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ALISON STEWART, HOST:

This is the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Alison Stewart.

(SOUNDBITE OF CLAPPING)

STEWART: Let's start with a really simple question: When does an individual clapping become a round of applause? Is it two people? Is it 10 people?

(APPLAUSE)

STEWART: And how do those people signal to each other that we, as a group, approve?

A round of applause is its own thing. It knows when to start. It knows when to stop. It's a natural example of when a lot of people come together as one. Shared expression springs up among people all the time, and that's what we're exploring today on the TED RADIO HOUR - the power of crowds.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVE RECORDING "TED TALK")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: How do you organize a group of individual so that the output of the group is something coherent and of lasting value, instead of just being chaos?

When it comes to the big, important things that we need to do together, are we just going to be a crowd of voices? Or are we also going to be a crowd of hands?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I believe we're actually in a period when society, faced with great challenges, made a seismic shift from individual getting and spending towards a re-discovery of collective good.

STEWART: TED is an acronym for Technology, Entertainment and Design. It brings together some really smart people to share powerful ideas from the stage at a TED conference.

On our program, we'll hear some of those TED Talks and discuss some big ideas with TED speakers and other guests. Let's begin with Clay Shirky.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVE RECORDING "TED TALK, HOW SOCIAL MEDIA CAN MAKE HISTORY")

CLAY SHIRKY: Now that media is increasingly social, innovation can happen anywhere that people can take for granted the idea that we're all in this together. And so we're starting to see a media landscape in which innovation is happening everywhere and moving from one spot to another. That is a huge transformation.

STEWART: Clay Shirky teaches about social media at New York University and wrote the book "Here Comes Everybody," about the power of crowds. We're going to speak with Clay in just a few minutes. But first, let's continue listening to his 2009 TED Talk: How social media can make history.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVE RECORDING "TED TALK, HOW SOCIAL MEDIA CAN MAKE HISTORY")

SHIRKY: The moment we're living through, the moment our historical generation is living through, is the largest increase in expressive capability in human history. There are only four periods in the last 500 years where media's changed enough to qualify for the label revolution.

The first one is the famous one, the printing press. Moveable type, oil-based inks, that whole complex of innovations that made printing possible and turned Europe upside down, starting in the middle of the 1400s.

Then a couple of hundred years ago, there was innovation in two-way communication. Conversational media. First, the telegraph, then the telephone. Slow text-based conversations, then real-time voice-based conversation.

Then about 150 years ago, there was a revolution in recorded media other than print. First, photos; then recorded sound, then movies. All encoded into physical objects.

And finally, about 100 years ago, the harnessing of electro-magnetic spectrum to send sound and images through the air; radio and television.

This is the media landscape those of us of a certain age grew up with and are used to. But there's a curious asymmetry here. The media that's good at creating conversations is no good at creating groups. And the media that's good at creating groups is no good at creating conversations.

If you want to have a conversation in this world, you have it with one other person. If you want to address a group, you get the same message and you give it to everybody in the group, whether you're doing that with a broadcasting tower or a printing press. That was the media landscape as we had it in the 20th century.

And this is what changed. The Internet is the first medium in history that has native support for groups and conversation at the same time. Whereas the phone gave us the one-to-one pattern and television, radio, magazine, books gave us the one-to-many pattern, the Internet gives us the many-to-many pattern, right? For the first time, media is natively good at supporting these kinds of conversations.

That's one of the big changes. The second big change, right, is that as all media gets digitized, the Internet also becomes the motive carriage for all other media. Meaning that phone calls migrate to the Internet, magazines migrate to the Internet, movies migrate to the Internet. And that means that every medium is right next door to every other medium, right?

Put another way, media is increasingly less just a source of information and is increasingly more a site of coordination, because groups that see or hear or watch or listen to something can now gather around and talk to each other as well, right?

And the third big change, right, is that members of the former audience can now also be producers and not consumers. Every time a new consumer joins this media landscape, a new producer joins as well, because the same equipment - phones, computers - let you consume and produce. That is a huge change.

And it's still changing as the media becomes more social. It's still changing patterns even among groups who know how to deal with the Internet well.

STEWART: I am going to show my age on this, but you gave the four examples of how technology changed - I'm using technology in terms of the printing press - the way we communicate. Four big monumental shifts.

SHIRKY: Right, right.

STEWART: And I thought back to, gosh, when I was a teenager, it was the telephone chat room that you could get all your friends together or people you didn't know and you could all get on the phone and talk to each other. So why wasn't that the breakthrough?

SHIRKY: Why wasn't that - yes, right. So that wasn't this for a couple of reasons. Real time doesn't scale, right? You can't get hundreds of people into a phone chat room and have it work. Phone conversations can't easily be stored or searched or forwarded.

