Shirkey Internets greatest power is beyond commerce

February 18, 2011
| By Pete Daly |
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Clay Shirky remembers that back in the mid-1990s, there was a whole school of thought that maintained that “old people” would never use that newfangled thing young people were so excited about — e-mail. He also remembers a point after that when he read the headline: “Geezers Go Online.”

Today, the fastest growing group of Facebook users are people over 40, Shirky pointed out last week at The Economic Club of Grand Rapids.

Shirky, a consultant on Internet technologies and social networking, and an adjunct professor in New York University’s graduate interactive telecommunications program, has written two books about the effects of the Internet on society: “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations” (2008), and “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age” (2010).

Shirky’s understanding of ways the Internet has harnessed powerful collective action might be instructive to anyone in business. Sometimes social networking is more powerful as a creative outlet or a political tool, rather than a means of reaching and motivating consumers.

It was fitting that Shirky’s appearance in Grand Rapids was on Valentine’s Day, because he likes to tell the story of what happened in India on Valentine’s Day in 2009. In January 2009, a small organization of right-wing extremists violently attacked women they saw leaving bars in the city of Mangalore. The leader brazenly announced to the news media that his organization would attack “unchaste women” they found patronizing bars on Valentine’s Day, a celebratory day the extremists abhor.

A female journalist in that Indian province set up a mocking Facebook page called Consortium of Pub-Going, Loose and Forward Women, which exhorted women to go to the nearest pub on Valentine’s Day and buy a drink. The Consortium got so much favorable coverage in the news media that the government couldn’t ignore it and decided to arrest the vigilante leader just before Valentine’s Day and keep him locked up until it was past. There were no attacks.

This mass awareness is what Shirky calls “cognizance.” The “surplus” part of his book title comes in when there is an abundance of awareness — enough to take action and accomplish a goal.

Wikipedia, he noted, was the first successful organization that took a huge amount of time volunteered by individuals to create a free online encyclopedia. Shirky said that he and an IBM researcher calculated that 100 million volunteer hours have gone into Wikipedia, which sounds like a lot. However, he calculates that Americans spend about 200 billion hours a year watching television — as much time in one weekend that it took to make Wikipedia what it is today.

Shirky emphasized the immense value of a population’s free time if it were channeled into collective action, which the Internet now makes possible. Of course, watching television doesn’t make mass collective action possible because it isn’t an interactive technology. That’s the key difference between television and the Internet.

Another story that demonstrates the power of the Internet originated in Kenya in late 2007, when an election was followed by months of ethnic violence that the government chose to ignore. In fact, the government outlawed news coverage of the violence. Finally, a blogger urged people all over the country to send her reports of violence via cell phone, and soon she was swamped with far more reports than she could handle.

Techies volunteered their time to help her create the Ushahidi Platform — ushahidi means “testimony” in Swahili. It is now a nonprofit tech company that develops free and open-source software for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping to report crisis areas. From 45,000 original users in Kenya, it has spread to use in 10 languages around the world. It is in use in Haiti, for example, which is still struggling with the aftermath of the earthquake a year ago.

Ushahidi, said Shirky, “is a classic case of design around a cognitive surplus,” in which the true value comes not from the technology but from the voluntary participation by large numbers of people.

Shirky also talks about seemingly frivolous uses of the Internet, such as Lolcats — funny photos of cats that people contribute and which many people download for screensavers. People visit the Lolcats website for fun, but it is a dot-com and it does carry advertising. Shirky notes that it is easy for critics to complain that Internet technology is being used “for ridiculous stuff.”

Then he points out the history of the printing press. Almost immediately, said Shirky, people realized that this new technology could be used for printing text and images that were entertaining and titillating. On the other hand, he notes, the first scientific journal was not printed until about 150 years later. Then the power of the press began in earnest to be used for the dissemination of scientific knowledge that truly did change the course of history.

Internet technology has been used to look at problems and situations from a totally different perspective, according to Shirky. PickupPal is a privately held corporation that launched in Canada in 2008 to offer free carpooling service “to intelligently connect drivers and passengers around the world, forming a new transportation marketplace,” according to its website.

The PickupPal founders started from the premise that many people need transportation and that most cars on the road have room for more passengers. It was “an information problem,” said Shirky: how to connect the people needing rides with the drivers willing to provide them. Those seeking rides could safely filter out types of drivers they did not want to ride with, and vice versa. If the driver received some money, he or she was asked to remit a small percent to PickupPal (via PayPal, of course). If the driver didn’t, the driver would not get a review on his or her PickupPal account, and of course, people seeking rides are looking for good reviews from previous riders.

PickupPal, relying on the latest smart phone technology and the most popular social networking sites, was so successful that a bus company in Ontario tried to get the government to shut it down.

“Phase two was ‘save PickupPal,’” said Shirky. The same technology that made PickupPal possible was used to organize supporters in its defense — which was successful. Now PickupPal is active around the world, and of course, it has competitors.

“We don’t just consume,” said Shirky. People also like to be creative and share their creativity, such as funny photos of their cat, and they like to donate their free time to serious causes — and therein lies the power of the Internet.

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