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[berkman] Clay Shirky on protest culture

Clay Shirky is giving a small talk at the Berkman Center, before giving his bigger talk this evening. His topic this afternoon is “protest culture.” [I'm live blogging, getting it wrong, etc. This is certainly far less coherent than Clay's actual presentation, which was (as always) pristinely structured and clear. His talk will be up at Media Berkman before too long.]

One of the easiest examples of this, he says, started in early 1999. A NW Airlines flight was landed in Detroit and got stuck on the tarmac for 7.5 hours. There was a class action lawsuit that got settled out of court and agreed to a toothless code of conduct. Last year, an American Airlines plane was stuck on the tarmac for 8 hours. A Napa Valley real estate agent got off the plane pissed. She googled all of the traditional media outlet stories. She left comments on them, and asked others on that flight to call her. Within a few days, she’d used the mainstream media stories to pull people together. They put up a passenger bill of rights. Eight months later, the NY legislature passed it. The airlines didn’t know what hit them. The group didn’t create this by suing but by organizing the unorganized. The difference between 1999 and 2006 wasn’t a change in tools but a change in audience density.

Second example: John Geoghan was brought to trial for abusing 130 boys in 2002. A group of people came together in a church, called Voice of the Faithful. By summer they had tens of thousands of members. Organizations don’t usually grow that faith. The Catholic Church responded by not allowing people to organize across parishes. “They were explicitly trying to extend the hierarchy to the laity.” Yet exactly the same thing had happened in 1992: A pedophile priest who had raped 90 boys, the Globe covered it, etc. What changed? For one thing, the Globe wasn’t global in 1992, but in 2002, when the Globe published the story on the Web, it went global. “The audience for the story became larger than the audience for the media outlet.” Also, “Voice of the Faithful is a very Google-friendly name.” Google it and you’re one click away.

Voice of the Faithful is now really suffering. After their initial success, they now have to institutionalize. Should they have dissolved after their initial issue ran its course? If not, they run into other Catholic organizations.

Third: The sf show Jericho was canceled and the fans get upset. But they’ve learned that email is ineffective. The last line in the series was “Nuts!” So the fans decided to send peanuts to the executives. Twenty tons of peanuts. The loading dock at CBS is not optimized for handling 20 tons of peanuts, and “peanuts are not easily deleted.” CBS relented. The Jericho example is a repudiation of the MoveOn model of political engagement, because email is too easy to send. There’s too much astroturfing, so on the Hill, email is discounted, generally. The Jericho found something that was much higher cost than email: People had to pay for the nuts and the shipping.

Flash mobs were synchronized by “Bill” from NY — everyone would go to Macy’s and pretend to be shopping for a love rug for their commune. Bill said that people are so malleable they’ll do anything if you tell them it’s cool. In Minsk, there was a flash mob of kids who all ate ice cream. And then there are photos of those kids being arrested. Eating ice cream is legal, but not being in a group in a square. These kids took a tool designed as a a-political tool in America and used it politically in Belarus, and did it in a way that can’t be stopped: The flash mob doesn’t exist before it flashes into a mob. One of the flash mobs: “Let’s all go downtown and smile at one another.” The kids did these actions to document them; they came with their cameras. The bug in the system is that the kids think the West still cares about oppression there.

“Here’s the conundrum.” A commonality is that these cases are hard to fake; enough people are signing on that you couldn’t just astroturf this. These protests get around the fact that the ease of communication makes protests less effective. And these are non-professional: This isn’t an institution to institution clash. There was no horse trading to do with the airline passengers because they only had a single issue; there was no horse-trading to do. And that’s why Voice of the Faithful worked in the early days; you couldn’t write them off as professional dissidents.” Finally, there’s surprise. The “protein code of protest is mutating faster” than ever. Institutions don’t know how to respond.

“By making it easier for more to participate, you change the calculus of trying to get people excited about improving their lives.” Usually, a handful of people are the instigators. Now, caring a little a bit is enough to get people to participate.

But, Clay asks, how do you lower the hurdle to participate while maintaining the hard-to-fake characteristic?

