TED@State: Clay Shirky on what the government needs to know about social media

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Clay Shirky studies social networks, connections and subcultures that are using emerging technologies to connect. In Shirky’s prescient talk at TEDGlobal 2005 (given in the Era Before Facebook, if such a time can be imagined), he talks about how social media will allow for loose collaborative networks, where small contributors have big roles and fluid cooperation replaces rigid planning.

Today at TED@State, he talks about the new social media landscape — where we are all both consumers and producers (as he says, it’s like if you buy a book and they throw in a printing press for free). He talks about the recent earthquake in China, reported by ordinary Chinese citizens over social media, as it happened. (The last earthquake in China was not reported by Chinese officials for 3 months.) Using Twitter, photo-sharing sites and email, news came pouring out of China. Donation sites sprang up, activism cropped up around the destroyed elementary schools. And then China shut it down. But China‚Äôs censorship system depends on a top-down approach to media. And social media breaks that model. As China learned this week, to censor tweets and photos, you need to block Twitter and Flickr.

A story from the Obama campaign (which Shirky calls one of the most innovative uses of social media ever). During the campaign, Senator Obama announced that he would be changing his vote on FISA. A group formed on his own campaign website, MyBO.com, called “President Obama, Please Get FISA Right.” The group grew larger and more vocal. Obama engaged with the group, explained his vote. The group members still weren’t happy — but then they realized that, though they had nearly taken over Obama’s campaign site, nobody had ever tried to hide the group, to delete it, to take it off the site — the role of MyBO.com was to convene their supporters, but not to control their supporters

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