Get them to come up with ten of £100,000 ideas or 100s of £10,000 ideas. 

4iP The convening power of traditional media

That, my dears, is a big part of what 4iP is about. 4iP has the potential to be the convener of great ideas, and convene groups that ought to be talking to one another.

With 38minutes we're starting to do just that, having convened a space but given it over entirely to those who want to meet to talk about where they take their design, gaming, coding or new media business in this new(ish) age of t'interweb. Where previously these groups didn't talk, in less than two months we've convened nearly 500 of Scotland and Northern Ireland's top talent from four large sectors who until now rarely spoke about collaborating on projects. But it's happening thanks to the love, sweat, tears and effort of those 500 people, not really 4iP. Just having that shared situational awareness of who's doing what and how you might be able to help make it better is worth its weight in gold.

Cross-posted at 38minutes


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Thanks for the link back.. But really you should have edited out that particular twitter on the right column..

Yuck! I hadn't even noticed... :-s

Great post. I think that the internet coverage of the recent tragedy in Mumbai provides a perfect example of what you are saying.

I have also started putting stuff on the web via NowPublic and I realise that sometimes it's the only way of getting English language coverage of issues that are ignored by the usual channels.

When I first wrote about the recent mass hunger strike in Greek jails there was nothing on the internet about it in English and very little in Greek as well. Within a day the story had been picked by by the news agencies.

I'm proud to have helped, albeit in small way, with that.

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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