The Shift to Social Communication

In Here Comes Everybody and the lecture “How Social Media Can Make History,” Clay Shirky elaborates on the impact of social technologies and the shift that occurred in the media environment.  Ever since the popularization of the Internet, media has become more social.  Shirky declares on the cover of his book, “revolution doesn’t happen when society adopts new technologies—it happens when society adopts new behaviors” (160).  In his book and lecture, Shirky reveals how new technologies—such as the Internet and its features like e-mail and websites—allow for society to adopt new behaviors.  These technologies did not cause the changes in society’s behaviors; these technologies empowered society to adopt the changes.


Today, our media landscape has technologies that are global, social, ubiquitous and cheap.  Along with these four traits develops another phenomenon: mass amateurization.  This concept removes privileges that used to be reserved for the media profession.  This change threatens those who consider themselves as professionals.  For the past few decades before the advent of the Internet, they prided themselves in being gatekeepers.  They do not want to lose the prestige of being professionals and are very “concerned with threats to the profession” (69).  While with some professions, as Shirky suggests, should always have high standards (like that for surgeons and pilots), there are times where a change “threatens the profession [but] benefits society,” like that of the changing information ecosystem (69).

Not only did it change the media landscape, but the advent of mass amateurization and new communication tools change many previously established social norms and definitions.  This changes the idea of what constitutes as a real journalist.  Before Internet, the definition was based upon “ownership of communications machinery” (72).  It was about who was rich enough to own publishing machines and media outlets and the journalists that were associated with them.  With Internet, are bloggers considered journalists?  Does posting a 140 characters Tweet make someone a journalist?  The blurring of what constitutes as a professional journalist also makes unclear if just anyone deserve the privilege of being protected by the law.  Furthermore, the shift is also “changing social definitions that are not tied to professions” (75-6).  In the book, Shirky uses the example of Sherron Watkins, who was an accountant for Enron before its tragic end.  For Watkins, sending one e-mail to her co-workers containing her worries for an accounting scandal can deem her as a whistle blower.  Due to the nature of e-mail, it is virtually impossible to destroy all traces of information that they contain; therefore, even though Watkins only sent this e-mail to a few, her alarm can potentially be leaked to many others.

The shift from traditional media, like print and television, to Internet and its social tools makes a change in communication.  Unlike previous media, the Internet allows conversation to generate: the audience can now respond to news and information.  Not only that, audience is now the producers, writing blogs or tweets.  Media outlets, from print to television, no longer have the monopoly on information.  These new technologies are “many-to-many tools,” allowing amateurs to ignite conversations in online communities (158).  To illustrate the power of the amateurs and their reach, Shirky, in his lecture, draws from the events that occurred after the 7.9 magnitude earthquake hit the Sichuan province of China in May 2009.  The Chinese government first found out about the earthquake not from news agencies or officials, but rather, from its own citizens and through Twitter.  Even more surprising is that the Tweets about the earthquake came several minutes before the geological survey announced the natural disaster.  The advent of cell phones made it possible to capture photos and videos of the earthquake, allowing multi-media of the catastrophe to circulate the web before established networks even got to Sichuan to film footage.  For a while after the earthquake occurred, the top 9 of Twitter’s “top 10” Tweets were about the event.  As Shriky reveals in his lecture, the amount of amateur generated media surged the Internet and “rippled like wildfire.”

Amateurs on the web are not bounded by the structure and guidelines of traditional media and what is deemed as newsworthy.  They broke free from the idea of self-suppression, where “old stories are never revisited without a new angle,” and news cycles, the concept of “old news” (62).  Furthermore, as cost of publishing is driven down (to nearly nothing) and space is no longer an issue, the mentality of what to publish switched from “why publish this?” to “why not?” (60).  No longer does the public have to deal with the professional bias in traditional media.  This changes the definition of news, “from news as an institutional prerogative to news as part of a communications ecosystem” (66).

