Thursday, April 08, 2010

SXSW 2010: Clay Shirky on monkeys with internet access

Among notable speakers on internet culture at SXSW, Clay Shirky gave a talk "Monkeys with Internet Access: Sharing, Human Nature, and Digital Data".

For starters, Clay Shirky made fun of the notion of "decade of the millennials". It's about as valid as designating a year to be a year of the donkey, or rooster, or dog, etc., as in Chinese horoscope. It's as if a particular animal, or particular generation to which a decade "belongs" to, brings something substantial into it, that's supposed to affect you deeply. But in reality human nature changes very very slowly, says Shirky.

So slowly, perhaps, that the "monkeys" in the title of the talk suggest that Clay Shirky thinks our fundamental mentality hasn't changed much since we were apes. He calls up results from primate behavior studies to explain the types of sharing people do on the internet, which are no different from the ones primates engaged in since time immemorial. There are three types of sharing.

Imagine you're walking down the street, and you see an old woman walking towards you. You would feel different if you thought she was going to ask you for money, than if you thought she was going to ask you to help her cross the street. The former -- a request to share the goods -- triggers a feeling of stinginess, even if you later overcome it; the second -- a request for services -- leaves people more amenable to share, even if the time they invest in providing the service is worth more than money. And if she asked you for directions, you would feel even more inclined to help. Sharing of information -- the third kind -- is the easiest. It comes at little to no cost to you.

In the world where music was always shared as goods or services, says Shirky, all Napster did was made it possible to share music as information. This means music industry was freaking out that we didn't voluntarily withhold something that was at no cost to us. What do you call withholding something that comes at no cost to you? The word for it is spiteful. Music industry was shocked that we weren't acting spiteful!






More pictures from SXSW 2010 can be found in my photo gallery.

Clay Shirky speaks at SXSW 2010


Humans being social primates, sharing of information is our natural drive. It follows that privacy is not a binary on/off concept (this ties in with to danah boyd's keynote speech of privacy). For example, as much as we are determined to keep our medical information out of the hands of insurance companies, there is an equally strong drive to share relevant details with selected audience -- for example, other sufferers of the same diseases. This can have a greater purpose than just patients' mutual self-education: patients' symptoms are data that researchers may be able to mine to come up with cures faster. This kind of sharing actually changes the environment. It's co-creation of public good.

Another example of internet collaboration leading to public good can be Facebook groups -- yes, those pesky Facebook groups that promote various causes. Sometimes they do succeed in attaining their goal, as did the group Clay Shirky talked about.

A Hindu fundamentalist organization, known for beating up women who were drinking in bars, issued a threat to attack any woman who was out with a man on Valentine's Day. So Indian women started a Facebook group, Association of Loose, Forward, Pub-going Women. (I recall many of my female Facebook friends joining this group in solidarity.) The women in the Facebook group mailed pink panties to the head of the fundamentalist organization for Valentine's Day. The effect of this on Indian politics was quite remarkable, says Shirky. Once it became clear that women, as a group, were going to stand up to attacks, Indian authorities arrested the members of the fundamentalist organization, and there were no attacks on Valentine's day. The Facebook group demonstrated that there was constituency that cared enough about this issue.

Someone asked Clay Shirky in what domains does public sharing and collaboration have the greatest potential. He answered that the greatest "points of inflection" for sharing or colaboration are ones where no one is looking closely. (I suppose it's trivially true -- if people could predict where the next successful idea will come from, they would be pursuing it already.) But Clay meant it in a more pessimistic way. "The minute everybody understands that something is important to everybody, all progress stops," he said. (Audience applauded). As an example, there is still no single standard interoperable instant messaging platform. Yahoo, AOL and other instant messaging platforms never agreed on a single standard, because each of them wanted to be the one to set a standard.

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