Working backwards from non-professional, hard-to-fake, surprises. But once you get a tactic that works well, the surprise doesn’t work as well. So, this may favor the people who can wait out surprises. E.g., the success of the Jericho protest may have created anti-bodies that will make TV execs less susceptible to this.

And because there is no institution on the other side, it may surface only the most egregious examples. So, “if investigative journalism goes away in every city of half a million or less, institutional corruption may come back in through the door through which it left when we got good investigative journalism in the 1950s…I’m not convinced that an active blogging community has the same effect as a beat reporter going back down to City Hall to check again on something that doesn’t seem right.”

Finally, human emotion is a lousy filter for reporters. People forward puppy stories, not Abu Ghraib stories. We may therefore get a lighter-weight protest culture. Clay says he doesn’t know where this may go.

John Clippinger: Great. You’re starting to reframe how we think about these things. I agree that you’re going to need persistent institutions. Do you see emergent institutions.?
Clay: I think the reinvention of the media is based on the recognition that every URL is a potential community. Everyone looking at the photos of the kids in Belarus might be able to form a group that can help.

Almost everything that happens on the Net happens in an un-democratic ways, says Clay. We’re blinded to this by the drone of the Internet being democratizing. Credentialed reputations.

Clip: We’re here looking at how to create layers that provide the underpinnings of persistent groups. E.g., the Higgins ID project. Do it on an iPhone.

Clay: The surprise is that the mental models of the users is as important as what’s under the hood. One of the great advantages of Wikipedia is that it had a pedia suffix. There was a shared mental model of what goes into an encyclopedia. It’s now gone beyond it…

Gene Koo: You seem to be opposing institutions and non-institutions, but movements are something in between. To build a long-term strategy, a flash mob mentality won’t work. How do you group a long-term group of people but not so sterile as an institution, that’s what communities organizers think about. Organizers try to get commitment, which maps to hard-to-fake. And part of what you’re describing is authenticity: A movement succeeds when it finds its authentic voice. E.g., the Farm Workers tried to import “We Shall Overcome,” but it failed because it didn’t come from that group. That links to your third point, that human emotion is a lousy thing to mobilize around. Organizers try to find people’s stories and link to the objectives of the group. That’s a more disciplined emotion than the flash in the pan sort of thing.

Clay: What’s happened to the protest march?

Gene: Lack of a tie between the act and the long-term goal. The aim is to threaten a power structure. If it’s just a flash, it doesn’t have that effect. Another aim, though, is to create a group identity.

Clip: There’s a cost. E.g., sit-down protests in the South. Lives were at risk.

Me: The Jericho execs wouldn’t have reacted if people had donated $2 each instead of buying $2 worth of peanuts. This is a non-rational response. Why did the execs respond to the peanuts? And will the culture adapt so we can skip the $2 reaction?

We’re struggling through this. The response was imaginative — self-organized and a thematic response to the show. Part of this was a counting problem — they had missed the people watching over the Net. And the people inside CBS thought they had an opportunity to work with the viewers. They responded in part as an experiment. Can we get past the $2? Well, I like the notion of authenticity. Money is one way to say that this is a hard-to-fake activity. On the other hand, if people can reliably get together and say we’re going to watch the show, and we should be counted, that might be effective. What determines how you get elected is how interested the least interested voter is; you’ve got to swing those people. Pledgebank stuff and ThePoint.com — I’ll do this if 10K other people agree to do this — are interesting social ideas. Can you make a bonded agreement that you’ll act in a particular way.

Sally Walkerman: Advertisers are used to being to surprise us. It’s getting harder. Advertisers therefore get more specific. Protestors can get more specific, too. The peanut protest is an example of that. Protestors will figure out what will surprise their targets.

Clay: Surprise isn’t as much of a wasting resource as I think? Hmm. The protests will get more specific? Is it happening organically?

Sally: Yes.

Wendy Seltzer: I love your point about every URL being a gathering point. Every cease and desist letter can be a gathering point. E.g., wikileaks right now.

Clay: What had been two-party transactions are now multi-party transactions. The message that is hardest to get across to my students that in the early 1990s, if you have something to say, you couldn’t. The C&D is a great example of what used to be 2-way simply because there was no way to turn it into a multi-party transaction, and, as with Groklaw, that can change the course of a multi-million dollar case.

