Global, Social, Ubiquitous, and Cheap

Professor Clay Shirky
Professor Clay Shirky

ElaineGantzWright’s blog is for people interested in using the Web and online marketing to drive social change. Elaine covers social media for nonprofits, philanthropy trends, online giving, cause marketing, random life musings, and more. Find out more at SocialFuse.

I have just discovered Clay Shirky, New York University Interactive Technology Professor and my new favorite media provocateur. He talks about social media in the context of the broadly transformed media landscape with massive cultural implications. He spoke at the NTEN conference in April, and Blackbaud Blogger Chad Norman documented several quotes that he claimed “blew his mind.” And, indeed they do mine, too! Shirky has remarkable vision and shrewd insight. His fundamental premise is that cell phones, the Web, Facebook and Twitter have radically changed all the rules of the media game, allowing ordinary citizens to access extraordinary new powers to engage in and impact real-world events. It’s a fascinating concept that certainly informs the way we think about social action as a whole. Further, in considering Shirky’s observations, I’m wondering if we could be on the verge of a systemic reinvention of how we address society’s most pressing needs across the board? Could the “nonprofit organization” as we know it be ripe for transformation? In a presentation on TED, Shirky makes a sweeping claim:

“The moment we are living right now, this generation, represents the largest increase in expressive capability in human history.”

He goes on to say that only four other periods in history have manifested such revolutionary change:
• In the mid 1440s, the invention of the printing press, movable type, and oil-based inks.
• About 200 years ago—the invention of the telegraph, followed by the telephone—
enabling 2-way communication, slow text-based conversations, then real-time voice
conversations.
• About 150 years ago—recorded media, other than print—introduction of photographs, then recorded sound, then motion pictures—all encoded into physical objects.
• About 100 years ago—harnessing the electromagnetic spectrum to send images through the air—radio and television.

Reviewing the 20th century, Shirky suggests, “The media that’s good at creating conversations is no good at creating groups. The media that’s good at creating groups is no good at creating conversations.” The Internet has shattered this model—in several salient ways.

Bill Cheswick's map of the Internet
Bill Cheswick's map of the Internet

First, it natively supports groups and conversations simultaneously. Now “many can talk to many,” as opposed to “one talking to one” or “one talking to many.” The other big change is the Internet is carriage for all other media. Everything exists side by side and intertwined. And the marriage of the Internet and mobile technology has taken this a step further—making media global, social, ubiquitous, and cheap. And this reality has enabled the third big shift—the consumers are now the producers. Shirky suspects there are now more amateurs producing media than professionals, leading to another one of those provocative quotes—”Media is increasingly less just a source of information and increasingly more a site of coordination.”

So, I have to ask— where does this leave the “marketing communications professional”? What exactly is our role now? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself recently. We are no longer about “carefully crafting and conveying messages” – but about ““creating an environment for convening and supporting.” As marketing professionals, are we becoming party hosts, rather than communicators? Hmmm. How does this new media model integrate with the current structural framework of business? There is the rub. This is a shift to be reckoned with. But consider the other conundrum . . .As drivers of organizations, how do we make use of this new landscape? And how does the traditional nonprofit organization adroitly adjust to this new media environment?

I can’t help but think about social entrepreneur Manny Hernandez’s success with a non-traditional approach to social action—transitioning his initiative from independent social media communities to official nonprofit status, as opposed to the reverse. His success in creating support networks for diabetes through free Ning tools is an example of the phenomenon Shirky describes as the value of “social capital,” rather than “technical capital.” He aptly observes that “tools don’t get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.” Wow. Another revelation. He adds that the real innovation happens when the tools become second-nature for the user. Manny’s post titled “How To Create Social Change Without Forming a 501-c3” details how he drove the development of his communities independently — TuDiabetes (almost 10,800 members) and EsTuDiabetes (almost 5,400 members) before deciding to establish a nonprofit organization, Diabetes Hands Foundation. You can read more about his transition from the social media cloud to nonprofit organization on Beth Kanter’s blog.

Personally, I have been on both sides of this question, but the rapid-fire change from just a year ago makes it difficult to discern a definite path or any firm conclusions. Having worked for nonprofits and with a for-profit, cause-focused, social-media start-up, I have experienced the challenge of engagement from many vantage points. I believe the key is to optimize the global-social-ubiquitous-cheap equation in ways that leverage “social capital” and capture the imaginations of the wide web of user-consumer-producers. Definitely a brave new world! And an energizing, astonishing, and sometimes befuddling time of recreation.

How do you think nonprofits should adapt?

8 thoughts on “Global, Social, Ubiquitous, and Cheap

  1. Elaine, this is fantastic insight. Web 3.0 is on the horizon, and few I think are truly ready for the radical change it will bring to our perspective. I’m glad there are a few, like you, who really understand the potential of our new tomorrow.

    1. Andrew — Gracious thanks for your comment. I would love to hear your thoughts on how “our new tomorrow” might manifest . . .

  2. Elaine – incredibly insightful analysis and so eloquently put – this Prof. is a definite resource. I think MarCom professionals are needed more than ever – in a different way perhaps than before – if nothing else to find a way to filter out the noise and borderline ‘invasions of privacy’ that many of these free-to-chirp technologies are burdening us with. The NY Times motto was ‘all the news that’s fit to print’ or something like that – now we get so much more in our face, whether we need it or not, and whether it’s useful or not. Bottom line, one has to love the opportunity to ‘level the playing field’ of these tech platforms, but the Q for me is ‘should some of these people be allowed on the field at all, and what to do about it’? Without censorship, of course…. ‘caveat emptor’ fits like never before. Thanks for sharing and continued success to you!

    1. Scott — How great to hear from you! Thanks for the pithy comment. Would love to catch up with you and your adventures! elaine

  3. This is a really insightful article. Since starting the 15andCounting campaign last year, I’ve seen a staggering increase in the scale and impact of Social Media campaigning. I’m just reading Clay Shirky’s book “Here comes everyone” which has only amplified my belief still further that Social Media and the Web 2.0 internet in general is already having a world-changing influence over not just communications but the ways in which society operates. I’m really excited to see what the coming decade will bring.

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