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Clay Shirky is a writer, consultant and teacher on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies. He is an adjunct professor at New York University's graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program[…]

The NYU Professor and author of “Here Comes Everybody” advises business leaders on how to be innovative in the new media landscape.

Clay Shirky: So, one of the big change in the Media Landscape right now is that media speeds up to Facebook fees and Twitter memes spreading very quickly, URLs shortening to just injects, stuff into the Media Landscape all over. As media speeds up, emotion moves faster than thought.

Humans are not very good at thinking fast, but we’re really good at feeling fast. You know how you feel about something, the instant it happens. You often don’t know how you think about something until weeks or months or in some cases years later.


I’m Clay Shirky. I’m on the faculty at the Interactive Telecommunications Program and the author of Here Comes Everybody, a book about Social Media.


Clay Shirky: And Sociology is interesting because unlike Psychology unlike the sort of Psychology class but what Sociology says is, we behave differently in groups, right? No one was ever a backstabber or a social climber. No one can be unusually generous or a self-effacing sitting at home by themselves, right?

There are lots and lots of effects that can only exist in aggregate and because we’ve just come to this 30-year bottleneck of technology all being designed for personal use, right? The personal computer, the Sony Walkman, right, that has been the normal case of technology. When social effects start to attach themselves to technology it’s kind of the cultural freak out because we don’t have the language to describe that.

So for me Sociology particularly has been the great stream of research and insight into the human condition. Lots and lots of tech firms have psychologist on staff. Very few of them have sociologist on staff.


Clay Shirky: I think the first and probably most important intuition about all of these stuff is that social capitalists counter-say, right? When we rely on the government and the market less we rely in each other more and the number of places where you were seeing people reach out sideways as it were to friends and family to help them through various difficult times. All of these tools are being pressed into service with them.

And so just taking advantage of that taking advantage of the idea that we don’t just care about brands and market real secure about each other essentially the basic advice that I give comes because the question’s so broad it’s not a particular sector business model.

The basic advice I give companies is, essentially, look for any place where in addition to whatever else you do, you can serve a convening function, right. You can make it easier for your users, costumers, readers, listeners, whatever they are to also communicate with each other.

And that’s a relatively unfamiliar function for a lot of businesses. I talk to you, you talk to me or you write me a check and I send you some shoes or whatever.

But we’re relying so much on the social piece of our lives. And now, not just for self amusement and social connection, but also in many cases for kind of advice in how if I get in through as you say this difficult economic time.

So, look for places where you can, where you can perform a convening function.

And the other is essentially do an assessment of what you’ve already got.

The personal computer did not come into businesses because the CEO or the CIO, if there was one of those days, said, “We must have these little computers.” They came in because employees knocked them in the side door. They didn’t want to go down in the hall and talk to the mainframe guys anymore. So, they would bring their own computers from home and run it. E-mail got into businesses the same way. A lot of businesses discovered that they were already performing critical business functions in using e-mail by realizing that their sales people were talking to customers using AOL addresses, right? Instant messaging got into businesses the same.

It’s just the oldest story in technology which is the frontline employees are the ones who lay their hands in the new tools. And you will often find cases where CIOs would deny that they were using instant messaging in their business only to do a survey and see the people were using it.

So, it is with Social Media.


Clay Shirky: In boom times, businesses always treat new tools as kind of optional add-ons. We’ll play around with this with our experimental money.

But in times of crises and downturn in recession using tools that the customers are turning to, whether you plan for it or not becomes potentially the difference between a positive and negative profit margin, or at the real extreme case between life or death of the business.

The old logic in the media environment has been reversed. Back in the 90’s when we were building things is always build the website then down the line to figure out about the marketing budget to get people to go to the website.

Now, the people are already so aggregated and so entrenched in their environment. It’s almost always better to go to where they already are. And for businesses to now sort of assessing that is a kind of low cost way to figure out, “All right in these particular crises where this landscape should we be focusing our efforts?


Clay Shirky: When a business tries to do one big thing in a way the press release announcing that that thing was a success has already been written.

Businesses are almost incapable of committing themselves to things that have a high chance of failure. The effect of failure on an organization is likelihood times cost. But almost all businesses work on reducing the likelihood of failure, right.