This is apparent in the ever-changing field of social communication that allows for the formation of groups and collective action, empowering society to challenge existing institutions.  In his lecture, Shirky declares that one of the big changes in this media revolution is that old media get digitized, creating an environment where every medium is right next door to all other media.  This makes “reader redistribution,” whether an online new story or an online video clip, quite easy to send through e-mail, disseminating information to an individual or a group at the speed of light (149).  Again, drawing from Shirky’s example of the Sichuan earthquake, within half a day of the disaster, donation sites were up and donations were pouring in globally.  Social communications allow for the respond to occur so quickly “by removing two obstacles—locality of information, and barriers to group reaction” (153).  There are many Chinese around the world and many people with businesses or families in China.  Social tools, such as Twitter, allowed for those around the world with vested interest in the disaster to feel the shared emotions of shock and sadness to the news.

The Chinese government, perhaps unwisely, decided to let the citizens’ reporting go.  After some investigation, the citizens found out the reason why many school buildings collapsed, killing many school children, was because corrupt officials had taken bribes to allow the structures to be built less than code.  Some citizens, radicalized by the lost of their next generation (due to China’s one child law), protested against the Chinese government.  As Shirky asserts: “don’t let even small protests get started, as they can grow, and don’t let any documentation get out” (164).  The Chinese government, which has always excelled in the censorship of the Internet, has failed to control this controversy and the spreading of documentation.  There was no way to filter through unwanted information other than to shut down entire services.  This was because information was disseminated locally, quickly, by amateurs and at such abundance: everything that China, at that point, was not used to dealing with.  Social tools, as exemplified, can spread the knowledge of corruptions, but it can also be used to expose corruption.  Flash mobs are centered around collective actions where a group of people meet spontaneously for a synchronized act. The example that Shirky gives is the protest against Belarus’ oppressive government where LiveJournal was used to declare the meeting times and the choice of actions.  These mobs needed social tools where the “organization of group effort can be invisible, but the results can be immediately visible” and “allow events to be arranged without much advance planning” (169).  Social tools, here, empower the protesters to challenge the undemocratic government.

In the short time since the prominent use of the Internet and its social tools, the media landscape has changed drastically.  However, as Shirky asserts at the end of his lecture, the current situation is not whether this media environment is the one that we want to use, but rather, what is the most effective way to use this environment.

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2 responses to “The Shift to Social Communication

  1. One of my good friends studied abroad in China this summer, and for much of her time there, Facebook, Twitter, and any sort of networking site was blocked by the government after some riots that people organized over such networking sites. Here is former president Bush’s Deputy National Security Advisor discussing the power of sites such as Twitter and YouTube and how they are contributing to our awareness.

    http://www.techcrunch.com/2009/06/22/former-deputy-national-security-advisor-twitter-founders-should-get-nobel-peace-prize/

    I think that citizen journalism has had a great impact on the way we understand the world and accept news, but I am usually skeptical about their sources and accuracy and would rather go to an established newspaper website for my information. Ironically, I do not have any proof that they are any less biased or more accurate than a blogger, but am inclined to think so because of their historical and economic standing.

  2. Coming off of restopesto’s point, I think that is why we won’t be seeing professional journalism die out any time soon. Although the internet has made ‘citizen journalism’ much easier, I think the biggest changes over the next few years will simply be a shift in mediums from print to online. The ease nowadays for anyone to write an article available to thousands makes the legitimacy and reputation of professional journalists much more important. An example that pops into my head are the hundreds of posts on google.com/finance pages where people hype up stocks to in an effort to boost value. I’ve even heard cases where fake news was created by users. On the other hand, Jim Cramer, who has his own show on CNBC, has been scrutinized for reporting news in the financial markets for personal gains. But I guess this is a rare exception.

    As a quick side note, Shirky’s point about amateurs not being bounded by the guidelines of what is deemed newsworthy reminded me of Digg. I’ve been visiting Digg for a few years now and for a site that gets millions of viewers a day, it’s interesting what hits the Top 10 in news. Today’s #1 story isn’t bad, but there are times when a cute picture of cats or a dog .gif reaches three thousand diggs. It’s funny what some people deem the most important article of the day.

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