SXSW Interactive Presentation Zoom: Clay Shirky

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There were many talks at SXSW Interactive that touched on some aspect of social media, but perhaps none was as intellectually sweeping as Clay Shirky's presentation, Monkeys with Internet Access: Sharing, Human Nature, and Digital Data.

In a talk that tied together primate research, Gutenberg and the decline of the Catholic Church, DARPA, Napster and the Indian Valentine's Day pink underwear protest of 2009, among other things, the ITP professor and author of Here Comes Everybody provided an in depth view on sharing and its impact on people, society and business.

Kicking off, Shirky used the problem of traffic congestion and the Ottawa-based ride sharing service Pickup Pal as his first example. When looking at a traffic problem, he said, there have typically been two standard engineering solutions—more roads and more public transport. The fight between these two engineering models characterized the problem he said. Another solution, though, treats the problem as an information problem. Pickup Pal was about moving information (who's going where and when).

Shirky used the story of how a bus company tried to put the Pickup Pal service out of business via a legal threat and the company's response, which resulted in the laws being changed. "When an institution commits itself to solving a problem" said Shirky, "it can also commit itself to preserving that problem. The bus company was fighting to prevent public transport getting any better than it could profitably manage." It was a fight about sharing, he said. And this wasn't nice, "rainbows and unicorns" type sharing. "They were doing jackhammer sharing," he said. "Sharing powerful enough that it destroys existing things in the environment."

Shirky then turned to Napster (noting his bemusement at having to explain it to his young students) and the decline of the music industry. He recalled that the powers that be blamed file sharing on a rise in criminality among young people (which flies in the face of stats that show a much reduced crime rate in general in this time period), and, in a blessed moment, made the point that generational generalities are junk sociology. "There is no worse trope" than saying Gen X is like this, boomers are like this, millennials are like this, he said. "Human motivation doesn't change that quickly."

Tying in primate research of Michael Tomasello, Shirky noted that there are three different kinds of sharing: sharing of goods (when someone stops you on the street to ask for money), sharing of services (when that person asks you to help them across the street) and sharing of information (when they ask for directions). The latter is something that people, he said, are not just willing to do, but are hard wired to like doing. He used the example of the dawn of movable type and its ultimate impact, the decline in influence of the Catholic Church to illustrate the point "abundance breaks more things than scarcity." We know how to handle scarcity, he said, but "when things become abundant, the price goes away – things become available to everyone. It changes the world people operate in."

Shirky went on to talk about communal sharing and value—using Three Wolf Moon shirts as an example—versus civic sharing, where value doesn't just accrue to participants in the sharing, but changes the environment for everyone else.

Shirky used the example of Patientslikeme.com, a site for sharing of medical data that could ultimately help medical science research and cure diseases. "It flies in the face of everything the medical establishment tells us about health care—that it's private." He also pointed to the example of the attacks on women in India in bars last January by the radical group Sri Ram Sena. He noted the social impact created when journalist Nisha Susan started a Facebook group to organize a protest that involved sending pink panties to the leaders of the group and getting Indians out to bars. "Once it was clear women were acting as a group, then the state acted. They arrested members of Sri Ram Sena and there were no more attacks last year and this year... We would like the state to do the right thing on behalf of citizens but they don't always. They do for organized groups."

And that's the big opportunity we now share, said Shirky. "How much value can we get out of civic sharing?"

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