Social Media's Growing Influence

Host Scott Simon has nearly 1 million followers on Twitter. He speaks to media and technology expert Clay Shirky about the uses and implications of social media in politics, in which government collaborates with citizens to solve local problems.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

We've emphasized other kinds of listener interaction on this program - from asking you to send us your opinion, story ideas and questions over Twitter, Facebook and our Soapbox blog. We like to think of social media as a kind of water cooler, where we can talk to you and track stories and topic trends in real time.

Someone who's thought a lot about the uses and implications of social media in government, politics and problem solving is Clay Shirky. He follows the social and economic effects of digital technology. He spoke this week at the Gov 2.0 Summit in Washington, D.C. That's a conference on using technology to open up government and collaborate with citizens.

Clay Shirky joins us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. CLAY SHIRKY: Thank you, Scott. Thank you for having me.

SIMON: We certainly saw social media active in the presidential campaign last year…

Mr. SHIRKY: Yes.

SIMON: …to say the least. What's happening at the municipal level now?

Mr. SHIRKY: Well, municipalities are a really interesting example of these kinds of technologies in use, because municipalities are smaller, they're socially more dense, neighborhoods have a neighborhood feel. And so we're seeing groups of citizens organize themselves in cities to accomplish all kinds of things.

I was just in fact talking to someone from Tucson yesterday trying to recruit the citizens of Tucson to help document and then rank the pothole fixing. Right, so it's a completely prosaic problem, and yet a big part of fixing potholes is really the information piece. Where are the serious potholes that should be fixed today?

And instead of having either a hugely expensive apparatus to survey where the potholes are or simply not knowing where they are and not fixing them for days, there's now a possibility of just harnessing what the citizens already know because they drive the roads every day and making that available to government.

SIMON: So, instead of having to get some kind of government pothole commission out on the streets and do a six-month survey and wait another three months to issue a report and have it go before the city council, you can just have people who see potholes, put it on a social media site and the information's there.

Mr. SHIRKY: Right. And interestingly, it's not just that the people are near the potholes, but also now that we all have these devices that can take pictures, give it a time stamp - say when the picture was taken - and also increasingly say where the picture was taken.

And so you get a real time map just as a side effect of the things the citizens already know.

SIMON: Are local governments monitoring social media sites or even using them this way?

Mr. SHIRKY: You know, it is, like everything in the United States experiment, it is entirely variable by region. You know, Portland, Washington, D.C., of course, with ads for democracy, making all of their data available. Many people in the Bloomberg administration are very actively trying to use this stuff. And then there is a whole coterie of cities that are watching.

SIMON: Are private companies sometimes in the advance? And I ask - my wife had a complaint about a poor service from an overnight delivery company that she put on Twitter and she got a call in a few hours.

Mr. SHIRKY: Private companies, because the market motivation's often really sharp, they have been, the ones in the vanguard have been remarkably good about watching what people are saying about them and trying to learn from it. But also private companies have been remarkably good about helping the users help each other.

Famously, any electronic device you get has settings you don't know or can't understand. And so, there's a simple thing you want to do and you can't do it. And you just say why can't I make my digital video recorder do X? And someone else will come on and say you can make it do X. Here's the three settings you change.

And the company does two things: they save themselves a service call but also they actually gain user loyalty, because they're the host of the conversation that makes the electronics better, even after it's gotten to the house.

SIMON: We, as you know, have tried to work the use of social media into our program. We do get some resentment from people who, some people, not everybody has access to the internet or think that they have no interest in social media sites.

Mr. SHIRKY: The conversation around the digital divide, this gap between who can participate and who can't, has shifted. In the '90s, it was mainly about access to hardware and network connections. Right? Not everybody has a computer. But as computers have gotten cheaper and spread, as they started showing up in specific places like libraries, and as phones increasingly have, even just through SMS, these kind of functions, the conversation's really shifted from the question of access to a hardware to the sense of permission and to the sense of interest. And that's a much squishier, more social question.

So part of the digital divide question, the new digital divide question is, how do we go to people who don't sense they have permission to speak in public and offer them that permission? And then the other, as you say, is the interest. If there are people who are just uninterested in this stuff, how can you make an experience that's still satisfying for them as, you know, traditional consumers of media, without making them feel bad for not being the people posting the Flickr pictures of potholes or, you know, adding a comment to an NPR story?

SIMON: Clay, I have a million followers on Twitter. What does that mean?

Mr. SHIRKY: It means a million people are willing to hear what you have to say or offer or point to. I mean it - the meaning of something like that is really variable across a whole range of scale.

SIMON: I mean, we'll point out that our radio audience is considerably larger than that, several times that.

Mr. SHIRKY: Right, of course. Yeah. No. Right, but if you have a million followers it really means you are kind of a broadcast outlet. You can't follow a million people, both because you don't have the time to do it and because Twitter wouldn't let you. The system doesn't scale in that direction, only in the direction of follower-ship.

So it means at your skill, no matter what the medium allows, you've become a kind of micropublisher on Twitter. Right? If I only have five followers on Twitter, we're probably a cluster of friends who are all following each other. So you get these different scales from the kind of conversational scale you might have at a dinner party, all the way up the Scott Simon audience of one million without any break in the technology. It used to be that one kind of technology was for two-way communication with your friends. Right?

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. SHIRKY: You pick up the phone. Another kind of technology was for broadcast. You listen to the radio. Now you've got a phone that can turn into a radio without ever changing the underlying tools. And that mix and match of media patterns that were formerly completely distinct is one of the big changes in the current era.

SIMON: But, you know, Clay, and this is going to sound smarmy. But I...

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: ...I really do think of each and every one of those million as friends. There is something special about that.

Mr. SHIRKY: There is absolutely something special to the relationship. All I mean is you can't have a two-way conversation with a million people.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. SHIRKY: The closest most of us get to this is our wedding day, when you gather, you know, as many of the people you most love and would want to talk to in the world that you can get in one room. And then you suddenly realize I got three hours. And so, there is a constant width versus depth tradeoff, where you can either talk to a few people for a long time, or you could talk to a lot of people for a short time. But you can't actually do what you want to do.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. SHIRKY: What your million-person Twitter audience is, is that wedding problem every day you're on Twitter. Which is you're at a scale where you can't sit down and talk to each one of the million people for three hours in a human lifetime.

SIMON: Yeah. And I can't take a million people to Niagara Falls for a three-day honeymoon.

Mr. SHIRKY: Exactly right. That's probably good.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Clay Shirky in New York, thanks so much.

Mr. SHIRKY: Thank you.

SIMON: And those of our listeners who in fact follow me on Twitter, you can watch my feed for a special message today.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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