Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Media for Action

Clay Shirky recently wrote a book called Here Comes Everybody. It's good.

I just finished a book called Here Comes Everybody. The thesis of the book is that group action just got a lot easier. We're living through the biggest expansion in expressive capability in history. The first was the printing press and moveable type. The second was the telephone and telegraph. The third was recordable media. And fourth, the rise of broadcast. There's a curious symmetry in those expansions. The ones that created large groups didn't create two-way communication. And the one that created two-way communication didn't create large groups. This one does both.

The first new communication pattern put into place by the Internet is many to many. What have we done with that? LOLCats and Facebook profiles. But then there's freedom. I'm going to tell three stories I've seen unfold that I think show that the tools don't set the conditions for use. The tools can be used for silly frothy things as well as serious things.

In 2006, HSBC, the bank, recruited a bunch of college students and said we're not going to charge you if you have an overdraft. Then they changed their mind and said we're going to charge you a few hundred dollars. We'll give you 30 days to change your bank accounts. They knew they had the advantage over those college students. Switching costs are high. And they had the advantage of coordination because if the students had all been on campus, there could have been some insurrection. But they were all hiking or on summer break. But they didn't count on Facebook. A guy started a group on Facebook. People posted really detailed notes on how to change bank accounts. HSBC lost the informational advantage. Then the online protests began. Then the real protests began – but that protest never happened because HSBC finally caved. HSBC didn't back down because its customers were unhappy, they backed down because their customers were unhappy and coordinated.

This is an example of people assembling around a very lightweight system we didn't have access to before. We now have the ability to bring organizational solvency up against organizations. The other thing to note is that there wasn't anything terribly complicated in the technology itself. That's not because the tool launched but because there were enough people online. If only 10% of the people had been online, you wouldn't have gotten one tenth of the leverage.

This stuff doesn't get socially interesting until it gets technologically boring. The most important social tool in the next year – the source of the most freakouts – is going to be email. If your mom is goin gto be involved in any of these coordinating effects, it's going to be via email. She's not going to use Twitter.

Second story: Flash mobs. Remember flash mobs? The flagpole sitting of 2003? They were pushed by Bill from New York. Turned out that Bill from New York was Bill Wasik from Harper's Magazine. His whole idea of flash mobs was a critique of the brain-dead behavior of hipsters out to shock the bourgeois. Then the idea spread to Belarus. And in the photos of the people eating ice cream in October Square, there are black-clad police officers dragging off the people. The problem wasn't the ice cream. The problem was the group. You can't have a group in October Square.

When I saw the difference between what Bill was doing as a critique of hipster culture and what these kids were doing in Belarus, I realized something. In high-freedom environments, any new coordinating capability can be used for silly things. In environments in which there's any degree of political control or suppression, use of any new coordinating capability can be essentially political.

Twitter makes it possible to not always have two-way communication. You can outsource some of that to the group. In high-freedom environments, that can seem trivial. But in less-free environments, it can be more critical.

The third story I wish was in the book. There was a group in Palermo that, in 2004, ran around stickering. The stickers said that anyone who pays money to the mob for protection was undermining society. They got a lot of media coverage, but then they decided it wasn’t enough. So they built a Web site to organize the shop keepers. That means something very important to the mafia. They also put up a search engine. If you want to only go to businesses that don't pay money to the mafia, you can find them on that Web site. They provided a coordinating layer to a problem that everyone understood but couldn't act on.

William James the philsopher would say that we have brains to figure out what to do next. The same thing is happening to media. We now have media for action. You can get access to media that doesn't just say something but also helps you do something. In Belarus, the LiveJournal page helped lead to action, the protests in October Square. They didn't just bring ice cream. They brought their cameras. Because they wanted it to also lead to more media. They wanted those pictures online.

This is starting to be manifested in ways that aren't just about the early adopters and the techies. It's starting to spill over to other areas of society. And I'm optimistic about that. But here's the big asterisk. The danger here, it seems to me, is a regulatory one. Imagine you live in a society that wanted three things: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and a category of speech acts that they didn't want with no prior restraint. You can say anything you want except the stuff you can't say, and we won't do any policing in advance. We all live in a world like that, or we have until recently. Like a trellis, the law grows up around the structure of the society we're in.

Media used to be something only made by professionals. That didn't just create an engineering bottleneck, but it created a class of professionals with a vested interest in defending that model. It's an iterative game of prisoner's dilemma. The people who own the newspapers or television stations have been in collusion with the politicians. They might have something explosive about a leader, but they might not publish it because that they want to publish their newspaper again tomorrow.

I teach at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU. The average age of my students has remained relatively stable, but my average age has grown at the alarming rate of one per year. I've had to start teaching about the '80s and '90s as ancient history. I can see them register it but not feel it. Prior to the mid-'90s, if you had something to say in public, you couldn't. You had to get someone's permission.

So what does the regulator look for? A new class of professionals to exercise self-censorship. We're playing an iterative game with you. Watch what goes out over your pipes. We may exert the same force we used to exert on the other professionals. The removal of the Wikileaks domain. GoDaddy's removal of the RapeMyCop domain. Domain names are in that stack.

We have to find a group that self-censors. That brings back the threat of that kind of regulation. It used to be that freedom of speech and freedom of the press were different. It used to be that freedom of speech and the freedom to assemble were different. We now have a medium that allows all three freedoms to occur together.

The biggest threat right now is to prevent the TSE style of we're going to sue you until you're like the bus commuters you used to be model. We all have to watch out for that to preseve those freedoms.

1 comment:

David @ KickApps said...

Great post--can't wait to read Shirky's book.