Thursday morning, I had the great pleasure of seeing and hearing my intellectual crush, Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing without Organizations, address the Communications Network conference. Here are my notes from his compelling presentation:
Communications is changing in that "group action just got easier. ...Media is shifting from being just the site of information, to also being the site of coordination, of action."
Clay talked about wikis as great examples of group action and the presentation and protection of information. "Wikipedia is a process, not a product." I love Clay's description of the m.o. of wiki page editors: "they form a defensive cordon around the value of the information." And he asked us to "imagine a world in which it is easier to take the spray paint off a wall than to put the spray paint on." In essence, "Wikipedia works because it is easier to undo than to do damage." Of course, the number of people who want to defend the information must exceed the number who want to destroy the information.
Clay also declared that "We are living in the largest revolution of personal expression. ...When you buy a computer you get both consumption and production in the same box, now fused with public access."
He summed up his observation that "the Internet is the first medium that is good at 2-way group support", by this pithy statement: "Every URL is a latent community. ...This is a revolution; it can not be contained by the institutions. ...People can now talk directly to each other without asking for permission. ...We now have a medium in which we can have tiny global movements." Prior to the connectivity of the Internet, "we were used to 'global' being the last step after 'really big'."
More pithiness: "Behavior is motivation filtered through opportunity."
He talked about bloggers, when reporting breaking local news, "committing an act of journalism." And he defended professional journalists by reminding us that "amateurs are not little professionals."
The Communications Network is a group of philanthropic professionals focused on communications. Hoping to overcome the fear of change and loss of control that too frequently delay philanthropic organizations from embracing social media, Clay urged those present to "start small and only talk to people who care. ...The whole idea of filter before publish is gone. ...Figure out where the people you want to talk to are, and give them the tools to help spread your message. ...View the Communications Department as not just a mouthpiece, but also a microphone. It's now about 2-way conversation. ...The feedback loop makes the organization smarter!"
He also pointed out that "The loss of control you fear has already happened."
Clay suggested that organizations ready to engage in social media "Find the person with the vision and lock them out of the building! Don't let them back in until they come back with 10 medium ideas or 100 small ideas. ...You can't stomach failure if you are only working on one thing."
To those in the audience who suggested postponing engagement until the value could be clearly measured, Clay replied, "It is an experimental time. The metrics will come. Waiting for the metrics is a lost opportunity, shaping your early death."
This past March, Clay wrote a provocative essay on the future of print journalism, Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable. Representatives from several foundations that fund journalism were present, and questioned Clay about the future of print journalism. His response was especially poignant to me, living in a city where my last elected mayor in under indictment for corruption: "Every city of less than 500,000 in this nation is at risk of rising, endemic corruption because the old watchdogs will disappear before the new ones arrive."
He then stated that "85% of accountability journalism is produced by newspapers." Change, however, will have benefits, since "we never want any one thing to have that much importance! We'd rather have an ecosystem of news sources where the loss of any one thing will not be catastrophic."
[For those of you who may share my intellectual crush, or just want to read more from Clay, I highly recommend his essay, Gin, Television, and Social Surplus.]
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