John Kelley: There’s a professional class of activists in DC that’s not doing a very good job of coping with the new way. To them, a measure of effectiveness is whether they can make their budget. How do the people who are professionally organized hear what people are saying?

Clay: Sometimes it’s the role of an institution to ignore some demands of its users. E.g., in ’03 or ’04 the Sierra Club had to decide if it needed a stance on immigration. The more you’re channeling the members’ leverage, the clearer you have to be that these are their one or two issues. I suspect that multi-issues organizations will have a harder time. But orgs that coordinate their customers with one another will probably have to learn how to listen better, e.g., IBM WorldJam. We’ll need new organizations to be exemplars before the old will change.

Rob Faris: Is the future single issue movements? Is the Sierra Club dead?
Clay: It will increase the range of what happens. The Net makes it easier to form an institution as well as form a mob. The radical possibility is that we could do group organization at population scale. E.g., what the long tail can conserve is less than what a short-head polluting factory creates. But there’s a possibility that the environmental movement could actually reach everybody. Not everyone should do a little bit, but rather: Only together can we change demand.

Clip: There’s an effort to aggregate markets to create collective actions…
Clay: I sometimes call my book “post-optimistic.” I am no longer a cyber utopian. Instead of the book being structured as “great great great great surprise! Bad!”, I’m overall an optimist but I no longer believe these social changes are fundamentally good with no down sides.

Bruce Ettinger: Why haven’t there been effective protests about the Iraq war?
Clay: Some things are so completely about the issue that the mechanism gets lost. So I didn’t write about Iraq war protests. How did it come to be that in a democracy when an enormous percentage of the population dislikes a specific targeted policy, how were we unable to affect that policy? That was the background question I started with. That’s a big mystery but in a way it has as much to do with the checks and balances in the constitution as it does with any of the social tools. I suppose the mesage is that it’s possible to have a set of institutions so fully entrenched and defeneded from outside influence that there is no mechanism for altering their behavior during the normal course of operations. As an American, this is the darkest hour I’ve lived through. I’m not optimistic that even really imaginative, widely adopted beliefs, even with the social tools, can do much.

Charlie Nesson: What do you think of Lessig’s strategy?
A: God bless him. I’m more interested in what he learns in his first three years than in what he does. I’d hate to have seem him mired in the day to day operations of a congressional office. The inertia in that system will only be broken by fiding some surprising point of leverage. I hope he discovers that point. We haven’t reformed the Electoral College even after the thing we were told wouldn’t have happened and would be a disaster in fact happened and was a disaster. I’m eagerly waiting to see what Larry finds about the points of leverage. I hope he finds a shallow rule is susceptible to popular will in some way. I don’t think the frontal assault will work, and mere outrage won’t move the institution off the dime. (Says Clay.)

[Great talk and conversation.] [Tags: ]

14 Responses to “[berkman] Clay Shirky on protest culture”

  1. Thanks for liveblogging this — I wish I could have heard Clay’s talk! I work with PledgeBank.com, and I’m glad that our site came up in this conversation. The real thrust of PledgeBank is to equip the normal, average, regular person with some of the same tools that those “professional organizers” in DC have. With a dose of anger and a good chunk of imagination, we’ve seen some incredible things happen on the site that wouldn’t have happened through institutionalized organizations (see http://www.pledgebank.com/Bakul-library as an example).

    If anyone is interested in thinking/talking/yelling more about this idea and how to do something concrete about it, ping me at heather at pledgebank dot com — I’d love to hear your thoughts!

  2. That was good. :)

    (I’ll have to add something else to demonstrate this isn’t comment spam)

  3. The ContingencyMarket.com is an engine in development to enable things like PledgeBank, but with the money already on the table. So yes, it would let you “make a bonded agreement that you’ll act in a particular way.”

  4. Maybe the whole idea of the institution will begin to fade away…….

  5. I think his approach to institutions misses the informal institutions that Douglas North points to. Those can be just as important as the more formal institutions that Shirky sees being sidestepped.

    Thanks for the post… was really interesting.

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