I read a book: Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age

Until recently, Clay Shirky was best known as the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. The book  was widely praised (seriously, Boing Boing calls it a “masterpiece”) and is still referenced  by social media strategist/expert/guru types as a must-read for anyone looking to explore the social dynamics that drive the use of technology, which at the time (and even now, to a certain extent) is not what drives most conversation about the internet and social media in particular.

Rather than focusing the catalyst of online social behavior on specific technologies  (i.e. what makes Facebook so popular?) Shirky argued that social tools facilitates common group behavior, conversation and social interaction. At the time, the beginning of Facebook’s online dominance and in the midst of growing fascination and panic about social media from the mainstream press. Shirky presented a reasoned, articulate and well-researched argument that the idea of “crowdsourcing” was not a new idea, but actually rooted in common, even traditional social interaction. The Internet just made that interaction happen more widely and more rapidly.

If you talk to any social media/internet  “expert” or “enthusiast” these days, this perspective is seen as common knowledge, but without Shirky’s well-presented theory and research to bolster this theory it wouldn’t have taken root.

In 2010, you’d think that this argument wouldn’t need repeating or clarification, but as traditional media continues to evolve and digital use continues to grow and become more ubiquitous, the panic of social theorists and mainstream media commentators continues unabated. The continuing debate of whether the Internet makes you smarter or more stupid seems to have a new chapter each day, but in Cognitive Surplus, Shirky’s latest book, he does add fuel to that fire, but also offers a modified version of his Here Comes Everybody thesis: The Internet has given us the tools to create, publish and share media  faster, cheaper and with more people than ever before

Shirky’s revised thesis is the reason that I think Cognitive Surplus is a must-read (there’s that term again) for media professionals in every field.

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Learned Fangirl at SXSW – Part 1: Black People on Twitter and other Non-Surprising Surprises

So, it’s been awhile, we know, but Learned Fangirl is back from hibernation. TLF was at SXSW Interactive this year and in between all of the panels, parties, networking, meeting old friends and new and trying to run away from drunken street harassers, we’ll be dropping some insights here in the next few days, probably weeks.

Before I get to into discussing the panels and the conference as a whole (and I’ve a lot to say about that), I wanted to use this first post to examine a theme I’ve noticed through the panels I’ve attended thus far.

When I attended last year, some of the attendees (including myself) were very critical of the demographic breakdown of the SXSW panels and panel topics, which like the tech industry as a whole, is pretty heavy on white males between the ages of 25-40.  There was a very public call to improve the diversity of these panels when the call for presenters went up for SXSW last year.

To the organizers’ credit, the SXSW Panel Picker went a long way in attempting to create more a more diverse experience in terms of panel speakers and topics, which was good to see; topics of race/gender difference seem to spring up even on panels that weren’t focused on those issues.

danah boyd‘s keynote talk on online privacy vs. publicity sparked a lot of discussion and thought for me. Some of you may remember boyd’s research on race/class and social networks. and her implication that MySpace is not a dead social network as much as it was perceived to be by the social media thought leaders who no longer spend time there.

This year, boyd brought attention to the black online subculture that exists on Twitter. Later, during his session “How to be Black Online,” comic Baratunde Thurston elaborated on the online user behavior of African-Americans, addressing the differences in technology use and social media conversation from general (i.e. white) online users. It’s great insight that unfortunately still doesn’t seem to stick with some social media experts who still cling to the old “digital native/digital immigrant” argument.

Talk of social media user and age is overstated at this point (yes, the median age of a Facebook user is 44, we know) while race and class stratification of the online world is still the elephant in the room at conferences like SXSW and elsewhere. I’ve noticed many of the “people of difference”  are engaging in digital grassroots activism and DIY/entrepreneurial efforts but not necessarily represented widely as industry leaders.

While the digital divide is arguably not as wide as it used to be (and I am not completely convinced of that) race and even more importantly, class, is mostly an afterthought in conversations about social media and the web. For all the data available on online user behavior, and all the talk about social media audience segmentation, online audiences are still primarily viewed as monolithic; the subject of race and class differences still seem to be a revelation for digital industry experts.  That’s a real shame when you consider the opportunities being missed by the industry as a whole.

The encouraging thing about SXSW 2010, however is that there was at least the beginning of some kind of dialogue started about these issues and that there was room for it. Still we’re outliers; there’s not enough race/gender/class diversity at the table, either at conferences like SXSW or the industry as a whole for the conversation to take place outside of just a off-shoot panel or two. The conversation needs to  become practice in order to lead to any structural change in the way digital experts view user behavior in the online space.

Ah well, maybe next year.

Whitehouse.gov and our first social media presidency

white-house-pictureLike a lot of geeky people, I spent much of Inauguration Day (and night) online, riveted to the live streaming feed on CNN and also following the commentary of friends and strangers on Facebook. It was well noted that the transition of whitehouse.gov to reflect the Obama administration occured at noon, before Barack Obama even finished taking the oath of office.  

