Clay Shirky: 15 Points on the Web Revolution in Social Collaboration and Political Communication

Flash Mobs: From No Pants Day to "Licking Ice Cream" in Belarus

Having viewed Clay Shirky’s presentation, “Protest Culture — Ad Hoc vs Institutional, and What it Means,” for which we had insufficient time in the seminar to critically discuss it, I decided to list what struck me as his “key points” in our Twitter seminar at #ans498, gathered below in one place here, with some edits and modifications, and with some of my questions added. Feel free to post comments. The main elements of the presentation were organized around the themes of sharing, conversation, collaboration, and collective action.

  1. Society itself is broadly different with the Internet.
  2. With the Internet we see the largest ever increase in human expressive capability.
  3. Networks are “natively good” at forming groups: “Group action just got easier.
  4. Freedom of speech, press, assembly, are now all the same freedom.
  5. As a species we are natively good at forming groups.
  6. New media serve as a prosthetic extension to the innate human capability for forming groups.
  7. “Ridiculously easy group forming,” a result of #6.
  8. Email “reply all” can be seen as a social feature – the native capability of medium is social, it is group-forming.
  9. The reason why there has a been a “social lag,” that is, of the Internet in transforming society (until now), is that groups are natively conservative.”
  10. “When a technology becomes boring, that’s when the social effects become interesting.”
  11. “Boring” meaning (?) that though the social effects presuppose/require a technology, the effects themselves are not about that technology, they are about something other than/outside of it, i.e., social or political change. [My translation: users use the tools in a taken-for-granted fashion without consciously marveling at the technology…they go about the business of doing something with it.]
  12. A “community of practice” is where people gather together in an effort, they learn together, and get better at what they are learning to do.
  13. Stemming from #12 – “every URL is a latent community.”
  14. “Publishing is for acting.”
  15. “How tools get used depends on the the political environment” – here Shirky speaks of “high freedom” environments, and “low freedom” environments. In “high freedom” environments, these social media tools are often used for entertainment…but the same tools, in a “low freedom” environment, can be used for collective protest action. Think of absurdist flash mobs in New York or Toronto (and think of the No Pants Day), versus flash mobbing in October Square in Belarus (see: “Ice cream politics: flash mob in Belarus,” by Howard Rheingold at Smart Mobs).

Relevant concepts/theories:

Some questions and problems:

  • Is social order over-emphasized?
  • Does the increase in expressive capability imply any increase in the range of what is actually expressed?
  • As a “species”, we are also very good at breaking groups apart.
  • Is it a determinist position to say that the technology is “group-forming”?
  • That groups are “natively conservative” is an anthropological assumption, not necessarily wrong, but perhaps oversimplified, ahistorical, and overly universalized.
  • How does one determine that a technology has become “boring”? In the case of the so-called “twitter revolutions,” is not the key feature the actual novelty and excitement generated around a particular technology, with the desire to put it to immediate use?
  • Publishing is acting? Expression is action? Is the reverse true as well? Are we heading back to a theory vs. practice divide?
  • Point #15 addresses our discussion in class, regarding how an analysis of the politics of a group, and an analysis of how that group uses a technology, may be two sides of the same coin. However, who decides, standing where, and using which criteria, on what is a “high freedom environment”? Here it seems almost certain that Shirky takes his own society to be a “high freedom” one (remember, “they hate our freedoms!”), where people can “afford” to get silly with technology and entertain themselves. Really?

About Maximilian C. Forte

I am a professor of anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. My areas of research and teaching interest are centered in Political Anthropology, with a focus on imperialism, neoliberalism and globalization, nationalism, democracy, and the international political economy of knowledge production.
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2 Responses to Clay Shirky: 15 Points on the Web Revolution in Social Collaboration and Political Communication

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Clay Shirky: 15 Points on the Web Revolution in Social Collaboration and Political Communication « Cyberspace Ethnography: Political Activism and the Internet --

  2. Pingback: This Failed Revolution, Powered by Twitter: Revisiting the Recurring Themes of the Moldova Twitter Revolution, and Raising Some New Doubts « Cyberspace Ethnography: Political Activism and the Internet

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