Here comes… Clay Shirky at the LSE

Last week I went to the LSE to hear a talk by Clay Shirky, author of ‘Here Comes Everybody: How Change Happens When People Come Together’.

He started by telling us that a 5 word précis of his above-mentioned book were: group action just got easier.

Clay’s talk focused on a few important examples of how the internet helped crowds of people get their message across:

Facebook takes a lot of the hassle out of organizing an event and gives people a platform for action – such as the students who took on HSBC with their group called ‘Stop the Great HSBC graduate rip off’ and publicized an easy step-by-step process to change your bank account for those who were frustrated with HSBC for changing the rules of their overdraft penalty.

He also talked about the power of the internet in terms of connecting people – during the China earthquake on 12th May 2008, people used the tools on the internet to communicate with each other with news of loved ones and collect donations. Although the authorities didn’t take well to a one retired school teacher for criticising the shoddy construction of buildings in terms of contributing to the 7000 casualty toll and detained them, but overall the government couldn’t control the story getting out of China because it had already been reported before they could stop it.

The topic of politics also brought Clay onto the Obama campaign describing him as the ‘first platform candidate’. This was another very current example of how online media makes a difference – user created media became a huge influence in getting positive messages across – the ‘Yes We Can’ music video was watched by millions, it wasn’t commissioned by Obama, but was perfect for a campaign.

To counterbalance this positive example, Clay talked about the music video created by a singing teacher in the US who created a song for Obama and filmed her conducting the class singing it. This didn’t look so good as it appeared to be her putting words into the mouths of kids who were too young to understand exactly what they were singing about. Obama didn’t suffer too much over this as people were generally savvy enough to realize that although his name was on it he wasn’t behind it.

Crowdsourcing sites are currently very popular and one that harnesses the power of public vote to float ideas up to the top of lists is, which Obama set up to keep the conversation going after the success of his online campaign. Though the one that the public voted for as the most important wasn’t a reflection on war, credit crunch or global warming, but was the legalization of marijuana – voted for by an anti-drugs law group – an interesting case as this example shows how a voting site can be hijacked for political or other gain.

So if the social net is a new force in politics Clay asks: how are we going to use it and how do we counterbalance ideas and what are the checks and balances?
Clay finished his talk by saying that he feels in the current financial crisis, the depth that we are going to adopt new tools will be surprising, he stated “I think this is the year that we make momentous decisions about the checks and balances”.

He gave the example of workers in the UK at Sellafield who can structure their own strike action and don’t need the unions or institutional interfaces. He thinks it’s more a question of legitimacy of voting sites than scale – “we need an algorithm that works”.

A few extra nuggets from my talk notes and the Q&A session:

• Real time apps are now playing more of a part in reportage – such as Twitter
• When there’s a disaster Wikipedia is used to coordinate news events
• On controlling campaigns – “If you give up some control – then someone has control over you!”
• On doing stuff for free: “Sometimes money isn’t the thing – i.e. if you had a good date it’s okay to send flowers but not money! Is there some value you can create that isn’t money?”
• “I wouldn’t concentrate on large moves or the wisdom of crowds. I’d be worrying about getting ideas from small groups as historically this has been a big source of change.”
• On the threat of citizen journalists to newspapers “Journalists are like kept women – I don’t think that the gap that is left by the paid for journos is going to be filled by the bloggers because the buzz of the newsroom isn’t replicated”
• “I don’t think the technology is ready for large moves in politics – i.e. if it’s just a load of potheads trying to influence the system then I’m not interested.”

Although there weren’t any earth-shatteringly new revelations from Clay, it was a good talk with some witty insights especially in the Q&A that seemed genuinely thoughtful, especially in terms of how he/we are adapting our opinions in response to cultural changes to internet usage and the questions this poses. It was interesting to hear the Obama media examples as I hadn’t heard about all of them and good to hear some UK examples in the mix. There were also some good soundbite nuggets, especially the ones that made me laugh out loud!