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Social Web Reshaping How Media Works: Shirky

Clay Shirky
Here Comes Everybody author Clay Shirky. Photo: David Needle
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- The one thing the rise of social media's proven is most of us aren't couch potatoes. In a wide ranging analysis of social media trends, author Clay Shirky said for years we've been operating on a "lousy understandings of human behavior."

Shirky, author of "Here Comes Everybody," said that in the 1990s, the prevailing wisdom was most people spent hours watching television because they liked it. He doesn't deny that the TV remains a popular pastime, but said the rise of social media shows people also want to produce and interact with content.

"Sometimes we like to produce, sometimes we like to share, but we didn't have media that let us do that" until now, he said in a keynote address here at the Search Engine Strategies conference.

With the rise of Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and other social networks, Shirky said the media landscape is increasing in both size and visibility. He gave several examples of how unpaid bloggers and others Netizens forced companies to change their policies and impacted social change. He cited one example of a blogger in Thailand who posted the first pictures of a coup in 2006 against the government there after the military cracked down on the established media.

"The military hadn't figured out blogging and she takes one of first photos of the tanks and all the global voice of other media are pointing to her blog," Shirky said. "All of a sudden, she's become one of the go-to sites because she committed an act of journalism."

But in an interesting rejoinder to that story, Shirky recalled how the blogger later posted a more frivolous entry about looking for a new phone with a Hello Kitty design. She was then besieged by comments asking for more posts about the coup. In response, she wrote a post that explained she could write about whatever she wanted to on her blog and, as Shirky summarized, basically said "if you don't like it, leave."

"No professional media outlet in the world would tell its readers to buzz off," he said. The difference with social media, he continued, is the content creators have intrinsic motivations that aren't, for example, about money.

"We are living in the middle of the largest expansion of expressive capability in the history of media," Shirky said.

And companies that don't get it risk losing or alienating customers. He criticized a Johnson & Johnson blog for customers from last year, since updated, that asked readers to limit their comments to Johnson & Johnson but to make any comments on the company's products at a separate site specific to the product.

Contrary to the intent, the J&J blog "was really a one-way conversation," he said.

Tech gets boring -- and that brings change

As social media seeps deeper into general use, it's impact will grow significantly Shirky predicts. "These tools don't get interesting until they get technologically boring." He said it's not the "shiny new tool" that brings revolution -- instead, it's brought about by the shiny new tool that becomes old hat.

Shirky recalled that during the last decade, there was a lot of speculation that most people over 60 wouldn't use e-mail. Not only did they use it, but "now you talk to teenagers today, and they think e-mail is only for old people," Shirky said. "Once e-mail became normal, that's when social changes occurred."

He said social media and networks have brought us a period of "mass amateurization."

"The number of tasks people can do on the Web on their own is exploding," he added.

But Shirky said professionals often mistake the blogs, wikis and personal Web sites as smaller or more limited versions of what a professional can do.

"These aren't sloppy professionals," he countered, "but people doing things in a different way."