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November 07 2009


Clay Shirky on Twitter and the social media revolution

Here’s a great interview with Clay Shirky by GRITtv’s Laura Flanders.

Clay Shirky talks about the power of digital networking, and how social media  can do everything from cause revolutions to create whole new political parties when done right.

The simplicity of Twitter, of course, is its genius. It has the power to do so much by doing so little. But that’s not the only thing that’s simple about Twitter. The service itself was only intended to share 140-character messages with the world. Its significance is its evolution. Everything from @replying and retweeting to using hashes and symbols can be attributed to the users. It has brilliantly allowed users to define it – almost entirely. As Shirky points out, “Most of the uses of Twitter were not imagined by the designers of the service – they were managed by the users of the service.”

As Claire Cain Miller wrote in this NYT piece, Twitter exploded to unprecedented popularity by outsourcing “its idea generation to its users.”

What Twitter did well was absorb it all. Twitter’s founders were not initially pleased that so many other companies were taking advantage of what they had created but then they began to see the advantages. It is not just that dozens of companies are creating tools for Twitter, it is that Internet and social media giants like Facebook and Google are adapting their features to “fit in” Twitter.

Williams and Stone were quick to realize that cross-functionality in various formats would only mean that more people would use it. And it did.

So third parties – be it individual users or companies – were allowed to tinker with it, and adapt it to various platforms. As Shirky points out, Twitter allowed these various applications to be integrated into the service. Retweets and hastags were integrated, among many other user-suggested features, and “Twitter lists” is the latest in a long line of features that is gaining popularity.

While this bottom-up approach is a recurring theme in the case of creative technology companies, Twitter, arguably, owes more to its users in terms of in terms of both social participation and technology.  As Flanders astutely observes in the video, the popularity of Twitter worldwide also has something to do with the fact that it can be used with simple text messaging – and this is especially significant in countries like Iran, India, and China where we’ve seen some of the most productive examples of Twitter usage, from civilian revolutions to terrorist attacks to natural disasters.

But while social media can empower and mobilize citizens, Shirky does believe that organizing power for real world action on the Internet is still lacking. He makes an important distinction between the creation of intellectual property online and real world action through the Internet.

“We don’t yet have a way of incorporating groups that gives people the same kind of access to real world action as the creative commons copyright license do for intellectual property. I think we’re going to see a push for more real world groups using the Internet as their organizing tool and gaining some kind of incorporation as a way to participate in society.”

Social media is still young. All evidence indicates that it will happen soon.

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