What the internet does is it reduces the cost of failure. And if you look at every big change in the competitive landscape that businesses are freaking out about, its some place between thousands and millions of motivated amateurs are failing like crazy, but where the successes are building up and ramifying for the whole system.

The kind of advice to businesses is don’t have the one big idea and also for different reasons don’t let a thousand flowers bloom right you can see that you just get so dispersed. Let seven flowers bloom.


Clay Shirky: A really salubrious thing for a business to do is to do a search for its own brand but exempt all search results that come from its own site because from most businesses right now Google works like mirror. Like I type in my brand name and I get back my site. Oh it’s beautiful, it’s wonderful. But when you go and you say don’t show me anything from any domain I’ve created, designed or owned, all you get is the social pin number. Right, you get places where people are talking about you. You can see what they are saying good and bad.

Understanding that, it’s hard work because it’s a message you don’t control, you’re not participating in but it really I think gives people as you can give a business a sense of, should I be participating in a social network by setting up a fan page on Facebook because so many people love my thing that there going to be fan this? Or should I really just be going to the networks were people are already are and just showing up as a participant?

And that’s really, there’s no universal answer there. It’s really a business by business characteristic. I think a lot people said, I’m going to go be this beacon in either a social network of my own or on existing social networks, because I’m going to liken my self or my business to Apple or Harley Davidson or what have you.

But that does not apply to over 90% of businesses.

So I think the shift to understanding where the people who care about your product and service already are, how much they care and what they are saying about it, again, you don’t start by planning what you’re going to do. You start by looking at what’s already happening without you having lifted a finger or spend a dime--because leveraging that, although it disarms the idea that there is going to be some important corporate strategy that will you know will drive all of this stuff, because it accepts the fact that people are doing what they like whether the business wants them too or not, it’s also an incredibly low cost way of taking advantage of what’s already out there, in terms of both you know social conglomerations and goodwill.

And it is usually better than building your own be-spoke thing and then finding out well when the uses are coming over here to do this. They are actually staying where they were before and having those conversations which I have even bother to participate in because I was so busy over here.


Clay Shirky: One of the easiest ways to get at that value is to allow for or somehow create an incentive for what are called communities of practice. It’s Ethan Wanger phrase for people to get together to get better at something whether they all work for the same for the same boss or not.

So to take the pharmaceutical industry which is typically highly subdivided into these little groups. There are some quality assurance people in every unit of pharmaceutical company.

Or a media company; there would be you know there will be play testers or QA people spread all over various movie studios or game studios or what have you.

Finding ways for those people to talk to each other, because hierarchically they are part of the business where there the only person in their business unit who does what they do. Letting them talk to each other raises the quality of all of the--whether it’s, again, whether it’s quality assurance or user testing--and it doesn’t roll up to any one boss, and it doesn’t, it doesn’t give you one of those door key super dotted lines or charts.

It just says, look there are some conversations within the four walls of this business that should happen among employees without respect to the org chart [organization chart] at all. Managers often are concern about that because the cultural shift is this person’s entire life is not focused on moving up the chain to where I am but that’s actually true right, there a bunch of people who are, you know in support jobs they are not in the QA Department; they are in with the various business units.

And helping those people find each other and have those conversations is simultaneously cheap, valuable, and foreign to a lot of corporate culture. And it is those things, where it’s not, oh here’s the thing you could do that’s painful to do and really expensive and time consuming, no one’s going to do that.

When you go to business and you saying, if you give your people incentives to talk to each other and share practical task and knowledge about their jobs, and all you have to do is accept that a lot of communication your business goes outside of any official hierarchy org chart, the ability or inability of a business to take advantage of that value is almost a perfect measure of how open or brittle their corporate culture is.


Clay Shirky: Every day when you get up, you have a choice between working with your ideas and working with the best ideas and there are 2 things you have to do which is one you have to try to make your ideas be the best ideas.

And two, when you fail, you have to work with other people’s ideas instead.

And those are really hard predicament because the egoist in us just wants to say, well it’s my idea how it can it not be the best and they’re just has to be a moment where someone says something you say, that is the smarter idea than the idea I have and I’m now going to drop what I thought. I’m going to take on what you thought and if it seems to fit as well, you know if it fits as well the long term and it does at the short term I’m going to A, change my mind and B, acknowledge that you are the person I got the idea from.


Recorded on: May 7, 2009