So all of the things we take for granted about I said something now, you read it three days from now, she reads it three months from now, somebody else finds it and reads it three years from now, that doesn't happen in phone chat rooms. And distance doesn't cost money on the Internet. So even though you could have these small, real time audio groups, you couldn't have large non-real time global groups.

And it's that very flexibility of the Internet as the underlying tool that makes for what Seb Paquet calls, "Ridiculously easy group-forming."

STEWART: Clay, I want to follow up on a point you made high up in your talk. You said:

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVE RECORDING "TED TALK, HOW SOCIAL MEDIA CAN MAKE HISTORY")

SHIRKY: These tools don't get socially interesting until they get technologically boring.

STEWART: Technologically boring.

SHIRKY: Right.

STEWART: Why is that?

SHIRKY: You know, these are tools that change the user. These are tools that, because they affect how we think of ourselves in relation to others - it's not just like giving someone a better shovel where you just go and do all the old jobs you did with a shovel, but it works better.

When people have a sense of themselves, of being able to reach out and communicate with more people than they could fit in their living room, that is, for most of us, a novel experience. But it takes some getting used to.

So the techies and the neophiles get excited when a shiny new tool shows up. But it's really when your mom takes it for granted, that that's the moment at which you can actually start to see it change society, because it doesn't feel like, oh, I'm using this special Internet thing, or I'm using this special email thing or web thing.

It's Facebook has actually become routine enough that I can take it for granted, that I can use it to send a message. Email has become routine enough. That moment is really the moment of potential social change, because the bulk of a society will then have adopted these tools, gotten used to them, and be ready to use them in new ways.

STEWART: You spent a good amount of your talk, Clay, discussing what was happening in China.

SHIRKY: Yeah.

STEWART: And this was in 2009.

SHIRKY: Mm-hmm.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVE RECORDING "TED TALK, HOW SOCIAL MEDIA CAN MAKE HISTORY")

SHIRKY: Last May, China, in the Sichuan province, had a terrible earthquake - 7.9 magnitude. Massive destruction in a wide area, as the Richter scale has it. And the earthquake was reported as it was happening, right? People were texting from their phones. They were taking photos of buildings. They were taking videos of buildings shaking.

They were uploading it to QQ, China's largest Internet service. They were Twittering it, right? There were people listening all over the world, hearing this news. The BBC got their first wind of the Chinese quake from Twitter. Twitter announced the existence of the quake several minutes before the US Geological Survey had anything up online for anybody to view.

The last time China had a quake of that magnitude, it took them three months to admit that it had happened, right? Now, they might have liked to have done that here, rather than seeing these pictures go up online, but they weren't given that choice, because their own citizens beat them to the punch. Even the government learned of the earthquake from their own citizens, rather than from the Shinhwa News Agency.

And, within half a day, donation sites were up and donations were pouring in from all-around the world. There was just an incredible coordinated global response. And the Chinese then, in one of their periods of media openness, decided that they were going to let it go, that they were going to let this citizen reporting fly.

And then this happened: people began to figure out in the Sichuan province that the reason so many school buildings had collapsed - because tragically the earthquake happened during a school day - the reason so many school buildings collapsed is that corrupt officials had taken bribes to allow those buildings to be built to less than code.

A citizen journalist started reporting that as well and there was an incredible picture - you may have seen it on the front page of The New York Times - a local official literally prostrated himself in the street in front of these protestors, in order to get them to go away. Essentially to say we will do anything to placate you, just please stop protesting in public.

STEWART: If citizens are the truth-tellers, as you describe in the situation in China, what happens when the citizens are untruthful? Where's the accountability?

SHIRKY: Right. So this is the great epistemological question about democracy, which is in what people or mechanism do you vest the idea of truth? And there has always been this checks and balances problem. So I would never say that the citizens are the truth-tellers.

What I would say is citizens are now welcomed into the media environment. I think the recent upwelling and interest around this stuff, because in part of the James O'Keefe video, because of the Kony 2012 video, because of the Mike Daisy piece...

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

SHIRKY: ...that there is a conversation going on in which people are unable to reconcile this is an emotionally resonant story that gets people to act and this is a dry recitation of facts that no one would disagree with. And that conversation is not resolving itself in part because there is no way to resolve that conversation.

If you say essentially everyone must be convinced before we will call a fact a fact, then things like global warming will remain forever contentious. If you were not willing to say some degree of consensus has been reached and therefore we are going to act, even as there are still people who, for one reason or another, deny what we've taken to be proof.

The sad dilemma - Richard Rorty, I think, the philosopher, put it best. For any society, truth is whatever anybody declines to be arguing about at the moment. Once you expand participation to everybody, then everybody provides the checks and balances.

The system has to operated isometrically enough so that no one person is given an unobstructed platform and can speak without having other people raise objections. And then you have to have some motive arriving at consensus in that environment.

STEWART: This is the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR.

This is the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Alison Stewart.

