The Rise of Social Media

Question: Why are your ideas so popular?


Clay Shirky: So, part of this is I don’t know. Part of this is just lucky. Two things happened, one, the book came out, Here Comes Everybody, the book on Social Media come out last February. And it did modestly well when it came out we’re all pleased with the numbers.

They weren’t New York Times bestseller, but they also weren’t bargain basement. And then it went into six-hardcover printings before the paperback come out. So, something happened to actually increase interest in the book after it launched. And I think that something was Obama, right? For awhile when I was going around to talking about the book, I had to make a case at the beginning of any given talk that, yeah, the social stuff wasn’t all just going to be teens on Facebook like this is going to become generally, culturally important.

And for awhile, people didn’t believe, but they thought it was all just going to be geeks and techies and young people. And when the Obama win turned out to hinge on in part with the use of the internet for fundraising, for voter drives, for communications, I think people shifted and said “All right, now, I believe it. Now, it’s not just college kids on Facebook.” And so, it’s rare in the book world to get that kind of timing, right, because publications cycles are so long, but it happened that my book was on the shelves by the time when people said, “All right, I’m going to give this thing a deeper look what’s up there.”

So, it was one bit of luck. And then the second is an essay I wrote more recently, came out March called Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable. That was about the…basically the pressure on the business model in newspapers and why I think that there’s no general purpose business model for newspapers to replace the one in the internet just broke. I think, in fact when the time of radical experimentation when most newspapers are either going to be dramatically altered or go out of business. And there again, right, I’d said I wrote that late enough.

Many people have been talking about this since including me since the 90’s, but I wrote it late enough that people would kind of internalize bits and pieces of the conversation I was able to fuse it. And unbeknownst to me, I happened to get it out the week before the Seattle Post-Intelligence had disappeared. And the Rocky Mountain News are already disappeared and so there was a kind of a shot across the ball and when the Seattle PI went out, kind of the flood gates open that people realized, “Oh, yeah, this is happening. This isn’t just one newspaper in Denver going out of business. This is a general change.” So, if partly I think that I just…I have spent a lot of time being a geek to English translator or try and get try and get things to go across those two domains and then, and partly just a lack of timing.


Question: What triggered your interest in online group dynamics?


Clay Shirky: No, not exactly. It’s funny. I actually got to see this movie once through before I started doing it as a professional concerned. When I got to the internet in the early 90’s, there was no web, there was no graphic user or anything and that created kind of two advantages. One, you had to learn something about the way the internet work just to use it. You couldn’t be a casual user, right? You had to know some Unix.

You had to know some program and languages and what so. That was just an amazing education, but the other thing was the internet was primarily social in those days. Usenet was this giant collection of global discussion boards, mailing list or a way that sort of communities of practice would form and the experience of going to the internet.

In those days, we have to explain to journalists that Usenet was not the same thing as the internet. It was social as a normal case. And I wrote a book back then for as if David Presley, it was nothing like the current crop of work. Just a kind of a a quickie-book about this is what social world of the internet is like. And I had a terrible misfortune of having that book come out in April of 1995, and that was the time in which the web was washing away everything that had gone before.

And so for about five years, the two big questions on the web were how can we have individual transactions, commercial transactions and how can we broadcast our message to millions of people, right? And the social piece, how can we get a group of people together to discuss things or do things or collaborate? It was still there, but it was just off to the side and so it was really in the beginning of this decade, the beginning of the 2000s with the rise of Wikipedia, with the spread of ICQ, with the growth of Friendster, were I said, “Oh” now the social pattern is back, but it’s attached to the new protocols.

And because I knew the enormous weight empowered that social life had had on the internet prior to the web. I was able to bet correctly as it turned out that this was not going to be a small kind of social decoration that this social piece was going to come rushing back and touch almost everything else. And so I had the great benefit of essentially being able to recognize the crack in the damn for what it was because I’d live in the world in which there was no web and I knew what a big reservoir of social interest lay behind this little trickle of water we started to see in the beginning part of this decade.


