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Using Social Networks for Social Good

How Clay Shirky and information sharing can lead to significant changes. design mind on GOOD is a series exploring the power of design by the...


How Clay Shirky and information sharing can lead to significant changes.


design mind
on GOOD is a series exploring the power of design by the editors of design mind magazine. New posts every week.

“A revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new tools, it happens when society adopts new behaviors” –Clay Shirky

It was my third day at South by Southwest Interactive (SXSWi), and, predictably, many conversations in both the panel discussions and in line at the taco trucks outside were trying to address social media. But the focus of the conversation seemed to shift away from the often superficial predictions of what the next platform would be and how it would be monetized. Instead, it seemed a thoughtful maturation was taking place: We were asked to consider our influence in these social-media spaces, how much control we had over our identities, and if we could make space for underrepresented groups to be recognized and protected.

As I’ve mentioned before, it is up to online communities to disrupt the oppressive status quo at conventional institutions. The same applies to our conception of currency, and how we form online “transactions.” Now that the focus among the technorati is shifting from how to monetize social media toward how to use it to create social impact, we have an opportunity to harness the meaning economy (“Me-conomy,” as Markus Albers puts it) by ushering in a new culture of social engagement. These transactions can take on the form of a barter system in which people swap their knowledge, resources, and content in exchange for civil rights, and a platform for their voice, be it communal or individual.

And so, early on a hazy Sunday morning on day 3 of SXSWi, Clay Shirky, the author of Here Comes Everybody, gave a presentation called “Monkeys with Internet Access: Sharing, Human Nature, and Digital Data.” The title was provocative and humorous enough, but it was Shirky’s ability to address the underlying human motives that drive our behavior and action for greater social change that stirred me. One comment Shirky made really resonated: “Abundance breaks more things than scarcity does.” And then he went on to underscore the power of content sharing—the kind, says Shirky, “where people are trying to create civic value to change the culture the participants are embedded in.” His message was no less than the fact that the free and frequent exchange of information has the ability to catalyze revolution.

Shirky notes several examples of groups trying to come up with a public solution to a societal problem by freely distributing content, only to draw the ire of established institutions. One was the case of PickupPal, a ride-sharing service in Ottawa that was providing information for commuters to more easily use the service. It became so easy to use that the City of Ottawa, whose public transportation system was at risk of loosing market share, passed a law making carpooling and ridesharing unreasonably difficult to do. PickupPal was deemed “too efficient.” A local movement to save the rideshare company began and the uproar in the community caused the city to rewrite the law.

Shirky called this type of distribution “jackhammer sharing,” which he called powerful enough to destroy the existing environment or even promote human rights.

Take, for example, the story of the Indian radical group Sri Ram Sena. Although their attacks on women's freedom were known in the community, the government was not stepping in to protect its citizens and Sri Ram Sena continued to threaten women. It wasn’t until Nisha Susan, an Indian journalist, began a Facebook group last January that organized a call to action, including sending pink panties to the leaders of the group in mockery, and mobilizing women to go out to bars in spite of the threats. "Once it was clear women were acting as a group, then the state acted,” Shirky said. “They arrested members of Sri Ram Sena, and there have been no more attacks, We would like the state to do the right thing on behalf of citizens, but they don't always for individuals. They do for organized groups."

Will this movement to barter our knowledge, our experiences, and potentially our identities succeed in creating a shift for our collective empowerment? Many online communities are working to radically restructure how information is shared, and they’re motivated not only by an expectation for transparency, but by a growing sense of influence. By making ideas easily accessible via uploading, sharing, and providing space for collaboration, movements and the ideologies behind them can spread exponentially.

Photo of Clay Shirky on a bus (CC) by Flickr user Joi

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