“The Internet. Powered by Love.” and Other Sociological Observations

Enjoyed a very engaging event last night featuring Clay Shirky – the theme was The Internet Powered by Love. [Shout out to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco for presenting him!] Shirky is a brilliant and insightful character who ‘studies the effects of the internet on society’. While the discussion (moderated by Mashable’s understated but also luminous Chris Taylor) tended to wander a bit, the basic premise was that the internet has fostered the ability for people to do things for each other in small ways as well as in big ways that could previously have only been done by a powerful few. And it went from there…

A few golden nuggets:

  • The collaborative news environment is a double-edged sword. The great majority of citizen-journalists don’t have true journalistic skills, but can serve as on-location reporters, feeding the journalistic process.Due diligence still needs to be done. Shirky cited Reddit’s major errors in vigilante-style mis-identification of Boston Bombing suspects, which then became the news source for upstream media who compounded the blunder to the detriment of the wrongly accused. He juxtaposed the Reddit collaborative model, which he says makes it hard to learn from mistakes, with that of Wikipedia which imposes some bureaucracy designed to prevent errors of this magnitude.
  • He cited a Stanford University study which (summarized) apparently showed that groups love to bond together against an external enemy. If a group doesn’t have one, then the most paranoid person in the group eventually becomes the group leader because s/he can manifest a sense of an outside enemy.  Hmmm…
  • This week’s free-for-all in the Texas State Legislature was an amazing example of modern democracy in action. People on social media were seeing things on TV that people in the chamber couldn’t, and vice versa. Sharing instantly online fed the situation, where, regardless of the outcome, many average people certainly expressed their views to lawmakers!
  • Memes are the “street art of the censored web”, in places where such expression is otherwise suppressed – like Standing Man from Turkey’s Gezi Park or rubber duckies replacing tanks in the famous Tiananmen Square stare-down from the 1990s. Such powerful images now spread instantly online.
  • Media changes the world when it changes the way people can argue. Collaborative online technologies are the internet channel’s way of fostering debate.  Clay noted wikis and forking (in the software engineering sense) as central to modern scientific deliberation and peer review.

The evening also wandered from Yahoo’s controversial show-up-at-the-office policy to Kickstarter.com’s cutting edge patronage model and a range of other issues [Congress should argue through Github???].  Living in our new reality, sometimes my head spins at what’s coming at me through my smart phone. Mr. Shirky is truly gifted at providing context, analogy and humanity to the generosity and drawbacks of the digital age.

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