Friday, October 09, 2009

Clay Shirky Yahoo! Open Hack NYC 2009 Keynote

I have to preface these notes by saying two things:

1) 75% of this content is from Clay Shirky, 5% is from Tweets by other listeners, and 20% is my contribution, smoothing out sentence fragments and organizing comments into paragraphs. None of these comments should be quoted as coming directly from Mr. Shirky as I'm sure, as all presentations do, his verbal presentation veered away from what the thoughts he'd choose to distribute in writing. Make sense?

2) I got the narrative gist of his presentation but I missed a lot of coding language and proper names of people who are connected to the projects mentioned. Maybe you can supply the pertinent names (with accurate spellings) in the comments. Thanks!


CS shows Wikipedia's Dr. Who page. It has 8851 edits by 3311 contributors which should work out to about 2.67 edits/person. But, no! 2200 people made one edit (long tail) while one person, khaosworks made 965 edits. Wikis aren't just about attracting the obsessives (like khaosworks) and aggregating small contributors but getting the "actives" & long flat tail working together.

Communication networks have changed the ecosystem. Old communication networks had center/ "management" surrounded by correspondents (like a clock face or hub). People have relationships from periphery to the center. Now, people can talk to each other without going through a hub/center.There are a lot more interconnecting lines between people than lines to hub (Me: What does this mean for education?)

Question: When & who gets to speak in public? The only thing that holds participation together is culture (big circle encompassing entire network). You can't extend management to the edge of the periphery any more.

Example: A user named "GnarlyKitty" with a blog ( CS talked about mundane nature of some of her posts (fishing, fashion, etc.). Why would anyone bother to publish this blog? Answer: It's not for YOU, it's for HER network. Another example, teenage cliques at the mall. What they doing there? It doesn't matter if it makes sense to you, you're the outsider to the group.

Now, sharing in a friendship circle has gone public, is online. There is a low entry cost. There is some generational confusion: we're not used to seeing items IN public but not FOR public. Previously, personal things were private (among friends, family). Public stage was for extrinsic motivation (for money, politics, the state, etc.). The cost of making things public was so high, it kept things extrinsic. Now the personal can have a public action.

Development on GnarlyKitty's blog: Thai coup happens. GK takes photos. Government shuts down traditional media. GK posts photos and Global Voices picks them up & reposts them. Lots of comments made to her blog and GK. GK is not a journalist but "has committed an act of journalism."

Then GK posts a blog entry on a Hello Kitty phone she wanted. Readers complained, "What about the coup?!" In entry called "Life like this" (Sept. 24, 2006), GK stated, "This is MY blog. If you don't want to read it, leave." No traditional media outlet would ask readers to leave. But GK doesn't have to serve all possible readers. However if she was a professional, the photos would never have been posted in the first place!

We are used to clear division between important/trivial, politics/personal stuff. Divisions are not as clear cut any more. The ability to play around with categories and make use of them when the time has come is a huge shift. We can see amateurs creating things in public. But WHY are people doing this though, why are they sharing all of this information and opinions? This is a harder question to answer.

Example: A photo of a model Taj Mahal...rebuilt four times in Lego. All by the same guy, a math teacher from Cleveland. First he built his own house from some architectural plans then took on reproducing the Taj Mahal. He even added the reflecting pool, an image of Taj Mahal as reflected by water.

What's going on here? People have had hobbies for years. When you have a hobby you can do it on your own. There are personal, intrinsic, internal motivations. The appeal? Autonomy. Competence ("I nailed it!")

Something is different now. People have always had hobbies but they are now more visible. What changed for this user? Website MOCPages (My Own Creation,, a place to show off your Lego creations ("the Lego community"). Social motivations become important. "I'm not alone, there are others with the same interest." There is a feeling of membership, as a social motivation, across many more types of groups now.

They allow for sharing & generosity. It's not just, "I'm good, I'm better than you!" But, "Here's what I did and this is how you can do it!" We start to learn from each other, combine each other's work. A group will create better products than individuals working alone.

There's a risk though. You think, "I can get this all for free!" But this isn't techno-determinism. You don't just get the culture because you have the tools, sometimes you get the culture totally wrong.

Example: Deterrence theory. The idea is, if you attach a punishment to a behavior the behavior will decrease. Remove the punishment, behavior increases. Situation: A child care center and tension centering around late-coming parents and pick-up times. Center: "We're going to add a fine if you're late picking up child." Effect of fine? Late pick-ups skyrocket! Parent:"It only costs $ to be able to pick up my kid late? That's great!"

