Yes, I totally agree with the thrust of Clay Shirky’s argument in “Here Comes Everybody: the power of organising without organizations”. Here it is (my caps) : “WHEN WE CHANGE THE WAY WE COMMUNICATE, WE CHANGE SOCIETY“.
Perhaps it doesn’t need a book this length to communicate that message but it’s a powerful read. The flow of advantages from today’s social media tools is tremendous: as Shirky puts it, “ridiculously easy group forming”, the creation of new groups whose members never had the means to coalesce before, the freeing of political expression from Belarus to Egypt (and Iran.. and Thailand…the list is growing fast). I like this quote too, that “social tools create what economists call a positive supply side shock to the amount of freedom in the world.” Not to be too starry eyed, that can of course mean freedom to do the wrong thing too (cf John Robb reference to “open source guerillas” putting social tools to terrorist ends.)
Shirky’s book is also provocative, an implicit jab at those of us who haven’t been paying enough attention. He illustrates the new power of the people to co-ordinate their actions, by reminding us what happened in Spain, after the horrific Al Qaeda inspired bomb attacks on Madrid’s transit system. The conservative PP, with just three days to go to the election, wrongly blamed the attacks on the Basque separatist group ETA. Thousands and thousands of Madrid voters took to the streets to mourn nearly two hundred dead, and to voice their anger that the increasingly obvious Al Qaeda connection was being officially denied. I was there in the main square that night, broadcasting live on BBC World TV. I assumed the word was being spread, as I was hearing it, on TV, on radio, and simply in the streets. Shirky points to the mass forwarding of cellphone text messages simply reading “Who did it?” I’d have liked to ask the right questions, to get that strand of the story, and realise the power of social media under my nose back then in 2004.
Which brings me to the alarm bells. Rung loudly, throughout the book, for those of us who work in conventional hierarchical organisations – ESPECIALLY in the traditional media. Sure, we’ve been aware for some years of that sound in our ears. As Shirky puts it, “the mass amateurization” of news is a given. Power to Everybody. So, we’ve got competition. Which means as folks seek to filter – to work out what’s new, what’s credible, what quality means today – journalists in companies like the BBC just can’t rest on a sense of historic reputation.
Adapt or die? Chilling? Or Challenging? Lots more on that theme to come.