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Summary:

Today social technology theorist Clay Shirky delivered a fitting counterpoint to Danah Boyd’s keynote on privacy at SXSW the day before. Where Boyd spoke of the danger of making information more public than users intended it, Shirky talked about new opportunities for sharing information.

Today social technology theorist Clay Shirky delivered a fitting counterpoint to Danah Boyd’s keynote on privacy at SXSW the day before. Where Boyd spoke of the danger of making information more public than users intended it, Shirky talked about new opportunities for sharing information online and elsewhere.

Here’s the Twitter-esque soundbite version of the speech:

* “Abundance breaks more things than scarcity does.”

* “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.” (Shirky’s fellow NYU professor Jay Rosen used this quote in what looked to be the most repeated tweet from the session, from what I could see, though I’m not sure it was the nugget of the talk.)

* “Behavior is motivation filtered through opportunity.”

* “We have a word for not sharing if there’s no cost to you: that word is ‘spiteful.'”

* “How much value can we get out of civic sharing?”

That last point was Shirky’s main thrust — how can people use sharing information to effect change? Civic sharing, as Shirky described it, is “taking what the whole group knows tacitly and turning it into a public document.” By bringing that information to the fore, you can make governments and institutions pay attention to you. Shirky used the example of Ushahidi, which aggregates and maps text messages from crises to create a broader, crowd-sourced sense of what’s actually happening (and was profiled this weekend in the New York Times).

Shirky said that though people would like to think the government serves individuals, it really serves groups. He told the story of how a group of harassed Indian women were able to get the attention of the government to arrest members of the radical Sri Ram Sena group, which was beating them for going out in public to drink at bars. The women formed a Facebook group called the “Consortium of Pub-going, Loose and Forward Women,” and mobilized people to mail pink panties to the leader of Sri Ram Sena. For the local Indian government, the Facebook group made the women a constituency, rather than individuals, so it merited a response.

So how do we create those groups and those collective bodies of information? By motivating people to share. Shirky referred to the new book Why We Cooperate that used research on monkeys to map out three types of sharing. Sharing goods means the giver no longer has them; sharing services takes some effort; sharing information is so easy that it makes us feel good when we do it, and if we don’t do it, we’re spiteful. Shirky asserted that this explains why users and the music industry are out of sync in situations like file-sharing on Napster and elsewhere — since sharing digital goods is just sharing information.

Wrapping it all together, Shirky contended that in the case of sharing information, “The link between intrinsic motivation and private action is just a coincidence.” The natural desire to share information isn’t just a matter of giving directions to an elderly lady because it’s the right small thing to do, it can be a broader movement to provoke change. People can be motivated — due to their feelings about sharing — to contribute to the public greater good.

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  1. “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.”

    So, so true and applies to many aspects of modern culture. You always need to examine motivations and incentives when gauging individuals’/institutions’ behavior.

  2. John Atkeison Sunday, March 14, 2010

    Cooperation is central to being human. Some humans celebrate that and enrich everyone. Some humans manipulate it and impoverish us all.

  3. Clay once again goes deep and scores. In his comment: “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.”
    Isn’t this an extrapolation of selfishness? Institutional survival, like the survival of an individual, is a very powerful, motivating force. The bigger institutions become, the more effectively they can “circle the wagons.” I cite the Congress of the United States as the Institution which has mastered the art of the preservation of problems. In fact, I cannot think of a single problem Congress ever got involved with which it didn’t take a liking to and managed to preserve. Thank you, Clay, for bringing this up.

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  5. Pharmaceutical companies develop drugs “manage the disease” not cure it, for the same reason – “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.”

  6. Ken Jones PhD Sunday, March 14, 2010

    Hey John,
    This is great stuff!

    Since Joseph Campbell observed in the 90s that an era had ended, and the mythologies that supported it were shattered (he called it the terminal moraine of myths) we have been looking for a way of being in the world that is sustainable.

    Sustainability for humans is physical, psychological,and existential/spiritual. We have to belong, be connected to, serve, and be affirmed by something greater than ourselves.

    What we are seeing now is the beginning of the new mythology. Avatar was was striking in its weaving of human themes from the last century into a global vision that audiences had the opportunity to participate in.

    Here is what is particularly striking to me about Rosen’s comment that, “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution:” Free markets are fundamentally predicated on scarcity. Without the assumption of scarcity there is no need for a market as we know it.

    Unregulated free markets have routinely led us to the kind of economic scenario we are now living through. As everyone knows, there have been no changes of any significance in the banking industry.

    Questions: Is there a point at which unregulated free markets become unsustainable? Does that point have to do as much with the recasting of the assumption of scarcity as it does with economic theory of whichever school?

  7. Clay’s points all seem valid, and I haven’t seen both talks in their entirety, but his thesis doesn’t actually sound like a “counterpoint” to Dana Boyd’s thesis.

    Clay seems to be illustrating that explicit and intentional public sharing of information can create great value. Dana’s point seems to be that casual conversations / connections between people don’t need to (and shouldn’t) be promoted and publicly indexed without consent – that privacy still has a place.

    In my mind, those aren’t mutually exclusive proposals.

  8. “Abundance breaks more things than scarcity does.” I am so fascinated of the thought of a world of abundance. Perfect Nietzschian scenario: everything has to be revalued from scratch. Is it possible to view Clay’s speech? Link please.

  9. There is a difference between a person being public or private, and their information, incoming or outgoing, being public or private. News is information, but information is not always news. And just because a person doesn’t share every piece of information that happens by or because of them doesn’t mean they’re spiteful, or anti-social. On the other hand, even if they do share every last [news] morsel, they’re not winning any publicity prizes. There’s a place and time for everything. Neither the individual nor their information can be “publicly private” or “privately public.” Information, public or private, incoming or outgoing, still has to be filtered, by you, or by “them.”

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