Question: How much psychology is there in what you do?


Clay Shirky: I am not also a trained sociologist, I should haze and add but…there was in the 19th century an enormous set of arguments within the academy about how to understand people, how to understand the sort of social environment. And you have these divisions of psychology, sociology, economics, and so on that all separated in the 19th century and essentially developed their own language their own methods and so forth. A lot of what I do is trying to read across those domains because the relevant the relevant ideas and research aren’t in any one domain.

But with that having been said sociology and economics are essentially the two things that touch social life that I track. 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 and lots of tech firms have psychologist on staff very few of them have sociologist on staff. Intel, Nokia are a few of them, but the bias towards Psychology I think has hidden the fact that technology become social. It’s the sociologist that are producing the insights that I think are going to be better explained the world we’re entering into than kind of individual psychology.


Recorded on: May 7, 2009


The new media consultant credits Barack Obama with the surge in social media.

7 most notorious and excessive Roman Emperors

These Roman Emperors were infamous for their debauchery and cruelty.

1876. Painted by Henryk Siemiradzki.
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Roman Emperors were known for their excesses and violent behavior.
  • From Caligula to Elagabalus, the emperors exercised total power in the service of their often-strange desires.
  • Most of these emperors met violent ends themselves.

We rightfully complain about many of our politicians and leaders today, but historically speaking, humanity has seen much worse. Arguably no set of rulers has been as debauched, ingenious in their cruelty, and prone to excess as the Roman Emperors.

While this list is certainly not exhaustive, here are seven Roman rulers who were perhaps the worst of the worst in what was one of the largest empires that ever existed, lasting for over a thousand years.

1. Caligula

Officially known as Gaius (Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus), Caligula was the third Roman Emperor, ruling from 37 to 41 AD. He acquired the nickname "Caligula" (meaning "little [soldier's] boot") from his father's soldiers during a campaign.

While recognized for some positive measures in the early days of his rule, he became famous throughout the ages as an absolutely insane emperor, who killed anyone when it pleased him, spent exorbitantly, was obsessed with perverse sex, and proclaimed himself to be a living god.

Caligula gives his horse Incitatus a drink during a banquet. Credit: An engraving by Persichini from a drawing by Pinelli, from "The History of the Roman Emperors" from Augustus to Constantine, by Jean Baptiste Louis Crevier. 1836.

Among his litany of misdeeds, according to the accounts of Caligula's contemporaries Philo of Alexandria and Seneca the Younger, he slept with whomever he wanted, brazenly taking other men's wives (even on their wedding nights) and publicly talking about it.

He also had an insatiable blood thirst, killing for mere amusement. Once, as reports historian Suetonius, when the bridge across the sea at Puteoli was being blessed, he had a number of spectators who were there to inspect it thrown off into the water. When some tried to cling to the ships' rudders, Caligula had them dislodged with hooks and oars so they would drown. On another occasion, he got so bored that he had his guards throw a whole section of the audience into the arena during the intermission so they would be eaten by wild beasts. He also allegedly executed two consuls who forgot his birthday.

Suetonius relayed further atrocities of the mad emperor's character, writing that Caligula "frequently had trials by torture held in his presence while he was eating or otherwise enjoying himself; and kept an expert headsman in readiness to decapitate the prisoners brought in from gaol." One particular form of torture associated with Caligula involved having people sawed in half.

He caused mass starvation and purposefully wasted money and resources, like making his troops stage fake battles just for theater. If that wasn't enough, he turned his palace into a brothel and was accused of incest with his sisters, Agrippina the Younger, Drusilla, and Livilla, whom he also prostituted to other men. Perhaps most famously, he was planning to appoint his favorite horse Incitatus a consul and went as far as making the horse into a priest.

In early 41 AD, Caligula was assassinated by a conspiracy of Praetorian Guard officers, senators, and other members of the court.