Of course we should have expected nothing less from our online-savvy President’s communication team. Social media was such a core part of the success of his presidential campaign and continues to be a  key element of his communications strategy. Check out this first post on the Whitehouse.gov blog from Macon Phillips, the White House Director of New Media (lucky guy):

Millions of Americans have powered President Obama’s journey to the White House, many taking advantage of the internet to play a role in shaping our country’s future. WhiteHouse.gov is just the beginning of the new administration’s efforts to expand and deepen this online engagement.

medium_whscreenshotAnd it seems off to a good start, with this seamless transition of the web site and the launch of the new blog.  According to Phillips,  the new Whitehouse.gov plans to focus its communication strategy around three priorities: communication, transparancy and engagement, which should be the three crucial priorities  for any organization’s social media initiatives.

I’m interested to see how all of this will pan out in the next four years, when the Obama presidency will surely face new and underheard of challenges. Social media can be a boon as well as a burden to an organization’s communications when it comes to crisis management and damage control. We’re in the exciting honeymoon phase of  the Obama presidency now; how the White House’s  new media team handles its first major crisis will be the truest test of the strength of this new approach to government online communications. 

Also, I just have to note that thus far, the Whitehouse.gov blog is still looking pretty Web 1.0 in its approach; it’s essentially just a glorified press release archive, and I’m not seeing much opportunity for authentic dialogue. Even so, this statement from the first blog post is encouraging:

Like the transition website and the campaign’s before that, this online community will continue to be a work in progress as we develop new features and content for you. So thanks in advance for your patience and for your feedback.

A work in progress. That’s what most online communities are, even the bottom-up communities that emerge organically by necessity and/or mutual enthusiasm (say for example, most online fan communities.)  

But for top-down online communities, organizations looking to create and engage an online community built on two-way communication, it’s an uphill battle, particularly if the organization has a history of ignoring or supressing public dialogue.  You don’t get more traditional top-down communications than the White House; there’s a lot of communication strategy that may need to be unlearned here.

But it’s what most organizations who are experimenting with social media are attempting to reconcile in their own strategies, and whitehouse.gov is wise to acknowledge the potential roadbumps early, and in a very public way.

Using Social Media Tools Effectively: Part One: The Obama Campaign

One of our areas of focus this year is the effective use of social media / social netwObamaorking tools. At this point, we are planning to write about Planet Money, and Nine Inch Nails (yay!), but we are starting the series with the Obama campaign.

Of course, we all know that Barack Obama was not the first social media/Internet presidential candidate, that was Howard Dean back in 2003-04. The Obama campaign’s strategy with social media was built off the template established by the Dean campaign:

  • engaging supporters and organizers intimately and directly via social media
  • drawing influence from viral, bottom-up marketing strategies
  • depending on the aggregated impact of indivduals’ influence, Tipping Point style

Back in 2003, it was Meetup.com and blogs. The Obama campaign has MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and not to mention MyBarackObama.com

Last week at my job, the day after Election Day, a co-worker and I talked about Barack Obama’s successful campaign, its use of social media and more to the point, what will be done with all the  user data, access and influence acquired through the campaign’s social media initiatives? Now that Obama is president-elect, would he and his staff use these tools to promote his political agenda and perhaps lead to greater transparancy in the White House? Less than a day later, our answer came in the form of Change.gov, which appears to piggyback off of the success of the Obama campaign’s social media efforts:for a start, there’s a blog (not a great one, seems like rehashed media statements), a page inviting users to share their Election Day stories, and a link to official presidential transition documents.

Actually, the UK has been a pioneer in this level of transparency in government from back in 2003 with direct.gov.uk, the official website of the UK government, which provides documents and information to users.  In this article from UK magazine .net, MP Tom Watson talks the future of transformational government and the Internet:

Government 2.0 is a dreadful term but I can’t think of a better one that adequately gets over the point that public services have got to be more personal and responsive to the collective voice of their users and that there’s a very big shift happening in the way people live their lives and use services. The public sector is not immune to this. It goes back to my original point about wrapping services around the user in a form that works for them.

It’s an early start for Change.gov, but a step in a very interesting direction for this nascent administration and its efforts to engage and motivate its supporters.

One More Tardy Guest To The Online Music Party?

Mashable is reporting (via NY Post) that Facebook is planning to get into the online music game

:

The long-standing rumor that Facebook will launch its own digital music service is back in the news today. According to The New York Post, the social network is in talks with a number of existing players in the online music space regarding what the paper calls an “outsourcing deal.” As opposed to MySpace, who forged a deal with the four major record labels to launch its own digital music venture last month, Facebook already plays hosts to a number of popular music apps on its site. With more than 5 million active users, iLike is by far the most popular, with other apps like imeem, Pandora, and My Music (by Qloud) with user counts in the low six-figures.

As I blogged about earlier, at this point the field is getting quite crowded with digital music services, and when MySpace (a former music industry game changer that helped to launch careers) is no longer bringing anything new to the table, what the heck can Facebook do? But Mashable’s right, there is too much potential revenue in this for Facebook to ignore and the joint venture aspect of Facebook’s approach is something that would actually bring something of value to both the consumer and to the start-ups. As a Facebook user, I am very much looking froward to what this might offer. Honestly, though, I do wonder why so many of these start-ups and large online companies are focusing on the consumer so much, when there is so much opportunity found among the ashes of the music industry. I think an application like Bandcamp (making it possible for musicians to distribute and market their own stuff) is the realm social media start-ups can really innovate can create something brand new. At least that’s what I’d do if I had a few million dollars to throw at a start-up.

Edit: Due to this post being hit with lots of spam, we’ve turned off commenting for this and a couple of other posts.