SHIRKY: Historically, we have always over-estimated the value of access to information and we have always under-estimated the value of access to each other. The first two protocols that were debuted were remote access to files and remote access to computers.

But email turned out to be the first killer app. Within three months of bringing email onto the Internet, it was 75 percent of the backbone traffic, because it turns out access to files and access to computers is incredibly boring compared to access to each other.

STEWART: That's NYU professor Clay Shirky talking about how we are intuitively drawn to communicating with each other.

Social media tools are providing new clout, new command for like-minded groups of people, as well as creative ways for all involved to collaborate. The power of those crowds, both real and virtual, is changing the way things get done in the world.

The power of crowds is the subject of our program today. Let's listen to Clay Shirky on this very topic, speaking at TED in 2009 in a prescient talk called "How Social Media Can Make History." We'll talk with Clay in just a few minutes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVE RECORDING "TED TALK, HOW SOCIAL MEDIA CAN MAKE HISTORY")

SHIRKY: We saw some of the most imaginative use of social media during the Obama campaign, and I don't mean most imaginative use in politics. I mean most imaginative use ever. And one of the things Obama did, which famously the Obama campaign did, was they famously put up mybarackobama.com, mybo.com.

And millions of citizens rushed in to participate and to try and figure out how to help, right? An incredible conversation sprung up there. And then, this time last year, Obama announced that he was going to change his vote on FISA, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

He had said in January he would not sign a bill that granted telecom immunity for possibly warrant-less spying on American persons. By the summer, in the middle of the general campaign, he said I've thought about the issue more. I've changed my mind. I'm going to vote for this Bill.

And many of his own supports on his own site went very publicly berserk. Within days of this group being created, it was the fastest-growing group on mybo.com. Within weeks of its being created, it was the largest group. And Obama had to issue a press release. He had to issue a reply.

And he said, essentially, I've considered the issue. I understand where you're coming from. But, having considered it all, I'm still going to vote the way I'm going to vote, but I wanted to reach out to you and say I understand that you disagree with me and I'm going to take my lumps on this one.

This didn't please anybody. But then a funny thing happened in the conversation. People in that group realized that Obama had never shut them down. Nobody in the Obama campaign had ever tried to hide the group or make it harder to join, to deny its existence, to delete it, to take it off the site. They had understood that their rule with mybo.com was to convene their supporters, but not to control their supporters.

And that is the kind of discipline that it takes to make really mature use of this media. The media landscape that we knew, as familiar as it was, as easy conceptually as it was to deal with the idea that professionals broadcast messages to amateurs, right, is increasingly slipping away.

In a world where media is global, social, ubiquitous and cheap, in a world of media where the former audience are now increasingly full participants, right? In that world, media is less and less often about crafting a single message to be consumed by individuals and is more and more often a way of creating an environment for convening and supporting groups.

And the choice we face, I mean, anybody who has a message they want to have heard anywhere in the world, isn't whether that's the media environment we want to operate in. That's the media environment we've got. The question we all face now is how can we make best use of this medium, even though it means changing the way we've always done it? Thank you very much.

STEWART: You leave your audience with a question in your talk that I'm going to pose back to you. How can we make the best use of this media?

SHIRKY: What I had gotten interested in between the first book on social media, "Here Comes Everybody" and that talk and the subsequent book is the observation that you had Lolcats, right? You have people doctoring up...

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

SHIRKY: ...pictures of cute cats and mailing them around to crack each other up on their lunch breaks. And you also get Wikipedia and you also get, you know, open source software. And you started to get...

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

SHIRKY: ...by the period I was giving that talk, you started to get, and now visibly have all over the environment, the most significant political questions conducted at the highest national levels, in part based on pressure from ordinary citizens.

And I asked myself essentially what's on that spectrum? And, for all that getting large groups of people involved in campaigning for or pressuring politicians or governments in certain directions, the core to any of the really civically valuable stuff is a small group of highly-committed people who are going back again to those tools today. The people who are obsessed with an issue.

If we design power tools for them, they design the situations that can bring everybody else into the fold. So this is the beginning of Wikipedia, right? You have a small group of people who are committed to making the Wikipedia project as a whole work.

And those people created a convivial environment for people writing about U.S. highways or the nature of asphalt or Dr. Who or the planetary system or whatever, who only care about their subject. They were given a platform by - that the Wikipedia itself conceived.

And that pattern, I think, which we're not very good at that's the pattern that makes this medium as civically useful as it can be. We're just trying to figure out not how do we attract the average user, but really how do we design power tools for the obsessives? And let them do that work of trying to attract the average user.

STEWART: Clay Shirky is the author of "Here Comes Everybody" and...

SHIRKY: "Cognitive Surplus."

STEWART: Thank you so much, Clay.

SHIRKY: Thank you.

STEWART: You'll find several TED Talks by Clay Shirky and dozens more on social media, creative collaboration and the power of crowds. Go to ted.com.

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