FASTforward09: Clay Shirky

I’m at the FASTforward conference in Las Vegas, where I’m blogging over at the FASTforward blog. I’ll spare you my comments on Don Tapscott’s opening keynote, since regular readers have seen a lot of it before, but move on to our second big-name speaker of the conference, Clay Shirky, who I was looking forward to seeing. I read and enjoyed his book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations (apparently coming out in paperback in a couple of weeks), although it seems that I neglected to write a review of it. I’ve seen the power of organizing events and movements without a formal organization, and as an independent (in both the philosophical and employment sense), I’m a firm believer that you don’t have to be part of a big organization in order to make things happen. Today’s social networking tools, like Facebook and Twitter, allow us to organize and motivate a large network of friends and friends of friends with a relatively small amount of effort.

It’s not just about having a flash mob or a Tweetup or even a fundraiser party like HoHoTO, however: social networks have become a major source for news. When a plane made an emergency landing on the Hudson River last month, I turned to Twitter rather than mainstream media sites or TV to stay on top of what was happening. As Twitter lowers the bar for us all to become citizen journalists via SMS messages from our mobile phones, millions of people the world over are adding their voices – 140 characters at a time – to the torrent of information about current events available on the web.

Although Shirky doesn’t say this explicitly, this is why search is so critical: without search, you can’t find all that information that’s out there waiting to be aggregated, and without search, you can’t filter all that information so that it’s relevant to you. Bad search gives you too much useless information; good search gives you a focused stream of pure gold. Good search also allows you to fine-tune that focus, adding and removing areas of interest depending on what catches your interest that day.

Back to his talk, he discussed amateur forums that provide support or information, specifically one that discusses specific mobile phone handset/carrier combinations and the known issues: a large number of unpaid people with a huge amount of collective knowledge contribute to a knowledgebase for the common good rather than for money. This is a classic case of crowdsourcing, such as is seen in Wikipedia, but he talked more about the notion of community, and the fact that people contribute to such an effort because they enjoy being part of the community. The social aspect of crowdsourcing is really the interesting part: although it’s cool that you create a huge body of knowledge, it’s even more cool to see the connections that are made through the community. He talked about IBM’s DogEar product (an enterprise social bookmarking product that started as an internal tool), and the connections that are being made by looking at who is linking to who’s links. Exposing this sort of information across an organization the size of IBM shows how connections can be made between people who normally would never have visibility of each other, even though they have common interests. It’s not about whether an organization is open or closed, it’s about the permeability of the interfaces between parts of the organization.

Digital tools lower the cost of failure. Get out there, build something social and risk that failure: it’s not going to cost you very much.

One thought on “FASTforward09: Clay Shirky”

  1. Absolutely! And with everyone’s entries in the corporate directory, tools that link people’s profiles and their activity, and a spectacular (really!) feed reader that brings it all together… I’m really loving IBM’s internal Web 2.0 scene, and I wish more people could have something like this at work. =) (Disclaimer: if it’s not obvious yet, I work at IBM, and I love being able to connect across geographies and organizational units!)

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