2. Nero

Fully named Nero Claudius Caesar, Nero ruled from 54 to 68 AD and was arguably an even worse madman than his uncle Caligula. He had his step-brother Britannicus killed, his wife Octavia executed, and his mother Agrippina stabbed and murdered. He personally kicked to death his lover Poppeaea while she was pregnant with his child — a horrific action the Roman historian Tacitus depicted as "a casual outburst of rage."

He spent exorbitantly and built a 100-foot-tall bronze statue of himself called the Colossus Neronis.

He is also remembered for being strangely obsessed with music. He sang and played the lyre, although it's not likely he really fiddled as Rome burned in what is a popular myth about this crazed tyrant. As misplaced retribution for the fire which burned down a sizable portion of Rome in the year 64, he executed scores of early Christians, some of them outfitted in animal skins and brutalized by dogs, with others burned at the stake.

He died by suicide.

Roman Emperor Nero in the burning ruins of Rome. July 64 AD.Credit: From an original painting by S.J. Ferris. (Photo by Kean Collection / Getty Images)

3. Commodus

Like some of his counterparts, Commodus (a.k.a. Lucius Aelius Aurelius Commodus) thought he was a god — in his case, a reincarnation of the Greek demigod Hercules. Ruling from 176 to 192 AD, he was also known for his debauched ways and strange stunts that seemed designed to affirm his divine status. Numerous statues around the empire showed him as Hercules, a warrior who fought both men and beasts. He fought hundreds of exotic animals in an arena like a gladiator, confusing and terrifying his subjects. Once, he killed 100 lions in a single day.

Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) questions the loyalty of his sister Lucilla (Connie Nielsen) In Dreamworks Pictures' and Universal Pictures' Oscar-winning drama "Gladiator," directed by Ridley Scott.Credit: Photo By Getty Images

The burning desire to kill living creatures as a gladiator for the New Year's Day celebrations in 193 AD brought about his demise. After Commodus shot hundreds of animals with arrows and javelins every morning as part of the Plebeian Games leading up to New Year's, his fitness coach (aptly named Narcissus), choked the emperor to death in his bath.

4. Elagabalus

Officially named Marcus Aurelius Antoninus II, Elagabalus's nickname comes from his priesthood in the cult of the Syrian god Elagabal. Ruling as emperor from 218 to 222 AD, he was so devoted to the cult, which he tried to spread in Rome, that he had himself circumcised to prove his dedication. He further offended the religious sensitivities of his compatriots by essentially replacing the main Roman god Jupiter with Elagabal as the chief deity. In another nod to his convictions, he installed on Palatine Hill a cone-like fetish made of black stone as a symbol of the Syrian sun god Sol Invictus Elagabalus.

His sexual proclivities were also not well received at the time. He was likely transgender (wearing makeup and wigs), had five marriages, and was quite open about his male lovers. According to the Roman historian (and the emperor's contemporary) Cassius Dio, Elagabalus prostituted himself in brothels and taverns and was one of the first historical figures on record to be looking for sex reassignment surgery.

He was eventually murdered in 222 in an assassination plot engineered by his own grandmother Julia Maesa.

5. Vitellius

Emperor for just eight months, from April 19th to December 20th of the year 69 AD, Vitellius made some key administrative contributions to the empire but is ultimately remembered as a cruel glutton. He was described by Suetonius as overly fond of eating and drinking, to the point where he would eat at banquets four times a day while sending out the Roman navy to get him rare foods. He also had little social grace, inviting himself over to the houses of different noblemen to eat at their banquets, too.

Vitellius dragged through the streets of Rome.Credit: Georges Rochegrosse. 1883.

He was also quite vicious and reportedly either had his own mother starved to death or approved a poison with which she committed suicide.

Vitellius was ultimately murdered in brutal fashion by supporters of the rival emperor Vespasian, who dragged him through Rome's streets, then likely beheaded him and threw his body into the Tiber river. "Yet I was once your emperor," were supposedly his last words, wrote historian Cassius Dio.

