Clay Shirky on Historical Significance of Social Media

Having been in a former life trained as an historian, I get a special enjoyment out of hearing very tech-savvy people explain technologies within an historical context. And preferably a context which recognizes that there were events of importance happening before the Internet arrived!

One such explanation, which starts not from sixty years ago but from five hundred, is Clay Shirky’s TED talk: How cellphones, Twitter and Facebook can make history.

It is a wonderfully cohesive, lucid story.

Some high points I noted follow. They do not do the presentation justice: it takes just under 16 minutes to watch the whole presentation and for anyone even remotely interested in understanding the big picture of what is happening with social media that is time very well spent. I’m on my third or fourth run through and I keep picking up new insights and nuances I had missed on previous runs.

Some key points

In terms of media there have been four periods of change in the past 500 years that have been big enough to qualify for the label “revolution”:

  • the printing press
  • two-way communications, especially the telegraph and telephone
  • recorded media other than print – photos, recorded sound, movies
  • harnessing the electro-magnetic spectrum – radio and television

In the media landscape those of us “of a certain age” grew up with we had an interesting asymmetry:

  • media that is good at creating conversation but not good at creating groups – one to one conversation
  • media that is good at creating groups but not good at creating conversation – one to many, same message to all

Three new big changes 1. The Internet – first medium in history to provide native support for groups and conversation at the same time – many to many 2. Digitization – as all media gets digitized, the Internet becomes the mode of carriage for all other media – phone, magazines, movies – every medium is right next door to every other 3. Consumers become producers – members of the “former audience” (Dan Gillmor) can also be producers, not just consumers.

A transformation of the (social) ecosystem.

“How you reach people” has changed completely. The “audience” can now not only talk back but members can talk directly with one another – no longer disconnected from one another.

Characteristics of media now

  • global
  • social
  • ubiquitous
  • cheap

Fascinating observations on aftermath of Sichuan, China earthquakes and on use of social media in Obama campaign.

Some of my favorite quotes from this presentation

“What matters here isn’t technical capital, it’s social capital.”

“These tools don’t get sociologically interesting until they get technologically boring.”

“It isn’t when these shiny new tools show up that their uses start permeating society: it’s when everybody is able to take them for granted.”

Thanks to Warren Whitlock for his tweet today which reminded me to watch the video again.

Des Walsh

Business coach and digital entrepreneur. With coach training from and its Graduate School of Coaching, and a founding member of the International Association of Coaching, Des has been coaching business owners and entrepreneurs for the past 20 years. Over the same period he has also been actively engaged in promoting the business opportunities of the digital economy. He is a certified Neurolinguistic Programming (NLP) coach, and a certified specialist in social media strategy and affiliate marketing.

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