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This article was published on June 17, 2008

Clay Shirky: online collective action has to be about starting things

Clay Shirky: online collective action has to be about starting things
Ernst-Jan Pfauth
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Ernst-Jan Pfauth

Ernst-Jan Pfauth is the former Editor in Chief of Internet at NRC Handelsblad, as well as an acclaimed technology author and columnist. He a Ernst-Jan Pfauth is the former Editor in Chief of Internet at NRC Handelsblad, as well as an acclaimed technology author and columnist. He also served as The Next Web’s blog’s first blogger and Editor in Chief, back in 2008. At De Correspondent, Ernst-Jan serves as publisher, fostering the expansion of the platform.

First speaker at the Supernova Conference was Clay Shirky – writer, consultant and adjunct professor at New York University. His field of interest is the influence of Internet technologies on our societies and economies. In his latest book “Here Comes Everybody” he wrote down all the things he’s sure about and saved this keynote for some uncertain thoughts. His main message: we should transform the STOP-focused collective action into START-focused collective action.

Flash mobs as a political tool

Clay Shirky gives keynote at Supernova 2008Shirky started with an example from Belarus. In 2006, some kids from this Eastern-Europe country organized a flash mob via Livejournal. They asked 10.000 people to come to the October Square in Minsk for some massive ice-cream eating action. Their president, old-fashioned dictator Alexander Lukashenko, isn’t really fond of civil action, so he has forbidden any group forming on the important square. During the flash mob, he sent a small army of secret police to arrest the kids with ice-creams. Despite these arrests, the flash mobbers had reached their goal. They wanted to show the world what life looks like in Belarus. “For them”, Shirky said, “Livejournal was a tool to make their political lives better.”

Why is there no online barn raising?

These kids from Belarus are not alone. Shirky showed that all over the world, people are using social network groups to protest against undesired actions. This emerging trend is interesting and it stimulates positive action, yet they’re only concerned with stopping things. Real world collaborative action is often all people starting, creating, or building things. Yet this kind of collaborative action doesn’t seem to work in the digital world. “Why is that”, Shirky asked, “Why isn’t there an online barn raising?

Well, the people from small farm communities live in a totally different social environment. Three important factors stimulate them to organize events like a barn raising:

  • The farmers owe each other a favor;
  • The small social density causes social control. Everybody is tracking everybody’s action;
  • The people they know are likely to be around for some years, so it’s worth the investment.

Collaboratively building and creating things

All these factors arise from inconvenience. People from small towns have to participate in collaborative action, otherwise it will negatively affect their social life. Therefore, you won’t find a barn raising in big cities, nor will you discover a similar online event. So in these days, collective action has to emerge from design. Shirky is not sure when or how this online collective action will pop up, but he does see some early examples like the Virtual Company Project, Community Interest Companies and MeetUp Alliances.

These initiatives allow people to create officially recognized groups. Since the thing is, society only recognizes groups as official when they’re incorporated. And starting an incorporation comes with a lot of formal stuff like bank accounts, board of directors, and an office. These are all barriers for citizens who want to start, say, an online barn raising. Services like MeetUp alliances bring these barriers down so that groups can participate in collaborative actions that is meant to START things. This is vital, as Shirky warned: “If collective action won’t focus on starting or sustaining things, this will be just a partial revolution”.