6. Caracalla

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus I ruled Rome from 211 to 217 AD on his own (while previously co-ruling with his father Septimius Severus from 198). "Caracalla"' was his nickname, referencing a hooded coat from Gaul that he brought into Roman fashion.

He started off his rise to individual power by murdering his younger brother Geta, who was named co-heir by their father. Caracalla's bloodthirsty tyranny didn't stop there. He wiped out Geta's supporters and was known to execute any opponents to his or Roman rule. For instance, he slaughtered up to 20,000 citizens of Alexandria after a local theatrical satire dared to mock him.

Geta Dying in His Mother's Arms.Credit: Jacques Pajou (1766-1828)

One of the positive outcomes of his rule was the Edict of Caracalla, which gave Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire. He was also known for building gigantic baths.

Like others on this list, Caracalla met a brutal end, being assassinated by army officers, including the Praetorian prefect Opellius Macrinus, who installed himself as the next emperor.

7. Tiberius

As the second emperor, Tiberius (ruling from 42 BC to 16 AD) is known for a number of accomplishments, especially his military exploits. He was one of the Roman Empire's most successful generals, conquering Pannonia, Dalmatia, Raetia, and parts of Germania.

He was also remembered by his contemporaries as a rather sullen, perverse, and angry man. In the chapter on his life from The Lives of the Twelve Caesars by the historian Suetonius, Tiberius is said to have been disliked from an early age for his personality by even his family. Suetonius wrote that his mother Antonia often called him "an abortion of a man, that had been only begun, but never finished, by nature."

"Orgy of the Times of Tiberius on Capri".Painting by Henryk Siemiradzki. 1881.

Suetonius also paints a damning picture of Tiberius after he retreated from public life to the island of Capri. His years on the island would put Jeffrey Epstein to shame. A horrendous pedophile, Tiberius had a reputation for "depravities that one can hardly bear to tell or be told, let alone believe," Suetonius wrote, describing how "in Capri's woods and groves he arranged a number of nooks of venery where boys and girls got up as Pans and nymphs solicited outside bowers and grottoes: people openly called this 'the old goat's garden,' punning on the island's name."

There's much, much more — far too salacious and, frankly, disgusting to repeat here. For the intrepid or morbidly curious reader, here's a link for more information.

After he died, Tiberius was fittingly succeeded in emperorship by his grandnephew and adopted grandson Caligula.

  • As the material that makes all living things what/who we are, DNA is the key to understanding and changing the world. British geneticist Bryan Sykes and Francis Collins (director of the Human Genome Project) explain how, through gene editing, scientists can better treat illnesses, eradicate diseases, and revolutionize personalized medicine.
  • But existing and developing gene editing technologies are not without controversies. A major point of debate deals with the idea that gene editing is overstepping natural and ethical boundaries. Just because they can, does that mean that scientists should be edit DNA?
  • Harvard professor Glenn Cohen introduces another subcategory of gene experiments: mixing human and animal DNA. "The question is which are okay, which are not okay, why can we generate some principles," Cohen says of human-animal chimeras and arguments concerning improving human life versus morality.

The ‘Lost Forty’: how a mapping error preserved an old-growth forest

A 19th-century surveying mistake kept lumberjacks away from what is now Minnesota's largest patch of old-growth trees.

Credit: U.S. Forest Service via Dan Alosso on Substack and licensed under CC-BY-SA
Strange Maps
  • In 1882, Josias R. King made a mess of mapping Coddington Lake, making it larger than it actually is.
  • For decades, Minnesota loggers left the local trees alone, thinking they were under water.
  • Today, the area is one of the last remaining patches of old-growth forest in the state.
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Physicists push limits of Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle

New studies stretch the boundaries of physics, achieving quantum entanglement in larger systems.

Credit: Aalto University.
Surprising Science
  • New experiments with vibrating drums push the boundaries of quantum mechanics.
  • Two teams of physicists create quantum entanglement in larger systems.
  • Critics question whether the study gets around the famous Heisenberg uncertainty principle.
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