Clay Shirky and the political power of social media

Player utilities

This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

As Tunisia has shown recently, the use of social media provides a lot of benefits to those challenging the status quo. However, there are limits to what social media can accomplish in the political sphere. Anchor Marco Werman talks with Clay Shirky, the author of �The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere, and Political Change'. It's an essay that appears in the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.

MARCO WERMAN: Some of the dissent being expressed in Sudan has found its way onto social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, not as much as in the case of Tunisia, though. There's still a lot of social media activity connected with the ongoing protest in Tunis. We've opened a window on the ongoing Tunisia dialog on Twitter. You can take a peek at The use of social media provides a lot of benefits to those challenging the status quo but there are limits to what social media can accomplish in the political sphere. Clay Shirky is the author of The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere and Political Change. It's an essay that appears in the current issue of Foreign Affairs Magazine. Shirky is also professor of new media at New York University.

CLAY SHIRKY: The social media has an effect on the political life of countries, which I very much believe it does. What is that effect? And what I'm arguing in the Foreign Affairs article is that although the exciting moment, the moment we all see on television, hear on the radio, see and read in the newspaper of collapse, right, of a people uprising, rising up and taking on authoritarian government. That's an incredibly exciting moment. But, that's at the end of a long process, not a replacement for a long process. And a lot of the concentration on social media has been around these moments of collapse. But, in fact, the effect of social media, the political effect is principally in allowing people, who are discontent with their government, to find each other, to coordinate their feelings and to decide to take action. So, it is really the stuff in advance of the kind of protest movements we saw in Tunisia where social media has its, I think, deepest and longest political effects.

WERMAN: Well, let's take those recent events in Tunisia. I mean, how do you see them as a case study for the ideas you're currently thinking about in relation to the political impact of social media?

SHIRKY: Well, there is a kind of a progression of knowledge from -- each person in a society has realized a certain fact, right, like the Ben Ali government is corrupt. To each person, then realizing, "Oh, you know what, everybody else has figured this out as well." And then when it becomes a public fact as it famously did in Tunisia on the 18th of December, right. When everybody realizes that everybody's still thinking the same thing at the same time, that's the moment where real political change happens.

WERMAN: But, I wonder in Tunisia, just, you know, how much, you know, cell phones actually created that public fact. I mean, there was an interesting first person account -- I don't know if you saw it in the New York Times the other day called A Night in Tunisia by a Tunisian writer, Kamel Riahi, who was writing about having joined the demonstrators, how he escaped the tear gas. He attempts to organize the people in his apartment block to defend their home from the raiding security forces. And nowhere does he mention social networks. In fact, when he wanted to talk to his neighbors in the apartment building, he went into the hallway and shouted to them. How do you see that kind of fitting into all these people that we hear about who are using cell phones to tweet each other and get the demonstration going?

SHIRKY: Well, the arrival of social media doesn't suddenly remove all previous forms of coordination. It's an addition to the landscape, not a replacement for it. What social media does is it allows groups of people to know what other people are thinking in the country at a much wider scale, at much lower cost. That's where the political change comes from. It's the strengthening of the public sphere. And in the Foreign Affairs article I argue, particularly in our State Department, that there has been an over-emphasis on individual access to information. But, in fact, the governments in the world are not afraid of individuals getting to new information. What they're really afraid of is synchronized groups. That's where political change happens.

WERMAN: And some of those governments are friends of the United States and they're also trying to kind of topple those synchronized groups. How well is the U.S. government negotiating these two interests, kind of maintaining good bilateral relations with governments that restrict or censor Internet access and helping to quench the thirst for more free speech and opining by those citizens?

SHIRKY: We are, to be brutally frank, we are not doing a good job of that just given the reality as a state craft. There is almost no way to have a consistent political position in a world where some of our allies are autocratic countries. So one of the things I argue in the Foreign Affairs pieces, the government should effectively be focusing on long term support for the kind of conversational synchronization around politics rather than short term targeting of specific regimes with specific anti circumvention technologies. We should not be making the pro insurgency model our State Department policy about the Internet.

WERMAN: Now, the reports today that Burmese pro-democracy activist, Aung San Suu Kyi has been given Internet access for the first time in her life. And she says she wants to use social media to get in touch with Burma's youth. If you could tell Aung San Suu Kyi one thing right now about social media in Burma, what would it be?

SHIRKY: You know, the idea of me telling Aung San Suu Kyi anything about Burma is a bridge too far.

WERMAN: But you could tell her something about social media?

SHIRKY: Social media -- no, exactly, but the reason I say that is that the facts on the ground, country by country mean that there isn't a recipe. The one thing I would say is and I'll borrow Ethan Zuckerman's phrase here, "Don't underestimate the value of cute cats." Zuckerman is a colleague of mine at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, pointed out that very often the political value of media specifically designed to help dissidents is actually very low because the government feels no compunction at all about cutting it off. But, to the degree that the populous does things like email each other pictures of cute cats, those actually turn out to be the media that are politically harder to shut down. The government can't go around shutting down pop culture Web sites because they're potential sites of politicization. And yet they are potential sites of politicization. So, I think that the lesson there, for Burma as much as for any country in the world, is that an environment in which the citizens of a country can talk to one another about anything they like, is actually a better environment for them talking about politics than specifically designing political forums which are easier to monitor and easier to shut down.

WERMAN: Clay Shirky, professor of new media at New York University and author of Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Thanks so much.

SHIRKY: Thank you.