SXSW: Shirky's New Opportunities in Public Sharing

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. HeĀ 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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