Clay Shirky on Twitter and the social media revolution

Here’s a great interview with Clay Shirky by GRITtv’s Laura Flanders.

Clay Shirky talks about the power of digital networking, and how social media  can do everything from cause revolutions to create whole new political parties when done right.

The simplicity of Twitter, of course, is its genius. It has the power to do so much by doing so little. But that’s not the only thing that’s simple about Twitter. The service itself was only intended to share 140-character messages with the world. Its significance is its evolution. Everything from @replying and retweeting to using hashes and symbols can be attributed to the users. It has brilliantly allowed users to define it – almost entirely. As Shirky points out, “Most of the uses of Twitter were not imagined by the designers of the service – they were managed by the users of the service.”

As Claire Cain Miller wrote in this NYT piece, Twitter exploded to unprecedented popularity by outsourcing “its idea generation to its users.”

Outsourcing idea generation to the users

What Twitter did well was absorb it all. Twitter’s founders were not initially pleased that so many other companies were taking advantage of what they had created but then they began to see the advantages. It is not just that dozens of companies are creating tools for Twitter, it is that Internet and social media giants like Facebook and Google are adapting their features to “fit in” Twitter.

Williams and Stone were quick to realize that cross-functionality in various formats would only mean that more people would use it. And it did.

So third parties – be it individual users or companies – were allowed to tinker with it, and adapt it to various platforms. As Shirky points out, Twitter allowed these various applications to be integrated into the service. Retweets and hastags were integrated, among many other user-suggested features, and “Twitter lists” is the latest in a long line of features that is gaining popularity.

While this bottom-up approach is a recurring theme in the case of creative technology companies, Twitter, arguably, owes more to its users in terms of both social participation and technology.  As Flanders astutely observes in the video, the popularity of Twitter worldwide also has something to do with the fact that it can be used with simple text messaging – and this is especially significant in countries like Iran, India, and China where we’ve seen some of the most productive examples of Twitter usage, from civilian revolutions to terrorist attacks to natural disasters.

But while social media can empower and mobilize citizens, Shirky does believe that organizing power for real world action on the Internet is still lacking. He makes an important distinction between the creation of intellectual property online and real world action through the Internet.

“We don’t yet have a way of incorporating groups that gives people the same kind of access to real world action as the creative commons copyright license do for intellectual property. I think we’re going to see a push for more real world groups using the Internet as their organizing tool and gaining some kind of incorporation as a way to participate in society.”

Social media is still young. All evidence indicates that it will happen soon.

14 thoughts on “Clay Shirky on Twitter and the social media revolution

  1. Pingback: Clay Shirky on Twitter and the social media revolution | Online … | Wellness Obsession

  2. Norbert Mayer-Wittmann

    IMHO what Luther did on top of the printing press (i.e., to create the German WRITTEN language) is what the so-called communities are doing online today (it is a decentralization of the “authority control” of the language we speak — see e.g. the “”, where “definitions” are voted upon).

    The first word in this comment (“IMHO”) is one such example of such “community-created” language. The “Retweet” (RT) is another one (more like the jargon of This is actually how language has ALWAYS worked (as Wittgenstein noted: the meanings of words are “defined” by the ways [including the contextual information] in which they are ACTUALLY used) — but what the Internet has significantly changed is the TECHNOLOGICAL SHIFT that enables and expediates these exchanges at a much greater pace and on a global scale.

    The Pirate Party is probably a good example of this. I am not familiar with the “bittorent” (or whatever label might be more appropriate) community, but much hunch is that there is a specific jargon which that community speaks, much in the same way that scientists use jargon specific to their interests.

    So the result will be (or rather my prognosis is) that languages will be transformed from local phenomena to global phenomena and that they will become more and more focused by INTEREST rather than LOCATION. If the Internet were to be fundamentally revolutionary, then this might even affect the institutional structures that Mr. Shirky alluded to (to some degree it already has, insofar as the rules of trading on are different than on, and the results on are different than the results on, etc.). I expect that in the coming years, the contrast between local governments and international communities will lead to more and more potential conflicts between local legal systems and global interest groups. Increasingly, communities will orient their behavior towards particular “Terms of Service” more than the rules and regulations that were traditionally geographically localized. Hence, people will join the “ebay” community because they agree with the way ebay “does business” (or they may not, and instead participate in other communities — or they may do both, etc.).

    Phew! … that was a lot!

    : nmw

    1. Karthika Muthukumaraswamy

      Thanks for your interesting insights. I do agree that, in addition to language, a lot of conventions have switched to global Internet rules as opposed to those dictated by real life in local communities. If, as Shirky proposes, some form of standard for real-life action via the Internet is established as well (and it’s only a matter of time), it will perhaps lead to people anywhere in the world speaking a common language toward a particular cause regardless of geography and distance. That would be pretty wonderful – it’s already happening to some extent, of course. A case in point would be the Twitter-inspired revolution during the Iran elections.

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  10. Van

    It is really amazing to see the power of social media first hand. I recently did a post for a service promotion on offer and the tweet stirred alot of interest from my followers. I think twitter was a fantastic invention and a very cost effective way of promotion.

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