Previously, there was an incomplete contract, the agreement between the two parties wasn't specified. There were no well-known sanction for breaking rules. A few late pickups were acceptable. By moving to a specified contact (market motivations), it creates a different culture.

"Making explicit the incomplete contract destroys the pre-existing cultural contract." Financial transactions are different kinds of transactions. You send flowers to your girlfriend, not the money that the flowers cost you!

So after a few months, the experiment is over. The center removed fines. But the culture didn't change back. You can alter a culture by changing the way individuals think about each other. Unspecified rules worked better in this situation than an entirely rule-bound culture. Once it switched, it didn't switch back even when deterrents were removed.

Example: Photo of enormous first model of Xerox laser printer which went to MIT. Unfortunately, they wanted but couldn't change the source code on the computer. MIT philosophy: Why solve a problem in 2 days when you can take 20 years and solve a whole class of problems? This lead to the GPL (General Public License):

Four freedoms every user should have, the freedom

  • 0) use the software for any purpose,
  • 1) change the software to suit your needs,
  • 2) share the software with your friends and neighbors, and,
  • 3) share the changes you make

This didn't work at first. Not much came out of it, program-wise, except a change in the way people thought about software development.

Linux proved that you can be a tiny (12 programmers) communication network and be global at the same time. The way the project originally managed the kernel, they'd mail changes to each other. Then they switched to Bit Keeper, the first version control system that mapped well to open source culture. Now, everyone can have everything all of the time and integration can be dealt with later.

A tiny downside: BitKeeper itself wasn't open source. One member engineered a work around and was called a hacker. The system was taken away.

Members looked around at options. Nothing suited them. They went back to mailing around each change. They decided they'd rather have good community and crappy technology than the other way around. Later, Git Data Transport Commands was created. Technology needs to be built from the ground up, beginning with the community's needs.

Culture is a huge thing to be worried about. What do you need for a healthy community? Many definitions and guides to what is necessary for a healthy community but no list covers all cases. For every rule, there are exceptions.

CS's classroom experience: Current students think were some technology was inevitable (open source, the web) when they actually were contingent, people were not sure they'd work out.

Messages sent out by creators when systems were being created:

Linux: "I'm doing a (free) operating system (just a hobby)..I'd like to know what features most people would want." He didn't think it would work on any computer but his own.

Wikipedia: "Humor me. Go there and add a little article. It will take all of five or ten minutes."

Only one universal about kind of environment that promote community:

Rule: Start small. Any participatory community started small & good rather than aiming for large & lousy. It is much easier to grow big than to get better. All of these examples were trivial for a long time. By the time people began to take them seriously and their value becomes apparent, their cultural history has a solidity.

Twitter: "I want to have a dispatch service that connects on our phones using text."

Create a simple social model & let it spread. Twitter didn't start, "I want to influence the Iranian election." No, it was "let's try this and see what happens." This is hack culture.

Hack culture: Work on intrinsic motivations which are great & necessary. But now the social motivations, membership & sharing, have accelerated what is possible. A communications landscape allows you to start small and eventually become big. And we're still figuring it out.

The invitation has to be there. How will I invite people to participate? Raise the stakes of the promise, a visible next step in the process keeps things moving forward. "Make plausible promises in a culture of generosity." A participatory culture.

It's important to scale organically and not too fast. The more important the connections are, the more you have to slow down growth and have to manage rates of growth. Starting small and later getting bigger doesn't run into any limits to eventually becoming global.

Question & Answer:
Mine: How do you convert a dominating person in a group into a collaborative leader?

The people in control of the important choices have to be concerned with the success of the overall idea. Sometimes you have to protect yourself (when you're small) from overbearing voices. Examples: Popular blog was getting over run with blog comments. Shut down comments and slowly grew to the size where they could hire comment managers once they were bigger.

You can't rely on the domineering personality to change. You need to start with a small group of collaborators at the center (the core) and integrate the dominating personality. It is fatal if that person is in control because they don't listen to others or pay attention to a changing marketplace. Their competition will step in and scoop up their growth.

Example: Death of Friendster is an example. People were playing around with the system but the company chair couldn't divorce what he wanted the culture to be & manage his own desires to adapt to where the users wanted to go.

That's it!